By Siri Gamage –
Recent police attacks on protesting students near the UGC shows several pertinent points about the state of affairs when it comes to resolving higher education issues.1) boiling issues in society quickly turns into law and order issues when they are not handled in a timely fashion, 2) the need for a culture of patient negotiation between those in authority and those affected by such issues, 3) the need for better higher education policy and policy development process with related research of high caliber, and 4) issues like those in higher education such as privatisation are political as much as educational and social.
Firstly, it is important to reflect on the current context where these student protests are taking place. The honeymoon period of the new national government is over. In coming months and weeks, various segments of society with grievances may come onto the streets in order to express their viewpoints and demands in a more agitational way. People need solutions to their varied problems after going through a turbulent time over the years and decades. Smiling faces of those in authority and excuses of various sorts will not satisfy affected segments of society. If solutions are not forthcoming, these segments, some of which are politicised, may resort to various agitation strategies with the potential to irritate the rulers. What is necessary are broader consultation mechanisms with the affected parties, professionals etc. in different policy areas and the development of innovative and creative policies suitable for the 21st century. Development of a higher education policy suitable for Sri Lanka should be a priority in this sense.
Obviously, the issues that took centre stage before the recent Presidential elections can re-emerge in coming months and years. Some bankrupt political forces can attempt to take advantage of situations like the police attack on students near the UGC unless relevant policies are developed and administrative solutions to the problems that students bring to the table are not provided.
One of the main issues concerning students and parents is the nature of hybrid education system being promoted in the country by way of free education and fee-education of which the latter is designated as privatisation. This is a phenomenon not limited to Sri Lanka. In the world and regional contexts, many other countries are facing similar issues, especially in a globalising and so-called border-less era. The issue to address by the government is not weather to allow fee-paying education. It has become a standard practice around the world with the dawn of neoliberal economic formulae –though many criticisms are leveled against the same from many quarters. It is what inequities are created as a result of introducing fee-paying education that needs attention and find better and creative solutions to address such inequities.
In this context, it has to be noted that it is not possible or even desirable to stop fee-paying education altogether, whether through international schools, privately run higher education institutions or indeed foreign universities and their affiliated local campuses. Many students who were not able to access the state funded free education system due to merit concerns or having concerns about the quality have accessed fee-paying education within and outside Sri Lanka. Take the case of Melbourne or Sydney in Australia for example. Many Sri Lankan students have come to these cities to obtain a higher degree or diploma following their counterparts from other Asian countries. They or their spouses engage in employment of various kinds during their stay. In addition to obtaining a degree or diploma, these students gain invaluable cross-cultural experiences by living in another country and access future migration and further work opportunities.
A downside of this trend for a country like Sri Lanka is the inevitable brain drain. The magnitude of these needs to be investigated by systematic research. The lack of a dedicated national higher education research institute in the country to do such research is a matter that educational authorities need to pay attention as a priority. Contributions to policymaking should be a part of such a research institute. On the other hand, those who return to the country after overseas study make a significant contribution to their respective fields. Their talents, knowledge and newly acquired wisdom should be utilised for innovative enterprises both in the state and private sector. Mechanisms need to be developed for this to happen.
However, new research and policy development should be directed at finding ways and means of enhancing the quality of teaching, research, reputation and innovation in the free education sphere. This is important because of the inevitable competition between the free and fee education spheres. It is also important because most foreign universities and their local affiliates spend very little or no funds on conducting research. This is easily said than done though. In the recent past, individual universities have taken specific steps to enhance quality of their teaching programs or improve research profiles. However, there needs to be further research about more useful degree programs some of which can be offered by collaborating with foreign universities. Exchange of expertise among local and foreign scholars is a necessity in this era of high competition for global talent pool.
For these kinds of endeavors and policy development, a question has to be asked about the nature of prevailing higher education governance structures such as the University Grants Commission and even National Education Commission. Whether these structures need changes or even replacements need further discussion and investigation. As I see it, UGC is an administering body rather than a policy development body. The resources made available to it for policy development and research seems highly inadequate. This is all the more reason to set up a higher education research institute with a mandate for policy research nationally and preferably affiliate research institutes in each university. Decision-making by the government in this sphere has to be informed by credible research conducted at research centres or institutes with a pool of qualified researchers.
Finding solutions to issues plaguing the education sector, in particular the higher education sphere cannot be achieved in the short term and without encouraging relevant comparative research plus policy development by consulting relevant parties in a calm and methodical way. Even though the student organisations seem to be highly impatient for quick solutions. The government needs to at least provide a statement to the nation outlining broader principles that will dictate its approach to education in the globalising context of life, work, learning, teaching and research. Potential contributions from the higher education sphere to the economy, civil society, professions, governance, alleviation of poverty and many inequities that exist are immense. Issues of this nature should not be politicised and leave room open for agitation politics and unmanageable law and order issues. Meetings need to be set up by relevant authorities before students organise protest marches in the first place.