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Reforming Higher Education

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By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

I have emerged from retirement twice in the last couple of months, on both occasions to speak at events organised by my former students at Sabaragamuwa University. On both occasions this happened soon after pronouncements about the need for reforms in education, by the Prime Minister first and now the President.

But nothing happens. Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power for nine years and failed to introduce the new Education and Higher Education Acts he pledged. Gotabaya has now been in power for 15 months and, admittedly, has had to deal with the Covid crisis. But there have been so signs of action in crucial areas, just general pronouncements about the prevailing mess.

In such a context, I feel some pride in the enormous amount I did in the one month I served as State Minister of Education. Nothing came of this since I resigned so soon, but after six years, during which nothing has moved, I thought I should set these down for the record. I hasten to note that this is not in the expectation that anyone in authority will take things forward because building on the past is anathema to politicians. But researchers in the future will find all this useful, when at some stage a study of what went wrong with education in Sri Lanka is written, on the lines of Jayasuriya’s seminal work about developments in the past.

I was appointed State Minister of Higher Education at the beginning of 2015. This was after Maithripala Sirisena became President, and I was a bit upset because he had pledged in his manifesto that leaders of parties supporting him would be in the Cabinet.

I told Maithripala I was disappointed that he had not kept his word to which, typically, he said that decisions had been made not by him but by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga and I should speak to them. I told him I would do nothing of the sort, for I had supported him and not them, but I would accept the position since I thought I could work under him. At that stage there was no Cabinet Minister so I would have to report only to him.

But then Chandrika called me to tell me to dismiss the Chaiman of the UGC. When I refused, she said I should wait to see who was appointed on top of me. Soon enough Kabir Hashim was made Cabinet Minister of Higher Education.

I had no high opinion of his intellect or his capabilities and I called him to object. But he assured me that he knew nothing of the subject and would in any case be busy with the forthcoming election so would leave all decisions in my hands. I was foolish enough to believe him but within a couple of weeks he ordered the UGC Chairman to resign, claiming he had acted on Maithripala Sirisena’s instructions.

Maithripala denied this but I realised work would be impossible so I resigned and, though Maithripala said he would not accept my resignation, I said I would not withdraw unless I was made a Cabinet Minister. Kabir claimed he was happy about this, but Ranil and Chandrika were not, being more interested in their own agendas than the country. Ranil claimed in Parliament that I had not resigned, and when I expostulated he grinned and said triumphantly that my resignation had not been accepted. Obviously, he did not understand the Constitution but, with the bond scam having exploded, I decided enough was enough and crossed the floor of the house.

But before I resigned, I had initiated a number of programmes which no Minister of Higher Education would have dreamed of. I visited a university once a week to talk to students and staff of a particular faculty, and even inspected halls of residence, which astonished students. I also got my staff to engage in a similar visit to another university every week, for I felt we needed to know what was happening everywhere as soon as possible. And in addition, I had a meeting every week in the Ministry with yet another group of students.

In addition to developing close contacts with students, I also began work on a new Universities Act Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted to introduce one when he was President but it was then forgotten though a decent enough draft had been prepared. Indeed, I had told Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014 that, unless he fulfilled his commitments, in particular with regard to new Education and Higher Education Acts, instead of having an early Presidential election, I could not support him.

I set up a Committee of two former Vice-Chancellors and a former College Director and, together with the Professor of Law at Colombo University, the thoughtful and thorough Sharya Scharagnuivel, we produced what I thought was a very good draft which covered all tertiary education. We had not finished when I vacated office but we worked from my home and I sent Kabir the draft and also passed it on to a successor when one was appointed after the Cabinet was expanded. But neither of them took any notice of this. As Malinda Seneviratne once put it, and confirmed this later in a television discussion, I had been the only Minister working in the first few months of Maithripala Sirisena’s government. The rest were only working towards the election that was imminent.

I also produced two Cabinet papers, which were ignored, including one to start a more comprehensive version of the GELT course. I had long been worried about the way the time of young people was wasted after they did their Ordinary Level examination in December. Advanced Levels did not begin till May at the earliest, and youngsters had nothing to do, which meant parents started to send them for tuition or they themselves got used to even worse practices.

