23 May, 2022


The Cost Of Haste In Engineering Education

By S. Sivasegaram

Dr S Sivasegaram

Dr S Sivasegaram

I appreciate Elijah Hoole’s comment in the Colombo Telegraph (January 5, 2016) on the crisis of the engineering degree programme of the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka for bringing to light several of the underlying issues. I wish to add further relevant information which I believe would give a fuller picture of a situation that is located somewhere between a whimsical farce and a tragic misadventure, mainly in the hope that such mistakes will be averted in setting up new university faculties and starting degree programmes in the future.

The Background

As far as I know, the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka (SEUSL) had no plan for an engineering faculty until after the GCE (AL) 2011 fiasco, although there may have been the wish to have one sometime in the future. The UGC, as already known, messed up admissions based on GCE (AL) results by abandoning commonsense when it decided on a procedure for evaluating the Z-scores for students sitting the examination in any group of subjects, but with different syllabi for one or several of them. When the Supreme Court ruled against the procedure adopted by the UGC, the UGC was initially defiant and sought to defer the day of reckoning until finally yielding to legal, public and political pressure. It thus unnecessarily delayed university admissions by several months and forced universities to curtail some of the programmes for new entrants. The UGC faced the problem that the number of students qualifying for admission to engineering degree programmes was a few hundred more than usual, with the three regular state universities offering engineering degree programmes already bursting at their seams with much larger numbers admitted than they could satisfactorily cater for. Yet the universities responded to the appeal by the Ministry of Higher Education and the UGC to increase admissions as best as they could for that year. But, there were a hundred or so left out with a right to admission.

Pressure was brought on the University of Jaffna (UoJ) to start its planned engineering degree programme promptly and admit the surplus of students. The UoJ wisely turned down the request, but braced itself to admit a modest number of students the next year, as it anticipated stronger pressure from the government to increase admissions. But the SEUSL rushed to solve a problem, which it was least prepared — and even less suited — to address. I will first place before the readers some of the experiences of the University of Ruhuna (UoR) and the UoJ before presenting the chaotic process adopted by the SEUSL to establish its Faculty of Engineering.

The Jaffna Experience

The UoJ since 1979 desired an engineering faculty, which failed to materialise for a variety of reasons, and, under the late President Premadasa, approval was granted in October 1989 to set up an engineering faculty in Jaffna. President Premadasa persuaded Prof. A. Thurairajah to be Vice Chancellor, UoJ in order that the Engineering Faculty could be developed. Resumption of war wrecked all plans and the prospect of establishing the faculty receded amid escalating conflict and control of much of the peninsula by the LTTE. Unused funds allocated for the faculty in Jaffna served to start the Faculty of Engineering in the University of Ruhuna.

A rather frivolous attempt to start an engineering faculty in Jaffna was initiated in 2002. I am not sure whose brainchild it was, but the UGC exerted pressure on the UoJ to urgently admit 200 students for an engineering degree programme. The Vice Chancellor, UoJ was all too willing to oblige, much to the unease of serious academics, and it seemed likely that students would be admitted to a programme with no buildings, no staff, no laboratories and probably not even an academic programme to support it. I visited the UoJ in June 2003 to deliver the first Professor Thurairajah Memorial Lecture at the UoJ and some of my former colleagues from Peradeniya whom I met there expressed their anxiety.

I decided to articulate the matter in the media and arranged for an interview to be published in the Thinakkural, a Colombo-based daily that was much read in the North, in which I explained the essential requirements of a faculty of engineering, and the time needed to plan and establish a proper faculty; and warned of the dangers of starting the faculty without resources and due preparation. Thankfully, Professor Kumaravadivel, Professor of Physics, followed my interview with a three-part essay in Thinakkural that outlined the history of attempts to establish a faculty of engineering in the UoJ, explained the current status, and broadly endorsed my views.

This infuriated an academic who had other ideas about the faculty, and he furiously attacked me in the Thinakkural for demanding the assurance of adequate infrastructural, technical and academic resources before admitting students. He claimed that my concept of engineering was archaic and that engineering can now be taught using computers and without laboratories. I wondered if surgery could be taught with computer software, but kept my thoughts to myself.

