Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 27 March 2011





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

New Engineering Faculty for JaffnA:

Reverse the brain drain

Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole was recently appointed as the Coordinator for the University of Jaffna’s Engineering Faculty by the University Grants Commission. Prof. Hoole who had to leave the country due to the threats he received from the LTTE is now back in Jaffna with the intention of establishing an Engineering Faculty for the University of Jaffna. Professor Hoole shares his views with the Sunday Observer in establishing an Engineering Faculty in Jaffna.

Excerpts of the Interview:

Q: How do you see the plans for the proposed Engineering Faculty for the University of Jaffna?

Answer: Yes, the University Grants Commission has appointed me as the Coordinator for the University of Jaffna’s Engineering Faculty. My terms of reference are to negotiate with the Government of India for funding and to recommend a site. But I sound a note of caution.

In the mid-1980s, the late Prof. A. Thurairajah came to Jaffna with his vision for an engineering faculty. In 1987 India spoke of an IIT-like institution for Jaffna. But the breakdown of the 1987 ceasefire put an end to it.

Then an opportunity arose following the 2002 ceasefire. The government was willing to start the Engineering Faculty in Jaffna. But the UGC was reluctant to build in an area where they could not inspect the site. The University of Jaffna was insistent on creating an Engineering Faculty on par with International standards.

However, the problems which surfaced after the breakdown of the 2002 ceasefire made the plans for an Engineering Faculty to be shelved.

Q: Well, but now with your new appointment as the Coordinator for the proposed Engineering Faculty in Jaffna could you detail on the progress made with regard to the whole process?

A: It is mixed. On the funding front, the Minister of Higher Education S.B. Dissanayake is fully backing the formation of an Engineering Faculty in Jaffna. Following negotiations with the Government of India, the Prime Minister of India has expressed his Government’s willingness to come out with a world-class Engineering Faculty in Jaffna.

But the Indian Envoy Lal Kantha, is firm that they are not a funding agency and cannot give more than Indian Rs. 10 Crores (about SL Rs. 250 mn). It is important to note that when the Hapugala Engineering Faculty near Galle was constructed around 1999, the government spent Rs. 900 million on buildings alone.

The construction costs have doubled since then on a square-foot basis. My estimate is that we need about Rs. 2000 million for buildings if we build in the city of Jaffna and another Rs. 1000 mn for equipment. I am despondent but have some hope since the announcement by Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, that President Mahinda Rajapaksa is

negotiating for funds Let us hope for the best.

Q: Where do you intend to chose the site for the Faculty?

A: Well, I see a problem here. I have done a feasibility study which comes out strongly in favour of Jaffna. Experts in Engineering studies such as Prof. Lakshman Ratnayake (former UGC Vice Chairman and Dean/Moratuwa) and Prof. K.K.Y.W. Perera (former Dean and VC at Moratuwa) have severely warned me against Kilinochchi saying that an Engineering Faculty needs a population and industry to make it succeed.

But there are political expectations on developing Kilinochchi. When we are struggling for financial assistance, putting up the proposed Engineering Faculty in Jaffna will serve in many ways with regard to the construction of hostels and duplication of staff in Mathematics and the Sciences, as well as on facilities like sports grounds, medical clinics, canteens, etc.

The students from Jaffna will have an enriched curriculum with plenty of electives in the Arts and Humanities, Fine Arts, Law, Management, etc. At Peradeniya (where I taught) at least when we engineers put up a play, students from other faculties came to watch and engineers were at the leading edge of cultural productions and innovations.

At Moratuwa (where I studied) we could not get an audience so we had to stage our rare productions in Colombo. With no healthy relationships with women (engineering faculties barely having 12-15% women), the Moratuwa hostel was dominated mainly by male students.

Q: So how about the land (100 acres) allocated by the government in Kilinochchi?

A: I do not need 100 acres for an engineering faculty, unless it is to employ political hangers-on as gardeners. Just look around.

Look at Moratuwa - it has overtaken Peradeniya as the reputed engineering school since its humble beginnings as a university in 1970 on a little plot of land compared to Peradeniya’s acres and acres. London keeps putting up federated colleges.

I have taught at elite undergraduate and research universities. We did quite well on small sites, building upwards.

Q: Why do you feel so strongly about this?

A: The real challenge is getting the right people to make the new faculty succeed. I have every hope of getting a few dedicated Ph.D holders to work for us if we site the faculty in Jaffna. Look! If you are a typical recruit, you will be under 35 years in age with a young family.

Do you see yourself setting up house in Kilinochchi? Speaking for myself, I will not go and live in Kilinochchi when my son needs a good school. I cannot expect others to do so. So what will happen is that most potential recruits will not join the faculty in Kilinochchi and the few who do will commute from Jaffna, which means that what happens in our peripheral universities will take place here too - people settling their families in a nearby big city like Jaffna, coming on Monday late and leaving on Friday early (if they do not take a midweek break). In a real incident, a senior lecturer at a remote institution still in service comes two days a week to work.

When the Department Head pulled him up, he produced a letter of resignation. And the Head was reduced to begging him to withdraw his resignation saying “Let me have you at least for 2 days a week. If you go I will have no one!”.

The people of Kilinochchi will be hurt, that I do not plan on Kilinochchi as the site for the Faculty, however I sincerely apologise for this since they have come to expect it from LTTE days. This is the ground situation.

But we cannot jeopardize a national institution for the sake of political correctness.

Some argue that the late Engineering genius Prof. Thurairajah wanted Kilinochchi.

His vision was for a time when civil engineering was in boom and modelling required large laboratories where we built and measured as in Peradeniya’s huge fluids lab. Today civil is down and modelling is through the computer. We do not see huge labs as in the past.

As scientists, we change decisions and correct courses when presented with new information or when the circumstances change. If not Science would still be arguing for some of Newton’s now discredited theories.

Q: The lecturers in remote universities have no complaints like that and UGC reports speak well of our regional universities.What do you say about it?

A: That is to be expected isn’t it? Can they afford to say otherwise? Just compare staff credentials and exam papers from the same department at a big-city university, with those from a regional university. As expected the UGC and the regional staff will say the degrees are of the same standard.

I do not want Jaffna’s engineering to be put in that situation of making self-serving defence. Rajarata University recently received a UGC exemption from tight academic staff recruitment standards to hire 3-year degree holders because they cannot find 4-year honours degree holders (but note that officially their degree product will still be held by the UGC to be of the same standard!). That will be a positive thing for them.

Otherwise, it would be the biggest act of treachery to even be associated with the founding of such a faculty with poor staff.

Q: Apart from the location and other facilities for the proposed Engineering Faculty for the North, how do you expect the intended Engineering Faculty to perform?

A: We have three engineering faculties in the island.Foremost among them is the Faculty at the University of Peradeniya.The other two are in Moratuwa and in Galle. Therefore when we think about a new Engineering Faculty we should focus more towards creating it on par with International standards. We should have greater reliance with regard to electronics and Computer studies.

All out-dated methods presently existing in the Engineering faculties should be side-lined and we should look into modern technologies.

I have also made suggestions that the admissions to various divisions such as to civil,mechanical,electronics etc should be made directly from the Advanced Level onwards instead of separating students sometime after their initial lessons in the Faculty.

Several engineering experts from the expatriate community have expressed their willingness to come and serve at the Jaffna Engineering Faculty once it’s established.

We must ensure that the ‘brain drain’ will reverse and flowback into the country.


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