I proposed then that in every division there should be afternoon classes in English and Mathematics. One reason given for substandard performances in these subjects was the paucity of teachers, but I had no doubt that there were enough good teachers to conduct make up classes in these subjects in at least one school in each Division. Something of the sort had happened during the GELT course and I knew well what was possible.

Such classes would be free of charge. And, though they would not be compulsory, the fact that they were available would have allowed the UGC to demand at least a pass in English at the Ordinary Level as a prerequisite for university entrance. The excuse for not doing this was that many schools had no teachers but – apart from the fact that this was true with regard to mathematics too, but that was compulsory – nothing had been done to provide remedial teaching for the students who suffered.

The other Cabinet paper was to establish a University Press. Interestingly, the idea has now come up again, but at one university as my own original Sabaragamuwa University Press was. That is good in itself but why the UGC cannot move to something with greater potential impact I cannot understand. But of course, those Cabinet papers too, though sent to Kabir and his successor, were also ignored.

All this alone was I think twice as much as any other Minister of Higher Education did in a year. But I had excellent staff, quite unlike the rubbish and relations (and the rubbish relations) my predecessors had, as the regular administrative staff at the Ministry told me. Indeed, when I resigned they tried to hang on to some of them, and my coordinating Secretary, the entirely reliable Chaminda Bandara, who had been in government service previously was transferred to that Ministry where he worked indefatigably for several years.

I revitalised the website, and insisted that we also work in Tamil, for which I got some excellent staff from Jeevan Thiagarajah. It was astonishing that the Ministry had not bothered about Tamil thus far, but I suppose no one cared.

Not only did I have regular posts about the changes we were making but I tried to evoke ideas from others, for having noted the stress in the President’s manifesto on the ‘extension of opportunities and appropriate education for jobs’ I asked for ‘observations on how best we can pursue these aims’. I also wrote to Vice-Chancellors asking them to let me know of ‘five significant achievements during your time in office, and five ideas for future development.’

One other area I tried to work in was to use the Provincial Council system to promote opportunities for students at provincial level. I wrote to the Chief Ministers to remind them about a constitutional provision that had been totally forgotten for nearly three decades – ‘according to the Constitution, Higher Education is a concurrent subject, and Provinces may establish and maintain new Universities and degree awarding institutions. This has not been done in the past, but it is essential if we are to move towards suitable higher education for all, as pledged in the manifesto. In particular I believe we must also have regional tertiary education institutes that would help us improve standards in secondary schools with regard to Mathematics and Science and English and the Technical Skills needed in the modern world. ‘

This would have been a seminal change. Meanwhile, I also tried to get individual universities to engage in socially relevant work with regard to their own geographical areas, which would have been very useful to the more neglected areas of the country.

When I had started on curriculum reform at Sabaragamuwa I had not been in favour of what was termed a dissertation, an essay supposedly based on research which every student had to produce in their final year. I thought these would be superficial, but since they now seemed part of the system at all universities I accepted the concept but insisted on a viva so we could make sure students had understood the subject and were not merely reproducing material culled from others.

But I still thought there was insufficient value in the exercise, so what I now suggested to the Vice-Chancellors was that they ensure that all such dissertations were based on a local problem, for instance difficulties as to water supply for geographers, local employment opportunities for economists, English teaching for English students. And then, I suggested, students and staff could sit together and formulate a development plan for the Division they had all worked on.

I had been worried in the preceding years by the lack of coherence I found with regard to Development Planning in the Districts in the North and East where I had held Reconciliation meetings in every administrative Division. I had found that there was hardly any consultation of the supposed recipients of development projects, with politicians allowed a free hand, more often than not to make money for themselves or select dependants.

I had no illusions that plans produced by universities would be given priority, nor indeed that they would necessarily solve problems. But the fact that such had been prepared, and that academics were willing to get involved with local communities, and perhaps help to develop a dialogue between the people and decision makers, would go some way towards institutionalizing consultation mechanisms.

But that idea too fell by the wayside after I ceased to hold office. So we have continuous bleating from those in power about the need to improve the relevance and quality of university education, but there have been no imaginative ideas to promote this, let alone the energy and initiative to ensure necessary changes. And of course, no one will dream of taking a leaf out of my book since the independent thinking that can alone take a country forward is anathema to those who cannot themselves think outside the box as far as educational and administrative changes are concerned.



