By Sujata Gamage –
FUTA strike seems to be near some resolution, more or less. It was good to see academics engaged in larger issue of education reforms and kudos to them for sticking it out as long as they did. Whatever the final outcome, achievements of FUTA to date cannot be denied. They have brought some degree of self-respect to the academic community which is dominated by a few shamelessly subservient individuals. Hopefully policymakers too have learned not to take the academic community for granted. As for the future, it is time to talk about quality. More money in will amount to nothing if used to sustain the present level of mediocrity in the system.
FUTA as a trade union can go so far. Their hands will be tied by their need to look after the interests of their membership as a whole. It is perhaps time for some of those academics to put away their trade union hats for their public policy hats and come up with ideas for reforms from within. In my professional life I go with the dictum that one should keep throwing ideas at your superiors before they have a chance to throw their ideas at you and demand that you comply. If academics don’t take the lead and bring about structural changes they will be soon back on the streets complaining changes are imposed on them from above.
In real estate, as they say, buying a good property means focusing on three attributes which are– location, location, location. If the expression is meant to signify the crucial importance of location in real estate, in higher education I would go with the manthra – quality, quality, quality of faculty.
Quality of faculty (or teachers) in higher education is crucial for the rest of the education system. Larger issues in education concern the majority of children who leave school without anything to show for their effort. More than 50% of the cohort of students who entered school in, say in 1999, will have failed the GCE O/L, the first public examination faced by them. In fact only about 15% of a cohort of 18-25 year olds in any year would have managed to pass the GCE A/L and hence benefit from higher education. Percentages notwithstanding, higher education is the fountain which feeds the rest of the education system. Trends in higher education set trends in education downstream. Quality at the top is essential for quality downstream. Education, officials, principals and most teachers either start life as graduates or acquire university qualifications as they progress in their careers.
Openness is a pre-requisite of quality. In other words, Insularity is what kills quality. Prof. Senake Bandaranaike, well established scholar and member of University Grants Commission for the 2001-2006 period, used the term ‘porous’ to describe the kind of interface that we need between university and the outside. What he meant by porousness or porosity is a situation where it is possible for talented individuals to go in and out of the university system and contribute when they can how they can. Porousness is a reality of our times and a reflection of the state of our development. As a developing country we cannot expect our educated to stay with us on our terms. We have to make provisions to accommodate them.
My career in Sri Lanka reflects both positive and negative aspects of openness in our system. With a BSc in chemistry from the University of Peradeniya my idealism was high and I was adamant that I was going do my post-graduate in Sri Lanka and contribute to my motherland. Mercifully my professors dissuaded me and advised me to go abroad. When I returned to Sri Lanka in 1985 with a PhD in chemistry, University of Colombo was short of lecturers but they could not hire me because places were kept warm for their own graduates who had gone abroad for post-graduate studies. I was offered an assistant lecturer position which I flatly refused. Next day the head of department came to my house to make the offer of a lecturer position. (There were not many phones those days.) My firm stand had compelled the faculty of science to do away with their previous insular practice of recruitment. I still remember the words of young and energetic Prof Tillekeratne, the dean of the faculty of science at that time. He said “we cannot be recruiting our own graduates expecting them be pillars of the system. We have to recruit as needed. We cannot hold onto these old ways of doing things”. He was the same person who encouraged new recruits to serve in government committees that were not considered plum assignments but allowed universities to contribute. I took up the challenge and served in the Committee on Chemicals and Chemical Products in the Sri Lanka Standards Bureau. I had to put in a quite a bit of time sometimes to prepare for meeting but I took away quite a bit too. That was a case of knowledge going both out from and in to the public university system, I suppose.
Other forms of openness in the system were more difficult to achieve. At the Department of Chemistry in the University of Colombo We started an ad hoc colloquium series where we tried to bring in expatriate scientists to talk about their work. The ad hoc nature was necessary because we had to catch the scientists when they chose to visit Sri Lanka. The idea was sparked by the visit an eminent electrochemist who had left University of Colombo to take up a position at the Stanford Research Institute. He was in fact one of those professors who advised me to go abroad for graduate work. Reception to his homecoming was chilly to say the least. The sentiment was “He left, while we stayed. He does not deserve recognition.” Yet, we continued on and invited a couple of other individuals, but, by then the rot had started to set in. Daya Pathirana, an anti-JVP student leader was abducted in a white Hiace van and brutally murdered. Later I realized that I had being waiting for the bus at the spot where the students was abducted just some minutes before. From that day on for quite some time I froze every time I saw a white Hiace van. We left the country in August of 1987.
When I returned in 2002 I met with instance of insularity as well as openness. Armed with credentials from a new turn in my career to public policy and administration, I started with the Post-Graduate Institute of Management. I was not asking for a job. All I wanted was a place from which to bring in research grants. My request was received with stony faces. In contrast, Prof. Ranjith Mendis, the Chairman of The University of Grants Commission (UGC) then, embraced my idea and wrote a letter endorsing my grant proposal to the Internal Development Research Center (IDRC). We won a grant award for nearly fifty thousand US dollars for one year from IDRC to explore means of achieving “Quality through Global Connectedness in the public university system”. UGC was the grant recipient and I was the designated principal investigator on contract to the UGC.
The IDRC grant was put to good use. As one of the components we were able to complete the first comprehensive survey of faculty in humanities and social sciences (H&SS) and develop an index of quality. We benchmarked quality of our H&SS faculty against those in Universities of Dhaka and University of Hong Kong. Surprisingly, our universities including university of Colombo rated lower than even University of Dhaka. According to our survey the permanent cadre of faculty in H&SS in 2004 consisted of 937 individuals of whom 23% had no post-graduate qualifications. Another 20% received masters from the same university. Only xx% had PHDs. Only 11% had published in an international journal in the most recent five years. Of the publications from Sri Lanka listed in the prestigious Social Science Citation Index, 38% originated from the faculties of medicine and another 38% from organizations outside of the university. The UGC at that time took the findings and recommendations seriously. Some of the recommendations were to establish Research professorships to attract the research talent existing outside of the university and to bring H&SS faculties and medical faculties closer together.
Since then I went on to become the Director General of Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission giving me a whole new outlook on tertiary education. In 2006, a new set of members was appointed to the University Grants Commission. After government service, I continued to do my research on higher education and knowledge systems leveraging grants, training researchers and publishing, all outside the public university system. No, there have not been any calls or visits from the universities this time except from some students who are desperate for research guidance. If anecdotes are any guide universities have become more insular. A new generation of PhDs who want to come back are been shut out. Ravaya broke the story of three PhDs who were overlooked by a sociology department to hire an internal candidate with no post-graduate qualifications. There are many more stories that don’t make it to the newspapers. Stories can go so far. Another comprehensive survey of the quality of faculty in our universities, humanities and social science faculty in particular, is in order.
Who will lead the performance evaluation of faculty in our universities? To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, who will open windows let the fresh air? Will they have the confidence to not be scared of being blowing off one’s feet?