18 February, 2020

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The Collapse Of Academic Autonomy In Sri Lankan Universities

By Oleap Fernando –    

Prof Oleap Fernando

I was emboldened to write and put forward below a few views on the above subject having read the excellent  and  illuminating  account in the Sunday press  from Professor Savitri Goonesekere , with whom I  worked together as academic colleagues and as Fellow Deans in the Open University of Sri Lanka during the eighties and the nineties.  Having had the long experience of   been a University academic in Sri Lanka continuously for over 43 years since graduation (  in 1966 until the age of mandatory retirement in 2009) and also still involved in academic administration,  and teaching at the College of Chemical Sciences of the Institute of Chemistry Ceylon which is now producing nearly  50% of  Sri Lanka’s Graduate Chemists, I think I can and should  productively join in and  add on a few points in support of Professor Goonesekere‘s excellent presentation which should serve as an eye-opener to the political authorities , the academic community and the general public re the exponential erosion of academic autonomy and invaluable ethical standards in our  University system. I will  pinpoint THREE relevant matters which I am sure would amply illustrate and add favor to Professor Goonesekere’s arguments regarding the appointment of Vice-Chancellors.

Firstly I refer to a fantastic newspaper editorial that appeared in November 2004 soon after the appointment of a Sri Lankan qualified academic as the President of the University of Alberta, Canada. I quote: “Dr Indira Samarasekera has been chosen as President of Alberta University on her own academic merit. But had she applied for a post of Vice-chancellor in one of our Sri Lankan Universities, she would have needed one more qualification: she would either have to be SLFP, UNP or JVP. Little wonder we remain in the same mire”. I have quoted this editorial extract in several academic presentations, school prize-giving speeches and in newspaper articles ever since as  I  believe that this quote summarizes the absurd situation that existed in our University system even a decade ago. At that time the UGC acted according to the Universities Act and made one recommendation to the President who correctly functioned merely as a formal appointing authority on an academic   decision left entirely to the University Council and the UGC.  Even at that time however the recommendation was politicized as implied in the above quoted editorial  but the decision, even if politicized, was not made by the President but by academics. Today, as Prof Goonesekere laments, the Chairman, UGC states publicly that the UGC is merely a post box and admits thereby that it is contravening the Universities Act. What a sad and tragic situation and as quoted above “little wonder we remain in the same mire”!

Secondly, when the post of VC was advertised in one of our Universities a few years ago and I heard that one of my colleagues who was a Senior Professor and fully qualified was intending to apply I asked him whether it was correct. He replied with a statement that should also open the eyes of all relevant persons if they are interested in at least maintaining the academic autonomy of our University system. I quote him: “If anyone applies for a post of VC under the present conditions, then he is not fit to be a VC!”. Prof Goonesekere emphasizes the same point when she says that prospects of political decision making had discouraged several senior professors from applying for the VC’s post at Colombo.  Is it not a tragedy that there was only one Professor who applied for this post at the Colombo University which is the post first held by Sir Ivor Jennings of international repute and several other distinguished academics after that. There are hundreds of Professors in the several Universities we have in Sri Lanka today and while I will whole heartedly agree that some of them may not be suitable for appointment as Vice-Chancellors, surely a University demands that its academic, administrative and accounting head should be at least  a Professor if not a Senior professor. How on earth can a Senior Lecturer Grade 2 fill that post with any degree of acceptance or self-respect? It is simply impossible and if any Senior Lecturer Grade 2 thinks that he can be a successful VC, then that itself proves beyond any doubt that he is not suitable! The authorities should ask themselves the question as to why senior academics are consistently not applying for posts of VC in many Universities and when a few do, non consideration of their status and making the VC appointment on political grounds will psychologically prevent many suitable persons from applying in the future!

Thirdly on a personal, but still a very relevant, note:  after I retired after 43 years of continuous   University service in 3 Sri Lankan Universities, I was asked by colleagues of my former Department of Chemistry at the Open University for a brief resume of my past academic history in order to forward my name to the Council with a recommendation for appointment  as an Emeritus Professor. I was told that while the University academics are well aware of same, a formal write up is necessary for the information of Council, consisting if a majority of outsiders. In my 5 point history, the very first point I mentioned was that “I had never applied for a post of VC during my entire academic life in the University system”. That was considered by me as one of my greatest achievements particularly since I had to turn down the consistent appeals of a number pf academics and professionals including former Vice-Chancellors, who wanted me to apply. This statement of mine though of a personal nature, illustrates one of the important points that Prof Gunasekera highlights in her account. Perhaps the point I made was recognized as an important one since I was appointed an Emeritus Professor after going through my resume.

