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Midweek Review

Thinking outside Kuppi-box

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by Panduka Karunanayake

 

The recent series of articles in The Island, entitled ‘Kuppi Talk’, should be commended, for attempting to generate a much-needed discussion on some crucial issues in education. Education builds nations. Destroying education destroys the nation – Sri Lanka (and Ceylon before that) being an evocative example of this. Everyone who knows and acknowledges this would value a discussion like Kuppi Talk.

Several articles in the series were excellent, brief expositions of important issues in education, especially higher education. Everyone with an interest in education, particularly young recruits to the academia, must read them – even if, sadly, they might not make an iota of difference to policy. They could still make an enormous difference within the academia, in its ideas, practices and directions. After all, to command respect from the wider society, the academia must first prove worthy of it – and this proof can come only from within.

Lessons to learn

Niyanthini Kadirgamar’s article on the underfunding of education (March 16) reminded me of the days of University Teachers for Dialogue & Democracy (UT4DD), when we first grappled with this problem. Although time has marched on, it appears that we have remained on or circled around the same spot. Nevertheless, she has brought us uptodate on the situation.

It was particularly saddening for me to note that we missed the bus in the years soon after 2015, not only with regard to improving funding for education but also with regard to the reforms to university governance that we attempted. The report on the university governance workshop that was spearheaded by Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda and published in 2016 remains burried in the dusts of time.

Shamala Kumar’s article on ragging (March 30) is the best encapsulation of the subject I have read. She has brought into it her long experience, wide knowledge, analytical acumen and genuine concern. It would be an unpardonable folly for anyone to embark on trying to understand or solve this problem without first reading this article.

Anushka Kahandagamage’s article (April 13), on the value of arts for nation-building in our conflict-riddled society and the danger of pursuing an exclusively STEM-focused line in education, brought together its argument very eloquently. But I wonder whether she could have balanced her focus on Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy in textbook officialese, by also looking at the co-existing, parallel system of Muslim education and its contribution to differentiation, dissociation and discord (which even moderate Muslims have highlighted). It is noteworthy that this parallel system has a long history (see for instance Mahroof, Journal of Islamic Studies 1995;6:25).

Kaushalya Perera’s article on quality in higher education (May 25) nicely summarised a complex, multi-faceted topic. I was especially pleased to see that she touched on the importance of qualification inflation (although not using that term) in graduate unemployment. This is an aspect that policy-makers and politicians gloss over, because it threatens to take the problem from its soft end (i.e., changing curricula in universities) to the hard end (i.e., expanding the industries to enhance employment opportunities). Her exposition of the dangers of the corporatisation of the academia was excellent.

Kaushalya Herath wrote on the need to decolonise our universities from neocolonial hegemonic knowledge structures and situate them more firmly on our own soil (June 08). It provided an eloquent argument in the fewest of words. Herath rightly laments that “universities, once the executors of cultural colonisation, are being colonised by the corporate sector”. In the 1950s this happened to Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara pirivenas when they were converted to universities (i.e., cultural colonisation), and in the present day it is happening to indigenous medicine where its academics are on a mission to ‘modernise’ it to answer the call of the market (i.e., corporate colonisation).

Thus, current efforts in our universities that try to ‘re-discover’ indigenous knowhow run the risk of re-inventing indigenous knowhow through western epistemologies to fit it into western-styled markets, garnished with a populist layer of ‘heritage’ or ‘naturalness’. If our minds are so successfully ‘colonised’, where can indigenous knowhow turn to? Probably to non-university institutions funded and run by philanthropists (which don’t themselves turn into universities after a few decades). And that says something about our universities!

The other articles were focused on the problem of unemployment or ‘unemployability’ of Arts graduates. This was highlighted by a National Audit Office (NAO) report released in November 2020, which stated that more than 50% of our Arts graduates were unemployed (which the Parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts then famously quoted in March 2021). Sivamohan Sumathy in her article (March 02) shed some valuable light on the methodological problems of the studies that had formed the basis for the NAO report. The articles by Farzana Haniffa (April 27) and Hasini Lecamwasam (May 11) elaborated the problem further.

