Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Private Universities Bill to be presented in January – the Suspension of Student Unions

The march from Peradeniya to Colombo, planned by the Peradeniya University students against the Private University Bill has been prevented by the Govt. and all the existing Student Unions have been suspended at that Campus.

Why are these students against Private Universities? Their main concern is that this is a back door method to gradually remove Free Education from Grade 1 to University in Sri Lanka. Are there grounds for concern? Yes definitely as the current education system in Sri Lanka has failed both the student, who cannot find a reasonable job upon graduation, but also the Country as the system does NOT produce graduates of a caliber that the Motherland wants.

The problem is not wholly of the University system, it is of Education in general and must be tackled at all stages, beginning at Grade 1, and a new thinking based on a realistic assessment is badly needed. I will not go into this broad subject and will concentrate only on the Private University fear. I understand that even the lecturers have lent their support to these students for this agitation.

In a private public instance, we already have sufficient examples with private schools and the issue is no different. The private sector can by definition offer attractive salaries, terms and conditions to draw the best. There could be a drain of teachers from the public sector further eroding the standard of instruction at University. This problem is there any way as there are hundreds of academics who have gone to overseas countries for Post Graduate and doctoral work and NOT returned to the Island, causing a shortage in the teaching cadre. On the flip side we must understand that our home grown talent can remain at home, rather than leave for pastures anew in foreign lands. The answer is to increase the pool of teachers to replace those who leave, rather than worry about the fact they leave. The other solution is to increase the salaries of the University Dons that has already been promised by the govt. to reduce this brain drain.

An environment with competition from the private sector is healthy in forcing the public sector to improve its quality of service delivery, which in this case are employable graduates. This is true the world over. One must remember that the government uses this premise as another reason not to spend more on education and instead gets the private sector to take the slack. Again, a case in point are the 500,000 students who pay for their schooling, which automatically reduces the strain on the state sector in educating them. This same principle no doubt guides the thinking behind private universities as that will reduce the burden on the state.
The fact that more funds may be required to keep up with the private sector both for quality students and quality teachers, may reduce the available free places for less well off kids to get into the State University system. On the other hand it will permit students with lower A level results to enter the private university system, creating an element of distrust where one with 3 A’s cannot get into the public university, whereas one with 3 C’s can do the same course in a private one. That I fear is a valid point that needs to be debated, but currently they go overseas.

On the other hand, employers are wise to the employability of graduates, and for that purpose, the University, private or public is on notice to produce what the market requires. If their quality is poor, then fewer students of quality will want entrance at that institution. What better way to weed out the good from the bad? The bad if it does not improve their performance will have to close down, just like so many schools in the rural areas.

I am not too concerned about the quality of the Private Universities as it is up to the entrant to do the necessary homework to check on their suitability in terms of repute before seeking admission. So this usual complaint by students opposed to the private sector can easily be relegated to one that is superfluous. Of course the state will in its Bill propose a means of ensuring quality control. Why this is necessary is beyond me as students attend so many private universities overseas, without them having to be regulated by anybody, least of all from Sri Lanka.

The main point which I would therefore raise is the guaranteed amount of free places available to local students, so that a minimum cost would have to be borne by the state for their education, anything less will be tantamount to an abrogation of the rights under the Free Education promise.

A further guarantee of a limit to the paying students should also be made, as the government now intends to get paying students to the State University sector to subsidize its cost. I do not know why they have restricted it to overseas students. Is it because they want them to pay their fees in foreign currency?

Further, I understand that minimum percentages of places must be offered at Private Universities as scholarships to students who excel on some criteria, this too should be included so that the quality of the intake at these places is also improved.

All agitation should be limited to what is reasonable in light of current conditions without compromising Free Education principle for the masses in as much as it is applicable today bearing in mind the amount of private tertiary education available.

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