I do not know what did the trick, but the UoJ soon dumped the proposal to admit students. The idea of establishing a faculty of engineering in the UoJ remained alive and serious efforts started in 2004. But the resumption of hostilities in the North and East meant that the plans had to wait until after the war. Moves revived in 2010 were slow to materialize. A UoJ Senate Sub-Committee recommendation to establish the faculty in Kilinochchi was accepted by the Senate in March 2011 and the Council in April 2011. The government was supportive and Gazette notification of Cabinet approval for setting up the Faculty of Engineering at Kilinochchi was published in December 2012. In my view, the Faculty could have waited until 2015 to admit its first batch of students, but I guess that political pressure forced the UoJ to admit students in 2014. The Faculty, despite its team of dedicated teachers, still relies considerably on visiting lecturers; but that should be phased out gradually so that sooner than later the Faculty will be 90% self-reliant for its teaching programme, with visiting lectures reserved for specialized areas.

The Ruhuna Experience

The University of Ruhuna, to set up the Faculty of Engineering in Hapugala, further away from the main university campus than Kilinochchi is from Jaffna, took years of diligent work, conducted mostly by my former colleague Dr HHJ Keerthisena, who constantly solicited advice from several of his former colleagues including me, when I was at Imperial College London, before the Faulty was formally established in 1999. He enjoyed unstinted support from the late Richard Pathirana, then Minister of Higher Education, as well as a dedicated team of academics and administrators. The Faculty of Engineering, UoR is a good example of what careful planning and commitment can achieve. Despite problems faced by the Faculty a decade ago, the academic programme has stabilized, and the Faculty has much to offer to new faculties by way of example in planning and organization amid challenges. Significantly, to attract staff to the new faculty, it ensured that housing and temporary accommodation were available on campus before the programme was announced so that the Faculty could attract and sustain qualified staff. There was no need for further inducement since essential facilities existed, and any academic visitor would be favourably impressed by the preparedness of the new faculty. The laboratories and design offices were sufficiently equipped for at least two years of the course before the first batch of students entered. Yet the Faculty had teething problems and suffered a deficit of staff in some departments, which still persists. But the UoR ensures that its degree programmes rely mainly on permanent staff and minimally on visiting lecturers.

Indifference at the Eastern University

I should briefly touch on an attempt by the Eastern University of Sri Lanka (EUSL) initiated in late 2009 to establish a faculty of engineering in its Trincomalee Campus, where land was already allocated for the purpose. On request by Prof. N. Pathmanathan, Vice Chancellor EUSL, communicated through Professor Varagunam, Chancellor EUSL and, drawing on my experience at the University of Peradeniya and familiarity with the experience of UoR, I produced a fairly comprehensive proposal for setting up the faculty. That draft document after finalization by the EUSL Council was to be submitted to the UGC and the Ministry of Higher Education. Prof. Pathmanathan was forced to resign in March 2010 and I submitted my report to the Acting Vice Chancellor shortly after. No action was taken, despite efforts by the Competent Authority Prof. NR Arthanayake in 2013 to revive interest. I was summoned to the EUSL Council in April 2014 during the tenure of Dr K Kobintharajah as Vice Chancellor to present my report. Little came out of the presentation despite the visible interest of several members of the Council.

