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Sunday, 24 April 2011

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Reforms envisaged in higher education sector



Prof. Sarath B.S. Abayakoon

One of the main areas of Government's focus is on the Higher Education. An important reform with far reaching consequences among the reforms envisaged in the Higher Education Sector is the setting up of non-state Universities. It has been also emphasised that the State universities will have to compete with non-state universities in terms of the quality of the education they provide for the students. Here is an excerpt of an interview with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, Prof. Sarath B.S. Abayakoon.

A: Against this backdrop, how do you, as an academic, perceive the Government's move to set up non-state universities and the reforms envisaged in the Higher Education sector?

A: The government's focus is on the higher education sector. The Government has expressed its willingness to set up non state universities. As an academic I am happy, that a long awaited discussion on the higher education sector of the country has, at last, commenced.

A: What are the vital areas that should be focused on envisaging reforms in the higher education sector?

A: There are several vital areas in the Higher Education Sector that are to be studied and issues related to them should be analysed before making policy decisions. They can be loosely listed out as:

1. Is there a need to look into the higher education in Sri Lanka at this point of time? If so, why?

2. Is there a need to look into the primary and secondary school education system, especially considering the fact school education system produces students for higher education?

3. What is exactly meant by expansion of higher education in Sri Lankan context?

A: Can you expand on the areas you mentioned, say on the need?

A: Yes, For instance, we know that out of those students who sit for the GCE (A/L) examination each year, only about 10% is absorbed into the national university system. This is despite the fact that about 50% of them qualify for university entrance. This is why we should expand higher education sector in Sri Lanka.

At present, only about 3-4 percent of the age cohort between 17 and 23 yrs are in the national university system. Even if we add those students following degree programmes outside the national university system or perhaps abroad, it would not be over 8 percent. We should also recognise the fact that parents of those students who are enrolled outside the national university system are carrying a heavy, very heavy, economic burden on their shoulders.

There is a notion that to develop a country, it is required that at least 25% of this age cohort must be pursuing higher education at a given time. This may be another reason that we want to expand higher education in Sri Lanka.

A: Compared with Western education system, Sri Lankan education system takes a longer time to produce graduates than their counterparts in the West and developed countries. Isn't it high time to change this scenario in Sri Lankan education system in general and in the university system in particular?

A: Let me explain this scenario in relation to my education. I entered the university at the age of 17 and graduated at the age of 21, an average of 2 years younger than the normal graduation age at that time. I received a scholarship for my higher education from Canada and was already enrolled at the University of British Columbia by 22 years of age. Almost all my fellow students who were in my class, who have had their first degrees in other countries, mostly from the west, were younger to me!!!

Today's reality in Sri Lanka is worse. Sri Lankan children commence their schooling when they reach the age of 4 and 11 months by January 1 of each year. Those who enter the national school system spend 11 years to qualify to sit for the GCE (O/L) examination. Those who pass GCE (O/L) will spend 32 more months as registered students in their respective school before they are allowed to sit for the GCE (A/L) examination for the first time.

Hence, an average student will be over 19 years at the time of sitting for GCE (A/L) examination and will be around 20 years at the time of registration at a Sri Lankan National University if they are fortunate enough to beat the cut off Z-score at the first attempt. At the universities they are supposed to go through an orientation period where their English and other skills will be improved, and hence, they will commence their courses proper only when they are about 20 years and six months. Average age at graduation is therefore is about 24 or 25 depending on the degree programme they follow and the other issues that will determine their period of stay in the universities.

So what is the solution? The time spent from the enrollment at the schools to the GCE (A/L) examination and that from the GCE (A/L) examination to the enrollment at the universities should be reduced. Look at the time wasted in the process. At the schools, there are so many distractions and delays due to many reasons. The classes conducted on Saturdays to cover days lost due to elections, other unplanned closures etc. are not at all effective. After sitting the O/L examination, in most of the national schools, A/L classes would not start for eight months, citing lack of classrooms space for two years till senior students complete their A/L examinations. Tuition masters, however, start their classes early and students lose their interest in studying at school. This, in turn, forces students to neglect classes in school.

