By Siri Gamage –
The nature of university education in the 21st century is a topic of discussion in many countries due to a range of reasons. Access and equity issues, the nature of curriculum and teaching quality, state provision as a public service versus privatisation as a commodity, contribution to knowledge production and innovation are some of the ideas that attract public attention. With the expanding neoliberal, market-driven economic policies and programs pursued by governments in many parts of the world, higher education in the traditional sense has also been subjected to various challenges, pressures and debates.
In this article, I briefly comment on a few aspects of this phenomenon and associated discourse to encourage readers to examine the topic in more detail in the context of the debate about Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) in Sri Lanka.
In many parts of the postcolonial world, in particular former colonies of the global south, universities or colleges were established by the colonising powers in the shape of those that existed in metropolitan centres. For example, the university of Ceylon in Sri Lanka was established in the early 50s following the Cambridge model. In such universities Western European disciplines were introduced and taught. For several decades research was conducted following disciplinary imperatives by academics that were trained in the metropolitan centres in the language of the coloniser. Among the disciplines were liberal arts and social sciences along with physical sciences. Engineering, medicine and management were also added in time to come. Faculties existed along discipline lines and the difference between those who aspired to an arts or humanities subject such as literature, language, philosophy, religion, and history belonged in the arts faculties. As the interest of the policy makers attracted to science and IT areas, such disciplines also expanded. What was unique in such higher education provision was the sharp distinctions maintained between those who studied liberal arts or humanities subjects and those who perused science, medicine, engineering subjects. Not only faculties were segregated along such lines but also the students, staff and job market too were segregated. Translated knowledge from the Western –mostly European and American- disciplines became the core inputs for teaching such disciplines and doing research.
In the case of Sri Lanka, university education expanded by way of the establishment of several new universities to cater to those who qualify but did not get a placement. These new universities also were founded largely on the Peradeniya model with some variations. Diversity of the system in terms of course offerings, mission and vision, research did not achieve a high level because the institutions were centrally controlled via the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of higher education. As funding came from the state, there was a reason for such control but when it affected university autonomy, it becomes an issue. However, the intent of this article is not to go deeply into such issues.
A proposal by the government to bring Kotelawala National Defence University(KDNU), funded by the Ministry of Defence under the Universities Act 1978 (which controls provision of State funded higher education through the Ministry of education and Higher education) has inspired a vigorous debate on the challenges it can bring to the provision of free education cherished by many who were educated in such institutions. For example, the following is an extract from a recent article:
There is no issue with establishing private universities in a country by private investors under strict regulation and purview of the State. With the existing limited places, students who do not have the opportunities to study at public universities can be offered the opportunity to pursue a degree of their choice at private universities. As we all know, there is a need to strictly regulate the quality of existing private universities.
Establishing a non-regulated State system for private education is not the answer to the issue. Although it is a right of a person to study at a private university for a fee if he or she wants to, the State should not channel public money to function as a for-profit supermarket for education. It will further jeopardise the right to free education of thousands of children and youth. The government’s entry into the for-profit business of education is the first attempt to break the backbone of the policy of free education. – (Groundviews)
I elaborate my views on the subject along with several questions:
1. Is there an ideal student? In other words should the students be only those who pass HSC or should other groups be able to secure a university education?
For the state funded university system, the ideal student candidate seems to be those who pass HSC examination and leave school. Such students enter universities to do various degree programs depending on their qualifications. However, there are other universities that cater to those who like to study on a distance education basis e.g. Open University. KDNU is specifically catering to officer cadets in the security forces. There is also a vocational education university. Students in these latter categories come from diverse backgrounds with qualifications that are perhaps lower than those getting admission to State funded universities. Thus the student in these latter types may not correspond to the ideal student image applicable to state funded, UGC controlled universities like Peradeniya, Ruhuna or Colombo.
Providing a higher education to various student groups –many with lack of access to state funded universities- should be an equity and social justice measure. However, if one or more such institutions produce elite cohorts of students with better employment opportunities (plus state funds), then it should become a point for debate and discussion from a policy sense.
2. Should liberal arts and professional subjects be combined in university education?
On the basis of my experience in an Australian university, I can say that in professional faculties, a combination of an understanding of the society and culture was required and facilitated to students taking professional degrees. This included those from the army, police, and fire brigade. So were the courses provided to nurses and teachers. Because such professionals are to be employed in society- cities or regions- the logic was that they should have an understanding of various aspects of society and culture to operate effectively. The course content did not include a series of course units on the subject as in liberal arts faculties. The knowledge provided was also not for the sake of disciplines but to assist future professionals to be able to function in society without conflict and in a socially beneficial way.
