11 August, 2022


University Reforms After SAITM

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

At last common sense prevailed and SAITM has been discontinued without affecting the education of students who have already enrolled in that institution. The question now is what happens next?

The controversy over SAITM is not about a particular institution per se but about the state policy of privatising higher education in order to start derailing the universality of free education in the country. SAITM was therefore a test case in which the government was caught between its commitment to the neo-liberal ideology of privatising large chunks of economic and welfare sectors to meet the demand from its local and international financial backers and the economic and social aspirations of a discontented public. Although SAITM has been discontinued the government’s commitment to privatise higher education has not been given up. This commitment will not disappear with changing the government without repudiating the system that forces this commitment. 

Since all private enterprises are driven primarily by profit motive the providers of private education whether at primary and secondary levels or at university level cannot claim exception to this economic dictum. Even charitable organizations will charge a price for providing education at least to cover their variable costs. Only those parents who are able to afford the price charged will be able to purchase the product offered. Ultimately private universities will cater to the affluent classes of society while the poorer ones will send their children to public universities. 

It is true that in many OECD countries private universities are encouraged to operate in competition with public universities. However, governments in those countries through various funding and performance measuring mechanisms have maintained the quality of education in public universities almost at par with that offered by private competitors. Among the upper middle income countries in Asia, Singapore is a classic example of how this is done and it is worthy of emulation in Sri Lanka.

Therefore, the challenge facing the government after SAITM is to undertake reforming university education with the sole objective of improving the quality of that education. For far too long Sri Lankan universities have become the altars for power hungry politicians to whose populist agendas generations of undergraduates either willingly or unwillingly had become the sacrificial lambs. The real cost of this politicking to the students themselves and to the country at large can be gauged from the following illustration:

Assuming an individual has on average 70 years of life, that lifespan can be divided into three segments. In the first segment from the time of birth to the time of that individual’s entry into the country’s workforce that individual is a dependent living on the earnings of his/her parents and relatives or others. In this segment this individual is a negative contributor to the country’s wealth. In the second segment i.e., from the time of entry into the workforce to the age of retirement at which the third and final segment begins that individual is not only earning for him/herself but also becomes a positive contributor to the nation’s wealth. In the third segment when that individual becomes inactive and getting nearer to death he/she once again becomes a dependent unless that individual has enough accumulated savings to avoid becoming so and becoming a burden to his children and society. In the third sector also he/she is a negative contributor to society. This is why in the parlour of economics the first and third sectors are termed as the dependency burden. 

The lesson to learn from this illustration is that a person should make the second segment of life the longest possible. The length of the third segment is constrained partly physical and may be partly legislative factors. But the length of the second segment can be shortened by wasting the preparatory opportunities to enter working life. In the case of the undergraduate life unnecessary boycott of lectures, unwanted student strikes, forced campus closures, outmoded colonial traditions and too much politicking lengthens the first segment of life and prolongs the first half of the dependency burden. The individual as a consequence suffers and the country loses valuable productive human sources. It is sad to observe the phenomenon that while an undergraduate in other developed and some developing countries is able to celebrate his/her 21st birth day as a graduate it happens in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the undergraduate studies. It is time the nation takes action to prevent this human resource wastage. This is why the need for reforms have become urgent. 

What is required are not piece meal changes but a fundamental overhaul of the system of higher learning. University curricula, quality of faculty staff and its performance, method of student entry selection, medium of instruction in certain crucial academic fields and above all the rationale for opening too many universities are issues that should be revisited in this reforming exercise. A white paper on university education is imperative in the current climate of political interference and corruption in the administration of Sri Lanka’s universities. The role of the UGC itself has to be scrutinised and if necessary restructured if not abolished. 

Of course quality education does not come cheap. Parents have to bear at least a minimum of the cost involved. To those students who are unable to afford even that bit a system of bursaries or scholarship should be introduced. The government should view budget allocations to higher education not as expenditures but as investment contrary to the view of neoliberal advocates of development economics. 

Without improving the quality of state universities opening that sector to private entrepreneurs will automatically create a two tiered system in university education and the SAITM saga will be repeated. Competition between two equals is healthy and enriching and should be encouraged, but that between two unequals leads to the total subjugation of the weaker to the stronger.  If the country maintains the status quo and allows privatization of higher learning that will be the sad outcome.

