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Restaging Z-Score Debacle



The release of the Z scores for university admission by University Grants Commission (UGC) has brought thousands of complaints and issues from the students, parents, teachers and other stakeholders into discussion. Some others have vowed to take the issue to courts, expecting a fair and just solution.

Most of the complaints are related to the issue of two different cutoff Z scores for new syllabus and old syllabus and comparisons thereof. It is understood that the solutions proposed to resolve a crisis must not only be fair and legal but also seen to be reasonable for the stakeholders. Print media during the last couple of weeks published several opinions on this issue and the use of Z score for university admission is often blamed as the reasons for these discrepancies. It is time we had a closer look at the problem and baseless allegations against the use of Z-score for university admission. The use of Z-score in place of aggregated marks of the three subjects is, by all means, a better method, which has been amply demonstrated with data and examples and subjected to discussion since its introduction for university admission in 2003.

There is a diverse degree of variability in nature itself and so it is with the humans and their work. The scientific discipline called statistics provides the conceptual and procedural approaches to understand the variability and manage it fairly and equitably. Due to the inherent variability present in question papers and evaluations, it is very well understood that the simple aggregate obtained from the marks of different subjects is not a fair criterion for determining the eligibility for university admission. The degree of difficulty of the question papers in different subjects varies significantly and also there are variations of the aptitude measurement scale in different years. Therefore, it was not possible to have a fixed cut-off mark or simple aggregate solution to determine eligibility for university admission. For example, marks for one subject could have a range from 5 to 70 while the range for another subject spans from 45 to 99. A student who obtained 70 is the best among the lot in the first case and the one who obtained 70 in the second case is a mediocre student. When the simple aggregate is taken as the criterion for university admission, the best student in the first case is treated equally with the mediocre student who opted for a relatively easy subject as in the second case. Within the general assumption that students who sit for these two different subjects have a more or less equal level of competence, the disparity in the relative difficulty of the question papers or evaluation criteria warrants some sort of an approach for standardization. This issue was the theme for a series of discussions in academic circles and despite several advanced methodologies available for standardization, the Z score approach was adopted about 20 years back as the criterion for university admission due to its simplicity, computational convenience, application efficiency and the need for only two parametric estimates for its calculation.

Today, the issue is somewhat different and it is not possible to assume that the students who sat for two different papers in the same subject are having a more or less equal level of competence or they are random picked from the larger population. The first group has sat for the examination for the first time and the other group has at least attempted to pass the examination on one or more previous occasions. This is evident from the number of the first, second and third attempt students in different disciplines. In exploring a solution to this present problem, the underlying assumptions made in calculating the Z score rankings need to be reexamined. One of the assumptions is that the aptitude of knowledge and skills of the student population opting for different subjects or subject streams are not significantly different. This assumption should be validated now because almost all the students who sat the examination under the old syllabus except those with valid medical or other reasons have made a failed attempt to enter university earlier. 

Those who qualify from the new syllabus are a group of students who took the examination for the first time. The assumption of equal knowledge and similar competency level and skill background for these two diverse groups introduces an error into the fair selection process. It is not possible to issue a single series of Z-scores for these two groups. Before processing marks, the hypothesis of statistically non-significant difference between these two student groups needs to be validated with at least past data for a period of 5 years. Since this hypothesis cannot be proved, then the degree of dissimilarity needs to be assessed to determine a fair ratio for university admission from these two groups of students and design a quota for these two groups. This is what the UGC has attempted to employ in the selection process, however, higher differences in the cut-off Z scores due to the impact of quota applied for the two groups has led to serious doubts in the mind of those without an in-depth knowledge of the method.