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Opinion

A Cabinet reshuffle needed

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It looks as if the government did not realise the need to take drastic action to stem the tide of public disapproval. Even the most optimistic, who were overjoyed at the election of a non-politician President, followed by that of a government with an unexpected thumping majority, are sighing in despair! Although part of it is due to avoidable own-goals, there seems to be an extremely effective anti-government campaign directed by an unseen hand. Even when toxins are detected in imported coconut oil, rather than laying the blame on errant importers, attempts are made to tarnish the image of the government. All this is possible because the government seems to lack an effective communication strategy. One wonders whether the government has a lax attitude because the Opposition is blundering.

The fracas in the Parliament on the issue of Ranjan Ramanayaka losing his seat was the best illustration of a misguided Opposition not fit for purpose. Critics may argue that RR was given an unfairly harsh punishment but their criticism lacks moral authority because they opted to be silent when a Buddhist priest was given a much harsher punishment for the same offence: in fact, they were delighted! RR stated publicly that most judges were corrupt and defended his stance at every possible turn. He also refused all opportunities afforded for clarification. In spite of the Attorney General informing a while ago that RR’s seat should be declared vacant, to his credit the Speaker waited till RR’s petition for appeal was dealt with. Even though the facts were obvious, the Leader of the Opposition accused the Speaker of removing RR on the basis of non-attendance for three months, which he had to correct the following day! Those who blamed the SLPP for staging unruly protests in Parliament in October 2018, did the same on behalf of RR. Is this not laughable?

Once and for all, the question of the authority of the President was settled with the passage of the 20th Amendment and it is high time the President made use of his new powers. The most important thing he can and should do is a cabinet reshuffle, a mechanism often adopted by British Prime Ministers by way of a course correction. It need not be a major reshuffle but a minor one involving some ministers who are obviously underperforming. I have written in the past about the Minister of Health who demonstrated gross irresponsibility by partaking of an untested and unlicensed medicinal product. She is also responsible for not implementing the Jennifer Perera committee report on the disposal of bodies of unfortunate victims of Covid-19? Had this been implemented in December, much of the adverse publicity the country received could have been avoided. Perhaps, the voting during the UNHRC resolution also may have been very different. The Minister of Public Security talking of banning some face coverings did not help either. Pity he did not realize he was talking of this at the wrong time; during an epidemic when face coverings may be useful.

The Minister of Trade, who was an effective critic in the Opposition, has turned out to be totally ineffective. Even the government gazette has become a joke due to his actions. Perhaps, it is time for him to take a back-seat and allow someone else to have a go at the rice-mafia. etc. Perhaps, ex-president Sirisena may be given a chance to see whether brotherly love is more effective than the gazette in controlling the prices of rice.

The biggest failure of this government is on the diplomatic front. What most diplomats consider to be the most important diplomatic assignment, the post of High Commissioner to India remains unfilled for almost a year. Whether we like it or not, India is fast gaining the status of a world power, and not having our representative to deal with officials acknowledged to be of top calibre is a shame.

The way the UNHRC resolution was handled showed total incompetence of the highest order. We withdrew but the Ambassador decided to take part; we lost and claimed victory! To cap it all, the Foreign Minister announced in Parliament that the resolution was illegal. All the time sinister forces are at work, relentlessly, to undermine the country and force the separatist agenda on us and if we are not sharp, we may end up in disaster. For reasons best known to themselves, the government failed to utilize fully the good offices of Lord Naseby. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary no doubt irked the Indian and US governments.

For all these reasons, the need of the day is a complete overhaul of our Foreign Affairs set up, starting with the Minister. It is high time we made use of our career diplomats, who are well trained for the job and stop sending political ambassadors. The practice of utilizing ambassadorial posts as parking lots for retired service chiefs is abhorrent, as it gives the false impression that Sri Lanka has a military government in all but name.

There is still a chance for reversal of fortunes, if the President decides to act swiftly after returning from Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. If not, unfortunately, there may not be much left to celebrate!

