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Challenges in higher education :

Mahinda Chintana: A vision for the future

Sri Lanka becoming the regional knowledge hub as envisioned in the Mahinda Chintana: Vision for the Future is no longer a distant reality. Another progressive step towards achieving the expectations highlighted in the Mahinda Chintana: Vision for the Future for the higher education sector in Sri Lanka is the reappointment of a professional leader with a profound vision for the Chairmanship of the University Grants Commission (UGC), the supreme body governing higher education in Sri Lanka.

Amidst intense lobbying for the top post of the UGC by several individuals who are responsible for the present problems and the dire plight of higher education in Sri Lanka, it is yet another endowment for the nation that the President reappointed an eminent academic who has sacrificed immensely for the uplift of higher education in the country. Prof. Gamini Samaranayake, a Professor of Political Science at Peradeniya University has all the academic merits and professional credentials to continue to overcome the challenges of the higher education sector in Sri Lanka and implement the proposals highlighted in the Mahinda Chintana.

While congratulating Prof. Samaranayake for his courage and dedication to continue in the top post in the UGC, the aim of this article is to focus attention on the challenges in the higher education sector in the country and strategies for implementing solutions proposed in 'Mahinda Chintana': Vision for the Future.

The 'Brain drain' has been a popular theme for discussion over several decades, yet no effective work plan has been implemented to curtail the problem. The attitude of the UGC during the previous regime has been to encourage academics to look for greener pastures elsewhere. Requests and demands made by the Federation of University Teachers Association even at higher political circles went unheeded. It is an urgent need today that an immediate future task of the UGC to take steps to create a better academic environment so that some of the expatriate academics would consider rejoining national universities.

The Mahinda Chintana highlights the need for filling vacancies in academic cadres. All appointments and promotions need to be regularized with stringent guidelines to ensure fair play in the selection process. In the past, University Services Appeals Board and the national judiciary were inundated with complaints of wrongdoings and poorly constituted selection panels for appointments. Due promotions have been delayed over several years and a privileged group shared the sole authority of making appointments and promotions. Advertisements were tailor-made to suit the qualifications of the person favoured to be appointed and procedures for short listing of candidates to call for interviews were manipulated to eliminate qualified candidates. The UGC should take a strong policy stand to overcome the errant behaviour of administrators in universities and should advise higher authorities to prevent the culprits being reappointed to important administrative positions.

The UGC should also seek state patronage and foreign collaboration to support postgraduate training for university academics. In addition, it is the responsibility of the UGC to secure sufficient finances for improvement in teaching, research and outreach activities of universities.

Impasse

Most of the universities offer outdated curricula which are not geared towards resolving the technical and social problems of today's environment thus creating graduates who cannot face the demands of the job market. University education should reflect ground realities and trends of the modern world and the number of graduates allocated to each discipline should be evaluated based on need and opportunity assessments. Career development opportunities should be provided to students while they are in the university, in addition to subject specific knowledge and skills. Steps need to be taken to ensure proper utilization of World Bank grants in its second phase for curriculum revision and development.

Research for national needs

Fulfilling pledges made in the Mahinda Chinatana Vision for the Future to enhance the social status of academia, a new research and development allowance covering 25% of the salary has been added to salaries of university teachers in addition to the 25% increase of the academic allowance. However, further measures need to be in place for the formulation of a grant allocation scheme to promote research, based on the intended contribution to the national economy and relevance to the national development agenda. In this process, the concept of forming University research centres should be encouraged and efficient dissemination of information should be facilitated to avoid funding for projects which duplicate resources and research efforts.

The UGC should seek government support in securing research funds and disbursement of these funds should be streamlined as per the national needs and interests.

Application oriented local research should be encouraged and national workshops, symposia and conferences should be supported through the UGC research funds for dissemination of knowledge and information. .

University to all

'University to All' concept in the Mahinda Chintana should not be misunderstood to establish resource poor universities in every village. The available resource base in national universities could be strengthened to accommodate more students rather than opening up new universities which divert available funds from established universities. Funds should be allocated to improve accommodation facilities for both students and staff. The 'University Village' concept detailed in the Mahinda Chintana' is be a useful practical concept to embark on in the development planning of universities. However, this may not be feasible for some of the universities located in urban centres due to restrictions in expansion and nature of communities in the surrounding.

The UGC should usher towards providing university education for all students who have performed well at the Advanced Level Examination. The UGC should coordinate with the Examinations Department to avoid delays in university admission, a major cause for student frustration and subsequent anti-social behaviour in universities.

It is the responsibility of the UGC to make the university selection process totally transparent removing the subjective selection of students for admission under special provisions.

Although the introduction of the Z-score for university admission has made the selection process better, there has not been a proper awareness program for teachers, students and parents on the new system. This has led to several misconceptions and the UGC and the government have often been the target of adverse comments and criticisms.

Dialogue and discussions

Lack of dialogue and discussions could be attributed to most of the problems that we experienced in higher education in the recent past. The UGC should take steps to open up avenues for discussion and all parties in the university system should be consulted before arriving at important decisions.

University Teacher Trade unions should also not become puppets of political parties which have been almost wiped out from the political arena by the public.

The UGC should implement strategies to ensure that trade unions and student unions do not disrupt the smooth functioning of universities through token and extended strikes.

A mechanism should be developed to address grievances of various sectors and a suitable salary structure should be proposed to all grades while recognizing the unique role of academia and academic freedom.

Postgraduate education

Postgraduate education in the country is another area which should be seriously considered by the UGC. Several postgraduate institutes have been established within the same university duplicating resources and making the system inefficient.

Standards for postgraduate institutes in terms of entry qualification of students, subjects and disciplines offered should be defined and an attempt should be made to introduce the concept of graduate schools combining several postgraduate institutes.

New look UGC

Along with the new appointments, the administrative system in the UGC needs to be revised and improved to avoid extended times taken in decision making, which could seriously jeopardize activities of universities. Computer facilities of the UGC should be improved and required system analysts and database managers need to be recruited to provide an efficient service. The system adopted for transfer and forwarding of document should be improved to minimize delays in transmission of documents.

An efficient system should be formulated to nominate candidates for foreign scholarships and visits promptly. In short, with the new leadership, the activities of the UGC should take a new look by improving efficiency and public confidence. In this backdrop, it is a great challenge for Prof. Gamini Samaranayake during his second term in office, as the Chairman to meet the expectations of university communities and the public in achieving the 'deliverables' pledged in the Mahinda Chinatna: Vision for the Future for the higher education sector in Sri Lanka.

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