Colombo Telegraph

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!”

Back to Home page