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Education, ‘three Es’ and McUniversities: Some Heretical Thoughts



Keynote Address delivered by Panduka Karunanayake Senior Lecturer in the Department of Clinical Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, at 16th Annual Higher Education Conference in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Association for Improving Higher Education Effectiveness on July 24, 2020: Colombo.

In this Keynote Address, let me share with you some heretical thoughts on higher education’s ‘three E’s’: Equity, Effectiveness, Efficiency. I will also visit the concept of McDonaldization of Society (Ritzer 2006), and its incarnation in the universities, the McUniversities. My main argument is that external pressures and transformations have changed the nature of higher education, and that it is time we recognised this and took corrective steps. A crucial step in this response is having our own definition of higher education, no matter how difficult this is. I will also try to connect up with the current ‘new normal’ that has arisen with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic – with its own threat of further, externally-imposed change. For the sake of sticking to my time I will considerably abbreviate my talk, but the full text will be circulated by your Association.

“Define, or be defined”

Your Association is dedicated to improving the effectiveness of higher education. To start this onerous task, we should first define, or at least describe, higher education. The iconoclastic psychiatrist Thomas Szasz warned us that if we didn’t define ourselves, others would go on to define us: “Define, or be defined.” We will then be relegated to a life of living that definition or endlessly contesting it. I would ask you to dwell on this and to ask yourself, Has this happenned to us already?

This is even more important in the immediate aftermath of a major event like the COVID-19 pandemic, after which we can expect a lot of change (which has been called the ‘new normal’). At such times, it is our definition that will allow us to safely navigate ourselves through the turbulent sea of change, and preserve higher education and seek its effectiveness.

Defining higher education is, however, a very difficult task. A few academics have nevertheless tried to grapple with it, and my own favourite is Ronald Barnett (1990; 1996). Barnett asked many of the right questions, even if he could not conclusively answer them. He might not have given the final, clinching definition or even a description of higher education. Indeed, we perhaps don’t even know what higher education is not! But thanks to academics like him, we at least know that we don’t know – and that, as Socrates said, is the first step to wisdom and, as Bloom’s revised taxonomy puts it, is in the highest knowledge category, known as metacognition.

And it was also Barnett’s writings that convinced me that we must engage with these problems, not as a hobby or an afterthought, but as a priority. Some academics are happy to live their lives in accordance with a definition given to them. When they see other academics like me who think about these issues, they would accuse us of wasteful self-indulgence, because we do not seem to contribute to the knowledge production that the externally given definitions demand. But Barnett disagreed, and pointed out that, on the contrary, not to think about these issues is high hypocrisy. He asked, How can we not self-examine ourselves when we make it our business to examine everything around us?

Higher education in
a changing world

Higher education worldwide has changed drastically over the last six or seven decades, due to external pressure. For instance, in the 1960s the emergence of the knowledge industries created an increased demand for knowledge workers, who had to be educated to the tertiary level, leading to what is known as the massification of universities – the universities changed from elite organisations that served a small number of educationally-gifted students to large-scale organisations serving students with a wider range of abilities.

In the 1970s there was a clear, watertight demarcation between higher education and further education, both of which were forms of tertiary education. Further education spread across a wide spectrum and included various types of technical and vocational education. Some of these were subsequently incorporated to universities, due to a constellation of factors. It was then no longer quite clear whether university education was synonymous with higher education. It certainly seemed like a marriage of convenience, where both partners chose to ignore their incompatibilities so that they can enjoy the considerable benefits of being nominally paired, if not conjugated. And the term further education is no longer in much use.

Some of the features that were believed to belong with higher education rather than further education, such as critical thinking, were then identified, dissected, listed and added to curricula, as if higher education was no longer the mystery. But in time, the vacuousness of this approach has come to light. For instance, critical thinking has been separated from critical thinking skills and other elusive aspects of criticality, variously called critical being, critical self-reflection and so on (Barnett 1996: 11-22). And there are other aspects of higher education too that are similarly elusive and are hovering around us and teasing us for our impetuosity.

The 1970s witnessed economic woes for the world, even the West, with the so-called slow economic depression. State funding for universities was reduced, even while the demand for graduates from the new knowledge industries was increasing. In that context, by the 1990s, economics and its new methods became increasingly important in government policies and strategies worldwide, pushed especially by the World Bank, leading to the talk of the three E’s of education: Equity, Effectiveness, Efficiency (Lockheed and Hanushek 1994).