I have said publicly on several occasions over the past 2 decades that politicization is eating into the academic structure and fabric of our University system like a cancer and I made several appeals that this tendency and drift be reversed. Unfortunately, rather than a reversal it has been increasingly consolidated in recent years that the cancer has become very malignant and profusely spread to all areas of the system. No wonder that the Chairman. UGC states with great publicity and perhaps pride that the UGC is effectively going to act against  the very clear provisions of the Universities Act and is not going to make a recommendation to the President.  I can only say “Sri Lanka- a land like no other! Little wonder we remain in the same mire!”

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    //I quote him: “If anyone applies for a post of VC under the present conditions, then he is not fit to be a VC!”. Prof Goonesekere emphasizes the same point when she says that prospects of political decision making had discouraged several senior professors //

    I am afraid this unhealthy attitude is part of the problem. I believe every senior professor in Colombo and elsewhere should have put in their application for the VC post that recently became vacant. And FUTA should have encouraged them to do so — after all, we knew very well how things were going to develop in Colombo when “her” name was touted about for the UGC headship. Mass application by qualified senior people would have been the way to challenge the Council and give the academic community the moral high ground to come out on the streets in protest if they (the Council) still picked the unqualified political bootlickers for the short-list. I am sorry but, while I fully appreciate your raising the issue in public in this well-meaning note, I have very little sympathy with the attitude “I never applied for the VC post in my career.”

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    Politicisation of the Universities has been actively pursued by the regime. Not only the Universities but the Govt Service who are also alumni of the same unversities are packed with Govt sycophants and stooges.

    The whole rot began with the take over of private schools, sinhala only and standardisation to discriminate against the best and brightest in an attempt to impose social equality. Result was that talented students left the country, unable to enter our unversities, and found greener pastures abroad. The rest were left behind to freak it out with a corrupt and inefficient system.

    We observe the favours bestowed on those faculty and alumni who are willing to toe the line of the regime and issue statements praiseing the leaders. Even well known scholars and proffessors have fallen for this bait. Now the latest craze is to give leadership training to all and sundry to make them docile, dumb intellectuals. The university system is meant to promote diverse thinking and intellectual discourse not to produce blind, deaf and dumb who are interested only in making money.

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    In a world where Education and Qualifications has become very good business both in the West and here as well, is it any wonder the Senior Academic posts are secured by the peddlers to further their cause? O tempora! O mores!

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    Why no one is talking about justice to UGC chair woman. Many VCs appointed and currently working VCs are senior Lecturer Grade II in Sri lanka. Colombo University problems deeper than this VC appointment. However, I am really happy to see the comments which reveals the inside the real situation of Sri Lankan public Universities under this subject in many cloumns. Fake professors appointments to family dept and unqualified mafia, blank degree papers, sex farms…etc. But the main problem is not the PhDs from lower level Institutions and countries but the current system never allow any qualified PhD to enter to the system. Few pople run it as their family and mafia business. Colombo University arts faculty family dept and its Emiritus case world famous to show how badly Sri Lankan Universities run as a mafia by few educated people.Now they have the world’s most humerous title (Senior Professor) no where you find this type of title. With immediate effect cancell this lauguhable title. Hope this new UGC chair woman will do something to clean University system not like act family dept Emiritus and his henchmen.

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      It is high time all highly qualified dons, lawyers and other professionals to go on strikes against their authoritarian governance.

      Right these days, they have to do it – with Geneva^s resolution is being passed in a couple of days now – IC and everyone should finally put the pressure on the govt to change their attitudes. If people would not do this, they would abuse almost every institution. Once upon a time, even under Premadasa UGC was not this much of politicized. Today the uneducated rulers do whatever they consider are fine – masses seem to have gut to go against – this was what CBK stressed two weeks ago.

      Almost every academic person in SL is not satisfied the manner rulers handle issues today.

