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Reforming Higher Education



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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This refers to the superlatively interesting and provocative piece on the above subject by Dr Upul Wijewardene{UW) appearing in The Island of 21/3/23 wherein, as he states, he had been a victim himself at the hands of a well-known Professor of Medicine turned health administrator. He makes it a point to castigate the leaders of the Buddhist clergy for their deviation from the sublime doctrine of this religion.

My first thought on this subject is that it is a cultural problem of exploitation by the privileged of the less fortunate fellow beings. The cultural aspect has its origin in the religion of the majority in India, Hinduism. There is no such discrimination in Islam.

The first recorded case was that of a Sinhala member of the Dutch army fighting against the Portuguese (or the army of the Kandiyan kingdom) being prevented by the members of the higher ranks from wearing sandals due to his low status in the caste hierarchy. The Dutch commander permitted the Sinhala solder to wear sandals as recorded by Paul Pieris in “Ceylon the Portuguese era”

There is also the instance of a monk getting up to meet the King when it was not the customary way of greeting the King by monks.

In an article by Dr Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian published in a local journal, it is said that members of the majority caste (approximately 40% of the Sinhala population) were not permitting lower ranking public officials serving the British government wear vestments studded with brass buttons. The second tier of the hierarchy who had become rich through means other than agriculture like sale of alcohol in the early British times took their revenge by lighting crackers in front of houses of their caste rivals when a British Duke was marching along in a procession in Colombo.

It is not uncommon for members of minority castes numerically low in numbers to help their own kind due to the discriminatory practices of the higher tiers of the hierarchy.

Dr Leo Fernando
Talahena, Negombo

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Billion-dollar carrot



The IMF successfully coerced the government into falling line with its instructions on debt restructuring and increasing of revenue, among others, and in all probability will release the first tranche of the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) during the course of this week. Regrettably, the IMF is not coercive where the violations of fundamental rights of a country, vis a vis universal franchise, is concerned. On its part, the government flaunted this invaluable tool on the public, as the only remedy for all its financial ailments. It was least worried of the consequences that would necessarily follow.

Taking the cue, professionals and trade union activists dangled the carrot of carrot of strikes to restrain the government on its implementation, the results of which are still in abeyance. Not to be outdone, the powers that be has refused to relent on the grounds that the economy has to be strengthened at whatever costs.

Now that the IMF loan has materialized, the government is already focusing its attention on securing further assistance from other lending agencies. How will the IMF monies be expended, and for what purposes? Naturally, the people would want to know since it is they who have to foot the bill at the end. The Treasury insists that it has no funds to provide for the conduct of LG polls. Just 10% of the rupee equivalent of the first tranche of US $ 300 million will suffice for the successful completion of the elections. Provided the government wants to.

The President has assured that no sooner the Agreement is signed with the IMF, he would submit a copy of it to Parliament. It would be prudent if he would also submit (without plucking figures from thin air) a comprehensive expenditure account on the disbursement of the first tranche. And continue to do so for the rest.

Being fully aware of the country’s top priority needs, attention should be focused on providing them at reasonable prices. Besides them, agriculture, fishing and domestic industries should also be given due consideration. Merely dangling of carrots before them will not suffice.

Non-essential development projects should be shelved until the dreamed of economic stability is achieved. Of special note is that upkeep and interests of politicians should not be addressed with these funds.Can the people expect some sort of genuine transparency even at this late stage?


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Death penalty – another view



In his article, (The Island, 8th March), Dr Jayampathy Wickremeratne, would have us believe that the Death Penalty is not an effective deterrent and it should be abolished in Sri Lanka. Similar arguments are presented in India, home to some of the most horrendous crimes of violence against Women and children, and also in South Africa, where the death penalty was abolished despite strong opposition from the vast majority of the population.

Use of the Death Penalty purely for political purposes is always bad, but that’s not what the public are calling for. The public want the Death penalty implemented RIGOROUSLY, against those who have undeniably murdered children, and also serial killers whose victims are invariably women. Their crimes are gruesome but unfortunately need to be detailed to counter the pseudo- academic arguments of Death Penalty abolishonists. For example:

South Africa abolished the death penalty despite vigorous opposition. In South Africa one of its worst serial killers, led the police to the remains of 38 of his victims all of them women and all from the poorest class (mostly domestic servants).

On 12 March, India’s National Broadcaster NDTV reports the case of a man in Kashmir, whose marriage proposal was refused. He murdered his prospective young bride, cut up her body and disposed the remains in several places to avoid detection. A few days ago, a similar incident in India was reported by NDTV, where a 17-year-old was stabbed and dragged through s crowded street and murdered with no public intervention! In Sri Lanka a few years ago, four-year-old Seya fell victim to a murderer, rapist, a person known to her family, whom the child trusted. Likewise, a 17-year-old girl miss Sivaloganathan was raped and murdered in the North by a gang led by an individual known as “Swiss Kumar” a porn film maker of Sri Lankan origin, living in Switzerland. (One wonders whether he subsequently received the benevolent “Presidential Pardon”!

Other arguments used in Dr Wickremeratne’s article, are out of date. For example, he refers to wrongful convictions in a bygone age where DNA testing did not exist. DNA tests enable identity to be established and tie a murderer to the crime, beyond any doubt. Elsewhere he cites a Table where Murder rates are calculated as follows- “divide the number of murders by the total population, in death-penalty and non-death penalty states”. This methodology is patently flawed. It assumes that the populations of ALL 50 States in the USA are homogeneous in demography and other characteristics- it equates the violent State of New York with relatively peaceful Alaska.

Dr W advocated “long term imprisonment” in lieu of death penalty. Frankly this is the academic argument of a person removed from everyday life and steeped in Academia, “the social cost of rehabilitation” is Immense! It has been estimated that the cost of keeping a person on death row is at least Rs 50,000 per month – for the rest of the murderers’ life! It should ALSO be pointed out that in Singapore and other countries where the death penalty operates, murder rates are significantly low.


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