Let me now turn to some points to ponder that this series should trigger.

 

Undergraduate numbers vs. quality

There appears to be some resentment among Social Science and Humanities (SSH) academics regarding reducing the number of students following Arts degree programmes. To me this is puzzling. Would it not be better to settle for a smaller number of students? The available resources could then be used more effectively, to enhance the quality of the graduate (whichever way they may want to define quality).

Perhaps this resentment is driven by a worry that some Arts degree programmes and departments may become redundant. I wonder, however, whether we can innovate solutions to this. For instance, can we not provide SSH as compulsory studies for all undergraduates (and even postgraduates) in their foundation years?

This is not something new. The value of a multi-faceted education in the formative years is increasingly recognised. In 2005 the Supreme Court of India in a much-celebrated, public-spirited decision determined that every undergraduate must be taught a course on environment studies. In 2009 Professor Carlo Fonseka in his Kannangara Oration suggested something similar: “Once students are selected for different courses in the universities, they should be required to spend a year on a Foundation Course in English,…computer literacy [and] cultural studies.” Our university senates still have enough academic freedom to introduce changes of this nature.

Or is this resentment merely driven by an ideology? Is ideology preventing us from seeing the obvious?

 

Why dichotomise?

To solve the Arts graduates’ unemployment problem, we are constantly asked to choose between two options. On the one hand is the transformative educational experience that academics propose, handsomely described by Sivamohan Sumathy in her article. On the other hand is the neoliberal, competencies-focused education that the World Bank proposes.

But why do we have to choose between them? Why can’t we combine the two? Can’t we combine the “package of skills and competencies” with the sense of “self, person, society” that we want the graduate to develop – rather than seeing these as opposites that can’t mix? The transformative education is what the people need (in our opinion), and the neoliberal model is what they want. Why can’t we give students an education that they need in a form that they would want? In fact, this sort of education is the only sort of education that is worth giving and receiving.

It is true that these current threats and anxieties are due to an externally imposed challenge (i.e., neoliberalism), and one might not like it. But it is important to remember that universities have never been free of or immune to such challenges.

Historically, the arrival of printing, the rise of the nation state, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of democracy, the Cold War, the rise of the knowledge industries, the slow economic recession of the 1970s and the fall of the Communist bloc all challenged, re-defined and re-shaped the university. (Eric Lybeck’s The University Revolution is a fascinating recent book on this.) It is true that the academia should have its own terms of engagement with society and its own definition of itself (and Sivamohan Sumathy’s article is a good starting point for this). But it is also imperative that we cannot expect to remain meaningful and relevant to society if we lack sensitivity, flexibility and manoeuverability towards society’s immediate anxieties.

Semantic errors

A common error in academic circles is bundling together globalisation, corporatisation, commoditisation and privatisation into one basket of despised entities. This is evident in Sivamohan Sumathy’s article: “In the current context, globalization is another name for the rapid development of capitalist financialization, and a dissolution of labour as a collective force and as a movement toward socialized citizenry.” Well, actually not. Globalisation, as everyone knows, is a neutral phenomenon that can be applied for various tasks, bad and good. She does qualify this tectonic shift in the meaning of globalisation by appealing to “the current context”. But then, let us at least keep in mind that contexts are generated, fluid and reflexive. After all, our context belongs to us.

I have no problem in accepting that corporatisation of the academia is something bad, or that commodification of education is bad. I also appreciate that uncontrolled privatisation of education paves way for the commodification of education. But here, there are two problems. First, uncontrolled privatisation is not the only form that privatisation of education can take place (unless if we prevent the other forms). Second, privatisation of education in one form or the other is here to stay, because of the huge demand, and the public is already consuming it – our real challenge is to shape it to the nation’s advantage.

