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Promotion of non-state non-profit universities in Lanka: A welcome move

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By Professor R.P. Gunawardane

In the most recent address on a policy statement, made by the President of Sri Lanka in the Parliament on 18 January, 2022, he highlighted the importance of non-state universities in Sri Lanka and proposed policy guidelines to promote the establishment of such universities in the country. Although the importance of such a scheme is well recognised, all previous governments failed to implement such a programme due to narrow political reasons. This proposal has been long overdue and it is a most welcome move by the President after going through a very difficult period of governance due to the effects of the worst pandemic faced by humanity in this century, many reversals of misguided policies and unscientific decision-making concerning many vital issues at the highest level of the government.

As a person who has been promoting this idea for over several decades without much success, this article is presented making a strong case for the facilitation of the establishment of such institutions in the country, expanding on its direct and indirect impacts to the nation and also specifying the role of the government to make it a success.

Need for non-state non-profit universities

It is evident that the state monopoly on university education hinders expansion, diversification and innovation in our higher education institutions. As a result, a large number of deserving students are denied opportunities for university education. In this situation many students go abroad seeking university education in other countries, draining colossal amounts of valuable foreign exchange annually. Some parents do this with utmost difficulty by mortgaging their only house or property, making an enormous sacrifice.

Private and non-state non-profit universities including medical schools operate in parallel with state universities and medical schools in our neighbouring countries like India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Our students go to these countries in addition to East European countries, China, Malaysia and Cuba for their undergraduate studies in all fields, including medicine.

All top universities in the world including Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford and all Ivy League universities in the USA and even Oxford, Cambridge and London universities in the UK are completely independent non-state non-profit institutions. Although they receive some funding from the government for specific teaching and research projects none of them are state controlled.

Private and non-state non-profit university level institutions in Sri Lanka do not come under the purview of the University Grants Commission (UGC). As such, they are not required to abide by the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978 which has centralised powers and decision-making at the UGC. Consequently, these institutions have a tremendous advantage and full freedom to expand and diversify programmes with innovative approaches without any clearance or approval from any government authorities.

Free education and non-state universities

Some interested parties have brought up a general issue against the establishment of non-state universities in Sri Lanka. They claim that it is against the free education policy in this country. Consequently, it has become more of a political issue. It is surprising that those who oppose non-state universities do not protest the non-state sector participation in education, healthcare and many other sectors in the country. It must be realised that state sector and non-state sector institutions can coexist and compete without jeopardising state policies as it happens now in education, health and many other sectors.

Almost all preschools are run by the private sector. There are many private sector primary and secondary schools operating throughout the island while we practice free education. Some of these private schools are of considerably high standard. A large number of students, especially in urban areas, now attend private schools paying exorbitant school fees because of the difficulty in finding placement in popular government schools. Those students who study in government schools spend colossal amounts on tuition classes. This amount, in some cases, exceeds the school fees paid by those who attend private schools.

Many non-state sector universities and other degree awarding institutes, recognised by the UGC, have been operating in the country for many years. High quality private hospitals operate side by side with state hospitals providing valuable services while free healthcare is practised in the state sector. Government doctors are free to practice in private hospitals although some tend to abuse this freedom. Similarly, private sector organisations operate in competition with the state sector in transport, insurance, banking, media, fuel, energy, trade and many other fields giving people enough choice and thus benefiting the customers. Under such circumstances, why the fuss about the non-state sector, private universities and medical schools, as long as they comply with common rules stipulated by the regulatory bodies including the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC)?

Non-state sector university level institutions have been fairly well established in Sri Lanka in the last two decades. There are over 22 such institutions approved by the UGC. One such institution of high quality is Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT) with links to top universities in Australia, the UK and the USA. They are also performing an enormous service to the country by providing alternative avenues of university education to our deserving students. These institutions can also supplement the state university system by cooperating in different ways. Consequently, these institutions should also be guided by an accreditation and quality assurance mechanism operated by the government. A properly constituted Accreditation and Quality Assurance council, if established in Sri Lanka, can assure the quality of degree programmes offered by state universities as well as non-state sector institutions.

