3 December, 2022


University Governance In Sri Lanka: Is It Elitist & Alienating Students?

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

A recent episode of Aluth Parlimentuwa (20 June 2018) broadcast in Derana TV included a discussion of the issues facing Sri Lanka’s university education. Those on the discussion panel included the Minister of Higher Education and Cultural affairs, former minister of higher education, former chairman of the University Grants Commission, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayawardenapura and JVP M.P. Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa. The panel brought out various issues facing Universities in the country including poor quality, student indiscipline, inadequate infrastructure, ragging and violence, world rankings, and the competition from the international education providers. The discussion was aimed at identifying what is needed to resurrect and reform University education for the benefit of students and broader society taking into account current national and global trends in higher education including internationalisation (It was pointed out that about 20,000 students follow ‘international courses’ as fee-paying, private students). There was no point scoring based on political affiliations of the discussants which was salutary.   

As we know well, the composition and nature of the student population in Sri Lanka’s universities have changed since independence, in particular with the introduction of teaching in mother languages in the 60s. Higher education has also expanded to provinces with the establishment of regional universities starting with Ruhuna University during the J.R Jayawardena government under the guidance of former finance minister Ronee de Mel.  Expansion in physical facilities, Mahapola scholarship scheme, course offerings in Swabhasa medium are noteworthy developments. The opening of opportunities for students from rural, lower socio-economic background, and different ethnicities is referred to as massification of higher education. With massification, student activism has increased. Activism has taken a somewhat radical form in the sense of continuous boycott of classes or strikes, protest rallies, marches on main roads, severe forms of ragging and so on. Students found to be at fault for various offences are meted out punishments by the university authorities and law enforcement agencies. Such acts in turn feed into more activism and agitation making the whole process a vicious cycle. 

In this context, it is important to investigate whether the university governance and administration/management have changed from their elitist forms to a more democratic and representative form in the decades following independence in order to provide ‘a voice’ for students? In this article, I briefly look at this issue taking a cue from the panel discussion held in Aluth Parlimentuwa. Is there a serious gap between the attitudes of those who govern or manage and those who are governed?  Do we still maintain elitist structures and processes in universities without democratising them? These are legitimate questions that we need to ask as higher education in state run universities have become a topic of contention among parents, students, academics, politicians and policy makers.

Governance and Management/Administration:  Student Voices?

One participant in the panel discussion pointed out that students are the most important asset for a university. Without students learning cannot occur.  This is absolutely true.  If some students for whatever the reason do not want to learn what is offered in the name of a degree course, we have a problem – perhaps many problems in the teaching-learning process and even in the administration/management of university education. In trying to comprehend the complexity of this phenomena, we need to move beyond binary arguments where one side is portrayed as right and the other as wrong. This is because there can be structural and cultural problems underneath what we witness on a day-to-day basis. If students are the most important asset, are their voices herd in the classrooms and important decision-making forums within universities?

In this regard, we need to look at the way Universities are governed and whether there are formally allocated spaces for students to express their views, opinions, attitudes, experiences etc. in the principal decision-making bodies?  In other parts of the world, such spaces exist in universities and they facilitate close communication between those who govern i.e. University Council, Senate, Faculty Boards, and those who are governed e.g. students.  

A cursory look at the composition of University Councils (governing bodies) in the country shows that there are no student representatives in such bodies. Instead, the Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Deans and members nominated by the University Grants Commission (UGC) occupy the seats in Governing Councils.  Often the nominated members by the UGC are either retired Professors of the university or those from the corporate or professional sectors and a few from the industry.   If we analyse the age categories of these members, interesting facts can be discerned, i.e. significant age difference between those who govern and those who are governed e.g. students.  Significant number of Council members, at least those nominated by the UGC, belong to the previous generation who studied at a time when education was conducted in a quite different way compared to today when the availability of internet and information have made learning a quite different process. While retired members from the academic staff can add value to governance through their accumulated wisdom to some extent, it is far more important to bring in those who are active in the professions, industry, Government, NGO sector, community etc. as they can provide perspectives useful for Council deliberations and problem solving.  

Next, I looked at the composition of University Senates with my desire to find any spaces allocated to students or their representatives.  I couldn’t find any?  University Senates deliberate, monitor and determine matters to do with academic side of university management/administration. As students are the learners, how can University Senates deliberate on academic matters without the participation of learners?  What does such exclusion indicate in the 21st century decision making in publicly funded bodies?  Does it indicate an elitism in the academia where the role of students as learners is not recognised in favour of the professors?  

