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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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Why record export earnings may not be good news



By Gomi Senadhira

The press release by the Central Bank on the external sector performance ,in June 2022, perhaps was the first piece of good news we had received for a long time. According to the press release, “Earnings from merchandise exports, in June 2022, increased by 23.9 percent over the corresponding month, in 2021, recording US dollars 1,248 million, which is the highest ever monthly export earnings recorded. An increase in earnings of both industrial and agricultural exports contributed to this favourable outcome, …. Cumulative export earnings, from January to June 2022, also increased by 14.3 percent, over the same period in the last year, amounting to US dollars 6,514 million.” So, most of us would think we have enough dollars to cover our essential imports. But, apparently, that is not the case.

Earlier, the Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, had said that exporters only converted about 20% of their export earnings into Sri Lankan Rupees and the rest was not brought back to Sri Lanka. That amounts to the US $800 million a month! The Governor had also said “… At least 40% of the total export earnings should be added to the formal financial system of the country. So exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system, and if that happens, then we can resolve the fuel crisis comfortably.”

(Diesel shipment that arrived in Colombo, on 16 July, still not paid for want of dollars – The Island July 30th) It appears as if the Governor is pleading with the exporters to bring back at least 40% of their export earnings. More notably, from Dr Weerasinghe’s statement, it is clear that the exporter had only converted 20% of their export earnings to rupees during the last five months. Did they convert their export earnings to rupees during the last year, or in the previous years? For how long has this been going on? When the Central Bank says “… exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system,” does that mean the foreign exchange earned, with the exports, is brought through the hawala network, or other similar arrangements?

Exporters deserve credit for the great service they provide and should be rewarded, appropriately. But not disproportionately. The export earnings are not earned by the exporters alone. These earnings are earned by all those who contribute to manufacturing the export products. All of them should be getting their fair share of the export proceeds. If not, there is something terribly wrong with the system. Is this normal in international trade?

During the last few years, some of the studies by Indian scholars, including Utsa Patnaik and Shashi Tharoor, have placed in the public domain some of the less known facts on the effects of the British colonial rule on India. They explain how the British seized India, “… one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest,” and how during the period British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India.

How was this done? Patnaik explains, “In the colonial era, most of India’s sizeable foreign exchange earnings went straight to London—severely hampering the country’s ability to import machinery and technology in order to embark on a modernisation path, similar to what Japan did in the 1870s. …, a third of India’s budgetary revenues was … set aside as ‘expenditure abroad’. The secretary of state (SoS) for India, based in London, invited foreign importers to deposit with him the payment (in gold and sterling) for their net imports from India, which disappeared into the SoS’s account in the Bank of England. Against these Indian earnings he issued bills… to an equivalent rupee value—which was paid out of the budget, from the part called ‘expenditure abroad’.” Patnaik underlines that this was “something you’d never find in any independent country,”

But it appears something very similar is happening in Sri Lanka, many years after the independence! If the exporters do not “bring back their foreign exchange ,through the banking system,” or only bring back 20% of it, then how do they pay for goods and services obtained locally? The local value addition for most of our exports is 70% to 80% or higher! The only major exception is cut and polished diamonds. Tea exporters buy tea with rupees. Some of the imported inputs, like fertiliser, or diesel, are sourced locally! The garment industry had moved up the value chain during the last 40 years and provide many value-added services, like designing, locally.

How do the exporters pay for all these goods and services, if they keep more than 60% of their export earnings outside the country? Do they get it through “hawala” or similar arrangements? During the British Raj, payments to local producers were done with the taxes collected by the Raj. In present-day Sri Lanka, how does one manage to raise a large amount of cash to operate such a system?

If a sizeable chunk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings goes straight to banks in London, New York, Zurich, or elsewhere, severely hampering the country’s ability to import essential items, doesn’t that mean, Sri Lanka’s wealth is getting siphoned out through our exports? And there is not much of a difference between what happened during the colonial period and the post independent Sri Lanka!

So, June’s record export earnings also mean nearly US$ billion was siphoned off during the month! A new record for the month of June! And that means Patnaik was wrong when she said this was not “something you’d never find in any independent country”

That is not good news.

(The writer is a specialist on trade and development issues and can be contacted at

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Improving trend needs to be sustained on multiple fronts



by Jehan Perera

The government appears to have secured political stability in the short term.  So far President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to restore stability appear to be working. Political stability is necessary for decisions to be made and kept.  It is a necessary element for international support to come in.  One of the IMF’s conditions to provide the country with the multi-billion-dollar loan it seeks is political stability that would ensure that commitments that are made will be kept.  The protest movement has not mobilised public demonstrations on the very large scale of the past after the appearance of Ranil Wickremesinghe in leadership positions, initially as prime minister and subsequently as president. This would be seen as an achievement by the government.  The present governmental line that protests should be within the law is difficult, and also frightening, to challenge when a state of emergency is in force.

The government has shown its ability to wield the emergency law with deterrent effect. Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention. The state of emergency also gives the president and the police broad powers to ban public gatherings, allows the police or military to order anyone to leave any public place or face arrest, and makes it an offense to cause “disaffection” or to spread “rumours.” However, in a sign that Sri Lanka’s system of checks and balances is still working, the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court has rejected a request by the police to ban a public protest planned by political parties and multiple organisations on September 9.

Human Rights watch has pointed out that “these provisions are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.”  The midnight strike on the protestors who had camped for over three months at the main protest site at Galle Face would make any reasonable person think twice before getting into physical confrontation with the government.  The social media coverage of events that night showed men in black uniform and wearing masks, attacking the unarmed protestors.  As these men did not wear identification badges, there is a question whether they were part of the official security forces or drawn from other groups that work with them.  This response brought discredit to the perpetrators and disturbed both Sri Lankan people and the international community that have the welfare of Sri Lanka at heart.

