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What are universities there for?

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By Dr. C. S. Weeraratna

(csweera@sltnet.lk)

Former Professor, Ruhuna and

Rajarata Universities

During the last two decades, most of the South and South East Asian countries have developed considerably with the involvement of the academics. In Sri Lanka, the universities, and postgraduate institutes are maintained at a huge cost. In 2018 the expenditure related to university education was around Rs 60 billion. The universities are under the jurisdiction of the University Grants Commission (UGC), and have a total academic strength of around 6000, most of them with postgraduate qualifications. Among these 6000, about 825 are professors, and 5,200 are senior lecturers and lecturers. The main objective of the universities in Sri Lanka is to develop human resources to meet national development, through appropriate programmes. These include teaching, research and outreach programmes.

Education at university level providing appropriate technical knowledge is critical to the building up of a knowledge society and knowledge-based economy which are the latest catch words in the field of Education. Proper use of science and technology is vital for achieving the objectives of a knowledge-based economy, but, to what extent the human and other resource base of our universities have been used to meet national development needs through innovative educational, research and outreach programmes?.

 

Universities and socio-economic development:

In Sri Lanka, government funds the state universities and expect them to contribute to socio-economic development of the country. But, the vast intellectual and infrastructural resource base of the universities has remained almost untapped or underutilized. It is obvious that the authorities should, initiate /implement programmes to mobilize and channel the resources available in our universities for regional/national development. The socio-economic challenges which we face in Sri Lanka have increased considerably during the last few years. Among these are a. High Cost of Production in the plantation and non-plantation (domestic) sector, b. Land Slides mainly in Badulla, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya districts , c. Water shortage in many parts of the country., d. Chronic Kidney disease of unknown etiology which is affecting nearly 200,000 people in 10 districts, e. Poverty mainly in the rural sector;.f. Effective disposal of solid waste, g. Malnutrition among children, h. Power shortage and alternative sources of power.

To find solutions to these issues, appropriate public-private sector organizations need to collaborate with the academics of the universities to implement short /medium/long term programmes. But, there appears to be no effective mechanisms for the university academics to be involved/coordinate with the appropriate public-private organizations to effectively address the challenges faced by the country. It is necessary that the government institutions need to establish systems to collaborate with appropriate academics, if the authorities are really keen to find solutions to the pressing problems indicated above. A few years ago there were attempts by the Ministry of Agriculture to coordinate with the university agriculture faculties to find solutions to the pressing problems in the agriculture sector. But, these attempts appear have died down. If such coordination was effectively established, we would have found solutions to some of the pressing problems such as the Weligama Coconut Wilt and other issues facing the country.

 

Quality of Education:

It is essential that the total student population passing out from the universities needs to be given satisfactory education/ training. The quality of education in a university depends to a considerable extent on the standard of the academic staff and the other related facilities such as library, laboratory and field. In most of the faculties in the recently established universities, these basic facilities are not at a satisfactory level. The students passing out from such universities also tend to be of lower quality, not because of their faults.

Closely related to academic standards in universities is the relevance of the courses offered by the universities. While a large number of graduates remain unemployed or under –employed, employers complain that the graduates are of no use to them. They say that their standard of English is inadequate. The total annual expenditure by the UGC is in the region of Rs 60 billion. What is the use of spending so much money, if the country cannot make use of a large number of the graduates passing out. If what the employers say is correct, has there been a concerted effort by the UGC to modify/change the university courses so that the graduates are more useful? The Dept. of National Planning should play a more active role; interact with the employers and advice the UGC on the modifications/changes that need to be carried out. Perhaps these changes may not need additional expenditure.

Should the country continue to spend billions of rupees on higher education if it has no significant impact on the socio-economic development of the country? It does not mean that the universities should be closed or privatised as what was done in the case of some public sector organizations. What needs to be done is to examine what ails the university system and take appropriate measures to rectify them so that the universities could contribute positively towards achieving a knowledge-based economy.

Knowledge society and knowledge-based economy are the latest catch words in the field of Education. Knowledge, skills and resourcefulness of people are critical to the building up of a knowledge society which is crucial for achieving the objective of a knowledge-based economy. Universities play a prominent role in achieving this objective. At present there are 15 universities in Sri Lanka. Graduates qualifying from these universities have a very significant role to play in all the different professional/non professional spheres of the country which are important in achieving a knowledge–based economy. However, only about 20% of students who get qualified to enter universities get admitted. For example in the year 2016, ,103,000 students who sat for GCE (A level) qualified but only 19,000 (18.52 %) were admitted. Current data are not available.