I strongly believe that this 13 year and 8 month's stay at school, of which about 14 months of absolutely NO WORK, can be reduced to 12 years and nine months of full time study by holding GCE (O/L) at the end of Grade 10 and by making full use of 32 months at the GCE(A/L) classes. Ministry of Higher Education, University Grants Commission and Minister of Education are now trying to reduce the gap between Advanced Level examination and university entrance. I sincerely hope that this gap can be reduced to eight months (A/L in August and university entrance in the following March). Minister of Higher Education's efforts to start teaching English, IT and soft skills before the university entrance is commendable. Government plans to introduce a three month training programme once the list of students, who will enter the universities is finalised. I believe that, following the training, the Universities can start their academic programmes proper at the end of August each year as it is done in North America.

A: What other changes are necessary, say in the curriculums, at schools and at the Universities?

A: Universities are constantly updating their curriculums. Some programmes are accredited via the respective organisations locally and abroad. The vital issue may be lack of interest and lack of discipline at the Universities. If the products that enter university system are better focused, the task of changing a boy/girl to a man/woman within the university period would be less difficult task for universities. Then the question arises whether we should focus only on higher education or on the entire system of education. It is a misconception if one believes that a 21 year old student who has gone through the present day environment and the education mill can change into the most perfect human being in three to four years in the university. If we are serious about producing graduates who are model citizens, it is necessary to review the entire system of education. I strongly believe that throughout this period, it is necessary to educate our children in culture, values, patriotism, religion, history etc. This is an immediate need that must be addressed very seriously.

So, we need to focus on entire education, from pre-school to university graduation. Education should also provide a vision for the students. In the west, students have a goal in life.

They discover their abilities and skills at a very young age and know exactly whom they are going to be, say by the time they reach 20, 30, 40 years of age. They plan their lives to achieve their goals. Recently Minister of Higher Education very correctly pointed out that our education system has failed to instill a vision in students. Students have no vision for themselves. We should encourage children to have their own vision and also should provide opportunities for them to fulfill their aspirations.

I am totally against the tuition system but I must admit that I also send my children to tuition classes. I am also a prisoner of the system. One of the biggest cultural issues relating tuition classes is that children tend to lose their respect for teachers. Teacher is respected if he/she provides education and not if he/she sells education.

Ragging at educational institutes must be completely eliminated. It is designed to kill positive and independent thinking.

It completely destroys self motivation. It produces a generation who always ask others for everything, especially the state. We must be able to transform the system so that senior students are viewed as role models by the juniors. The system should produce leaders of quality and integrity.

A: What efforts are to be taken about delays in academic programmes within the Universities?

A: I believe the delays are mainly due to the fact that there is no strict programme at our universities. If you take a calendar of a western university, it gives the academic programme in full detail. This needs careful planning and more importantly, implementation of the plan to the perfection. At the beginning of the academic year, students, academic staff and non academic staff should be given the time table for the full year and it should not be changed during the year.

The time table must be very detailed and it should include dates of examinations, dates of release of results, dates of all meetings etc. etc. I have introduced this at the Faculty of Engineering, University of Peradeniya, and was able to implement it.

Now we are trying to replicate it for the whole University. Faculties should make sure that an academic year is completed within 52 weeks. We have noted that once all are aware that there is a system, they think twice before disrupting it.

A well-planned calendar can also absorb unforeseen developments, to a reasonable extent. These include sudden outbreaks of diseases, short disruptions of one kind or another and sudden declaration of holidays etc.

A: There is a notion that Universities should focus on producing employable graduates. What are your views?

A: When I was young my father used to say that people must get their education. Higher percentage of educated in a society, it will be good for the nation, world and the universe. Properly educated people are less likely to get engaged in unlawful acts and hence, if all are properly educated, the world will be a much better place for all of us to live in.