So the debate in Sri Lanka about whether to provide university education merely for skill provision is a moot point. Both aims can be secured. An education that trains students for the jobs of the future as well as problem solving, critical thinking skills etc. can be provided under the same degree program. It is not a dilution of the content in a professional degree. It is to make the degree more socially and culturally relevant. What has become more controversial is the amount of funding that is spent on public universities compared to the KNDU:
The main objective of free education is to include free education in the public policy that is equally accessible to all irrespective of class, caste, ethnicity, gender, social status or any other grounds. The backbone of this policy is to provide free education up to university level. Unfortunately, only a small portion of GDP (about 2%) is allocated to education compared high allocation to the Ministry of Defence. – (Goundviews)
3. Should universities have diverse missions and visions?
Definitely. Unless each university has a distinctive mission and vision, how can it achieve its goals? Such missions and visions should also cater to the region where the university is located. While a university can be internationally focused, it should never lose sight of its obligations to the community. I do not think this is part of the government policy or focus in terms of the university’s role?
4. What kind of knowledge is better suitable? Should knowledge be for the sake of knowledge?
Due to colonial heritage, the knowledge used in teaching and research mainly comes from Europe and America. However this has been criticised by a group of decolonial scholars who emphasise the need for decolonising knowledge to suit the needs of given countries in the =21st century. There is a tendency for universities to marginalise or sideline the knowledge existing in the communities already based on indigenous/local traditions of scholarship. Decolonial scholars argue that such knowledge is equally legitimate and to be used in teaching and learning-though it is considered as non-scientific by those who are trained in disciplines. Knowledge should not be for the sake of knowledge. It has to perform a social, political and cultural function –particularly to develop intellectual traditions based on the ground realities.
5. Should University education be privatised to cater to those who cannot get entry?
Though a controversial topic-it may be so. How to do this is the main difficulty. Who could provide such education is also a controversial topic. If those who are unable to get entry to state funded universities can pay some fees to enter a university (public or private) space should be provided to do so. Quality assurance mechanism should be developed to maintain standards. I believe there are many private/international providers of higher education in Sri Lanka already. However the first option ought to be to expand the state funded university education and give admission to more students.
6. Should University education be provided to those from various professional and Para professional groups?
Definitely. Avenues should be opened for sections of society who perform important roles to be able to get higher education later in life. Such provisions already exist in developed countries. Furthermore, sections of the community who face disadvantages in life should also be encouraged to obtain a university education, e.g. mature aged, rural areas, lower socio economic backgrounds, lower occupations. However, when university education is opened up to such groups, there could be resistance from those who enter on the basis of HSC qualifications for understandable reasons. They may consider university education as their right –not others who did not get better marks at the HSC. If we accept this argument, it is not possible to democratise university education for the benefit of other segments/sectors of society. In doing this, commercialisation of university education should be avoided.
7. Should University Education incorporate knowledge from global north and global south?
Yes. There is a tendency to exclude knowledge from Asia, Africa, Caribbean, Middle East, and Latin America. This is not only due to the colonial mindset that is ingrained in the academic psyche but also the social psyche. We are closely connected with the British and American higher education and education systems, processes, deliberations, academic outputs and outlets. Some describe this as academic dependency e.g. Syed Farid Alatas. It is important to break free from such academic dependency and open our eyes to a diversity of knowledge sources including one’s own.
University education in the 21st century is not a monolithic concept or a process. The world has moved away from the elitist concept of university education that was dominant during the colonial period. In some countries like Sri Lanka and India mass education has become the trend. Unfortunately, we are reproducing the same model of university (along with knowledge produced in the West) that we inherited from the colonial era. Those who enter universities on the basis of competitive marks obtained from HSE argue against further opening of university education to other groups of society for obvious reasons including the preservation of their privilege. However, from an equity and social justice perspective, it is difficult to sustain such an argument. State funded universities are managed with a hierarchical academic and administrative structure in the faculties and departments with not much change within for the last several decades. Such administration structures and processes remind of the practices that prevailed in the British colonial era rather than the modern realities of society. One has to look at more professionally oriented universities (if they exist) whether their management structures are more efficient and user-friendly.
Thus to understand the issue about KNDU, we have to be more open to arguments from both sides as there can be valid arguments on both sides. My own view is that if we want to be critical about the KNDU and its incorporation to the UGC act, let’s be critical about the whole university system and come up with constructive suggestions –rather than turning the debate into a political one.
Killing Free education with the Kotelawala national Defence University Bill, Ground Views. (16/7/2021)
* The writer is former senior lecturer, School of Education, University of New England; former Adjunct Associate professor, School of Social science and Psychology, Western Sydney University, Australia.