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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

Bakeer Markar left his mark in every Lankan’s heart

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By Dr Harsha De Silva

Passionate in his noble thoughts with an undying belief in unity for the sake of peace, coexistence and, above all, the development of the nation, Deshamanya Al Haj Mohammed Abdul Bakeer Markar was a prominent lawyer, a formidable politician and a loving family man who has left his mark in every Sri Lankan’s heart.

It is very hard to eulogise any man, to capture in words the very intimate details of his life, and it is even harder to do so for a prominent figure in history, who moved a nation towards unity and harmony. However, I consider it a privilege to write about the remarkable life lived by Mohammed Abdul Bakeer Markar and will attempt to capture in words the true essence of his life.

Bakeer Markar was born into a respectable family in Beruwala in 1917. After completing his primary school education at St. Sebastian’s School, Hulftsdorp, he had the privilege of joining Zahira College, Colombo for his secondary education. He passed out as a lawyer and commenced his legal practice at the Kalutara Bar in 1950.

Due to the perseverance and study he put into his practice of the law, he had clients, both Sinhalese and Muslim, flocking to him. Legends are many of the several instances where he appeared for Sinhalese clients in cases filed against persons of his own community, thereby following discerningly the commandment in the Holy Quran that one must ‘stand up for justice’ even against one’s own kith and kin. Like it is said, he never wavered from the courage of his own convictions.

His initial steps into politics, was in 1946 when he was sub-warden at Zahira College, Colombo. Then Dr. T.B. Jayah contested the Labour Leader A.E. Goonesinghe at the General Elections of 1946, to the State Council. Bakeer Markar was entrusted the task of carrying out Dr. Jayah’s election campaign, which he did successfully. Dr. Jayah was elected Member of the State Council.

The leadership of Dr. Jayah was laudable. With this kind of inspiration, experience, and the taste of political nectar, Bakeer Markar pursued in the footsteps of his political guru Dr. T.B. Jayah. Bakeer Markar began his political career as a young member of the Beruwala Urban Council in 1950. It would have been evident even at the time, where this young and amateur politician was heading when he was elected Chairman of the Council in his first year as a member.

Early in his political career at the Urban Council, he earned a name as a servant of the people; an honest, hardworking and approachable man with excellent knowledge of his constituency and its citizens. That reputation naturally paved the way for him to become the Member of Parliament for Beruwala and later the highest position in the Parliament of Sri Lanka, the Speaker of the House in 1978.

His time as the Speaker earned him respect and appreciation from parliamentarians of both sides of the House. He continued to serve as the Speaker until 1983 when he was appointed a Cabinet Minister without portfolio. After ending his parliamentary career, he was appointed as the first Governor of the Southern Province.

Given the sweep of his life, the scope of his accomplishments, the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is appropriate to remember Bakeer Markar as an icon whose qualities set him apart from everybody else. His memory is still fresh in the minds of the Sri Lankan people as a man of robust principle and strong character, never seeking wealth or glory through his political ambitions and responsibilities.

His home electorate of Beruwala is and has always been, a complete image of the diverse ethnic and religious communities of Sri Lanka. Engaging these various groups towards a common cause and a shared political goal was never to be an easy task. Only a man of exceptional character and an unwavering will, like Bakeer Markar, had the ability to do so.

“Though I belonged to the minority community, I was able to enter the national and international arena only because I was able to go forward with the majority community,” were words spoken by Bakeer Makar himself as an advocate of national unity. In the name of harmony and unity, Bakeer Makar was a prominent figure at the Beruwala Urban Council who pushed the moving of the resolution to recognise the Sinhala language as the official language. In his efforts to unite the Muslim youth with the Sinhalese, Bakeer Makar earned the affectionate nickname “Sinhala Bakeer”.

Further, he wholeheartedly supported the policy adopted by then Leader of the Opposition J. R. Jayewardene to avoid stirring the simmering anger of a vast section of the public of Sri Lanka towards violence. Moreover, speaking on the special allowance to plantation workers on 6 October 1965, he spoke on behalf of the estate workers, referring to them as “Ceylonese” which emphasised his vision “one identity under one nation”. He believed and espoused the true spirit of equality for everyone.

Bakeer Marker secured a special place in the hearts of the people as he worked tirelessly to change the lives of poor and desperate. Economic policies of Sri Lanka from 1970-1977 which created hardships for most people, made Bakeer Makar see the harshness of poverty and the struggle of the poor in the country. He knew the only way to change the lives of the poor was to change the government.

Bakeer Marker’s remarkable contribution towards the United National Party is not to be forgotten. With a strong will and lasting belief in fellowship, he worked tirelessly to support the regrouping of a demotivated United National Party after the catastrophic defeat at the parliamentary election in 1970. His work in the party, especially in the Kalutara District was an illustration of the positive contribution he and few other politicians made towards reorganising the party network and regrouping its members.

His victory at the General Elections of 1977 was the dazzling landmark of his political career. At this General Election, he was returned with a remarkable majority of 27,000 votes, with a total poll of 49,000 votes. This electoral victory of 1977 was a historic gift to the respectful minority.