Another change came in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet bloc, when capitalist industries quickly gained control over all forms of life – human, animal, plant – and even the inanimate environment, and all roads led to Washington. In this new unipolar world, knowledge production underwent a marked, cataclysmic transformation too, in the space of a few decades (Gibbons et al 1994). Since funding sources for research in universities also shifted hands from unrestricted governmental grants to granting agencies that laid down restrictive criteria of prioritisation and selection, it was only a matter of time before research in universities itself changed its nature (see Table 1).

This was soon followed by globalisation and the free flow of financial capital and human resources throughout the globe, leading to a vastly increased entry of private capital into higher education and the emergence of the internationalisation of higher education, cross-border higher education and the birth of franchised degrees. My favourite author for this period and its issues is Philip Altbach (Altbach and Peterson1999; Altbach and Umakoshi 2004; Altbach 2006).

Today, academics like Angus Kennedy (2017) has had to point out that universities have lost their way (emphases in the original):

“Rather than being relevant to society, instead the role of the university is a model of how society should be. Its foundation showed that society believed there were higher things, things more important than the material and mundane, and that they were the rightful objects of study by those who had a higher calling, a more noble profession than soldiery, or buying and selling in the marketplace.”

Perhaps, the universities had not been ready for these decades with a definition of higher education of its own, or perhaps its own idea of higher education could not stand its ground. Imperceptibly, the three E’s became the new strategies for the universities. Academics didn’t have their own definition or had to ignore it – and the universities underwent change.

If universities were by now having difficulty identifying their exact role in research, almost a century before that, they had had difficulty identifying their role in teaching. This was in the era before the emergence of the research university, when the university’s role in society was limited to teaching and service. Our own Ananda Coomaraswamy, who pioneered the struggle for a national university for Ceylon at the turn of the twentieth century, had written thus:

“Modern education is designed to fit us to take our place in the counting-house and at the chain-belt; a real culture breeds a race of men able to ask, What kind of work is worth doing?”

Another problem that was thrown in, some time between Coomaraswamy and Barnett, was the challenge posed by post-modernism. Post-modernism has an intense mistrust of all univeralisms. So naturally, an idea of the university or higher education that stretched across all localities, disciplines and specialisations and claimed to cover them all had to first confront post-modernism. And that confrontation too hasn’t gone smoothly.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to overwhelm you or discourage you from doing all your good work. I am only begging you to face this history and these difficulties, and to define yourself, or at least describe yourself, or at the very least state what you are clearly not. In a way, I am asking you to ask Coomaraswamy’s question in relation to our own work in higher education: What kind of work is worth doing? Otherwise one day you will wake up and realise that others have defined you exactly as what you were not planning to be, and you will have to choose between either contesting this definition or living your life in accordance with it.

In fact, that might already be the case, except that we haven’t yet woken up to it. For instance, every morning when I wake up I have to behold, right in front of my house, a well-known private international school offering primary and secondary education that calls itself “International School of Higher Education”!

The task of maintaining our identity, or at least renegotiating it, in the face of changing societal, intellectual and institutional pressures is certainly challenging – and my plea for all of us is to face it, instead of ignoring it. This has become even more important in the COVID-19 world, when more externally-imposed change is on the way.

(To be continued)


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Investigative Journalism?



I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!



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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants



Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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Better use of vanity projects; Cass apologises, and New Year graciousness



A wise one, with the interests of the country at heart, calling himself ‘A Member of the Silent Majority’, wrote in The Island of Friday, April 9, offering an excellent solution for the better and genuine use of the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport which was built at a stupendous cost to both the Treasury, and wildlife abundant in the area, to satisfy an ego and sycophants’ cries of Hail to the King. Even sans Covid and lockdowns and shut downs of airports, the Mattala Airport was a white elephant, endangering and displacing the black elephants, roaming along their familiar corridors; receiving such few airplanes. Thus, as the writer Cass mentions says, convert the airport to a super hotel with excellent and sure-fire access to wildlife watching, like referred to hotels in Kenya and elsewhere. Yes, it will definitely be a bigger money earner than an airport waiting for a plane to land. Expensive equipment going rusty could be transferred to smaller airports being developed all over the island. There was such a hue and cry when storerooms, within the deserted airport, were used for paddy storage, but not even a whimper of concerted protest when the vanity projects were being built. We also heard that on the rare occasions a plane was to land/take off, peacocks in the area were shot at to prevent them flying into the planes. Aney, what a sin, just to have a name on a nameboard! Use the Suriyawewa Cricket Stadium too for a better purpose and less costly to water and maintain green in near desert climate conditions. What about a residential training institute for youth, perhaps in small industries? If the king-sized ego demands the name be present, OK, leave it. What’s in a name?

