22 May, 2024


University Education & SAITM

By Ameer Ali

Dr. 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

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Latest comments

  • 4

    One of the issues Dr Ameer Ali failed to note is that university Sri Lanka has good bad traditions of giving away lecturership for some unqualified people. There is no system of mongering the quality of university education.
    Some of the lecturers are not qualified at all …some of them.got class from back door ..how only God knows .
    These so called unqualified lecturers are costing a lot in Sri Lanka education.
    They do not produce good students..
    They do not teach well.
    They do not know how to teach.
    They do not have experience or good qualification..
    The point is one you are a probationary lecturer..uless you work hard and improve your skills. You can not do the job..most of these so called junior lecturers are buying PhD..they are not doing it except in science and engineering and some agricultural subjects …sorry to say in arts and humanities a lot of dodgy thugs go on..
    So how can expect progress in our university.
    UGC needs to do something for this

  • 1

    SAITM may have draw back. but, private medical colleges, engineering colleges and even science etc., are needed. Because, govt alone can fund high tech developments. Po.liticians children are most of the time can not enter the university. If they can, when they can, they use president’s fund and go overseas. Even Kiriella is a lawyer. So, he may not like universities doing well. MY3 even though elected by people he is a bad leader. Even after 50 years in the parliament, it looks he is not capable of contributing or performing.

  • 2

    Universities in Sri Lanka have not gone through a proper process of decolonisation as expected from them after independence. In addition to the funding issue,this is a major problem. The epistemology governing university teaching,assessment and research is Western biased and it delegitimises and marginalises indigenous knowledge and intellectual traditions ( for example, marginalisation occurs by limiting indigenous knowledge of history,culture,language,religion,art,music etc to a few micro departments without making them mainstream knowledge taught to all students). The curriculum, at least in social sciences and humanities is heavily dependent on Western theories, concepts, methodology, and assumptions. Our graduates are still taught by lecturers who only translate Euro American knowledge for students to prepare for exams – rather than being critical thinkers and indigenous knowledge producers- to look at our people,society,it’s institutions and problems from the disciplinary knowledge developed in Euro America. In most courses,knowledge from Asian sources are not incorporated in teaching,assessment and research. This is an old habit inherited from colonialism,I.e to bypass Asia and look to Europe and America for legitimate and certified knowledge. Dr. Ali makes good points about the state of university education in this article, in particular how it is caught between philosophies where it is considered as a private or public good. I encourage readers to reflect on why our university education has not yet been decolonized? Impact of the continuing reliance on disciplinary knowledge imported from Euro America? What needs to happen in teaching,curriculum reform, and research to achieve decolonisation and indigenous knowledge production and legitimation in our universities? I’m not saying,as decolonists argue,that knowledge from Euro America should not be looked at. But it has to be used in comparison to knowledge from Asia, Africa, and Latin America plus our own intellectual traditions. Colleagues in the South Asian university, New Delhi are in the process of preparing a book on higher education in Sri Lanka looking critically about the current situation.

  • 2

    Siri Gamage . You have written and good comments about Sri Lanka university education..
    I too agree with you that university education need some decolonizaron:but there have been some argument that if we were not colonised our education system would have been far worse than what we have now ? Do you agree with this ?
    We have some best school system.we have some of best university education system.
    Thanks to British colonization: Sri Lanka certificates still internationally recognised..thanks to British for that ..
    But if we have not been colonised our education system would have far better or far worse ..
    Hypothetically we could say far worse ..
    Look some African countries..they still do not have some good education..
    Most of us still speak English…
    Consider this point ..we have not been able to extend one mile of raliy way on our own since British left us ????
    What do you expect more from Sri Lankan government ..
    I think we inherited some of best education and public admisntraiton due to British?
    Do you agree

    • 0

      Hi Pundit,

      Good questions,,, Our education system was neglected during the colonial period and it went into decay as a result along with the religions. An education system imported from the West was superimposed on society and a layer of elites produced to support colonial administration.i.e. walawwa families. The indigenous system of education based on pirivenas and temples could not compete with the new English system which got patronage from the colonial government and churches.