If my observation about the lack of student representation in the highest decision-making bodies in universities is applicable to recently established universities in the provinces also, it is an indication of the way that what we inherited from the colonial era is continuing as the norm without basic questions being raised even by those who are in the know (In the Faculty Boards however there are one or two student representatives e.g. at Peradeniya University. This needs to be commended).

What does this lack of student representation in the highest decision-making bodies in our universities tell us? Does this hold the key to student unrest, violence, indiscipline, feeling of alienation and mass agitation?  Are our students marginalised by the university administration/management and governance processes contributing to their feelings of alienation?  

Under the current model, students have to rely on the VC, a particular Dean or professor to make representations on their behalf. Even if some Vice Chancellors are able to interact with student bodies within their universities on an ad hoc basis, there is no guarantee that they will bring the matters of such discussion to the governing council without bias toward management and represent student views impartially where it matters. It is highly unlikely that a Dean will make representations on a matter of contention between the university management and students against the wishes of his/her VC in the University Council. Thus, the lack of formal space for students to express their voices in University Councils and Senates directly appears to be a fundamental structural problem in terms of University management/administration requiring the attention of highest authorities.

Student Perspective – Lacking in the Discussion?

In the Aluth Parlimentuwa episode on University education in Sri Lanka, ample opportunity was given to current and former authority figures dealing with universities to express their opinions supported by statistics, documents etc. However, absent from the discussion was the student voice –other than two questions allowed by the moderator to students present in the audience. Actually, the audience was students. Why is it that the panel did not include any students or their representatives?  Is it because we still treat university students as school children? Would it have been useful to invite a president of a student union or two to the discussion in order to have a balanced discussion?  Is this symptomatic of the exclusion of students from not only such discussions but also formal decision-making processes in the universities? Can we resolve issues in universities purely by punitive measures?

Treating Undergraduates as Children (Daruwo)

The panellists referred to university students as ‘Daruwo’(children) showing some kind of dayava (love) or karunava(compassion) and ladikama (favourable attitude or disposition) indicating a willingness of those in authority to listen to them, guide them, educate them, and so on. But what this also implies is that the authorities are treating university students as ‘school children’ who need to be nurtured in the way they prefer and desire according to their concept of a student and associated mindset.   This is where the problem lies.  Authorities need to treat university students as young adults who possess unique opinions based on their own experiences in and outside the university. Often, they can be critical opinions about the way their life is controlled (managed or administered in the terminology of those who are governing) in and outside the universities. They also have collective voice through their student organisations –though some would argue they are politicised to some extent. The problem lies not necessarily in the fact of politicisation per se but in the manifest non-conformity of students during protracted agitations with the rules established by the institution. 

Student Violence, Protests and Ragging

When it comes to student indiscipline, violence, ragging and protests, blame is squarely put by university and political authorities on students who engage in such activities. Tenor of the discussion in Aluth Parlimentuwa also tended to be this way. If a minute section of students is engaging in anti-social activities such as severe forms of ragging or other disruptive acts inside the universities, university administrators need to find out the reasons for such behaviour through systematic micro research in the first place.  The Vice Chancellor taking part in the discussion stated that his door is always open for students to come and discuss their issues. Is this the case in all Universities? Do all VC’s allow such space? Even if discussions are held, what are the outcomes? Do such discussions resolve the matters amicably or the agitations by students continue irrespective of such discussions? If follow up action by the authorities do not result in resolving issues to the satisfaction of students, such discussions are worthless. It is important to explore this aspect more deeply against the nature of University management/administration model operating in Sri Lanka’s universities in order to detect what formal spaces have been made available by authorities for students to express their voices regarding the problems they encounter in the learning and living context inside the universities?  

Casual and Part-time Work for Promising Students  

In universities in the developed world, university students function as tutors in residential colleges. I am not sure how far this is the case in Sri Lanka’s residential halls?  My understanding is that they have wardens and sub-wardens appointed from the academic staff only. In established universities in the US, Europe and elsewhere promising students are appointed as tutors or teaching assistants in undergraduate and graduate courses. Such opportunities provide students an avenue to channel their intellectual energies in a more productive manner. How far do such opportunities exist in Sri Lanka’s universities? While we pride ourselves about the fact that our university model, at least the Peradeniya model, followed Oxford-Cambridge structure and process, have our university authorities given any consideration to opening the teaching process to skilled students as teaching assistants so that they gain an entry to the teaching profession?  

