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Sunday, 18 July 2010





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I’ll ensure democracy in universities, says SB

Higher Education Minister Sumanaweera Banda Dissanayake, who is now confronted with strong agitations from university students who accused the government of privatising the university system, says he would do his utmost to ensure democracy in universities and will introduce an Act to set up private international universities in the country.

In an interview with the Sunday Observer last Friday despite his busy schedule where he attended over 18 meetings including Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa’s meeting, apart from meeting University academics, student union leaders and the ordinary staffers who sought his assistance to get transfers, he said: “I will take tough action against those ‘terrorising’ the university system”.

Explaining the benefits of establishing private foreign universities, he said he would make the higher education sector more efficient and market-oriented during his tenure.

Following are excerpts of the interview

Q: Sri Lankan universities are riddled with politics and the political elements in the universities disrupt those students who are committed to their studies. What should be done about this?

A: It is good that Sri Lankan university students are engaged in politics. They need to have freedom to do politics. They also need to have freedom to become members of any political party, to have their own political views, to express their independent opinions and also to criticise politics. But this freedom of expression is no more in the universities. If university students could hold different political opinions they will gain a good knowledge on all fields ranging from political, economic and social. The University politics mould university students to be good future politicians.

It is sad that this kind of political environment is not seen in universities today. The JVP controls politics in universities and no room is left for others to hold their political views. This is like Prabhakaran and his brand of terrorism!

But I don’t allow this environment to continue. I will ensure political freedom for university students and restore democracy and peaceful environment for them to continue their higher studies. I know some of the steps that I took so far to create this environment are not tolerable to some elements, who want to disrupt normalcy in universities so as to implement their political agendas.

But if they try to hinder our attempts and create “terrorism” within the universities I will not hesitate to take tough action to expel them from the universities.

Q: You were groomed to be a politician through university politics. If anybody accuses you for suppressing student rights and trying to create a sort of military environment in the universities to control the student unions, how do you respond?

A: Yes, I agree that I entered politics through university politics. The then environment was not that of thuggery-based politics and we could voice our political views openly. But now there is a mafia and independent political views are trampled by it.

The JVP has destroyed the peaceful political culture and what we want is to ensure political freedom in universities. The government does not want to use military to control student unions. We have to protect democracy as we did it in the North. Today universities are like uncleared areas. We need to liberate them.

The JVP controls the student union elections and leaves no room for other party candidates. They use thuggery and if others are contesting they would be assaulted. During our time over 20 groups contested the elections.

Q: How do you plan to ensure political freedom in universities?

A: I have decided to hold elections and even a single group can contest. If the group fails to secure 51 percent, the authority will be given to the Faculty to appoint the student council. Then the JVP cannot create a fear psychosis to get votes and the students will refrain from voting.

Q: Is it an ad hoc decision or an outcome of discussions with the student unions?

A: I always discuss matters with the student unions and their leaders, university academics and the non academic staff as well. There is a fair outcome and I will continue to hold negotiations.

Q: Only around 20,000 students can be admitted to all universities per year. Do you have any plans to increase this number either by expanding the present universities or having new ones?

A: There are no plans to increase the number of admissions to the Universities or to set up new universities. This time we have increased the number slightly and over 23,000 students will enter universities. The Universities face difficulties in enroling more students as they lack the facilities. The total number of students who can be absorbed into universities is 12,000 and the environment is not good for studies when it is over crowded. One hostel room is shared by eight students now, with one toilet for 80 students! They are compelled to continue their studies in an unhealthy environment.

University Registrar told me that a small room of a house which was converted to a hostel is shared by 13 students.

Q: It is the responsibility of the Higher Education Ministry to provide these facilities for the students to enjoy themselves a sound environment. How do you hope to create this environment in the Universities?

A: We plan to provide hostel facilities only in the first and final years and for the rest of the term they should find their own means. This is the normal practice in world around.

Q: But this will be unfair as most of the students are not from affluent families.

A: We plan to increase the Mahapola scholarship and give a soft loan of Rs. 3,000 to cover their expenses.

Q: You have declared your intention to open private universities. Indeed, many countries in our region including Bangladesh and Pakistan have private universities. What will be the criteria for the establishment of private universities and how can we guarantee their quality standards? Will there be any scholarships and other facilities for local students?

A: At present we already have 78 private educational institutes offering diplomas, higher diplomas and degrees. We did a small survey. They do not have any connection with the higher education system the Ministry or the University Grants Commission. They come through the BOI and register themselves as companies.

According to the survey, 30 such institutes are providing a quality service, another 30 fairly good and 28 are not upto the standards.

What we are planning to do is that everyone will be registered under a new Act for Private Universities, which is being drafted. All these higher education institutions will be regularised and an auditing system to monitor their quality will be introduced. They will be connected to the country’s higher education system. We are helping them to upgrade their standards and provide facilities.

We plan to get some scholarships from them for the local students through the Z score scheme. The students who qualify for University education can apply for the State and private universities.