      What’s the use of an education without corresponding humane and caring values and norms? Teaching students to compete with fellow students and others is not enough. What we teach today is subject knowledge for the employment market and ‘old knowledge in disciplines’ inherited from the West and the US. It is not a wholistic education to prepare individuals for a peaceful and pluralistic society. It does not produce leaders to guide society for the future. By training individuals in subjects and making them professionals only we are creating narrow minded individuals who then succumb to materialistic pressures of various kinds.

      In the past we were told that children have to be ones with nana-Guna(wisdom and good qualities). In the present, guna has been left out from education. nana has also been reduced.


      • 0

        Part 2- Whether we inherited a better education system from the British depends on the way you look at it. if you mean the learning of English language and knowledge about the world, science, technology etc.through that language, it is a positive. But if the same system of education in universities devalues and deligitimises our own indigenous knowledge, languages, wisdom, ethics, values, nana-guna etc.then it is not a good education. Ultimately, countries like ours have to achieve a balance in the education we provide to our children rather than imitating and blindly following what we inherited from the colonial periods.

        Finally we need to ask ‘whose interests are served by the education and knowlege we impart’? Does the education allow learners to ‘liberate’ themselves from the imposed doctrines, ideologies, myths, social constructions etc. or does it bind them with things that are popularly considered as superior by the neocolonial, globalised consumerist society? Surely, education especially in universities have to liberate the minds and provide tools to investigate, critique, evaluate,compare, and solve problems-theoretical and practical.

        What spiritual guidence do we give to our students? In other countries, education is diversified. ie. provided by various institutions other than the state. Some do so with a religious bent.

        We cannot undo what we inherited from the British in the area of education. But we can ‘reform education’to suit the place, times, culture and our needs. For that we need the guidance of enlightened leaders who are motivated by social reform for a better country rather than managers and consumers of borrowed money! Expert-driven policy formulation as we find now is actually not helping the country to re-orient higher education in a direction that can salvage the country and its population in the long run because we are not in this context standing on our own two legs but upside down with prescriptions given to us by invisible global forces. Sorry for the long response,,

    • 1

      Your hypotheses could not be supported by facts. First, British invested in public administration to their own advantage. To run the colony with the support from Brown sahibs and this point has been clearly highlighted by the author. Also, British never invested in technology or STEM subjects and this is clearly highlighted by Shashi Tharoor when responding an exIITan in Australia. India developed its very successful IIT and IIM only after independence. Same happened in Sri Lanka. Did Brits teach how to make automobiles, ammunition or at least run a modern sewerage system???

  • 1

    Current desperate need for the manufactured chaotic SAITM issue is realistic and practical solution based on law and order without injustice. Neither history nor personal views however valid they seem can solve all the demands made on this well established legal Institution which is now the target and goal of the new medical admissions of “Z” scores below current state cut off point. Presidential Commission would be valid for future med. schools like Manipal and others who could start with legal approval, and produce MBBS in 6-8 years time with a govt. defined path unless job agencies obstruct even them. But SAITM has already produced 3 MBBS batches. Their need for immediate solution is tied up with manufactured crisis including state meds.
    Two major demands are nationalization for Z admissions with % fee paying quota as at present in state meds. AND abolition of SAITM having absorbed current students and staff into the nationalized institute. Prof. Carlo on video suggested merging into nearby SJGH or even Moratuwa uni. with SLMC approved internship. Govt. could start Manipal on new criteria, as SAITM/Malabe already exists under the old legal framework which cannot be shout abolished. Cant nullify court verdict of January 31st 2017 for SLMC to give internship to SAITM without doing injustice.