Gurukula Mentality in Teaching & Exams

University teaching process is also open to criticism for its hierarchical, teacher-centred nature rather than student centred teaching. This is not a criticism applicable to all universities and all courses. I am sure in some faculties and programs the academic staff must be using new pedagogies, modern teachnology, multiple perspectives and up to date resources. However, at least in the case of teaching social sciences and humanities, there tend to be a practice of using old gurukula mentality and teaching is heavily exam oriented leaving students to spend enormous amount of time in rort learning. Students are also under heavy stress prior to exam periods. While some form of examinations is important, the trend today is for continuous assessment by using multiple assessment methods such as student seminars, group work, projects, open book exams. How far university teaching encourages –through the teaching-learning process-critical reflection of what they learn is also a matter that needs careful attention. Teaching pedagogy needs to be updated to incorporate this element. However, such change requires extra commitments by the academic staff.

Important aspects of a university are the availability of qualified and inspiring teachers, course content and pedagogy suitable for the 21st century, administrators such as Vice Chancellors, Deans, Heads of Department who can provide a congenial environment for learning including infrastructure (e.g. hostels), library facilities, communication in a language that can be understood by students (without jargon), customer friendly internal bureaucracy, internet and lab facilities. The product of teaching and learning which is in this case the degree should also have contemporary relevance in the national and international contexts (To ensure this, universities in developed countries utilise a set of graduate attributes for each degree. Aims of courses, assessment methods and expected outcomes from teaching tally with these graduate attributes). 

Funding for Individual Research vs Team Research

What about the research enterprise in universities? Do students get an opportunity to function as research assistants while studying? Does the current funding method of university research encourages team research, for example through the establishment of research networks or centres of excellence – so that the students get more opportunities for working as assistants or is the funding individually based? My understanding is that a research allowance is provided to each academic staff member along with the salary rather than providing competitive research grants to teams of researchers on a competitive basis. There is no harm in introducing some competition in this sphere with the aim of generating innovation and more opportunities for postgraduate students to work as paid research assistants or associates. In countries such as Australia, Canada, and the US when senior academics apply for team based research grants, they can include several post-doctoral positions. Competitive research grants are assessed annually by panels drawn from academia and industry operating within a National Research Council. This way, the government can be assured that the important research funds are spent on worthy projects with national relevance and a potential for innovation.

The point here is that if high performing students are absorbed into various formal roles in the teaching and research processes within universities, it can reduce the feelings of alienation generated by their generalised exclusion from the formal structures.

Significant innovations in research cannot be generated under the existing method of granting a research allowance to academic staff individually with no adequate monitoring mechanism in place.  It is a highly inefficient method unless their research output is measured objectively annually. Instead, a method of funding ‘team research’ in identified areas of national priority has to be devised. 

Higher Education as a Transformative process

University education has to be a transformative, empowering process for the students. Academics and students should collectively construct knowledge both from the books, journals and experiential knowledge. Students (and their parents) should have confidence in the value of the product they acquire at the end of university education if they are to place trust in the education process, who administers it, and the very process of learning as it is presented today with enormous public expenditure. Instead, what we witness is the lack of trust and lack of perceived value in the process as well as the product i.e. degree, as far as some disciplines are concerned.  


This article shows that the existing university governance and management/administration structures and processes appear to exclude student representation creating a generalised feeling of alienation among students. Such alienation can lead to the development of anti-establishment attitudes, student indiscipline and agitation for just and fair decision making and inclusion. If this hypothesis is valid, it shows how our authorities have not learned the lessons from previous episodes of student unrest and activism that led to countrywide violence. Composition of University Governing Councils and Senates reflect the fact that Sri Lanka’s universities have not moved with the times to be inclusive bodies of governance. Instead, they seem to continue as elitist bodies deliberating on matters relating to university management/administration including academically important matters with no direct inputs from the students who are the most important element of a university. For that matter, there do not seem to be a gender balance either in representation, making such bodies highly patriarchal forums. Therefore, University governance and management can be open to charges of being hierarchically organised outfits rather than ones that demonstrate democratic, representative principles (so far as students are concerned) suitable for the 21st century. 

Instead of examining the reasons for this situation via formal mechanisms such as a commission of enquiry appointed either by the universities themselves, the ministry of higher education, or formal research, there is a tendency to show who is right and who is wrong in specific matters that have become contentious. In doing so, governments have inclined to maintain the existing governance, management/administrative structures that are heavily biased toward senior professors (serving and retired) in positions of power rather than allocating democratic spaces within decision making processes and structures for students to express their opinions formally and to empower. No wonder that students have come to the streets to express their opinions and even become politicised in the process given the disempowering nature of university governance and management/administration! As a result, higher education has become a ground for entrenched battles between students and authorities rather than a transformative process for creating better and informed human beings for a socially just society.