South Eastern University: an Untold Story

I was unaware of plans to admit the residue of the “surplus’ of students generated by the GCE (AL) fiasco to the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka (SEUSL) until I arrived at the Guest House of the SEUSL in Dehiwela on the request of Prof. Arthanayake to discuss plans to establish a faculty of engineering in the SEUSL. The meeting held in October 2012 was attended by Dr SMM Ismail, Vice Chancellor, SEUSL, Professors Arthanyake and BL Tennekoon and me among other academics, as well as a few administrators from the SEUSL. After the purpose of the meeting was explained, I patiently pointed out the requirements of an engineering faculty, the need for planning and the availability of essential resources before commencing the programme. I pleaded that a minimum period of two years will be necessary, under best of conditions, before even thinking of admitting students; Prof. Tennekoon endorsed my views. I soon realized that non-academic considerations were behind the call to establish the proposed faculty. We were told that students had to be admitted early in 2013, desirably by March. I insisted that even a decent draft proposal would take months. The Vice Chancellor claimed that short and long term funding for developing the faculty is not a problem and that existing lecture rooms and facilities at the Hardy Advanced Technology Institute, Ampara would suffice for the present. However, I insisted that no student should be admitted until everything was in place for the first year — and desirably the second year — of the degree programme. Nobody challenged me on that and I thought that sense prevailed when Prof. Arthanayake proposed a committee comprising five persons including Professor Tennekoon and me which would meet early in the following week to prepare a set of proposals on how to set about in the matter. We agreed to complete that task in a matter of weeks. But, a few hours later, Prof. Arthanayake called me on the telephone in the evening to tell me that a way has been found to set up the proposed faculty and admit students so that there was no need for the committee to meet. I thanked him and wished him well.

After that, although I knew that what was planned was plain folly at the expense of higher education and more importantly students, I opted to keep out, since events were out of my control and that my words and deeds if not ignored will be misconstrued. However, a few days later, I spoke to Prof. Tennekoon, and understood that he too had decided to keep a distance.

I learned in mid-2013 that the Engineering Faculty of the SEUSL was declared open by President Mahinda Rajapakse in February 2013 and that academic activities commenced in May 2013. I now wish that the crisis that was building came into the open in 2014 so that remedial action would have been easier.

Rectification and Preventive Measures

The point is that we have a problem that needs addressing. The students need to complete their degree programme. There are several feasible options. It is too late to shut down the Engineering Faculty in the SEUSL.

Financial inducements for lecturers to teach at the SEUSL will have implications for other universities with unsuccessful programs. It can also eventually wreck the Faculty.

A long term rescue plan for the Faculty is needed, with provision to teach courses not available at the SEUSL to the present batches of students at other locations according to accessibility of resources, and SEUSL as the degree awarding university. This would, hopefully, make available the services of even better teachers than the present visiting lecturers. It will cost money — but less than the cost incurred by financial inducements for lecturers at the SEUSL.

In the above context, the Ministry of Higher Education, the UGC and the Sri Jayawardenapura University should seriously review the proposed new Faculty of Engineering at Sri Jayawardenapura. The prospect of starting degree programmes based on visiting academics as the key resource is daunting. I hope that the proposed faculty will be a well thought out project.

*Dr S Sivasegaram  – Retired Professor of Mech. Eng., University of Peradeniya

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 6

    Dr. S. Sivasegaram,

    An excellent expose in plain words, highlighting the pitfalls of haste which pass for concern and even wisdom. Any issue of importance related particularly to establishing an educational institution demands much critical thinking.

    It is hoped and wished that the Engineering Faculty proposed for Kilinochchi and the Agriculture Faculty in Vavuniya will have the benefits of candid discussion from the leading lights in all communities.

    • 3

      Dr S Sivasegaram,

      In my opinion the whole society has degenerated from the time of independence:

      Politically, morally, materially and otherwise compared to countries like Singapore, which obtained independence much later, have progressed tremendously since independence. Today Singapore’s two leading universities are in the first fifty in the world.

      Unless and until Sri Lanka and its people think and act to progress like fast developing countries to catch up with the advanced countries, we will be in the back waters.

      It will be a miracle of Asia if Sri Lanka can have a leader like Lee Kuan Yew with a vision to progress and catch up with the advanced West fast.

  • 2

    But, Prof Siva, you may want too talk about the current predicament of the Engineering Faculty as well.

    There is a general feeling the Dr. Atputharajah is doing his level best to get the best for E. Fac. But, the detractors are doing everything possible to bring him down. He was included in the Expert Panel by the Northern Province. As the Dean of the Faculty, he seems to have accepted the responsibility. As we hear, Dr. Atputharajah brought some rigour to the work of the Panel. But, certain interested parties attempt to tarnish his image. There seem to be a personality clash at the top as well. If we go by the rumours, a senior man in the mix is not happy about the rise of a junior guys to that role. End of the day, the E. Fac. needs an Advisory Panel of some sort to guide them. Sad state of affairs!!!