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Opinion

Alleviating poverty, the Chinese way

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China has released a white paper on poverty alleviation which outlines the success of policies implemented, the methods employed and her desire to share the unique social experiment with other developing countries. Sri Lanka being a friendly international partner of China should make use of this opportunity to study the programme and plan a scheme and send a team to China to learn the activities conducted under the scheme so that Sri Lanka will be able to handle the fight against poverty, successfully.

“China achieved the largest scale battle against extreme poverty, worldwide, as 98.99 million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty, creating a miracle in human history.” These people were living in 128 ,000 villages all over in China. China through a sustained program was able to achieve its poverty reduction targets set out in UN 2030 agenda, 10 years ahead of its schedule.

A quote from a report released by the BBC outlines the success achieved by China.

:” In 1990, there were more than 750 million people in China, living below the international poverty line – about two-thirds of the population. By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 – the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available – it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population). So clearly, even in 2016 China was well on the way to reaching its target This suggests that overall, 745 million fewer people were living in extreme poverty in China than were 30 years ago. World Bank figures do not take us to the present day, but the trend is certainly in line with the Chinese government’s announcement. (“Another large country, India, had 22% of its population living below the international poverty line in 2011 (the most recent data available) …:”}

The people living in extreme poverty suffer from the lack of extremely basic amenities, such as food. safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education. It is a fact that those who come under this category are trapped in a vicious circle and for generations they cannot escape the deprivations.

Some of the policies followed by China in achieving the enviable outcome are discussed in the White paper. The most important condition to be fulfilled is the acceptance of the fact that governance of a country starts with the needs of the people and their prosperity is the responsibility of the government. “To achieve success, it is of utmost importance that the leadership have devotion. strong will and determination. and the ruling party and the government assumes their responsibilities to the people. play a leading role, mobilize forces from all quarters and ensure policies are consistent and stable’.

China has provided the poor with the guidance, direction and tools while educating them to have the ambition to emerge from poverty, Through farmers’ night schools, workshops and technical schools create the improvement of skills. The government identifies the economic opportunities in consultation with the people, then provides finances, loans for the selected projects, and strengthens the infra-structure facilities, including the marketing outlets.

While the macro aspects for the poverty alleviation is planned centrally, the activities are executed provincially and locally.

Sri Lankans living under the national poverty line was 4.1% of the population in 2016 (World Data Atlas). The impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21 has dealt a severe blow to the living standards in Sri Lanka and it is assumed that the people living under the poverty line would have reached approximately 8% of the population by 2021.

President Gotabaya Rajapakasa has realised this gloomy truth in his interaction with the poor in the villages on his visits to the remote areas in Sri Lanka. I would request him to study the success story of China and to work out a similar NATIONAL programme in consultation with China. In the White Paper, China says that she is ready to share her experience with other countries who desire to reduce the poverty levels. The President should appoint a TASK FORCE of capable and nationalist-minded individuals to steer the program with given targets as PRIORITY VENTURE. If Sri Lanka can plan a comprehensive programme for poverty alleviation and implement with determination under the capable, dedicated and willing leadership of the President, nearly two million Sri Lankans who live below the poverty line will benefit and would start contributing to the growth of the nation productively.

RANJITH SOYSA

 

 

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Opinion

Need in New Year is to heal the divides

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By Jehan Perera

One of the definitions of reconciliation is to move from a divided past to a shared future.  The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan came as a reminder that unhealed issues from the past continue to threaten peace in the present and the future.  According to people I spoke to in Jaffna, this arrest has revived memories that were no longer in the people’s consciousness.  Nearly 11 years after the end of the war, the people were no longer thinking of the LTTE police and the uniform they once wore. The bailing out of the mayor de-escalated the crisis that was brewing in Jaffna following his arrest.  There were reports that a hartal, or shutdown of the city, had been planned to protest against the arrest.

