4 December, 2020

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University Reform And The Universities Act

By Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Item 56

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.

FUTAAt 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.

Solution

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.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    3

    Rajeevan

    Minister Rajive has his own soft corner for Dirty Douglas. I know you are a victim of Douglas. Unless Rajiva fully submit to the principle of ‘GOOD GOVERNANCE’ Doughlas will continue with his uneducated spree in the Jaffna Uni. Do you know Douglas did not pass even his O/L’s and the Higher Education Minister Prof Rajive is having lots of sympathy for him for standing against the LTTE.

    The learned Prof Rajive does not understand if LTTE is an evil then head of the EPDP Douglas too is an evil.

    I hope Rajive will make a bold step against Dirty Dougy. Time is absolute now.

    • 1
      2

      Romesh,
      Thanks for displaying your arrogance, hubris and, you and your clan’s class character openly.
      .
      What do you think about the Professors,Phds et al who write bundles and bundles about good governance ,rule of law, democracy etc.,etc., hell bent on getting the VC post ,go after people like DD,Thamilchelvan,Selvam,Mavai,Ananthy,Sivasakthi Ananthan et al and beg for their recommendations?
      Would someone with self respect and back bone do such disgusting thing?
      Didn’t the Profs ,Phds,et al of the UOJ bend backwards and took orders from Prapakaran?What was P’s qualifications?.
      Could Prof.Hoole have gotten the VC post in 2006 without the support of DD? What was DD then? Did he have a Phd then?
      He was an Angel then and now,an evil?

      Professor Rajiva is an honest gentleman. He is neither power greedy nor an opportunist. In an article he wrote before the recent election, he had criticized DD,not because he couldn’t get his things done through DD. If Professor Rajiva has any soft corner for DD may be it is because ,
      -DD is a person who sacrificed his life for the betterment of the battered people.
      – DD doesnt do cheap communalistic politics to win the election.
      – DD has been a member of parliament for the last twenty years and minister for ten years, and his hands are clean.
      -DD got the highest preferential votes in the last general election.
      -Even in the next election, he will definitely be elected by the people.

      • 1
        1

        I know Prof. Hoole for a longtime. He is a gentle man. He never bent himself for petty VC post. If he had tilted towards MR and Douglas, he would have been a VC till today. In fact he was victimized for not supporting the politicians. It is very bad to lose him. He should be used for the development of our country. He is one of the best academics, scientists, and a humanist Sri Lanka had.

        The people who did not much about him has some jealousy over his ability and knowledge.

        • 1
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          Jazeel,
          I dont know Hoole for a long time and, also I am proud to say that I dont belong to his clan too.
          I was under the impression that the educated people are honest,they would practise what they preach,they are not opportunists and they dont behave like some corrupt politicians.But, the way Hoole behaved,changed everything from my mind.Even some academics I spoke to,are ashamed of Hoole. There are some academics who want to become deans,head of the departments,VC and even UGC chairman(Hoole’s present dream).But ,they were not ready to stoop to any level to achieve their personal ends like Hoole .
          Not only in the political circles, but in the academic circles also know that Hoole went after politicians for VC post.Douglas refused to see him first time.Then he waited for hours and hours and begged DD and got his VC post.
          As a person who knows Hoole for a long time,please tell him not to try for VC post anymore.If he really tries hard for UGC chairman through his clan member Sumanthiran(Un elected Karuvaakkaaddaan) ,he may get the post.It is unfortunate TNA didnt listen to Hoole’s advice get any ministerial portfolio. What the “learned”(padichcha muddaal ) Hoole didnt understand is ,how can TNA bag the tamil votes in the election if they become part of the government.

  • 3
    1

    Romesh

    Have you forgotten that Prof Hoole and his wife met Mahinda at Temple Trees and begged him to offer V C post of Jaffna University. Hoole will go to any extent for that post and he is now trying to be in good books of Rajiva, who was defending Mahinda and his regime until recently. University circle knew that Hoole approached Thavarasa of EPDP to get this post which Hoole denied. Only God can save the students!

    • 1
      2

      What is wrong in Prof Hoole meeting Mahinda to campaign for the VC post. He can do this even with Maithiri and Ranil.

      Thavarasa? – spineless worm living on the hand-out of Douglas’s illegal money. He started his politics as a violent nationalist to liberate the Tamils but sold his sole for pittance from Douglas.

      Since Douglas had absolute control of JU Prof Hoole had made his approach to him. For that he was penalised by the donkey and Prof stands for scrutiny for his insensitivity.

      Prof Hoole may have approached him as there was no other avenues. Even Prof Rajiva promotes the Dog for doing dirty work for the government.

  • 2
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    You must give it to him. He tries hard. Bensen

  • 3
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    Hoole when he was trying his best to become UOJ VC he went behind politicians including Douglas and MR he even made political statement to support MR. Poor guy he needs that opening to get hold of people like Rajiva to get the VC post. Try hard Hoole

  • 1
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    The UGC today has a new document on its website although it appears to be a guideline for itself rather than a circular for others to follow:

    Criteria for Appointment of Members to University Councils

    According to the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978, the University Council is the Governing Body of the University. Therefore, the Commission, having considered the pivotal role the members of the Council have to play in ensuring governance, management and performance of universities in line with the national policy, goals and objectives of higher education, has decided to use the following criteria in appointing members to the Council of the Universities.

    Should possess a Bachelor’s degree from a recognized university or recognized professional qualification
    Should be of high caliber and have rendered a distinguished service in educational, professional, commercial, industrial, scientific or administrative spheres for at least 10 years in a senior capacity (so that they could stand up to the senior academics in the council)
    Should demonstrate interest in higher education and possess a commendable grasp on policies, issues and challenges of the higher education sector

    Besides, due attention should be paid to ensure

    Ethnic and gender representation as appropriate
    Inclusion of members from administrative, financial/accounting and legal professions as far as possible

    The attendance of members and their contribution to the decision making process of the Council and to the institutional development should be assessed on an annual basis through a structured progress report obtained from them.

  • 0
    0

    Appoint a commission to check former Colombo University VC and his family department in Arts faculty. How his first son entered Kalaniya University government medical faculty without doing A/L and how his second son became Lecturer his own department and violating all government circulars went aboard for PhD and how his daughter became lecturer in Colombo University. How he recruited all outdoor connection henchmen people (even his sons friends) as lecturers and how he robbed billions worth foreign funds, etc. Many more illegal activities he did and pre-matured he resigned even from VC position. Deans and Heads of Econ dept this periods must be subject to inquiry.

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