Privatisation can take many forms. It can be not-for-profit. We have had examples of private educational institutions that were started by philanthropy and served communities enormously. Sivamohan Sumathy will know the value of the education that American missionaries in the nineteenth century and the philanthropy-funded Jaffna Public Library in the twentieth century added to Jaffna culture. Her friends from the South will know how much H.W. Amarasuriya added to the educational culture of the Southern Province in the twentieth century. Hundreds of thousands of our citizens and families have benefitted from the many private schools and pirivenas set up by indigenous revivalist movements of all three main ethnic groups at the turn of the twentieth century; they were originally private (but supported by the colonial government), and were only later taken over by the state.

To see this broader picture, we need to rename private education as ‘non-state education’ and accept that it belongs in the ‘public sphere’ of our communities and the country – because the word ‘private’ carries too many erroneous connotations and emotive baggage. These institutions serve the public, and the benefits are therefore also public – both individually and collectively. What we must focus on is not their dissolution or ‘nationalisation’, but their quality, cost and access. Quality should be supervised by the state. Cost can be brought down by incentives, which do not necessarily require state funds. And access can be widened by financing mechanisms such as bursaries and loan schemes that ensure that deserving students admitted on merit would not be denied access.

 

Back to the past or to the future?

Even if one didn’t agree with such arguments, they are still part of a healthy, diverse and inclusive discussion. Such a discussion is not helped by defining globalisation as what it is not, pushing privatisation into the devil’s corner, or presenting the unemployment problem as a dichotomy without middle ground, and building the argument thereon. When our discussion becomes irrelevant and detached from reality, the people ignore us and go on to take whatever option available to them – franchised degrees, cross-border higher education, etc. While we debate on the dichotomy, our students still yearn for those skills and turn elsewhere.

Should we limit our discussion to what our ideologies allow, or have a discussion unhindered by them? Should we live in our past, or reach for the future? That is the crucial question that the UT4DD failed to answer then, to its detriment. Kuppi Talk must address it now.

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The writer is Professor in the Department of Clinical Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. His email address is panduka@clinmed.cmb.ac.lk



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Midweek Review

Vaccine confusion: Do European leaders have ‘blood on their hands’?

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AztraZeneca

By Dr Upul
Wijayawardhana

No doubt, there are many necessary evils in life! Powerful nations, that try to solve other’s problems by force, say that war is a necessary evil. I am not too sure about that but one thing I am sure is that ‘Pharmaceutical giants’ are a necessary evil. The billions they spend on research lead to new drug discoveries which benefit all and we are bound to have shorter lives without their products. But, again, not all can afford unless there is a subsidised health service. The problem with most of these companies is that they too suffer from extreme greed, a trait they share with all other ventures in the capitalist society we live in. It is unfortunate, they forget that they are in a business that needs a touch of compassion and do their utmost to maximise profits. They use devious means to incentivise doctors, pharmacists and other health care professionals to use, sometimes misuse, their products. Many have been caught for unethical practices and it is only strong legislations, more effective in some countries than others, that keep them in check.

The greatest medical challenge of our lifetime, the Covid-19 pandemic, gave the pharmaceutical industry an ideal opportunity to gain respectability. In fact, AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company with its headquarters in Cambridge, led the way. Very early in the epidemic, they announced that the vaccine in development by the research team in Oxford led by Prof Sarah Gilbert, if clinical trials proved successful, would be manufactured and sold by them without profit. If the trials failed, they would have lost millions of Pounds. Perhaps, they expected others to follow but what happened was just the opposite! With the help of some European leaders, who did their utmost to slur the Oxford AZ vaccine, the other two major players in the ‘vaccine game’ Pfizer and Modena are dancing their way to the bank! According to the latest figures, though AstraZeneca has trebled its Covid vaccine sales to $894m in the second quarter of 2021 when compared with the first, Pfizer, the American group has raised its full year forecast for the sales of its vaccine to $33.5bn! This may well be an underestimate as it was reported on 1st August that the EU has agreed to pay $23 instead of $18 for the Pfizer vaccine and $25 instead of $22 for the Moderna jab.

What is of grave concern to us are the rumours circulating in financial circles that AstraZeneca may well stop marketing vaccines altogether and concentrate on other parts of its business, which are very profitable, though the original plan was to continue in the vaccine business, selling at a profit once the epidemic was over. A leading financial analyst has commented: “AstraZeneca might have expected to have earned the world’s gratitude for its not-for-profit stance. Instead, concerns about the vaccine’s safety stubbornly persist, hampering the take-up in parts of the world that should have benefitted the most.”