Jaffna Mayor Manivannan was taken into custody by the Jaffna police for allegedly promoting uniforms and iconography of the LTTE, according to the police.  They had found that the Mayor had recruited five individuals to perform traffic duties in Jaffna town in uniforms that resembled those worn by the LTTE’s police during the time when they ran a parallel administration in parts of the north and east. Photos published in the media show a similarity.  Promoting symbols associated with the LTTE, including uniforms is an offence under provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

However, the position of the Municipality was that the five individuals had been recruited to a Jaffna Municipal Council task force on a temporary basis to enforce penalties against environmental violations such as littering the streets.  According to Mayor Manivannan, the uniforms were, in fact, the same as those worn by a similar task force run by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). Media reported a striking resemblance between the task force uniform and the uniforms worn by the LTTE police but also that a parking meter initiative run by the Colombo Municipal Council has employed staffers who also wear a light blue shirt and pants of a darker shade, vaguely similar to the offending Jaffna outfit. 

 

JAFFNA VISIT

Ironically, a few days prior to this incident, I visited Jaffna to take part in the last rites for Fr Nicholapillai Maria Saveri who had headed the Centre for Performing Arts, in Jaffna, for over four decades.  Under Fr Saveri’s leadership the centre produced an entire generation of artistes who reached out across all barriers of ethnicity and religion and touched the lives of people everywhere.  Through his artistic and cultural productions, Fr Saveri tried to show the interdependence of those who live in the country and need to share it bringing to the fore their different talents, connections and capacities.   He sought to turn the diversity and pluralism in the country away from being a source of conflict into one of strength and mutual enrichment. 

The normalcy I saw in Jaffna, during the short period I was there, made me feel that the ethnic conflict was a thing of the past.  At the hotel I stayed I saw young people come and enjoy a drink at the bar and talking with each other with animation and laughter as young people do.  When I went to the District Secretariat, I was struck by the fact that they played the national anthem at sharp 8.30 am and all work stopped while the anthem played all three verses in the Tamil language and all stood to attention, even inside their rooms.  The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2011, had recommended that the national anthem be sung in both languages and I was happy to see that in Jaffna this was being implemented a decade later.

At the funeral service for Fr Saveri I met many people and none of them spoke of war and conflict but like people in other parts of the country they spoke of the economy and cost of living.  An administrator from the University of Jaffna spoke about his satisfaction at the large number of Sinhala students at the University and the mixing that was taking place as a result, between the communities.  He said that as the University did not have adequate hostel facilities many of the students from outside of Jaffna, including the Sinhala students, lived with local families.  He said that during the recent graduation ceremony, hundreds of their family members came from the southern parts of the country and joined their children in their places of accommodation which contributed to the inter community mixing.

 

UNIFYING THEME

The situation in Jaffna was so normal to my eyes as a visitor that one of the questions I had and to which I sought answers from those I met, was whether there was a common theme that bound the people together.  Despite my inquiries I could not discern such a common theme that was openly visible or explained to me as such.  It was much like the rest of the country.  At the last general election the people of the north voted for a multiplicity of parties including ones that are part of the present government.  The candidate who got the largest number of votes was one who was affiliated with the government.  At the same time nationalist parties got votes too that saw them enter Parliament and the more moderate parties emerged the largest. 

The arrest of Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan has now supplied a common unifying theme to the politics of the north.  There is distress that the popularly elected Mayor has been treated in such a manner.  If the uniforms that the Municipal workers were wearing too closely resembled those of the LTTE, he could have been informed that this was not appropriate.  It would have been possible to ensure that the uniforms were immediately removed and replaced with ones that were more appropriate while taking into consideration the sensitivities that three decades of war would bring.  As the Mayor is most closely associated with government Minister Douglas Devananda such a request would most certainly have been complied with.  As leader of the EPDP, Minister Devananda was at the forefront of militarily fighting against the LTTE.

The government’s determination to thwart any possible attempt to revive the LTTE can be understood.  The war with the LTTE cost the country enormously in terms of human suffering and economic devastation.  The government won the last election on the promise that it would give priority to national security and also develop the country on that basis.  However, sections of the Tamil Diaspora continue to be openly pro-LTTE and espouse a separatist agenda.  The loss of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council, in which the Tamil Diaspora played a role, would make the government more determined to suppress any attempt to revive the LTTE.  Now that the immediate crisis has been defused due to the release of the Mayor on bail, it would be timely for the government to mitigate the political damage by a multiplicity of means, including by reaching out to the Jaffna Municipal Council about its Municipal law enforcement mechanism.

 

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