By Ameer Ali –
Since the controversy over SAITM started snowballing into an overall critique of university education a few erudite contributions have appeared in this journal. I too have contributed one on the bigger picture (4 September 2017). Having taught in five universities in three countries for over fifty years, including 10 years in Sri Lanka, I think my observations on the subject can add some substance to the public debate.
It is now an accepted fact that the quality of university education in general has declined almost universally. Sri Lanka cannot remain an exception to this global phenomenon. Once upon a time and before the 1970s the standard of learning and teaching at the Paradeniya and Colombo campuses of the one and only University of Ceylon at that time was exceptionally high and was comparable to that of any of the renowned universities in the West. Although there are reasons peculiar to Sri Lanka that led to the decline in standard since then there is one factor that is systemic and has affected university education all over the world. This is the issue of university funding consequent of the new liberal philosophy regarding university learning. This philosophy has now been embraced by the current rulers in Sri Lanka and is bound to affect university education in the future. In short, we are facing a systemic problem.
Education from the kindergarten to the university was once deemed to be a public good. Hence it was produced free either by the government or charitable institutions. Because of the immense social benefits that literacy and numeracy brought to society primary education was even made even compulsory to all. Beyond that it was still free but not compulsory. When provided by government the cost was met through the national budget. The fact that education at secondary and tertiary levels also brought private benefits to the learners was understood by policy makers but in their view the social benefit was so overwhelming that they were even prepared to assist financially through scholarships those promising students who were found in danger of being deprived of it because of economic hardship. This was the ideological background to the birth of free education in Sri Lanka.
During the British period the ruling philosophy of education was best captured in Lord Macaulay’s 1835 Indian ‘Minute on Education’ in which he stated “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was with this ideology that the Ceylon University College was established in 1921, which merged with the Ceylon Medical College in 1942 and became the University of Ceylon. After independence however, the role of university education had to change from producing civil servants and bureaucrats to creating critical thinkers, scholars and researchers who would contribute to the overall development of the nation. This was another reason why governments of decolonised countries were generous in funding university education. In Sri Lanka governments continued to provide free education from kindergarten to the university.
Along with free education the provision of free health services also became an essential ingredient of a welfare state economic model that governed the developing world until the end of 1970s. The 1980s marked a turning point in global economic thinking. Led by Washington and its international economic managers, the IMF and the World Bank, the welfare philosophy came under relentless attack and a free market cum private enterprise model was pushed down the throats of many developing countries. Sri Lanka swallowed that model in 1977 under JR.
Under this model and according to the global managers, education becomes more a private good and less a public good as it progresses from primary to secondary and tertiary levels. Accordingly, the model dictates minimum public funding to tertiary education and encourages the private sector to fill the gap. It even prefers an increasing role of the private sector at all levels of education. Of course, there are comprador economists who have provided the necessary theories to support this policy.
What is unsaid by the global managers however, is their unwillingness to support governments in developing nations to invest resources to produce original and indigenous knowledge products which would compete with the developed world and their multinational corporations for intellectual property rights. Therefore, what they want from these governments is to fund technical institutions to produce a cadre of workers skilled enough to play a supportive role to the First World MNCs and their investments. In view of the World Bank and IMF Sri Lanka should become an export platform to MNC investments. Hence public investment in university learning is unnecessary and it is best to leave it to the private sector. Macaulay wanted the colonies to provide educated servants to service the imperial order and the global managers want former colonies to provide skilled workers to service the global capitalist order.
This explains the reduction of university funding over the years in real terms. Yet, the demand for university education kept on increasing, and satisfying that demand became a political issue. The result was the proliferation of resource-starved universities which continued to churn out unemployable graduates with substandard knowledge. In the meantime, the open economy created a class of nouveau riche that wanted its children to gain quality education so that they could occupy the executive positions created by the new economy. Of course the many from that class could afford to send their children to universities abroad but the more enterprising among them also saw a profit making opportunity in establishing their own full fee-paying private institutes of higher education. SAITM is an outcome of this thinking and is the thin end of the wedge.
From the 1980s onwards with the growth of private primary and secondary schools the way was cleared for the private sector to increase its hold on the education sector right up to the tertiary level. While the governments were concentrating on quantity the quality of pedagogy in government schools was fast deteriorating and teachers who could not make both ends meet with the government salary began looking for supplementing their income through private tutoring. Private tuition progressively replaced public tuition and became a lucrative industry for experienced teachers. As a consequence, educational standard of public schools deteriorated. Along with that the fate of the poor students whose parents could not afford the cost of private tuition. Even in the universities demoralised lecturers started looking for opportunities to migrate to greener pastures. It is a pathetic story of how a nation that was once an envy of others in the region for its quality of education has deteriorated so much and so soon.
The current crisis that afflict higher education in Sri Lanka is partly systemic and partly self-inflicted. The latter is the result of looking for short cut solutions to major educational challenges. For example, there was a genuine need after independence to uplift the educational levels of rural students in Sri Lanka. The schools in the urban areas had a decided advantage in entering the universities. To address the issue political leaders adopted the populist solution of changing the medium of instruction and reducing the entry requirements to universities instead of providing real resources to rural schools. The long term result of such populist policies is now public knowledge.
The controversy over SAITM and the government’s compromised solution to it is not going to stop student agitation for its total abolition. But a government that is wholly wedded to the new economic order is trapped and is not going to give in to that demand. Without a radical rationalisation of the universities and a new ideological platform to restructure the country’s education system the crisis will continue with damaging political and economic repercussions.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia