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Chaos in universities: A solution?

Jan 31, 2012 1:32:31 PM - www.ft.lk

By Tudor Wijenayake
Most Sri Lankan universities seem to be in chaos. The majority of them are closed down due to student unrest, where the Government claims that students are manipulated by left parties and breakaway groups aspiring to come into power. The students may be manipulated, but this level of operation is not possible without other major issues.

Student unions claim the Government wants to end free education, suppress student movements, encourage private universities and deprive them of jobs.
According to unions which conduct agitations, their campaigning in universities are based on:

  • Withdrawal of the Private University Bill
  • The Z-score mess in the Advanced Level examination
  • Completion of the Professorial Unit of the Anuradhapura Medical Faculty

The university students’ agitations became a major problem during the past decade. Earlier, graduates found employment in the State sector, mostly as teachers, although some had to wait years.The biggest worry of university students and their parents is the ability of students to find employment. The problem  varies among faculties and the universities
During the past few years, the intake for teaching posts in Government schools has dried up. The latest group of recruitment (not appointed yet) are for specialised subjects and for those with the ability to teach in the English medium. This practically rules out the majority of arts graduates.
The biggest worry of university students and their parents is the ability of students find employment. The problem varies among faculties and the universities. The highest possibility of employment is with graduates from Medical Colleges of Colombo and Peradeniya and Engineering Faculties of Peradeniya and Katubedda. However, Arts Faculties of Peradeniya, Jayewardenepura and Kelaniya have the least demand for employment and are in the forefront of most of the revolts.
Students feel that the proliferation of private universities will seriously deprive them of available jobs. In practice of medicine, doctors from local universities had the monopoly due to control of licenses by the Sri Lanka Medical Council. They do not wish for competition from private medical colleges which may not require Act 16 accreditation.
Until the crisis of employment of graduates is sorted out, student revolting will continue. Why are the graduates cornered in the job market? Simple, they lack positive attitudes and employable skills such as proficiency in English and IT, the ability to conduct research over the internet (which again needs English), make a presentation and work with team spirit.
Parents are also concerned over ragging conducted by the university seniors and the fact that children from families that are financially better off are subjected to higher levels of ragging. Ragging has advanced into humiliation, physical and mental torture of freshmen and women which continue into six months of the first year.
The consequences of ragging have crippled a number of students, led to a number of student deaths and resulted in enormous mental agony, due to which large numbers of students are being forced to keep away or leave the university.
The situation has forced parents from middle class families to direct their children to foreign universities or at least to private educational institutions at a huge cost to themselves and the country. The advertisements in Sunday newspapers give an insight into the pressure mounted on the parents of prospective students. Parents feel that the establishment of local private universities would reduce their financial burdens.
As such, it is necessary to recommend a course of action that would transform school leavers who are admitted to university into an acceptable product for prospective employers at graduation.
The most difficult would be the transformation required of students already admitted, in addition to conducting reorientation courses that could be offered to recent graduates who cannot find employment.
University staff, academics and non-academics too, claim they are underpaid compared to salary levels in foreign universities and demand that they be given enormous salary increases.
All universities are considered equal by the State and their graduates have equal access to Government jobs. The exception may be the Anuradhapura Medical Faculty, whose students are expected to pass out in the near future, but facilities in the university are far from complete (Professorial Unit among others), which explains their revolt.
However, international university rankings tell a complete different story. According to ‘Top South Asian Universities July 2011’ in webometrics.info ranking of Sri Lankan universities among the world are as follows:

  • University of Peradeniya: World Ranking 2,220
  • University of Colombo: World Ranking 2,240
  • University of Moratuwa: World Ranking 2,573
  • University of Ruhuna: World Ranking 3,514

The Z-score mess in the Advanced Level examination caused much uproarThe ranking in the website ends at 5,338, which means other Sri Lankan universities are positioned still lower.
The differences in rankings enlighten the actual situation. That even our best university has not even reached the top 2,000. But our students and their lecturers claim our university education is the best in the world and look down on foreign universities, claiming their degrees can be purchased in the market.
For our students to claim a world class education, it is essential to improve the rankings of our universities to be compatible with other universities, overseas or local private.
Improvement of rankings would only be possible with improvements in infrastructure and course content equivalent to other universities, resulting in improved aptitudes and confidence of students.
This will result in our universities producing world class employable graduates with expected skills and proficiency in English and IT, with the ability to face and overcome problems and situations in the everyday working atmosphere.
It should be noted the disturbance to classes and revolting in the streets distracts students from their basic core activity, education. Nowhere in the world and certainly not in high ranked universities in the world is our kind of parading and shouting in the streets tolerated in the name of upholding student rights.
Upgrading of university rankings would require a massive transformation of syllabi, ethics and attitudes of students, lecturers, the Government and the public on university education. Everyone, including students, academics and the Government, is responsible and should be willing to work towards correcting the present mess.
This would also require enormous sacrifice and hard work from all parties concerned.
Currently there are a number of courses conducted in the English medium in most universities, spanning three or four years. The students do their course work and answer their examinations in English. But at graduation they lack practically all communication skills except for 15-20% who have picked up English elsewhere. When English medium students lack proper English skills, one could imagine the plight of Swabasha-educated students. Most students are well aware of their current competence situation, but are helpless.
It has been alleged that some lecturers repeat lecture notes that they themselves received when they were students. It is also claimed that course contents taught for some subjects, including science, medicine and engineering, are completely outdated and have no relevance to current practices in the respective fields.
The amendments to course contents to suit world standards are the responsibility of academics and need to be a joint effort of all lecturers to be coordinated by heads of faculties. Details of curricula offered by various universities throughout the world are available over the internet and could be a guide to the direction, but need to be modified to suit the current context.
 In the improvement of university education, the lecturers have an enormous task ahead to modify their curriculum, to learn new as well to teach them.
Our students in universities and in schools have no choice but to follow the system. The system requires them to prepare for the predicted question paper at the examination, based on the syllabus and past question papers and produce answers as expected by the examiners. The student most competent in doing so tops the examination.
However, the prospective employers’ expectations are different to the students’ current capabilities. It would be the responsibility of lecturers and examiners to change the course contents and examination methods to impart knowledge and develop skills of students to suit employer requirements.
Positive way for students
Students are the group affected by the poor quality education offered by the universities and escaping the current cycle will require commitment and hard work, but can be done by following:

