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Prof. Ratnasekera: 33% increase in annual intake a daunting challenge

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World Bank assistance sought to sustain significant University expansion

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors, Prof. Jayantha Lal Ratnasekera says accommodating approximately 43,000 students––a staggering 33 per cent increase in the annual university intake–– would be a daunting task.

Prof. Ratnasekera, who is also the Vice Chancellor of the Uva Wellassa University, discussed ways and means of providing the basic facilities required by new entrants, especially at a time the State University system experienced severe difficulties caused by the continuing Covid-19 epidemic. The academic was appearing on Sirasa ‘Pethikada’ hosted by Asoka Dias recently.

Prof. Ratnasekera said that as they wouldn’t be able to upgrade the required facilities to 100 per cent, the undergraduates would have to bear the difficulties. Prof. Ratnasekera, who had graduated from the People’s Friendship University, Moscow, Russia with an honours degree in Chemistry in 1988 and subsequently obtained his PhD in Chemistry from the same university in 1993, explained efforts made by the authorities to accommodate an additional 11,000 students.

Explaining the difficulty in addressing the inevitable limitations especially at a time the country was struggling to cope up with the devastating pandemic; Prof. Ratnasekera said that the University Grants Commission (UGC) was engaged in discussions with the Treasury to secure the necessary funding. Prof. Ratnasekera said that the Treasury would provide funding though it was unlikely to meet their entire requirement.

Prof. Ratnasekera declared that the latest increase in the number of new entrants was the largest single surge ever in the State University system.

Pointing out that the annual intake had been raised to 43,000 from 32,000; the academic said that Uva Wellassa University recorded almost a 100 per cent increase. Providing required facilities sufficiently would be a huge task, the outspoken don said underscoring the need for adequate library and laboratory facilities in addition to a range of other necessities such as canteen and accommodation.

Responding to another question, Prof. Ratnasekera emphasized the responsibility on their part to provide the basic necessities. The academic explained how as part of their overall response to the significant expansion of the student intake, the UGC was going ahead with plans to increase what he called the teaching cadre by 500. Prof. Ratnasekera said his University would get 43 additional lecturers. The proposed staffing would be in addition to the filling of existing vacancies, he said, explaining the need for substantial external assistance to bring the project meant to accommodate an additional 11,000 undergraduates to a successful conclusion.

Referring to the World Bank funded ongoing Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development (AHEAD) project, Prof. Ratnasekera said that the UGC was in discussion with the WB in a bid to secure much needed financial assistance in support of the University expansion. Prof. Ratnasekera was of the opinion that the WB assistance might not be available immediately.

He explained the role played by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors in overall UGC strategy and how it could assist the ongoing University expansion project. Reference was made to the moves to set up three new Universities, in addition to the 16 in operation now as the higher education sector underwent much needed reforms. The increase in the student intake should be examined against the backdrop of other relevant factors , such as the expansion of the University system, Prof. Ratnasekera said.

The senior academic however cautioned against expecting immediate results from investments made in research and related fields.

For want of proper understanding of what was offered by Universities, the undergraduates sometimes missed excellent opportunities to enhance their standing, Prof. Ratnasekera said, urging the student community to be aware of developments. The academic explained some exceptionally useful courses available at his Uva Wellassa University.

Prof. Ratnasekera called for a survey to find out the status of unemployed graduates. Assuring that he had absolutely no intention to undermine external degrees/external degree holders, he emphasized the need to examine the case of unemployed graduates. According to the vast majority of unemployed graduates they were those who obtained external degrees. Therefore a thorough examination of that issue and remedial measures were required.

Prof. Ratnasekera dismissed accusations pertaining to the alleged deterioration of the public sector University system. Contrary to those unsubstantiated allegations, the Universities, in spite of challenges faced were quite satisfied with the current status, the academic said, adding that other countries appreciated the Sri Lankan talent.

At the onset of the interview with Asoka Dias, Prof. Ratnasekera discussed how the Universities struggled to cope up with the Covid-19 rampage. The academic explained the difficulties associated with online classes and some of those chosen for Universities from 2018 Advance Level were yet to see the Universities due to the epidemic. Prof. Ratnasekera acknowledged the extreme difficulty in including the entire 160,000 University community in the ongoing vaccination programme. The Professor appreciated the inclusion of those in medical faculties et al in the vaccination programme.

Prof. Ratnasekera said that the entire University education couldn’t under any circumstances be conducted through online classes. Therefore, the need to resume classes at least on a staggered basis had to be recognised and tangible measures had to be taken in that regard, he said.



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Govt. eases restrictions on foreigners as Covid-19 rips through country

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DGHS, IGP informed of SLTDA decision

By Shamindra Ferdinando

In what many thought was a shocking decision, the Tourism Ministry yesterday (16) declared that tourists would be able to travel across the country despite movement restrictions in force since last Thursday (14) to control the rapid spread of Covid-19.

 Tourism Ministry, in a statement issued yesterday afternoon (16) quoted Director General of Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Dhammika Wijesinhe as having said that the foreigners in the country could travel in what she called a bio bubble. Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr Asela Gunawardena and IGP C.D. Wickremaratne had been informed of the arrangements, she said.

The announcement was made as the government struggled to cope with an alarming increase in the number of Covid-19 positive cases as well as deaths. It came close on the heels of Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga declaring that the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) wouldn’t be closed. When The Island sought an explanation from the Tourism Ministry how such a decision was taken regardless of tough quarantine laws and health guidelines in place to control the spread of rampaging Covid-19 epidemic, an authoritative official said that the Ministry issued a statement received from the SLTDA.