  • 1

    Prof. Sivasegaram,

    Thank you for your well written and clear account and its analysis. Pardon my frankness and stating the obvious that seems to evade the eyes of the system.

    The bottom line is: A university can only be as good as its teachers. And we need a critical mass of them. Why do the least productive but arrogant Sri Lankan Professors humiliate and chase away their brightest colleagues who have demonstrated ability or refuse to take in genuine talent by manipulating the system? The young lecturers are either roaming down corridors in gangs or hiding alone in their rooms for fear of being penalized by their seniors. Perhaps all this competitive entry has made scholars that way.

    A university education must also build and repair character in young scholars. There must be integrity in its members and camaraderie among them for any system to advance. Look at all the shameful cheating and corruption by the academics themselves. These men cannot even blush when they are found out! They bring false charges on their juniors and harass them. As an undergraduate I felt that the meanest of men and women ( with a few exceptions) were standing as sages on our stages and were put to decide our fates. Your own faculty is a prime example of these.The students cannot wait to get out.Some for example waited 30 years for Gunda to retire before taking their repeats.

    The above reasons were why The University of Ceylon was strong during Sir Ivor’s time. He was someone of whom the students could proudly say “There walks a man”. Alas! The greater the number of graduates you produce, the more appears to be the decline of the country.

    The Minister concerned if he is a man worth his salt, must scout around and appoint men/women who have proved themselves in the job. If I may, one may go on planning forever like theoreticians. More than theories are needed to accomplish things. Practical and dedicated persons can handle haste. Jaffna uni had their first coordinator planning Engineering for nearly 10 years. Were they the better for it Sir? Kumaravadivel/Physics and Kandasamy/Physics believed they were the ones capable of establishing it. Now do you see what I mean?

  • 0

    A Fine exposition with candid remarks especially about the Academic who said that Engineering can be taught using Computers and without Laboratories!

    Prof:Sivasekaram may not have been popular among the Student community THEN.
    This is because he was open,frank and did not mince his words.I had the privilege of knowing him at closer range at Dr.Thiru Kandiahs place in the Mid 70s during my salad days @ English-Sub Dept:
    As for Gunda the less said the better!

    • 1

      ONLY THEN?

      Professor Sivasegaram is [Edited out]

  • 5

    I am the one who wrote that Thinakkural rejoinder to Sivasegaram’s ideas. I did not attack Sivasegaram as he says but I did attack his ideas. I did not say “that engineering can now be taught using computers and without laboratories.” What I said is that we do not need large labs like at Peradeniya which are outdated concepts. I stand by that.

    Engineering drawing, for example, is rarely taught today as at Peradeniya with a large drawing hall, drawing boards and T-squares. It is taught on the computer. In industry drawings are on the computer and they are exchanged between countries as we globalize and off-shore using email. I am an electrical engineer and regret the years I was put through in the workshop and doing drawing and surveying (I was at Katubedde where nearly all our teachers were from Peradeniya). I wish our time had been better spent. I will not ever call mine the perfect education because as a result topics far more important to an electrical engineer today were left out. I just hope that the new faculties will not go by “This is how we do it in Peradeniya.”

    Go around the world to the best accredited engineering programs. They do not have these huge labs any more. Many universities with internationally renowned programs in engineering are contained in something like a three storey building in a 75mx75m block.

    We must not see the world as black and white and need to discern the shades in between. A useful thing I learnt in my economics class from Tilak Ratnakara is the theorem of the second best: If you cannot achieve the best, go for the second best because if you wait for the best you will have nothing. Sometimes therefore it is necessary to cut corners and settle for the less ideal.

    When the z-sore debacle occurred, the government had to accommodate more students in engineering. At that point, it was irrelevant as to whose fault it was. The need was to accommodate the students. There was no option to say let us plan. The alternative was to face a contempt of court stricture.