Under such circumstances why not allow non-state and non-profit universities in this country? These institutions can not only provide high quality university education to local students but also attract foreign students bringing in much needed foreign exchange to the country.

However, it must be stressed that further opening and regularising university education to the non-state sector should necessarily be accompanied by, (i) an independent accreditation and quality assurance mechanism and (ii) need-based financial assistance to a certain proportion of students by the institutions. In addition, it is desirable to have a low-interest loan scheme for such students offered by a state bank or by the Mahapola Trust Fund.

Benefits to national economy

Introducing an element of competition to the tertiary education system is expected to improve quality, provide more variety and reduce cost of training. With the liberalisation, the policies should be directed towards facilitating the expansion and diversification of tertiary education to reach about 25 percent (age cohort) participation rate by the year 2025.

When those who can afford have the opportunity to enter non-state sector institutions, it is possible to accommodate others in the state system. Consequently, state funds can be targeted more towards helping the disadvantaged gain access to high quality tertiary education. It is most desirable, as far as possible, to have merit-based admission and need-based financial aid for all those who are admitted to all universities. This will ensure fair play and justice and will not deny any candidate university entry because of financial hardships.

One group of Sri Lankan students has been left out of our university admission process. They are the students who study in private or international schools, which do not offer Sri Lankan GCE A/L but prepare students for the London (UK) A/L exam. These students enrol in international schools mostly not by choice but by necessity due to the inability to get into a reputed government school in urban areas. They are also Sri Lankan citizens who have legitimate expectations of gaining admission to state universities, which is denied them. Some of them follow hybrid degree programmes of overseas universities, involving initial on-line courses which can be done at home in Sri Lanka followed by an in person component in a foreign country. But the total tuition fee has to be paid in foreign currency draining our precious foreign exchange. This group will also benefit from the proposed non-state non-profit universities in Sri Lanka, while saving a considerable amount of foreign exchange to the country.

This plan, if properly implemented, will considerably increase access to university education, for a large number of our students. Furthermore, they can receive high quality higher education in their home country at a much lower cost without being forced to go abroad for university education. Since a large number of students from neighbouring countries can be attracted to these institutions it will bring in a fair amount of foreign exchange annually to this country. In addition, our students are also exposed to students from different cultures in a local environment.

Action plan, role of government

As such, in line with global trends, the tertiary education sector should be opened up to the non-governmental and private sector with a national accreditation and a monitoring scheme. Once a comprehensive proposal is prepared it is necessary to invite prestigious universities in developed countries, international non-profit foundations and professional organisations of international repute to set up new universities or campuses of existing prestigious universities in the world. This should include a package of incentives, facilitating policies, any tax incentives and most importantly the central contact point or authority in Sri Lanka for this purpose should be identified.

It is not sufficient just to announce the intention of promoting non-state non-profit universities in Sri Lanka by the President in his address to the Parliament. This announcement should be followed up immediately with a properly formulated action plan. For this purpose, a suitable high-powered Presidential Committee consisting of highly qualified persons with experience in the higher education sector should be appointed immediately to work out an action plan with a time frame.

The main purpose of this Committee should be to work out an action plan to promote the establishment of high quality and well-equipped non-state universities in Sri Lanka. They could also identify some organisations and universities abroad for this purpose. The action plan should include proposed incentives, policy guidelines and assistance and facilitations provided by the government to establish such campuses in this country. To facilitate and expedite the implementation, there should be only one central authority or institution dealing with the applicants or specific proposals regarding this matter.

The role of the government in establishing such institutions should be limited to issuing some basic guidelines and also facilitating and promoting the establishment of well-equipped and high-quality institutions. Consequently, the central government should not get directly involved in the establishment of such institutions. But adequate incentives should be provided to attract high quality and prestigious universities. However, the government should specify that such institutions should offer need-based financial assistance to at least 10 percent of the total number of Sri Lankan students enrolled in the university. This way the government can ensure that students of low-income households are not completely excluded.



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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