If we are to make universities functioning institutions again, recognition of ‘politically’ active students’ status beyond being Daruwo -who have surpassed the stage of childhood and become adults – can be helpful to university administration/management at various levels. 

For universities to become places of learning in a harmonious environment, authorities need to treat students as adults who have distinctive identities, viewpoints, and experiences as well as something to contribute. Teaching pedagogy has to change to validate these rather than exclude. While great books from the West and USA are important, teaching has to rely on local intellectual traditions, knowledge and wisdom while doing so.  Students who show skills need to be involved in teaching process by offering them formal roles and included in formal decision-making processes. Absorption of academically and professionally promising students to various teaching roles as teaching assistants and tutors in residential facilities is also necessary. Problem solving mechanisms within public institutions including management practices need to be reformed to cater to contemporary needs and aspirations of stake holders instead of disempowering them.

Such reforms have the potential to reduce the temperature within universities. 

Providing more autonomy to universities from the political authority to determine their future directions can also contribute to innovation, competition and even diversification. 

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Latest comments

  • 1

    If you want to see pathetic situation in University governance, do research of Colombo University Arts faculty family Dept (Econ). You never want to go to University even for rain.

    • 0

      Very true and thank you for bringing this out.
      Unlike SJP VC, Colombo students are kept throttled specially by the Colombo university Vice Chancellor and then they give their anger on other students and starts fights. When students fights are set up like this, the Colombo VC can get a free hand to bully students and now, bullying staff also to keep their mouths shut. He is a new University Gota. Students cannot see him without prior appointments as he is always in his room with his girl-lecturer from his demography dept.
      This article is also so true that university teaching methods have to change. Upto now, the Colombo uni Staff Development Centre conducted an internationally respected new teaching methods course, but now it is fully destroyed by this Gota-VC and its new SDC Director Nazima, by newly appointing VCs own favourite inexperienced new lady lecturer to this SDC. The Deans are keeping mum to get their false promotions to be professors as Colombo VC is a Gota style very very vindictive and also getting bonus money, with VC getting allowances etc of 1 million Rupees a month, from post-grad course etc! VCs son also has been put into computer school staff. Student education is already fully ruined at Colombo with this VC.

  • 1

    Oh Siri oh

    What a gem of an article

  • 2

    Leave Aussie land and come here to Sri Lanka Dr Gamage

  • 0

    Dr Siri Gamage
    Corruption/nepotism/impunity has found its way into Lankan universities. Of course there are some dedicated staff (still?). Their letters to UGC SL go unanswered. This is a management decision – “Cannot look into all cases because of man-power shortage”.
    An example university gripe:
    On 23 March 2015, highlighting serious instances of misconduct and abuse of power, the South Eastern University Teacher’s Association demanded the VC Prof S M M Ismail to step down.
    UGC evidently issued a charge sheet. Prof S M M Ismail did step down. His backer Rishard Bathiudeen had list MP M H M Navavi step down and Prof Ismail is now an MP – albeit list.
    The Minister of Higher Education Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha pointed this out!
    The rot has set in. The morale of staff and students in higher education is very low.
    Will your suggestions work in this toxic atmosphere Siri?

    • 0

      Will your suggestions work in this toxic atmosphere Siri?

      Probably no because Universities(like other public institutions) need leaders with a vision-Not administrators per se. What we find in the higher education hierarchy is there are many ‘administrators’ who follow instructions from above(their hands are tight) but unable to lead from the middle due to lack of autonomy (and lack of space to develop a vision) for their institutions. The present system of university governance does not allow for each university to be its own and develop unique vision, goals etc. or to use intellectual energies of both academic staff and aspiring students.

  • 1

    We’ve heard and read a lot about Dr Siri who is an extremely nice man. Why he stays in Australia is mindboggling to me like for many hundreds in this forum.

    • 1

      Hi Indrani,

      Thanks for the kind invitation and words.

      Q. Coming to Sri Lanka to do what?

      If the present trends continue, will there be a Sri Lanka to come to?

      One has to be extremely rich to live in Sri Lanka now….as every aspect of life has been monetised (and ritualised politically)including education….

      At the end, one can live only in one place, isn’t it?

  • 0

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  • 0

    there is no massification as you suggested. the enrollment ratio is only 4 percent of the relevant age group. total no. of students is only 80000. to reach massification level it should be at least around 60 percent. still our university system is limited for few. otherwise your article is very correct and depicts a clear picture.

  • 0

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