    In those circumstance, the best possible had to be done. My complaint is that the best options were not exercised like forcing the three engineering faculties to take a third of the students who had to be accommodated. Or instead of going for the perfect faculty, we could have gone for a limited, but small and good faculty with less laboratory intensive programs like computer engineering located in a town with good industrial opportunities – instead of locating the faculties in places where they cannot succeed.

    Carnegie Mellon where I was trained in part, is a small university focused on computing. Its managers say “We are small. We have resources only for focused programs. We will therefore go for studies drawing on our strengths in computing.” It is, as a result, invariably among the top 10 universities in rankings even though they do not have many programs. Instead of teaching with large fluids and thermo labs, they focus on robotics, mechatronics, computer controlled production, etc which can be done well without large resources.

    So I emphasize, know your limitations and go for the best you can be. Do not wait for perfection which will never come by planning for too long when there is no time for planning, but can be achieved if we carve out our tiny niche.

  • 5

    You take Sri Lankan University Eng. faculty professors qualifications. More than 98% only have publications in IESL journal. This journal run by themselves and no where indexed. Even very few have PhDs from world class Universities. You take Sri Lankan any projects Sri Lankan Engineers can only do counterpart works. All the key works are doing by Korean, Chinese and other country Engineers. Take road sector.

  • 4

    Thanks Siva for a very clear statement of the history and the problem.

    SRHH it is true that some of the so-called hands on courses can and have been computerised, it is also true that an engineering education with little or no hands-on training (except at the computer terminal) could be an avenue for turning out a certain type of engineer (eg researchers) for certain types of work in technologically advanced societies. Harvy Mudd as a small but quality school, in one such huge society, certainly serves a niche market – I do not contest that.

    But the bulk of engineers turned out in SL need a more broad-based foundation, since how they will fit in and progress in the career market is variable. I too am an EE like you and like you have taught in a few foreign countries. I believe electrical and electronic engineers need to know the basics of materials science, thermodynamics, fluids, energy sciences and a little bit about structures, and they should be able to read an engineering drawing. Conversely I also believe that non electrical/electronic engineers should know the basics of circuits, electromagnetism, chips and software.

    A broad-based common first-year is best for all engineers enrolled in a four year course, in all societies; this is a personal view. But it is one which, after a big battle, I won even in Hong Kong when I was Dean.

    • 2

      Dr. David,

      I think you are mixing up Carnegie Mellon (CMU), where Dr. Hoole got his PhD, with Harvey-Mudd where he taught. CMU is a major private university.

      In the modern world, a sizable number of those do Mech Engg end up working in companies like Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Intel, etc., largely focused on software or reliability and packaging issues in hardware.

      So, it depends on what kind of engineers the industry demands. While the subjects you mentioned are important, Dr. Hoole is right about the archaic way at Peradeniya of forcing all first year students to take engineering drawing, workshop technology and field surveying. Those should be reserved to Mech/Production/Civil Engg as applicable. Other engineers don’t need these subjects at all, but would benefit from programming and CAD courses in labs.

      Prof.Sivasegaram refers to Dr. HHJ Keerthisena. HHJK used to say, even as late as the early 1990’s, ‘we aim for the generalist’ and specialization would be obtained through a Master’s. But that is nonsense–in the modern world, the expectation and demand is that specialization in a chosen field should start early in one’s BS Engineering program.

      • 1

        Aiyo, Angoose — Should engineering education be like training specialist barbers? Learn to cut hair by cutting hair and only cutting hair, anything other than cutting hair is a waste of time, they might as well spend time cutting the ends of broom sticks while at it and specialize more at cutting, graduating from the barber school and then cutting hair? Get it?

        • 2

          Wow! Those who were educated at the Olympus Engineering School in Sri Lanka have invented the internet, built robots capable of cutting Mr. Olympus’ hair, invented self-driving cars, built an iron dome to interdict and destroy incoming missiles, developed satellite-based navigation that can track planes that fall off the sky, developed ways of concurring space, etc.

          After all, ‘broadly educated’ by carrying survey equipment in the swamps surrounding Olympus school, or by producing nuts and bolts in their workshop, those graduates can invent anything!

          • 1

            I meant conquering space, not concurring.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.