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Sunday, 15 April 2012

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Today, the education system is embroiled in confusion in comparison to what prevailed in the earlier decades when learning was peaceful and friendly and there were no hiccups and smoothness was the order of the day in contrast to today's disorder. That may be the reason why alumnae members of the universities say that ‘our times were the best of times'.

Seemingly, the policy makers and bureaucrats are confused and confounded not knowing what to do and where to go adopting the ‘blame game’ leading to contradictions in action and statements, leaving parents and children in a state of bewilderment. While at the same time all of them eulogise ‘the free education scheme’ without knowing what it means, including those who are responsible for its almost total disruption from the 1970s to the present day. The tragedy of the ‘questionable well wishers’ with their rhetorics are their hidden agendas similar to that of |Cambodian Pol Pots in the earlier decades which brought in untold destruction and misery to the whole society of theirs.

The above publication of Prof. Wiswa Warnapala epitomises the gaps and focuses on the aspects more highlighting on the follies of our own than adopting the ‘blame game’ pointing fingers to the West, after 50 years of independence. The publication is timely in view of the contexts of today.

The Making of the System of Higher
Education in Sri Lanka -
An Evaluative Study
Author: Prof. W.A. Wiswa Warnapala
Printed at The Associated Newspapers
of Ceylon Limited, Colombo 10.

Prof. Warnapala is a rare politician who has never given up the traditions of the academic world. To say that he belongs to the category of a rare breed of politico academics who have combined politics with academia is not an exaggeration. While serving as Minister of Higher Eduction and earlier in other portfolios he had contributed immensely to the literature of Higher Education. It is very rare, anywhere in the world for a Cabinet Minister to bring out as many as 17 publications, related to politics and education development in Lanka. Of them two publications are specifically related to Higher Eduction namely, ‘Higher Education Policy, New Perspectives and Change’ (2009) and ‘Tertiary Education in Sri Lanka, Relevance in the Global Context’ (2010). Along with the current publication the trio forms a formidable contribution to higher education policy which no other person in the country can lay claim. Hence the significance of the publication in the context of the current burning issues which should be read and conceptualised by the academics and specially so by the politicians.

Origins

This publication ‘The Making of the System of Higher Education in Sri Lanka: An Evaluative Study’ traces the origins of Higher Education in Sri Lanka providing the reader with the issues that confronted the Ceylonese community during the early periods in the 20th and late 19th centuries.

This facilitates the reader to place the scenarios in the correct perspective and make comparative evaluations as one reads through the book. The struggles at the beginning were to fight for higher education opportunities which were reluctantly passed on to the ‘locals’ in a slow process with limited access to begin with.

In comparison today, ironically, the struggles are more to jeopardise and disrupt higher education, especially by those very groups who have had poor access, limited resources and to struggle to succeed to enjoy higher educational opportunities!

The publication has eight chapters dealing with the difficult paths that confronted in the establishment of the university, including the ‘Battle of Sites’ which ultimately was won by those who propagated to establish the university in Kandy. The chapters deal in depth on the cry for demand for higher education which was confined to the privileged groups in the urban sector, to begin with, and how later expansion took place, specially with the Kannangara Educational Reforms and the establishment of the 54 Central Colleges in the districts. ‘The free education scheme, which later came to be called the social demand model of eduction, made a tremendous impact on the social, economic and political developments in the country'. This policy was further underscore with the introduction of ‘Swabasha’ as the medium of instructions up to the university culminating the admission of large numbers for the first time to the university in 1960. Prof. Warnapala analyses the aspects in detail tracing the culmination of Swabasha as the medium of instruction at the university in 1960, resulting in a great influx of students to Peradeniya, trebling the traditional numbers.

Impact

Chapter seven specifically focuses on the ‘Expansion of the System of University Eduction'. Prof. Warnapala discusses the impact of both Swabasha and increase in the number of universities in the 1960s specially granting of university status and transforming the traditional centuries old and largest Pirivena educational institutions as fully fledged higher educational institutes. This was highly appreciated by the people of the country due to provision of more opportunities to greater numbers and recognising the contributions by the institutions over centuries safeguarding Buddhist education and its traditions. The publication also focuses on the ‘threats’ of the university autonomy which had been jealously guarded during earlier periods. However, the trends of social demands that emerged in 1956 could not be over turned and the universities too had to bow down to these national forces and their voices.