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      “Prof. Waranakula”‘s name appears on the internet only in the comments on Colombo telegraph articles. Looks like the good old “prof” is working in a comments providing service. Is his/her profesorship on giving comments? Which university I wonder? Colombo? UGC?

      Who appointed these academias holding junior positions to VC posts? It is the present regime.

      Under the former VC lady at Colombo University (who is the chairperson at UGC) such appointees were said to have been made. Just before she left Colombo University she is said to have appointed such a person to the director post of an institute that conducts staff development courses for universities in the entire country. This person it is said was sent out of an institute related to tourism under the Ministry of Economic Development, due to proven incompetence! But he is a member of the Sri Lanka Nidahas University Teachers’ association.

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    It is more pathetic that appointment of Vice chancellor posts for Jaffna University and Batticaloa university was decided by two well known criminals known as Douglas Devananda and Vinayagamoothy Muraleetharan (Known as Karuna Amman). The former one is a wanted person for murders in India and responsible for a number of disappearance of number of people in Jaffna.The second one was a former LTTE who was sent by the President to London on a forged passport and jailed for 9 months in UK. He was also involved in the disappearance of the former Vice Chancellor.

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    We need politicians of indian kind to go against all forms of corruption in SL. The masses are deaf today, but still respecting the President who is the lead for all forms of corruption. Our people should be well aware of the current situation, else, we ll end up with loosing everything soon.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WY_JuqhSW04

    This speech is focusing on India^s corruption, but how many of our ministers are fearless to go against ruling corrupted politicians ? None.

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    Granting honorary degrees is now the sure way for promotion in the university system.
    We have tho only retired colonel who is a public officer, thus honored.

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      I WILL NOT BE SURPRISED

      If MR would appoint FORMER ARMY DESERTERS to the UGC or any high ranking education institutions when looking at the manner his personal appointments have been sofar.

      Srilanken is bankruft today, thanks go to MR and his appointments. His brother in law is said to be simple guy but wihtout haveing the proper knoweldge experience to handle the countryyy^s carrier properlyy.

      Can anybody give me any good example that the current Chairman has brought since he is appointed to Srilanken airlines ?

      I can also appoint carpentor or just skill workers to the positions that need long years of experience – but in this way, you can achieve only losses.

      This is the reality in SL, TODAY, female graduates that are newly appointed are being asked to take part in milltary trainings.
      BR is as the minister of economic develpment is reported to have go absence not providing the reasons why as no seen in the past, graduates are forced to follow millitary tranings.

      Srilankens were feared of SF rule if he could become the country^s leaders, but the today^s though named the country is governed by a 40 year political veteran, many of the emoployees in public sector are compelled to undergo millitary trainings show that the coutnry is governed by milltary.

      These are the systems of uneducated clans that abused the innocient masses in the country today.

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        All what the current Chairman has done, amongst other things, is interview prospective candidates for the position of Flight Stewardess. He short lists those selected for a second interview and makes the final selection. He also makes it a point to fly to Dubai very frequently on “official” business!

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    Well meaning intellectuals shun from holding responsible positions due to political interference in the Universities.The fault mainly lies with such honest academics for not applying for positions in Universities despite mediocre elements who curry favour with Govt. politicians are promoted over and above those who really deserve.We always see the truth gets buried in the face of lying.The crooks in any establishment are in a minority who exert undue power over the rest.If the country is to forge ahead professionals should come to the fore forcing the Govt to act on rules that provide academic freedom.

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    The situation faced by academia is no different to that experienced in the public and administrative services, or in the various governing bodies such as provincial councils, parliament and cabinet of ministers. When the political authority assumes dictatorial powers and exercises arrogant and arbitrary action to control and subjugate the populace an inevitable consequence is diminished assertiveness of the people their creativity, confidence, individuality, sense of pride and self respect. This is replaced by obsequiousness, disinterest and apathy. This is why Sri Lankan leadership is so poor. The current President and his government is the worst we have had in this respect. Unless he takes this issue seriously, at the end of his presidency we will see a subservient, obedient, servant population which no amount of infrastructure development will energize and activate toward the development of this country. This is why dictatorships whether of the right or left never succeed. There must be space created for the development of the human spirit to release it’s innate creative power. This is why the human freedom is so vital for a country’s progress.