Some may argue that concentrating on reforming university education alone without undertaking at the same time educational reforms at the school level will produce serious dislocation in the educational sector. This argument has some substance. However, once the universities uplift their game then the pressure will mount at the school level to uplift their game too. It is here that the politicians of the area will feel the electoral pressure regarding the state of the schools. University reforms will certainly force comparable reforms in the overall educational system of the country. What is suggested here is no doubt a top down approach but when looked at objectively it carries a lot of merits. 

*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Ameer Ali is on his mission to resurrect the next ‘avatar’ of SAITM. We are bound to get more Ameer-type articles in future.
    SAITM genre has this ‘class exclusiveness’ in its DNA.
    Ameer goes on a harangue about university education in general, appointments and goes to the extent of suggesting that UGC be abolished. He does not wish to discuss the quality of SAITM teachers.

    • 0

      SAITM is done and a good outcome. The important decisions are :

      1 Fee levying medical education will continue.
      2 SAITM will be abolished. Assets and liabilities will be transferred to a new not for profit entity such as a Special Purposes Vehicle. SPV
      3 current students would continue in a new entity which would fold up when they pass out.
      4 new students will be recruited to the SPV and fees to be determined.
      5 The Medical degree to be awarded would be SPV ( MBBS)
      6 Neville Fernando will be compensated. The hospital has been already given to govt. This will amount to a few Rupees billions and possibility of issuing him some govt bonds.
      7 SLIIT would be given the task of running the new SPV medical school.

      Also made to understand that govt is to bring down a fee levying top tier business school and an engineering school. This is great news.

      A few more fee levying medical schools would be the icing on the cake.

  • 0

    I agree with your article. Sri lankan universities need a complete restructuring or overhauling. Universities should independent semi-govt institutions. Right now universities are highly politicized. Students are destructive. It should not be owned by one individual or the a family though. Many universities, eventhough subsidized, fine their finances through research, very little though, and from students. If Sri lankan students pay for their learning they will not have time to strike and go to political protests. they are wasting public money. right now, Sri lankan politicians, govts do not like universities. they send their children overseas and appoint idiots as higher education ministers whose children cannot get through O/L. There are many things to be changed every where. Universities invest extra monies they have. Why universities are not starting new programs for those unemployed graduates and fins some extra money for the university ?.

    • 0

      Jim, valid point. Sri Lankan govt. should have system to recoup the tax payers investment on higher education. Some countries have set up commitment to work after their graduation. Presently most of the graduates of SL Unis take free higher education (inc. Mahapola) for granted. i. e. Can set up a some sort of penalty system if the course exceed intended planned time

  • 2

    When SAITM opened I too had my reservations.Subsequently I was told that the Academic staff came from the State University Sector retirees.That solved one problem for me.If they were good in the State Sector and they produced many medical graduates in the state sector I cannot understand how they came down in quality once they joined the private sector.

    But what knocked me off was the question of the basic entry requirements. There was talk about some not having 2As or 2Bs at the AL exam.What bunkum is that.

    Malcolm Naki who was the main surgeon in the first Heart Transplant operatrion ( Dr.Christian Bernard took the credit) was designated a gardner at that hospital.He was a gardner, but trained in surgery by a Doctor of German Jew origin, who left Germany in the face of Adolf Hitler.Malcolm Naki’s contribution was never acknowledged publicly, but he was awarded a Mastership in Medical Science on his retirement.
    There are, in the public gallery, many photographs of malcolm Naki taken during the heart operation.

  • 2

    What Sri Lanka need is a good tax system…to take from rich and distribute to poor ..
    How can we do it ..
    There is no strict law and order.
    Rich get away with it ….
    Poor become more poor ..
    Big companies and rich do not pay taxes ..
    This has to be stopped .
    All couples or anyone who get more than one hundred thousand or more must pay tax..
    This must be computerised..so that tax can be deducted automatically from employees..
    Secondly Sri Lanka need some sort of private education..
    80% of school drop outs do not have alternatively so private education is only way ..
    Pay or without pay you need private education.
    But with strict rules and regulations..
    UGC must have some good rules on them

  • 1

    Ameer Ali.
    Sensible article but not practicable in SL context. a) the country is broke b) the people are malnourished ;average IQ of 79 ( normal of 100 ) c) a culture of bribery and corruption d) a culture of impunity
    e} religious intolerance f) very few paying taxes g) etc, etc, etc…….
    Keep dreaming.

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