One of Sri Lanka’s great achievements beginning in the late colonial period and continuing to this day is its free education system. However, there have been many shortcomings. The historical exclusion of children from viable schools for example in the plantations that undermined their capacity to seek higher education, and reduced budgetary allocations for the education in recent decades, are serious concerns. Nevertheless, for generations of youth from rural and marginalised communities, free education has ensured access to universities.
Few countries in the world can claim to provide free university education to even a section of their population. University education in most countries has become the privilege of the wealthy or is a curse with massive student debt that traumatises youth for years if not decades.
That fate is now haunting Sri Lanka, as free education is under attack by the government and international agencies.
Parliamentary Select Committee
The recent Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Higher Education has recommended replacing the University Grants Commission with a National Higher Education Commission. The move is mainly to bring about recognition for fee levying private universities on par with state universities.
This will lead to the poaching of academics from state universities and moonlighting of lecturers in private universities, leading to the deterioration of teaching in state universities. Furthermore, the Select Committee recommends various incentives for private universities such as to provide land and infrastructure facilities, while there is nothing in it to strengthen state universities. This move to commercialise higher education and abandon state universities is justified in the report with a number of flawed arguments, including concerns of quality, employability of graduates, intake of students, research in universities etc.
A couple of examples of the ridiculous assertions in the report will be instructive. It claims: “According to the Asian Development Bank (2020), much of the research output of public universities is of low quality and low relevance to national needs. University–industry research collaboration is also very low.” Research in Sri Lankan universities are grossly underfunded, and in fact they are mainly teaching universities which continue to overload academics with teaching and administrative responsibilities.
The most ridiculous of claims on the basis of which the whole report should be put in the dustbin is as follows: “It has been revealed that a senior professor in state universities engages in teaching only for 20 hours per month, whereas it is found that a senior professor in the UK works 140 hours per month.” This insinuation that senior professors in the UK teach 140 hours per month is the level of rhetorical barrage seeking to discredit Sri Lankan academics through an insidious public campaign. When I did my PhD in the United States, the senior professors there were only expected to teach 12 hours a month and only during the eight months when semesters were in session, giving them ample time to do research. The report through hook or crook merely seeks to justify making universities into money-making commercial ventures.
Funding and Intake
The reality of universities in Sri Lanka is that they have been abandoned by the state in terms of financing, and burdened by flawed policies to serve the programmes of international agencies. There is the steady decline in funding of universities and a tremendous increase in the intake of students and overloading lecturers with administrative tasks under the World Bank programme of quality assurance. This was the topic of discussion at an event titled, ‘Quality Assurance, University Autonomy and the Dangers of Privatising Education’ organized by the Jaffna University Teachers’ Association (JUTA) and the Kuppi Collective, which consists of a network of academics from different universities.
The academics from Peradeniya and Colombo highlighted the same concerns facing academics in Jaffna, that the high intake without even facilities to accommodate students, including the scheduling of online classes due to the lack of classrooms. Lecturers, particularly the junior staff, are overburdened with mundane administrative tasks claiming to monitor and ensure standards, rather than focusing on teaching. For example, the World Bank project, Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development (AHEAD) dictates an educational regime akin to a factory and university administrations march to that tune without a vision for developing universities suitable for their students, staff and communities.
Nevertheless, for generations of youth from rural and marginalised communities, free education has ensured access to universities
In the university system as a whole, according to the Finance Ministry Annual Report for 2022, student intake in 2015/2016 of 29,000 per year has gone up in years from 2020 to 2022 by almost fifty percent to 43,000 per year. However, universities’ budgetary capital expenditure, crucial for development, from 2015 to 2022 has steadily declined from 0.16% to 0.08% of GDP, which is a decline of fifty percent. So what quality of education are our students going to get? And what research is going to come out of the universities?
The Select Committee Report, successive governments and the World Bank, with a view towards privatising higher education, make the same old arguments about how the graduates from state universities are unemployable. As if with the emergence of private universities, graduate employment will miraculously increase. The issue is, that there are no jobs. In fact, according to the World Bank itself, five hundred thousand jobs were lost last year.
Challenging the attack
Even as we worry about the lack of university autonomy, we must realise that there is little autonomous policy making by the state itself. Our economic policy-making is not based on the democratic aspirations of our citizenry and not even by our constitution, but by two documents: namely, the IMF Agreement of March 2023 and the World Bank Country Partnership Framework of June 2023. The illegitimate government and discredited regime in power are merely implementing the benchmarks set by the IMF and collaborating with the World Bank to institute its proposed reforms of the state and public institutions.
This is what the World Bank has to say about “jobs challenge in Sri Lanka” in relation to the universities: “promoting expanded enrollment in employment-related higher education programmes and increasing research, innovation and commercialisation in universities”.
These are the same old claims without considering the investment necessary for job creation as well as the funds to transform universities.
But on one point they have let the cat out, their goal is commercialising universities. For decades the World Bank could not stomach the fact that some countries withstood their liberalisation push and maintained a free education system. The devastating economic crisis in Sri Lanka has provided the World Bank the opportunity to dismantle one of the last bastions of free education. Are the student movements, university teachers’ associations, trade unions and the working people of this country, ready to challenge this attack?
Disclaimer: Commercialising Universities - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view