The second issue is whether the relative difficulty of two questions papers in both old and new syllabi is significantly different. The expert opinion is the only choice we have in this decision. If experts believe that the two sets of questions papers are of more or less a same level of standard, then the two results could have been combined into a single data series with only one set of Z scores and cut-off marks. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to show that this option had been explored by the UGC. If the question papers are at significantly different standards, then it is not possible to combine the two results series. Then the question must be asked from the Department of Examinations why the standards were made to be different and a strong justification for such an action. We always advise our students that they should propose a valid statistical methodology before they collect their data for research to ensure the compatibility of data with the statistical techniques to be employed in the analysis. Unfortunately, the Department of Examinations could not stick to this advice and only seeks a statistically valid solution after collecting the data from student examinations.  

Without understanding the pertinent facts, some argue that the mistakes made in 2011/12 university admission have been repeated in releasing the Z-scores for 2019/20 university admission. A similar problem indeed arose in 2011/12 admission due to the release of Z scores, combining the results of students who followed the GCE Advanced level under old and new syllabi. However, in 2011/12 university admission, the major issue was the errors made in the calculation of Z scores by the Department of Examinations. That mistake was further complicated due to the release of a single Z score combining the two distinctly different student populations of old and new syllabi as a single group by the UGC. A presidential expert committee was appointed to look into the problem and the mistake in the calculation was quickly identified and corrected. Besides, the need to consider the two student populations of old and new syllabi separately for university admission was proposed and it was later approved by a Supreme Court judgment in a case filed by a group of aggrieved students. 

There are few solutions which could have been adopted to avoid the complexity of the problem and misunderstanding among the students, parents and teachers:

a) The easiest approach would have been the designing one question paper for both groups of students sitting the examination under both old and new syllabi giving options to select questions from the areas that had been revised or amended in the new curriculum. It is observed that there have been no major deviations and only minor changes have been made as regards Physics and Chemistry. The relative difficulty level needs to be maintained across all optional questions. Then, it is a single question paper and a single Z score series generated from the results. This should have been achieved at the point of setting of question papers by the examiners with clear instructions.

 b) if the two questions papers, although structurally different, are of the same level of difficulty, the results of the two examinations could have been combined and Z scores computed as a single series. 

This solution could have been explained to the Supreme Court and concurrence on this approach sought. 

It could have been assumed that although the student populations were different, the same level of tests had been administered for both groups and therefore,

c) The most reasonable solution for the problem is to determine the ratios of students admitted to universities for each subject stream and each degree programme separately for old and new syllabus students, and then for each case use the five-year maximum proportion to admit students to universities. Then the total would exceed one hundred since the maximum of both ratios would exceed 100 and a small proportion of students needs to be admitted to each degree programme to avoid any obvious injustice. The use of median value can also be adopted unless there is a positive or negative trend in the ratios. If the five-year values are stationary and have a low variability among years, this becomes a fair solution. In case the five-year values are having a higher degree of variability and an obvious trend, the most recent value should have been the choice. This method of median value was adopted this year and due to the quota being significantly different for different disciplines and degree programmes, the cut-off Z scores have shown many differences for new and old syllabi students. Also, the cut-off Z-scores are significantly high compared to the figures of the previous years due to the application of quota which sometimes 25% of the original 100. This is the reason for the complaints although the method used for selection is in keeping with the ruling of the Supreme Court in 2012.

However, this problem could have been avoided if the two series of Z scores were adjusted as per the quota granted for each series. A simple mathematical computation could have brought the two distributions on a comparable model. The adjusted Z scores are comparable with the figures of the previous years and it would not produce cut-off Z scores which are much different for students in two groups. The confusion created due to the releasing Z scores indicating a different level of access to university entrance in the two different groups could have been avoided with the help of such an approach.


The writer is Former Vice-Chancellor of the Uva Wellassa University and Chairman of the UGC University Admission Committee in 2013/14 and member of Presidential Committee on Z score in 2012 .

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Port City Bill Requires Referendum



by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC

The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.

Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.

The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.

The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.

The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).

Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).

Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.

Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.

In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.

The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.

Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.

The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.

Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.

The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.

The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.

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Investigative Journalism?



I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!



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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants



Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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