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
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
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
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 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.