On 4 August 1977, he was elected Deputy Speaker. This was a short stint. He was thereafter elected to the high office of Speaker on 21 September 1978, being the unanimous choice of the Government and the Opposition. He was the last Speaker of the old Parliament at Galle Face and the first Speaker of the new Parliament in Sri Jayewardenepura.

On his elevation to the position of Speaker, he stood by the great traditions and decorum of the Speaker’s Office. He did not want to be a nominal Speaker, merely presiding at parliamentary sessions. The Office of Speaker was made most significant. The mace was not any more mere symbolic. The Speaker’s mace was made the due symbol of authority. The Speaker’s traditional robe was reintroduced, which to this day has its glamour. Dignity was restored and redefined to the Speaker’s office.

Above all, Speaker Bakeer Markar saw to it that the annual audit of the Parliamentary administration was brought under the direct supervision of the Auditor General, making Parliamentary affairs and administration transparent. As the Speaker, he also maintained an excellent rapport with the diplomatic community. Further, he made sure a roster was drawn to ensure that equal opportunities were given to all Members of Parliament to go abroad on official duties.

Bakeer Markar was internationally renowned and countries in the Middle East and the Far East held him in high esteem as he proved to be a great Ambassador of goodwill for Sri Lanka. He went on to excel in international relations and established close connections with the Iraqi Government. Through this connection, he built an entire village in Eravur, in the East. He was the founder President of the Iraq-Sri Lanka Friendship Association and remained in that position until his demise. He was fortunate that he did not witness the dismemberment of Iraq which would have grieved him immensely.

In addition to his extraordinary political career, Bakeer was an extraordinary humanitarian. Large gatherings from all walks of life were constantly seen at his Arab Road residence in Beruwala and each individual was attended to their satisfaction. He attended weddings and funerals and went wherever and whenever he was needed as President of the Muslim League Youth Front. He travelled to all corners of the country, continuously meeting people and addressing their needs. All petitions and requests were perused in his chambers and the relevant ministers were summoned to deal with and give redress to the humanitarian problems of all concerns.

He was also known for advising his security to ensure that the public was made comfortable when visiting him, for he believed that without the support of the common man he would not have reached the heights in life that he has. It was precisely this goodness in his heart that he carried and the deeply embedded love he had for his people that makes him unforgettable.

Bakeer Markar’s legacy lives on through his children and grandchildren. The public standing and love his eldest son Imthiaz Bakeer Markar is enjoying throughout the island is a testimony to this. Imthiaz Bakeer Markar similar to his father, is a well-respected, politician and a man of robust principle and strong character. His grandchildren Asaf, Azam, Fadhil, and Insaf continue to carry on their grandfather’s legacy by working tirelessly towards social justice and equality. I take this opportunity to remember not only the soul of Abdul Bakeer Markar but also the young and wise soul of his loving grandson Adhil Bakeer Markar.

This giant in history demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough and that no matter how right, they must be chiselled into law and institutions. Bakeer Marker was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. He was not only a leader of a movement that pushed for equality and unity but also a skilful politician who understood the ties that bind the human spirit.

With a strong belief in reconciliation and coexistence and a will to contribute in his utmost capacity towards the harmonious development of the nation, there was a tone of sadness in his final address to the Parliament when he stated, “It is my regret that I shall no longer be with you when you add chapter to shining chapter in Sri Lanka’s history.”

He dreamt further when he said: “The time is not far off when Ceylon will sit in the Assembly of Nations, as a well-developed country and take its rightful place there and play its role.” This goes on to show Abdul Bakeer Markar’s deep-seated love for his nation, every community that makes Sri Lanka the beautiful diverse island it is, and his undying belief of the heights the nation can reach coupled with his vision “one identity under one nation”.

It is no doubt that his political legacy and the memory of his magnificent soul continue to secure a hopeful future for Sri Lanka and all its people.

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Opinion

Another ruse?

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Reading about the indictment for murder brought against Hemasiri Fernando, former Secretary of Defence, and the former IGP, I was tempted to look up a legal dictionary which said that murder is an intentionally committed criminal offence, whereas manslaughter or homicide are offences committed unintentionally causing loss of life.

As a former public officer of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, I remember a similar charge of intention to commit murder brought against a Minister or his deputy in the 1970s, when Felix Dias Bandaranaike was a senior minister of the Sirima Bandaranaike’s government, over the throwing of a chair by the Minister concerned on a trade unionist Teacher of the Department of Education. The case was thrown out if I remember right, on the ground that there was no such murderous intention on the part of the government politico.

It was pretty obvious then that the charge had been artfully magnified and manipulated to get the case thrown out of court.

Is this another such instance of pulling the wool over the eyes of the public, to forestall the case of charges being levelled against a former President?

