Colombo Telegraph

The Cost Of Haste In Engineering Education

By 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

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