By 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