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    Do not worry our brother President Mahinda will appoint a right person to the VC position. He does not need jokers advices or gossips from www. You write and you read Mahinda do what ever he wants. If you want to develop your country sack emiritus and his all henchmen from family dept in arts faculty Colombo University [Edited out]

    Part of this comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

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    “I had never applied for a post of VC during my entire academic life in the University system”.
    This is part of the problem in SL. The silence of the good and the people with integrity. Edwin Burke once said “all that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”
    Politicians all over the world given the necessary apathy will be like ours. Corrupt scumbags! The only factor which stands in their way are people who speak out,challenge the status quo!
    Now I know that “speaking out” is easier said than done! But the more we are silent the more culpable we are. And after some time we lose our moral right to comment on these issues because our indifference has bought this about!
    Every person with integrity in positions of relative power or respect needs to make a stand. It’s rarely about succeeding but more about letting the corrupt know that we are against these excesses and that we won’t take these excesses lying down like helpless lambs!

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    Political interference commenced because the Universities had already failed by the 1970s, leaving room for this interference. The Universities were not catering to the emerging needs of the country, but were tied to colonial constructs that had become less relevant in the post-Independence period. Insufficient sensitivity to the country’s needs drew criticism from politicians and the public, and “University autonomy” became a bone of contention between the politicians and academia.

    Politically, since Independence, changes in the Education system were making it necessary to make shifts in perspective, including in University staff and curricula with the growing pressure for mass Higher Education being recognized as a coming tidal-wave. This was true not only in Sri Lanka but in many Western countries on which our University system had been modeled. Even in those developed countries, mass education was accompanied by a drop in academic standards. In Sri Lanka, huge additional pressures were due to the shift to Swabasha teaching in Universities which had made it necessary to appoint graduates with Second Class degrees as Lecturers provided they could teach in the Swabasha languages.

    Coupled with this was the inability of students to access the world’s knowledge through English (the natural route on account of our history), a problem that the University faculties did not adequately address. Faculties were content to churn out graduates who only had access to their lecturers’ notes and were neither encouraged to seek knowledge, nor taught a world language that could give them access to and to explore the vast area of knowledge that lay beyond. However, this error factor which could have been temporary and would have corrected itself in time, was further exacerbated by the brain drain to the West that came in the wake of a burgeoning ethnic problem that continued through 3 decades of war.

    All that having been said, in my considered opinion, the nadir has been reached and an improvement has already begun, but what is needed now is clear vision and a Long-Term Plan, with an overhaul regarding the functions of each University in the island’s system (and each Faculty within each University), as well as the development of a 10-year plan for each of these.

    Concerned persons should realize that there are no quick fixes. One cannot expect the kind of autonomy that seems to be demanded, as the finances are allocated from peoples’ taxes, and hence the people’s representatives must have their say too.
    A non-adversarial approach in which solutions are sought with what is best for the country being the primary objective should be possible. The country has development possibilities now that it had lost for over 3 decades. But we seem to be stuck in an eternally hostile “bring the other down” mode in which damaging criticisms surpass by far, any constructive solutions.

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      I don’t get ur argument . I agree that learning in English advantageous. but that not necessarily mean moving in to suwabasha is the reason for degradation of higher education.There are so many developed countries in the world which have higher education in their vernacular language but they too have good quality universities.

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    With all respect to this writer,I felt like pointing out
    what I heard from one of my family members who’s attending
    the Institute of Chemistry where the writer says he’s still
    teaching.This is about the facilities available for students
    numbering around 250 divided into Levels one and two,all
    doing chemistry.Only 3 computers,about 125 new entrants still
    to get their library membership,Saturday class starting from
    around 8.am and lasting till 5-6 pm with 3 hrs break from
    lunch and one wash room with one toilet in it for all of them
    girls and boys.I leave the rest to our readers.

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    You are quite right Nohopesi. If we good people keep silence, the evil will triumph. It seems that the writer, the good professor had made it an excuse to keep away from the Open University and serve his private institution. Although he claims 43 years of University service, he may have served his Institute of Chemistry while being paid from the government coffer. Therefore his application for the VC post at the Open University wouldn’t have been considered by the Council. That may have been the reason for him not to apply for the post although he claims it a qualification. After having such a long service in the system, if you are not interested in accepting some responsibility and change the system, definitely something is wrong somewhere!

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