By Ratnajeevan H. Hoole –
Item 56 of the new government’s 100-day, 100-point program augurs well for universities:
“Powers with regard to universities which are now exercised by the Minister will be restored to the universities through the University Grants Commission, and the politicizaton of the universities will be halted.”
The need, rightly, is to restore to universities those powers unlawfully usurped by the Minister. Few thinking people would disagree with this goal. Accordingly Prof. Rajiva Wijesignha has announced the end to the horrible scheme by former minister S.B. Dissanayake to give military training to new university entrants. Academic decisions are for the Senates to make under the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978. That power was usurped. This abolition is a refreshing start and Prof. Wijesinghe is to be congratulated.
Other examples are ministry lists from which the universities must recruit minor staff. This leads to the question why the UGC and VCs complied with such illegal orders whereby only party supporters were entitled to certain jobs and not all citizens had the equal right to apply. The supine UGC went to the extent of giving legal cover and mandatoriness to this abomination through Circular 876 (For the dubious practice of mis-dating circulars, see S.R.H. Hoole, “The FUTA Strike and the UGC Circular 956 of May 3, 2011”.
The flaw, it should be clear, is not in the law but in the people tasked with implementing the law.
Misunderstanding: A good Universities Act
In a classic misunderstanding of the new policy, it is said that this means “the Senate of each University will be responsible for the selection of VCs in the future.” Very respectfully, this would be terrible; a disaster. Giving Senates the power to Select VCs will shift the favoritism played by politicians to senior academics.
At Faculty Boards and Senates I have seen only a few senior people willing to speak up and the rest are scared to disagree. The Universities Act as it stands recognizes that academics must have a say in how universities are run. But the Act also recognizes that academics can misuse that autonomy and provides that a Council consists of a) internal academics and b) their number plus one independent people. So outsiders dominate in theory. This Council forwards three names. While the law is good, these so called outsiders are often retired academics and friends of the VC. The intention of the Act is undermined. The UGC fails in making proper appointments.
Recognizing further that it is very difficult for a good outsider to get into this slate of three names in this set up, the Act shifts the final selection to an outsider, the President, to pick one of the three. So any outsider getting in would be extremely strong even if not getting the highest vote. The Act therefore lets the President pick any of the three regardless of the votes. The three people are equal in every way at this point. It is a good compromise between autonomy and excellence.
But the has not worked as the President has not been a neutral objective party in these selections, picking Associate Professors and Senior Lecturers all too often. As a result many who are really good are reluctant to apply. We now have a crisis through a dearth of good applicants.
Again, the problem is not the law but the people implementing the law.
Academic Culture and Freedom
In the name of academic freedom academics all over the world have abused that freedom. I say all of over the world because even at major western research universities where I have worked it happens. In one place a person was started on his job and they then advertised and hired him – tricking people into spending anxious hours applying and being interviewed when they really had no chance. But the law was complied with, though not its intention. This same practice we see detailed by the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association’s reports. There every appointment seems favoritism based.
At another major research university the favorite was made Interim Provost (a Provost being in charge of all academic matters). They then advertised the post and the Deans whom the Interim Provost oversees as Interim Provost were put on the Selection Committee. And the rest is now history.
At Peradeniya to get the VC renewed they left out better applicants and got two Deans to play dummy candidates so that the President would renew the VC as the Ombudsman Ranarajah formally found – the details are in S.R.H. Hoole, “University Autonomy,” The Island, 1 March, 2004.
Academics therefore do need oversight. The problem is not the law. It is the people.
Tweaking the Act
The Universities Act of 1978 is good and we only need to tweak it. When the term of the UGC on which I served left office in March 2006, we gave a draft revised Universities Act which addressed the lacunae in the Act without rewriting it from scratch. It recognized that the current Act is good. Our draft built on that framework and introduced concepts like private universities and Accreditation Commissions not provided for in the current Act. We suggested that the Council should be chaired by an outsider, etc. At the time FUTA argued against autonomy saying there is favoritism and with politicians involved they could appeal, but if the VC, Registrar and friends ran the show they would have to suffer. The Act needs to be tweaked in the midst of these legitimate contrasting positions.
Playing favorites is natural to the human condition. For example when I served on selection committees, friends would come home with applicants on a “visit.” Given the nature of human relationships it was difficult to chase them off. So we need to provide for the final selection from the slate of three picked by the Council to be made away from people close the university to one by outsiders far from the university – say a national committee under the President with recognized leaders who can evaluate the three names independently.
Independent Councils are most important and this principle is intrinsic to the current Act which calls for internal members and their number plus one outsiders. It has not worked because of how this principle is implemented. Making it work needs tweaking only at the level of implementation. As pointed out by Aboobacker Rameez (“Reforms in Sri Lankan Universities,” Colombo Telegraph, Jan. 21, 2015), abolishing transport reimbursement for Council members by the VC is necessary to make Council members not beholden to the VC. For example reimbursement of Council members from Colombo flying to Jaffna was left to the discretion of the VC. This should have been systematized so that the Colombo members do not need to beg for reimbursement from the VC. But there must be another dignified way to give transport to Council members rather than asking them to use buses. I would add not appointing emeritus professors to Councils. The internal members and their number plus one external members is to ensure that the Council is independent of internal politics. Bringing in emeritus professors goes against this intention and is a violation of the Act in spirit.
Again the UGC under the Act is to appoint the external Council members. But in fact the Minister sends a list and the UGC makes the appointments as if the appointees are their own choices. That is how we have had school teachers running University of Jaffna. The UGC thereby violated the spirit of the Act. The problem is not the law but the people.
Let us not blame the Act for our own weaknesses and transgressions. Every good law can be beaten when we are bad. Any new legal instrument we device can be equally thwarted in its good intentions. We must assume that people will try to have their way and devise a system that is difficult to beat. The Act contains the principles for such a system. We need to decentralize power and tweak it to uphold those principles.
Therefore before throwing the baby out with the bathwater, let us first ask all stakeholders to suggest how to get the Act implemented in spirit. Then we may decide on whether a funeral for the Act is really necessary.