The writer highlights innovative approaches adopted by the State after the sixties to overcome the demand for higher education as a consequence of increasing numbers after the introduction of Swabasha as the medium of instructions ‘which threw open the portals to those who were qualified’ for higher education. The new elements brought in, as highlighted by the author, reflected the changing scenarios in the needs of the country which, inter alia, included (a) establishment of Sinhala and Tamil medium universities, (b) appointment of a commission on Higher Education, (c) adoption of non-restrictive admission policies to the universities, (d) introducing changes in the administrative structure of the university for more control at the centre, (e) Direct involvements of the academic community in politics, (f) emergence of an insurrection, impacts on higher education and changes in organisation including curricular of the universities, (g) establishment of the University Grants Commission, (h) bring changes in the admission procedures to the university with quotas and district basis admissions, (I) issues related to university autonomy, (j) linking Education and Higher Education through the appointment of a Minister of Education and Higher Education, (k) establishment of Affiliated University Colleges and Junior Universities. The publication highlights all of the above searching critically the whole gamut of the growth of the university system over the decades.

In the last chapter, which is the longest, Prof. Warnapala looks at the whole system of higher education from both holistic and futuristic perspective which I see as an important step in the right direction. This is in view of the current turmoil's some of which have emerged mainly due to not knowing the history of the growth of the university system in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world as well as what we need from the higher education in present day knowledge economy.

This chapter is the crux of the book. Because of its importance the author has subdivided the chapter into several sections covering the whole system of higher education, its positive and debilitating aspects. He examines ‘the issues and innovations which were central to the process of expansion and change'. It is a section which would be very valuable to the academics and policy-makers. Thus the chapter includes sections on ‘Universities and the State’, ‘improvement of Access and the Alternative Tertiary Sector’, ‘External Degrees’, ‘Violence and Ragging in the Universities’, ‘Relevance and Quality in Undergraduate Education”.

Learning opportunities

‘Academic freedom’, an important principle in higher education seems to have been misinterpreted and misunderstood both by the State and the academia, often times to suit the convenience of the stake holders. Accordingly, the concept has to be re-examined in the light of the experiences over the last few decades. Exploring new vistas of learning, diversity of learning opportunities and control of finance are some of the thorny issues the author has rightly pointed out. Under Alternative Tertiary Sector he delves on the importance of technical education as part of development and also providing opportunities to those who have lost chances to enter the higher education institutes.

The discussion on external degrees too fall under the same issue. Here the expansion has taken place with some universities providing opportunities to large numbers. The extension arms of these universities provide a valuable service which now could be made available through Internet. However, the unemployment rate of the external degree holders is high. Hence the need for relevant courses to be introduced into the external degree programs.

‘In the recent past violence among students has become a problem within the Universities’ and the raggers have become thugs unto themselves. This is far from what Sir Ivor Jennings had anticipated from the undergraduates. Prof. Warnapala with a long history of experiences as an undergraduate, teacher and later as the Minister of Higher Education makes a depth analysis of this dastardly behaviour of a minority group of students. Such student upheavals did take place in Europe during the 1960s.

This analysis would be of great interest not only to the university dons, but to all citizens of the country. He highlights the legal framework to curb these activities. Student behaviour should be with in the framework of the laws of the country and not be a law unto themselves. It was violence on ‘the basis of wrong priorities'. The book analyses the causes and the results of the student unrest which disrupted the eduction of all for long periods of time – ‘it was violence, intimidation and taking of hostages'.

Ragging seems to be the initial step in the direction of violence. Ragging has deteriorated to vulgarism of the lowest order. According to the author these stem from ‘their own stresses and frustrations’ and ‘ragging in the eyes of the deprived was a form of dealing with the class enemy'. As in India laws were introduced to curb these demonic tendencies. The author views these acts of violence as part of the problems of the society itself.

The final focus of the book is on the relevance of the curriculum, quality of instruction and the changes needed to make learning more appropriate and useful to the society where the students come from. Professor Warnapala looks at this aspect and changes that have been introduced to upgrade are also discussed. He strongly believes that simply spending more on education does not yield better results’, but rather direct learning to later carriers specially so for the students in the arts stream, where most of the problems lie.

As an academic the author has done in depth references and gone to innumerable sources. Hence, I see this publication as a major resource for the universities, policy makers as well as to all those readers interested in the current social upheavals in the universities.

(The writer is former Basic Education Advisor, UNESCO/IMHCR Central Asia.)

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