Last year, 240,000 students sat for the Advanced Level examination and 130,000 had qualified for higher education, 40,000 applied for higher education, 22,000 qualified for university education, 3,000 entered higher technical education, 3,000 followed primary and secondary level higher education, 2,000 study in those BOI education centres and 6,000 go abroad for higher education. Over 4,000 students are not entering any of those institutions and they will be benefited under the new scholarship scheme offers in the private institutions.

These private universities will not be affiliated to foreign universities. They can be affiliated to our own universities or they can get independent registration from the University Grant Commission. If the local educational institute are affiliated to foreign universities such as Monash or London School of Economics, we have to pay over 30 to 40 percent for the royalty.

They can issue degree certificates equivalent to those of local and foreign universities. The Higher Education Ministry will keep a sharp eye on their quality, lecturing methods and we will prepare certain standards for them. If they comply with the standards and employ qualified academic staff they will be allowed to offer degrees. A special council will be set up to do monitoring their standards.

Q: Student unions and other critics allege that the establishment of private universities will be unfair in selecting students to State universities. They charge that the private universities will be ‘Upadi Kada’ (degree boutiques) and that only very rich people will be able to enter them. Is there any validity in these arguments?

A: Yes, I agree we already have ‘Upadi kada’ and that is why my Ministry is trying to regularize the system to make the private universities more efficient to offer a quality education.

On the other hand it is a joke to allege that the government is trying to privatize the universities while we are working hard to have a better education system. This will also help to expand free education system as students are getting 30 to 40 percent scholarships. The students from poor financial backgrounds too enter these universities through Z score scheme.

Q: What will be the main advantages to the country if we open private universities?

A: We can save plenty of foreign exchange and also earn by promoting these universities to attract more foreign students. At the moment, economies of India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia are booming and a new middle class has been created. These middle class students want to study abroad, but find it difficult go to Australia or other Western countries. We also can attract the students from Middle East, who used to go to the Europe and other Western countries for higher studies.

According to my estimation if we start fifteen 15 to 20 world-class universities here, our main money spinner would be the higher education within the next 10 years. This is my target.

Q: There are critics who say that many of the courses in our State universities are outdated and are useless in the contest of the job market requirements. Given the wide disparity in graduate skills and knowledge and job market requirements, there is some truth in what they say. Do you have plans to introduce more job-oriented, modern courses to our universities?

A: I totally agree with the claim. Several Commissions are already working on this issue on how to modernize the present university course structure. New courses, which are marketable, will be introduced soon. There are proposals to improve the quality of the on going degree courses.

The unemployment rate among graduates is high. Why? Because they lack their English knowledge, which is a basic for employment. The graduates who have a good command in English are not waiting for State jobs as the private sector is ready to provide them jobs.

The Ministry will take steps to solve this problem by introducing a six month English course for first year students. An English paper similar to the Advanced Level examination will be given to judge their proficiency. I hope that 80 percent of the problem can be solved through this scheme.

The Ministry plans to introduce modern subjects like IT for university students.

Q: How can traditional courses like arts, languages, history etc are made more relevant to our times?

A: It is true. We plan to introduce the other courses like AAT, CIMA, Law and IT course for the students. While they are doing their degrees in these faculties they are allowed follow these courses. I had discussion with these institutes and they are ready to commence the courses. But the students need to find money for the courses and through the new loan scheme they can cover the course fee.

Q: The government faces a huge problem when those graduates, post graduate students and even lecturers who go abroad for higher studies settle down in those countries. This is a big loss to the country, which spends lakhs of rupees on each student. How would you address this problem?

A: I don’t bother about this issue. If they can find lucrative job opportunities let them go and work and remit money back to the country. We must encourage them to go aboard. It is true that the present University system cannot offer them handsome salary packages but if they have good offers from international universities why should we discourage them. Let them go and get more exposure and experience in teaching.

When we establish international universities here I am sure they will come back as they will be paid a salary equivalent to those of foreign universities. Then this will be an opportunity for the lecturers in local universities as they can be visiting lecturers at these foreign universities.

Q: What are the Government plans to upgrade universities and higher educational institutions in the liberated North and the East?

A: There is lot of improvement taking place in the Universities of the East and the North. A new faculty of Agriculture in the University of Jaffna and a Medical faculty of the Eastern University have been commenced.

Q: Have you visited the Universities recently? What are the short comings you have seen there?

A: Yes, I plan to visit all the universities in the country. I have seen poor participation of students in the lectures, poor lecturing, and lack of facilities like hostel; IT, library. I have encountered lots of other problems. I have already taken steps to remedy some of the outstanding issues.

Q: Don’t you think your present portfolio is a challenge to you?

A: No. I am very happy that I got this Ministry. Most of the academics are my friends and they expressed their willingness to help achieve my targets. I like to make the higher education sector more viable. I will accept the challenge and do my best for the higher education which is a strong pillar for the country’s development.



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