  • Improve English – writing, speaking, communication and presentations
  • Acquire IT skills – ability to write letters, essays and research over the internet
  • They would be required to learn the revised course contents
  • Change from current book learning into research-based knowledge which would keep them keep abreast with developments

Achieving English and IT skills can be developed during a pre-entry period (first year) and admittance to university would be on satisfactory achievement.
Thereafter students will be expected to sit for English and IT tests at regular intervals and improvements to suit industry requirements are expected by the end of the university period.
In future, a level of competency of English and IT would be expected at admission and the required base levels would be raised progressively. In-house training could be offered to those who fail to achieve the desired level.
All students including those following courses conducted in the Swabasha medium should be required to follow a minimum of 25% of subjects in English medium and new entrants to follow 60% in English medium. This means that a number of subjects taught in Swabasha will need to be taught in the English medium.
This shows that the highest pressure would be exerted on the current students as they are expected to learn English and IT while their course contents would be modified and untested. They are expected to make sacrifices and work hard, but in return will receive an employable education.
Lecturers

  • Upgrading of course contents in subjects would be the responsibility of the lecturers. It is claimed that course contents of some subjects including science, medicine and engineering are completely outdated and have no relevance to current practices in the respective fields. It has been alleged that some lecturers continue to repeat lecture notes they themselves received while they were students.
  • In some courses of studies, student numbers in a class deprives individual attention to students. When numbers with the same knowledge exceed employment requirements in the field, it leads to unemployment. In most universities in the USA, classes rarely exceed 15 students.
  • Develop new courses of study to cater to the changing needs of industry and society. Increasing the number of courses will reduce numbers in each class.
  • Some study courses conducted in Sinhala/Tamil may need to be taught in English. However, competency of the lecturers to teach in English is questionable and will require grooming.
  • There are some lecturers who currently teach in English but their knowledge of the language is far from satisfactory and this affects their students too.
  • The ability of lecturers to conduct teaching in English needs to be established and those who need should be helped.

Salaries of lecturers
If the expectation of the public is to have a world class education, the facilities and the salaries offered to lecturers too should be of the same standard. As such, salaries of lecturers need to be revised.
This improvement can be implemented in stages based on individual commitment and achievement, such as:

  • Course content of education provided by the lecturer to be on par with international standards
  • Introduction of new courses of study
  • Lecturer’s own capabilities in terms of English and IT
  • Improvements achieved on the university ranking levels

Government
The expenditure by the Sri Lankan Government on higher education has been very much lower in comparison to other nations. Changes that are proposed to raise levels of education in universities would involve the expansion of universities, buildings and laboratories and higher costs. It will be the responsibility of the State to provide sufficient funding.
Administration

  • To improve university standards and their product for students to become employable will need major changes in introduction of English and IT, changes to curriculum and introduction of new courses of study.
  • Full implementation of proposals with necessary amendments may take a few years and until new standards are achieved and accepted, students and lecturers would be in an unsettled situation and require peace and patience from all fronts.
  • To permit a peaceful transition, universities require help from every right-thinking individual and should be free from all student union agitations, political activities, demonstrations, etc.
  • Stop all forms of ragging in universities.
  • To achieve peace and harmony:
  • All outsiders would be barred from conducting lectures, political activities and conferences, mini or otherwise.
  • All repeat students should be barred from the university and allowed only to sit for examinations.
  • Grievances of university staff should be addressed with the payment of the first stage of salary increase and lecturers themselves to earn subsequent increases. The university management in discussion with concerned parties should agree on a method of implementation.
  • Proper implementation of the above will help our universities improve their standards and products, making their graduates become a sought-after commodity in the market.

Case for discussion
It is our opinion that most problems get aggravated in Sri Lanka due to inadequate discussion among interested parties and the public.
It is proposed that the Ministry of Higher Education conducts a public seminar with the above proposals as a basis of discussion and comments of all parties be considered for implementation.
(The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer who graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka and left the position in February 2010. He is presently employed at a Chinese construction organisation. He also ran a manufacturing and a sales organisation for over a decade.)