Inability to utilize a large percentage of human resources in the country to contribute to the endeavours in achieving a knowledge society tend to retard to a great extent the socio-economic growth in the country. Insufficient opportunities for higher education cause serious problems leading to youth unrest, and as a result of inadequate local opportunities for higher education, a large number of students go overseas to follow various courses. In the year 2009, the total outward remittances for educational purposes were around Rs. 2 billion.

 

University Academic staff:

The success/achievements of a university deepened to a considerable extent on its academic staff. Currently there are around 5,700 in the academic staff of the 15 universities. Nearly 2,500 of them have postgraduate qualifications.

 

By being involved in research/extension and other related activities, they could make a significant impact on the socio-economic issues affecting the country. A large number of them are highly committed and go out of their way to contribute to improve the output of their institutions. If not for them, the various programmes and activities of professional societies, such as Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS), which have an catalytic effect on the socio-economic development of the country, would come to a halt. All these are done on a voluntary basis.

Most of the university academic staff have to work under very trying conditions. Some of the basic facilities necessary for the staff to carry out their work satisfactorily are not available to them. Although staff quarters available for the academic staff of Peradeniya University, most of the staff in regional universities such as Wayamba, Rajarata etc. do not have proper places to stay and they have to pay a considerable portion of their salaries on accommodation. Communication and transport facilities are limiting. I am aware of some university academic staff members who have to start early morning, walk to the bus/train station, and travel hundreds of kilometers to attend to various academic/professional meetings in Colombo or Peradeniya. These are done on a voluntary basis. When the staff member has to stay overnight in Colombo or Kandy, he/she has no place to stay and has to depend on a friend or a relation. Thus they have to face untold difficulties in attending to their professional work.

Most of the recently recruited probationary academic staff need to obtain post-graduate qualifications so that they could provide a better service. It will also raise the standards of the respective universities. Some time ago, there was a programme to send the university probationary academic staff for post-graduate training to overseas. This made it a possible to have a well-qualified academic staff. However, there is no such a programme at present. It is essential that this programme is continued if we are to maintain/raise the academic standing of our universities.

 

Research

The university academic staff is expected to do research and extension. Their research out-put is given due consideration when they are given promotions. They need to publish their research findings. I brought to the notice of the UGC through the Chairman of the standing committee in which I was a member, the need to have a compendium indicating the research projects, conducted by the academic staff of universities of Sri Lanka, and to publish the research papers of the university staff, at least in an annual journal. But this was not done.

Conducting research, especially laboratory/field research is a real challenge. Most of the basic requirements for research such as laboratory (equipment and chemicals) /communication/transport etc. are limiting. In spite of many difficulties, a large number of university academics conduct research. How have these research benefited the country? Ideally the UGC should have a programme to commercialize/make use of the research findings of the university staff. It is necessary to have an effective mechanism to interact with the industry so that the research findings could be used by them. It is then only that the research conducted by the university staff universities can have an impact on the socio-economic development of the country. Merely conducting research is not going to be of use.

Employment of graduates:

A substantial percentage of those passing out from our universities and other higher education institutes are unemployed or under-employed. Thousands of graduates have been appointed as Development Assistants in many government offices and are not involved in productive work. Inability to utilize a large percentage of human resources in the country to contribute to the endeavours in realizing the objectives of a knowledge-based economy tend to retard to a great extent the socio-economic growth in the country. There are many enterprises in the fields of industries and agriculture where there are opportunities for the graduates to find productive employment. But, the previous governments have not being able to increase employment opportunities so that those passing out from the universities can be gainfully employed. Instead they simply gave employment to thousands of graduates as Development Assistants who do not have much development work to do. This may be one of the reasons for the widening trade deficit. It is extremely important that the numerous organizations such as Industrial Development Board, Export Development Board, and Institute of Post-Harvest Technology develop appropriate programmes which will have a positive impact on employment opportunities in the country. Inability of the government to create adequate employment opportunities so that the graduates can be gainfully employed would cause serious problems leading to youth unrest, which the relevant authorities need to give serious consideration.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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