Any matter, financial or economic, with benefit to country buttressing it – refer to Dr Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne. Likewise, anything pertaining to fauna, flora and preservation of natural habitats ask Devani Jayathilake. Cassandra would give two years of her life (she does not have 10 left, she suspects) to know what the answers of the three wise and sincere ones mentioned would be to the proposal to convert the Mattala Airport, oops sorry – Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport – to a 7 star hotel for wildlife watching and then tourists proceeding to Yala and other places that were touted to be reached easier if planes brimful of tourists, landed in Mattala. Pipe dream even sans Covid-19.

The thought of the millions, nay billions, our country was indebted to China to construct these vanity projects aka white elephants of the Rajapaksa fiefdom sends Cass’s blood racing in her contracting veins. And now another hair-brained scheme is being exposed, not new but re-exposed: that of the stupendous amount sent direct from the Central Bank with no nod, as reported, from the then Cabinet or Parliament, to an American-resident con-man to improve our appearance on the world stage or at least American stage. My word!! Cosmetics of creams and colours and such like can improve the face of an already beautiful woman. But a country that was once beautiful, glorified, accepted internationally and then politician-spoilt, cannot be redeemed by PR work, however expensively. Nivard Cabraal was the then Govenor of the CB. Of course, as every Banda, Singho and their women say, nothing will come of this. Powerful political sweeping under the carpet in the presence of cardboard administrators and sycophantic hosanna singers, makes the matter disappear and not merely hides it. Unless of course there are enough intrepid outers-of-truths and persistent protestors, brave and national minded enough to continuously tease the matter like a cat its caught rat. Ranjan is locked away in hard labour for four solid years, losing his Parliamentary seat for misusing the gift of his gab, while convicted murderers of the right colour attend Parliament, escorted and all.

Cass apologises

To the reigning Mrs World, Mrs Caroline Jurie, for crowning, uncrowning and recrowning of the winner of the recent Mrs Sri Lanka contest. Caroline Jurie took this stride because the winning contestant was four years on the way to being a divorcee, which status forbids a woman from attempting to wear the crown of Mrs…. (country) with a view to becoming Mrs World. This title and honour is bestowed on a woman who promotes, holds sacred the institution of marriage and is a married woman. Cass castigated Caroline Jurie without knowing then the fact that Jurie had protested about this candidate being considered due to her impending divorce; and allowed to contest. She said she withdrew from the panel of judges since her point was not taken by the others. WHY is the Q. Easy to answer. The new beauty queen of shaky married status was a loud speaker in favour of Presidential Candidate Gotabaya R in Polonnaruwa (captured on social media) and probably spoke on stages for SLPP Parliamentary candidates. So of course she was slated to win; vision impaired over rules and future probabilities, She has her height – one advantage. Beauty can always be dexterously rubbed and painted in. But honesty is important and cannot be cloned or grafted in.

Cass now definitely faults the new Mrs Sri Lanka. She should not have contested, having her papers sent in for divorce and not retracted. What happens when she wins the divorce (or her husband wins it, however the divorce was first mooted). Another local contest? And if the divorce was still pending and she went overseas at great expense and won THE crown or a lesser one. To be returned forthwith when she has to remove the present gold band from her third finger, which probably she has already removed but hastily wore for the contest and when preparing for it? This is why Cass avows that many young women particularly, are so very selfish and forward and uppity and even dishonest now. In Cass’ time and even a decade or two later, a girl would never do what this new beauty has done, flipped aside a core rule and necessity of the contest, just to win by honest means or foul. Way the country’s going, my friend.

Post – Aluth Avurudhu

Cassandra is stuffed gill-high with kavun, aluwa and crunchy kokis, preceded by kiributh and lunumiris. She is fending for herself because a dip in Covid numbers and having had the jab, her domestic wished to enjoy a family new year having missed the last one, locked down as we were. Cass made her own kiributh – tasting somewhat like it should, but the sweets were all gifted her. So, also the offers of help, sleep-ins at others’ homes and solicitous frequent inquiries of ‘how are you?’ Kind and gracious relatives and friends, acquaintances too are thanked; and the most appreciated being neighbouring kitchen helps and care givers. Three-wheeler drivers who spin Cass around on errands too make enquiries. And thus her thoughts when resuming work at the nekath time and word processing this article. Sri Lankans are such good people: kind, caring, willing to share and genuine. And then specters themselves on this very sunny landscape: the dishonest, selfish, revengeful and disgraceful. Shrug them off, clear the mental picture and pronounce thank goodness for goodness around.

May all of us (decent people) have a very good year to follow today –Subha Aluth Avuruddhak!

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