KANTO FERNANDO

Pitipana

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Opinion

Importance of Humanities in Education

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These days if one writes outside the subject of Covid one runs the risk of being ignored by the editor, or by the readers if published. However, education is too vital a subject, and education reforms are being contemplated in Sri Lanka, and one cannot wait until Covid abates. In this regard the relevance and importance of humanities ie subjects like literature, history, philosophy, languages and art have been discussed in these columns. People who view higher education as a training for employment and think in terms of STEM (science, technology, engineering,mathematics) education, as the most important and essential type of education a country needs, speak almost in derision of subjects like history, art and pose the question what could anybody do with such knowledge except teach the same to another person.

However, the purpose of education has to be much broader than training for employment. It must also instill human qualities such as sensitivity, generosity, unselfishness, tolerance, ability to understand different points of view etc., and it is a broad education which includes subjects like literature, history etc that could do this. In short, humanities are supposed to make a human out of you. In this sense humanities may be important for employment, also and employers may look for these qualities.

We have used literature, religion, art, music, language and philosophy to understand the world and man. This knowledge is different from what science would give us about the nature of the world. This knowledge gives us the opportunity to connect with those who came before us, as well as, with our contemporaries and learn about their achievements and their mistakes. Such knowledge tells us where we have been and gives us a vision about where we should go. The history of Sri Lanka, for instance, tells us how we were threatened by foreign invasions in the past, and helps us to understand the present threat of foreign interference and ways and means of evading such threats. Literature apart from being capable of giving so much pleasure has the ability to mould the character of a person, by showing him different aspects of life. This knowledge is as important as the scientific understanding of the world; one complements the other and knowledge is incomplete if one is lacking.

In the secondary stage of education, i.e. year six to eight in Sri Lanka, the foundation for this broad knowledge has to be built with as many subjects as possible included in the curriculum, but without burdening the student, as done at present, with too much detail. In this regard one cannot choose arts, maths, commerce or science as the stream one would follow, but select the number of subjects to cover the required broad base, out of a basket that would include all the important subjects that interest the human inquiring mind. This arrangement would not only give a broad education, it will also give the students with different talents and interests the opportunity to choose the subjects they like, and to make a decision about what subjects they would like to pursue in their higher education.

Giving such an opportunity to students in their formative years could result in the birth of great scientists, artists, writers, musicians, mathematicians and philosophers and all with human qualities. Humanities would make an intellectual out of a scientist. Further, research studies have shown that students who have studied humanities in primary and secondary education as part of a well-rounded curriculum, are more engaged in academics as a whole, read better, write better, think more critically, and go on to do higher education more often.

We must not forget that most human situations defy a single correct answer, that life itself is rarely if ever as precise as a math problem, as clear as an elegant equation. Science and mathematics do not have all the answers to the human predicament, for instance. From poverty to climate change the challenges in our age are connected with human nature. Scientific solutions alone do not very often work. Humanities help students gain historical and cultural perspectives and critical thinking skills that help them collaborate with people. Such skills would enable them to communicate, listen, explain and inspire. They would be better equipped to find solutions to problems that always have a human element. Given the state of the country and the world, humanities are more important than ever.

Learning humanities in early stages of education would help to grapple with complex moral issues, help us understand what goes inside us, and show us what it means to be a human being. Such abilities in leaders and decision makers would give them a broader and more diverse range of ideas, and the knowledge to better run a business or governments. Most of our politicians may be lacking in such education, and this may be why they haven’t been able to solve the problems our country faces since independence.

Education system in Sri Lanka compartmentalizes the students into science, arts, commerce, etc,. at the GCE ‘A’ Level. This precludes a student from pursuing studies in subjects belonging to more than one stream, even if he has a talent and interest in them. Moreover, he may be forced to do subjects that he does not like. Such combinations may be difficult in the case of students who want to do professional courses like medicine and engineering, but for others cannot mathematics and literature for instance be included in one basket of subjects in the GCE ‘A’ Level exam, and cannot students who follow such programmes continue their interest in the university too.

In the Sri Lankan universities there is no opportunity for students to follow programmes that are a mixture of science and art. It may be difficult to make provision for the study of both science and arts subjects in our universities as the separation starts early. Yet, the importance of such education has to be mentioned here, because of the vital importance of education of humanities at the highest level. In developed countries there is a lot of flexibility in the choice of subjects, and there are opportunities for students to study subjects they like. They have double degree programmes that enable students to get two degrees in different subjects, history and mathematics for instance. Our universities could think of starting inter-faculty study programmes to begin with, in order to prevent the total disappearance of humanities. Research has shown that brutalization of attitudes of doctors could be prevented by having modules in literature, music etc in their undergraduate programmes. In developed countries some medical schools have incorporated such modules in their curricula.

It is said that the demand for humanities courses in the universities is dwindling due to the lack of job opportunities for arts graduates. Further, the students who enter arts courses do so as they have no other option. Facilities for science education are lacking in many rural schools. Government must adopt the policy that both science, as well as humanities, are vital for education, and make an effort to improve the facilities for their learning in schools. As for employment, there are so many jobs that arts graduates could do as they don’t lack creativity and problem-solving ability. Their communication skills, English knowledge and IT literacy may be weak at present, and this could be the reason for their low employability.

N. A. de S. AMARATUNGA

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