DG Wijesinghe said that those individuals and firms responsible for bringing in tourists had been instructed to strictly follow health guidelines or face the consequences.

Declaring that tourism has been categorized as an export industry, DG Wijesinghe said that the SLTDA stepped in the wake of complaints that foreigners experienced difficulties as a result of travel restrictions imposed in the wake of the latest Covid-19 eruption.

The Tourism Ministry further quoted the official as having stressed that arrangements were now in place to ensure tourists could travel in a bio bubble without hindrance.

Police headquarters said that after the lifting of ‘lockdown’ on Monday at 4 am, travel restrictions from 11 pm to 4 am on a daily basis during May would continue.

GMOF (Government Medical Officers’ Forum) spokesperson Dr. Rukshan Bellana said that the government seemed hell-bent on causing further chaos. Having allowed influential parties to bring in foreigners for quarantine in the country, the government caused the deterioration and now restrictions were done away at the risk of further intensification of the spread of the virus.

Dr. Bellana recalled how the government permitted the England cricket tour of Sri Lanka to go ahead in January this year at a time the UK was in a grave crisis over a new deadlier variant of Covid-19 spreading there and also allowed groups of Ukrainians in when Ukraine was in lockdown.

Responding to another query, Dr. Bellana pointed out that the shocking declaration that restrictions would not apply to foreigners meant that the government was yet to comprehend the gravity of the situation.

Dr. Bellana said that the government seemed to be blind to the fact that the death toll was on the verge of passing 1,000 and the cases nearing 150,000. If those at the helm of administration really believed tourists could move across the country safely in bio bubbles let them create the same for others, Dr. Bellana said.

According to the GMOF, the government was pulling in different directions in the absence of a cohesive strategy to meet the daunting Covid-19 challenge. The failure to understand the need to apply the same set of quarantine laws and health guidelines to all was one of the primary reasons for the deterioration of the problem.  Dr. Bellana asked how the government did away with restrictions while the doctors reported the detection of at least six Covid-19 variants.

Dr. Bellana said that he expected experts would oppose the government’s short-sighted policies.

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Gaza conflict: Parliament calls for truce; govt. silent yet

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP National List MP Dr. Suren Raghavan, on behalf of the Sri Lanka-Palestinian Parliament Friendship Association has urged the government and the Opposition to join the international community in calling for an immediate cessation of violence in the latest conflict involving Israel and Hamas.

The recently formed Association in a statement issued on May 13 called for cessation of hostilities in Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Association represents both government and the Opposition.

Citing international media reports, the Association expressed concerns over suffering of civilians on both sides due to military action during the month of Ramazan. Dr. Raghavan, the only SLFPer accommodated on the SLPP National List made reference to indiscriminate rocket attacks carried out by Hamas and Israeli air strikes.

The Foreign Ministry yesterday (16) acknowledged the government was yet to issue a statement on the situation in Gaza.

According to international media reports, an Israeli airstrike on Saturday destroyed a high-rise building that housed The Associated Press offices in the Gaza Strip. The airstrike came about an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to leave the building. The building houses the Associated Press, Al Jazeera and a number of offices and apartments.

Meanwhile, Israel Solidarity Movement (ISM) strongly condemned Hamas for attacking civilian targets in Israel. Calling Hamas a terrorist organization, the ISM pointed out that terrorists used Palestinians as a human shield while attacking Israeli civilians.  Pointing out that Hamas actions had placed the Palestinian community in peril, the IMS recalled how Sri Lanka suffered during the war against the LTTE. Making reference to sufferings caused by 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, the ISM stood solidly with those who backed whatever Israeli action taken to neutralize the Hamas challenge.

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Central Bank: No immediate threat of inflation rise from monetary expansion

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By Sanath Nanayakkare

Sri Lanka was currently experiencing high monetary expansion, but the Central Bank did not expect an acceleration of inflation in the near future, Economic Research Director at the Central Bank Dr. Chandranath Amarasekara told The Island yesterday.

Answering a query on the broad money growth and its wider implications, Dr. Amarasekera said, “At the end of 2020, broad money expanded by 23.4% compared to the end 2019. The extraordinary circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic required increased credit to the government from Sri Lanka’s banking system, and the historically low interest rate structure also resulted in a pickup in the growth of credit to the private sector in the second half of the year. This policy driven expansion in broad money supply was essential for the country to dampen the effects of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.”

“As the Sri Lankan economy is operating below its potential, we do not project a demand-driven acceleration in inflation in the near term. Even the relatively high economic growth projected for 2021 will be partly driven by the low base in the previous year, and therefore, it is unlikely that there will be an overheating of the economy in 2021 as well, although we envisage a monetary expansion of 21%.”

“However, as the authority responsible for the money stock of the country, the Central Bank remains cautious about any excessive expansion in money growth. Nevertheless, the close relationship between money and inflation that we used to see in the past is no longer in existence. For example, during the most part of a period of single digit inflation that Sri Lanka experienced since 2009, broad money growth has remained above 15%. The breakdown of the close relationship between money growth and inflation is also one reason for the Central Bank to move away from a monetary targeting framework towards a flexible inflation targeting framework to conduct monetary policy. Anchoring of inflation expectations has also helped curb the inflationary effects of exchange rate movements as well. Many other countries have also experienced similar situations.”

“When the economy recovers and demand conditions improve, the Central Bank will take appropriate action to make necessary policy adjustments to ensure the continuation of inflation at the desirable levels of mid-single digits without disrupting the growth process,” Dr. Amarasekara said.

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