The government has also used the full power of the draconian law to ensure that the leadership of the protest movement is neutralised. Several of them have been arrested, some of them given bail, others remanded, which would send a chilling message to the others.  The government has also shown its willingness to offer high positions to those who are prepared to join it.  This has led to a situation where two trade union leaders active in the protest movement have been treated very differently.  One has been offered a high post while the other has been put into prison, although he has now been given bail.  In a signal that he is sensitive to public pressure and human rights concerns, President Wickremesinghe had spoken to leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, after he was remanded and reportedly said he admires the members of the protest movement who talk of a system change.


Apart from the appearance of political stability there is also the appearance of economic stabilisation.  The shortages of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, and the 13-hour power cuts were among the main catalysts of the protest movement.  It was during the period of long power cuts, when staying at home became unbearable, that neigbourhood groups began to converge in urban centres to hold candlelight protests.  However, at this time the supply of gas, petrol and diesel has improved significantly and the kilomere-long lines in front of fuel stations are much less common.  Credit has gone to the QR code system put in place that gives to each vehicle a weekly quota.

The challenge for the government is to ensure that the economic situation continues to be stable without experiencing the acute shortages of key items that causes distress to the general population.  The QR code system can only work if there is petrol and diesel to be distributed.  The current imports of cooking gas, petrol and diesel appear to have been made possible by a World Bank loan which was re-purposed to the purchase of essential items.  However, these funds will dry up soon.  The question is what will happen after that.  There is apprehension that the country will fall once again into a situation of severe shortage.  The government needs to take the people into its confidence regarding the future.  The government also needs to be trusted if it is to be believed.

The World Bank has given an indication that they are still to be convinced regarding the provision of further assistance to Sri Lanka.  Earlier this month, the World Bank issued a statement “expressing deep concern about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka yesterday said it does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place.  Issuing a statement, the World Bank Group said it is repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertiliser, meals for school children and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households.  To date, the World Bank has disbursed about US$160 million of these funds to meet urgent needs.”  This is extremely concerning as the World Bank is closely connected to the IMF on which Sri Lanka is pinning its hopes for a big loan.


The issue of political stability is highlighted by the government as being necessary to obtain international assistance and also as a justification for quelling the protest movement through emergency laws.  There is explicit blame being apportioned to the protest movement for creating instability in the polity that is deterring the influx of foreign assistance and investments.  However, the fuller picture needs to be seen.  The IMF as much as the World Bank, and indeed other potential sources of donor support, want their resources to be used for the intended purpose and not be squandered or siphoned away corrupt practices and in sustaining loss-making state institutions.

The hoped-for IMF-supported programme to provide assistance to Sri Lanka is being developed to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock the country’s growth potential. IMF mission team to Sri Lanka last month specifically mentioned the need to reduce corruption stating that “Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing the severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms.”

Both the international funding agencies and the protest movement are on the same page when it comes to opposing corrupt practices.  The main slogans of the protest movement during their heyday was the ouster of the then president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, and indeed the entire parliament, on account of the corruption that they believed was responsible for having denuded the country of its foreign exchange reserves. This was not simply the replacement of one set of corrupt leaders by another. There are disturbing signs that some of those accused of corruption are once again on the ascendant.

The underlying demand of the protest movement was and continues to be the very “systems change” that the president has said he admires in his reported discussion with remanded trade union leader Joseph Stalin. Civil disobedience to obtain a government that is transparent and law abiding, that does not steal the wealth of the country, is a noble goal, no less sacred than the civil disobedience struggles engaged in by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States.  The ingredients for a rebound of the protest movement continue to be in place and hopefully the evidence of a systems change will become more convincing.

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Brenda Mendis… ‘Gindara Kellek’



I first got to know Brenda Mendis when she was very much a part of the group Aquarius, before joining Mirage..

With Aquarius, her dynamism bloomed, on stage, when she partnered two other female vocalists – from the Philippines.

And…yes, they certainly did rock the scene; the three girls were the talk-of the-town and they were featured at some of the best venues in the city.

She was also, at one time, associated with the band 2Forty2.

Brenda now operates with an outfit called C Plus Band, and with whatever free time, that comes her way, the talented artiste is now working on originals.

The latest is the song ‘Gindara Kellek’ and this is what Brenda has to say:

“I have known this guy Chathurangana de Silva for a very time and he has been involved in composing certain songs for the C Plus Band.

“We then got down to discussing about putting together a song which could be classified as a fast genre in music, and Chathurangana, along with Sampath Fernandopulle, came up with the suggestion for the lyrics, and they did so, based upon a proper observation of my lifestyle and the personality portrayal of myself, and that’s how “Gindara Kellek’ came into the scene.”

Brenda went on to say that the composing was done during a tight schedule.

“As I am the female vocalist, on a full time basis, with the C Plus Band, it took us more time than what is usual spent at a recording session, because of our public performances.”

‘Gindara Kellek’ is not Brenda’s maiden effort. She has been involved in quite a few other originals, including ‘Tharu Peedena Seethale,’ ‘Obai Mage Thaththe,’ ‘Mage Raththaran,’ ‘Kaprinna (Chooty),’ ‘You Never Know,’ ‘Mea Nilwan Nimnaye, and ‘Sitha Igilee Gihin.’ And, they are all uniquely different to each other, she says.

With the country going through a tough period, Brenda, spends her free time working out and reading.

“I would take this opportunity, through your very popular music page, to thank all those who helped me throughout my journey in this wonderful field of music.

“I shall continue to keep music lovers happy, with my music, and I would also thank my followers for supporting me and for being with me throughout my career in showbiz.”

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