The motto "education is for wisdom" is based on this way of thinking. Although the times are changed, we should not deviate too much from this motto. At present we need to think not only about "wisdom" that education would impart but also of life skills or training for employment. Employment should be guaranteed, especially today, as economic stability is a must for everyone. However, education should develop personality and produce a professional who could appreciate, for instance, classical music, literature, art and culture. He or she should be a person with positive values. We must ask ourselves whether the fact that a person is employed, does actually mean that he or she is productive or he or she is a better citizen. Isn't it true that if all government employees put in a full 8 hour work a day, this country will be far better off than now? Isn't it true that if all our educated men and women are more compassionate about others and their feelings, this country will be a much nicer place to live in? So, whatever changes we do to make the graduates more employable should be done without losing the spirit of the original motto "education is for wisdom".

There is a danger in the thinking "education is for employment". This has already translated into "education is for a certificate". If we offer our newcomers a degree certificate on their first day at the University, before they start their academic programmes, I wonder how many will be happy to take it and go out!

We know that the certificates will be of no use if the country is totally run by private enterprises, as they can fire those who are non- productive, immediately. But the present government's thinking of strengthening the state sector more, will suffer very badly if more and more people with certificates and not with values enter the workforce.

Look at the large number of students who presently enrolled to read Master's level degree programmes. Most of the programmes are paid for by the employers and there will be a pay hike or a promotion attached to the degree.

Whether they actually use what they have studied to improve their output is to be studied.

The money motivated thinking has changed the whole outlook on education. It changed from 'wisdom' to 'certificate' to 'employment'. I am not sure whether what matters is even the employment or just the 'paycheck' at the end of the month. Look at those who stage various protests at the Lipton Circle, Fort railway station and elsewhere demanding employment. Do they actually need 'employment' or a 'paycheck'?

We need to change this attitude. This can be done only by inculcating values.

A: Let us talk about your third point, expansion of higher education.

A: Introduction of Non-state universities is being discussed now. This is one way of expanding higher education of this country and I believe that this is a positive move by the government. The other way, of course, is increasing the intake into the national university system.

If we are to have both state and non-state universities in parallel, we need to be very careful in administering the two systems. The new Higher Education Act must be prepared with extreme care, taking all factors into account.

A: Can you elaborate more on that?

A: If we take the state universities, there is the Universities Act and several Amendments to it, the Establishment Code, and over 900 circulars that are in effect. We should abide by them and the circulars and Acts would tell us 'how we should not do' rather than 'how should do'. The administrative staff is also trained over nearly seventy years to say 'it cannot be done' according to this rule or that rule. The system is so rigid and it takes a long time to make a decision. The system needs a complete overhaul and without such a revision, State universities will find it impossible to compete with non-state universities.

As for non-state universities, the admission policy must be very clearly thought out.

It is my belief that a system of university admission should be installed which would not overlook a poor student with more intelligence to enroll a rich student with less intelligence. We know that as of present, about 22000 students are admitted every year, to the national university system. I propose to award 22000 scholarships to those who obtain the highest Z-score, selected in the same way as of now.

All other students must also be selected to all the universities based on the Z-score and Z-score only, and they should be offered a loan from the government or any other organisation which they will have to pay back. This is the system in the West. All students, those who receive a scholarship or a loan, can then enter the University of his/her choice, state or non-state, by paying a fee.

The fees thus recovered at the State universities can be used to develop those universities to achieve their objectives of reaching higher levels.

However, the issue will be the ability of those students who receive the loan, to pay back their loans. So the responsibility falls on the government and the private sector to come out with a long term plan, may be for next fifty years, to supply steady employment for the graduates, either here or abroad.

Then, of course, is the issue of salaries of academic staff. We have the lowest academic staff salaries in the SAARC region. I do not see any need to have comparisons with the developed world.

How are we going to keep higher quality academic staff if non-state universities start to function in parallel with the state universities?. It is a serious issue that needed to be addressed properly.

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