Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Present crisis in the State University System – and a way forward

I am writing this in mid January 2012. As of today around 250 students have been suspended or arrested due to various bogus or valid reasons in many of the 8 State University campuses around the Island. Even the day before, the Minister of Higher Education was booed by the students of the Jaffna University, for insinuating that the LTTE is active within the State University system and are inciting the students. Of course there are also the ragging incidents with the new intake that have also led to some of the arrests and suspensions amongst the numbers referred to above. In that aspect, where ragging is a kind of initiation into a mindset of trying to equalize students, by especially forcing the individualistic and the somewhat perceived privileged into adopting a comradeship, I reject as outdated. This culture should be gradually eased with reason prevailing.

Having dealt with ragging with a brush stroke that will not endear me to the student body, I hope they will see the bigger picture of what truly ails the State Tertiary sector and agitate for an improvement in both their Educational environment and also the value of the degree for which they have sacrificed not just financially but also in time, as many are past 26 when they finally receive their degree certificates, an utter waste of talent, when I consider that I had a degree a few days past my 21st birthday and was in full time employment two months later.

There is one main reason I believe for the true rationale for student agitation. That is the interference by the state into a big brother autocracy of trying to manipulate the mind of the students and also to impose a militaristic state security apparatus as an extension of the power of the dictatorship that is now being IMPOSED on the placid and unsuspecting populace of Sri Lanka. Added to which the back door disadvantages the state system is bound to face with the gradual growth of the Private Tertiary Sector as well as the Fee Levying State sector in Education, should be what the Students agitate against. The political appointees to the positions of Vice Chancellors of the Universities are also detrimental to the independence of the State University system and one which must be reversed.

The agitation is led by a motley collection of nationally known, but politically void individuals professing allegiance to either official JVP or its breakaway rebel group, but who do not have a rational answer to the students grievances. These opportunists have taken center stage and a following amongst the student numbers only due to a lack of alternative leadership by the UNP or a UNP affiliated student body that can show the students an alternative to the present anti Govt. IUSF unions. This alternative is essential as a counter to the current status quo.
The misguided leadership who are against the introduction of Private Universities, when they already exist, and who organized a now banned demonstration from Peradeniya to Colombo, are inevitably going to lead the students in a pied piper sense into an abyss. Students ought to realize this and seek an alternative.

I can see that this unhealthy direction will to lead to some regretful casualties, which the IUSF is likely hoping for, also for political gain. Only then can they show the other apathetic students that they are fighting for a cause. So let us show these students that they have some real issues with which to fight the Governemnt, and not some nebulous ones they will not be able to change.

I note below some of the real grievances that the whole student body should agitate about and if that is done with sufficient vigor, will be able to change the stance and possibly some of the policies in a direction that will truly benefit the students in the State Sector. Students in the state sector must face one reality, and that is those students who can afford WILL go the path of Private Tertiary Education either in Sri Lanka or overseas, with the possible exception of the study of Medicine.

Then we are left with those who do not have the funds, and are chosen to enter the University system. They need Educational Freedom in the sense that they should be permitted to learn and be taught free from political interference. There should transparency in the appointment of Vice Chancellors to ensure this freedom. The number of places with no Tuition Fees must be guaranteed at say 25,000 per annum so as to give a chance to those qualified to enter the system.

Secondly, as is inevitable, the Private Sector will attract a crème of the academic staff due to the ability to pay. In order that the State Sector does NOT fall behind, competitive remuneration to teaching staff given, but with accountability, with regard to minimum teaching hours per week. The 750+ staff who have skipped their bonds and remain overseas having got their PhD and Masters, are likely to return and those not, held to make good the bond, which was signed in good faith.

The resources allocated to the State Tertiary sector must increase. The Universities must be challenged to obtain quality classifications that put them on a par with International Universities. This is so that the degree these students come out with is of value in the international marketplace, where they have to compete for jobs. It is implied that English and IT skills are included in this resource allocation, and a true sense of self worth as graduates without a sense of entitlement are produced. They must understand that the state does not owe them a job, just because they have a degree, but instead realize the value of FREE EDUCATION.
Fourthly, the Government owned quasi military security must be withdrawn forthwith as they act as the listening arm of the State apparatus, and have now proved to be counterproductive to educational freedom and freedom of thought and expression, something that is valued highly in the Tertiary Educational sector.

The valuable lost time in waiting for entrance and the plethora of delays that just cost the economy, of a productive educated professional, must be reduced, with prominence given to the time value of money, that seems to be absent in the Govt. sector and which contributes to the mindset, that does not take account of it. This is also due to the lack of tertiary education of the MPs who are unable to understand this basic principle of economics.

Sixthly, Career counseling and guidance must be provided for students in the State Sector for all intakes and all years, so that instead of blaming the students for being unable to find jobs, the students are guided on how to find jobs and shown what is available both here and overseas, so they build their goals in life while at University rather than come out of it not knowing what opportunities are available with the qualifications they have. Life skills must be part of this program.

A fairer system of bursaries for students of poorer families, so that the principles of Free Education can be emboldened, but which carry with it some responsibilities upon completion, must be adopted as the current Mahapola scholarship amounts in real terms are now worth 10% of what they were when they were originally awarded. This has not kept pace with inflation, and the extra awarded for excellence must be made much bigger for incentive to perform while at University.

Point no eight in this list which is in no particular order of significance, is the question of competitiveness vis a vis the private sector. If the private sector is able to provide scholarships of say 5% that can further enhance the places available for disadvantaged pupils, while at the same time permitting the state sector a release valve to allocate resources to improving quality and not more places. The latter being taken by the private sector and an increasingly affluent middle class, who is able to pay for State owned but fee levying institutions such as the NIBM which is rapidly expanding nationwide.

I believe my proposals above are worth agitating for, as they are all for the benefit of existing and future students and the state would then be forced to allocate more funds, which they only have to divert from the heavy allocation to defense spending, where there is a gross mis-allocation of resources as part of the effort to provide security to an increasingly isolated regime, from its own people.

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