  • 1

    I agree with to some extent.
    Colonial masters have divide and rule policy .they supported a class of walawwa families ..and I agree with you that local and indigenous system of education and agriculture all gone by colonization .
    But do we have good rulers and policy makers to put all into right direction ..we good independence inn1948 …70 years we could not reform our education; economy and so on?.
    Is it fault of British?
    Is it fault of others ?.but
    Our fault..
    So; our policy makers and politicians should be blamed .
    Be honest my dear Gamage .
    It has has been a human weakness to point others fault when humans cannot do something or cannot succeed?
    Look at Singapore or Japan.
    Japan was bombed in 1945 and they did not keep blaming US for 80 years for that ….japanese planned; they worked hard; they studied hard; they struggled hard to succede…they did hold the grudge against US for 80 years..
    Why do you play blame game for the fault of our politicians?
    No one will come and tell us how to rule our country now?.how to plan for our future ?
    How to develop our country?
    It is entirely up to our politicians and policy makers .
    Sri Lanka parliament has got more than 50 % Mps without GCSE?
    What do you expect from them.?

  • 1

    Ameer Ali is trying out the last arsenal to promote the SAITM cause.
    He says ~ “…..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…….”.
    Sorry Ameer, this is a lead balloon – a puss-vedi.
    Ameer runs down the standards in Lankan universities. Was this to justify the poor standards if teaching at SAITM?
    Ameer must read “Sleeping Administrators Of Sri Jayewardenepura General Hospital” CT 03 November.
    SAITM catered for the Colombo elites. Will SAITM produce the “sleeping administrators” described in the above article?

  • 2

    Higher education is almost entirely state controlled in all of Europe. (Even in Canada and the USA, state universities provide most of the university education).
    In Australia all but three of 40+ universities are state controlled. Only one is local private, and two international. But Australia has subverted university education by making it a money making venture.
    Private universities/colleges in India have proven to be a disaster from which we should learn.
    If the government lacks funds to open up higher education, there are ways to expand education without denying the eligible students the opportunity. A combination of grants and loans based on performance and financial means can allow a steady expansion of higher education.
    The government should couple education planning with economic planning and be alert to employment prospects.
    SAITM medical degree was a cynical coup much like the Private Medical College in Ragama in the early 1980’s.
    The government is trying to fool the students and parents alike.
    Prolonging the the protests is justified.

  • 2

    First, I would like to mention that, pointing out SAITM example to disapprove private education is inaccurate in my opinion because SAITM has been started without following a proper process. So, do not blame the private education for that just because SAITM is wrong. If you’re given a tool and if you do not know how to use the tool properly then it is not the fault of the tool. You should know how to use it. Similarly, Sri Lankan politicians are incapable of handling or resolving any matter even at this very moment. Our political layer has become a legacy system.

    We all need to understand, there is no free lunch. Everything we do has a monetary aspect. It is easy to say that public or free education, but it is hard to understand who will provide the financial support for what everybody calls “free” whatever thing. It is the people who pay for free education via taxation.

    In any society, there are financially rich and poor people unless you’re talking about hypothetical societies which do not exists on earth. An education system should be catered to these two social groups. A free education or publicly funded education must be provided to the people who could not afford to spend and on the other side, private education should be there for whoever wishes to pay and learn. It is a simple and realistic approach.

    Of course, the quality of the education, regardless of public or private is pivotal. The quality and the way of funding for the education are two different matters, look at the other countries to see how they manage their education, we do not have to invent of anything brand-new, if you look around, the solutions to most problems that we as Sri Lankans are facing, already resolved by many other countries or societies a long ago.

    There is not much value talking about the history all the time. Whatever we do, let’s do it right. Dr. Ameer Ali, thanks for sharing your insight, I think, we as readers would like to know your suggestions too on how to resolve the current SAITM issue.

  • 2

    Mr. Ali,taking in consideration with standards the puzzle what we are having and want to ask from all readers what sort of standards we maintain in our state universities for ex in our medical faculties
    of Peradeniya, Colombo, J Pura, Ragama … etc medical faculties? compering to the world, Asian countries, SAARC countries, what is our ranking? are we the leading? are we the no ,2 or 10 or 100 or above?
    According to that how you categorized SIATM, as very poor standards and produce bad doctors, the only solution to abolish it or take over by the government to find a solution.
    If someone could explain to all readers would be much appreciated.

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