The confusions about Oxford AZ vaccine persist mainly because of the actions of EU leaders, as well stated by the British journalist Steve Bird, in his post in ‘The Telegraph’ titled “The vindication of AstraZeneca: A vaccine trashed by Macron, politicised by Europe but quietly saving lives across the world” wherein he states “Some are even suggesting European leaders have “blood on their hands” for creating confusion and mixed messages, often about claims or rumours that turned out to be unfounded.”

Steve Bird’s post is interesting reading (https://uk.news.yahoo.com/vindication-astrazeneca-vaccine-trashed-macron-091900030.html) which starts as follows:

“Sitting in the Royal Box on Centre Court on the first day of Wimbledon this summer, Dame Sarah Gilbert appeared a little uncomfortable as tennis fans gave her a standing ovation. Many of the crowd in SW18 that day had themselves received the AstraZeneca vaccine that Professor Gilbert and her team helped to develop. As they rose to their feet applauding, most knew her research at Oxford University in conjunction with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant had helped free the UK from the grip of the Covid lockdown. While the audience recognised the achievements of her and her colleagues, some heads of state have found it politically expedient to be anything but complimentary about the first low-cost and not-for-profit vaccine.”

In January, President Emmanuel Macron stated at a specially convened press conference that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective for over-65s”, adding that “it doesn’t work the way we were expecting it to”. A few hours later the EU regulator approved it for all adults!

Ridiculing the UK’s strategy of spacing out the first and second doses, to try to maximise the number of people who have one jab and some degree of immunity, Macron went on to say “The goal is not to have the biggest number of first injections. it is a ‘lie’ to tell people they were vaccinated if they had had the first dose of a vaccine that is made up of two”.

It was exactly a year since the UK had left the European Union, and Macron may well have been displaying his jealousy towards Britain’s vaccine programme. Perhaps, he may have had a more sinister motive, as Angela Merkel too joined later criticising and limiting the use of the Oxford AZ vaccine. Interestingly, she took the first dose of the same vaccine later! However, for the second dose she took the Moderna vaccine though there was no scientific basis for such an action. Perhaps, she wanted to impress that Oxford AZ vaccine is inferior to Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and took Moderna as second dose, as she did not want to make it too obvious that she was promoting the Pfizer vaccine, developed by a German Biotech company! There are many who sing hosannas to Merkel but the question arises whether she and Macron are doing a great disservice to the many poor nations in the world.

Whilst restricting use, EU banned the export of Oxford AZ vaccine and introduced a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to ensure this, an action which took the Prime Ministers of the UK and Ireland by surprise! Even today, British citizens who have had successful vaccinations with the Oxford AZ vaccine, manufactured in India, are not allowed entry to EU. I did not care to check whether the jabs I received were made in India as I do not wish to visit the EU, as long as it persists with such pig-headed notions. Afterall, Serum Institute of India is one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines in the world!

EU leaders harped on blood clots as a complication of AZ vaccine but new research has shown this was an exaggeration. A team of researchers from Spain, the UK and the Netherlands compared data from more than 1.3million people and concluded that those who had the AZ jab developed blood clots at the same rate as those who had the far more expensive Pfizer jab. More importantly, they found people who had Covid-19 developed blood clots at a far higher rate than those who received neither vaccine.

By the actions of the EU led by Merkel and Macron, by ‘politicisation’ of a low-cost, easily stored vaccine, it would be the poor countries that would suffer if the rumours circulating prove to be correct. It was announced recently that a billion doses of the Oxford AZ vaccine had been sent to 170 countries. Most developing countries would be bankrupt if they are forced to pay for significantly more expensive vaccines.

Prof. Gilbert’s team is already at work, among others, developing vaccines to combat variants and if they become prohibitively expensive, the only option left to poor countries would be to let the disease spread till herd immunity develops, sacrificing millions of lives in the process.

Let us hope AstraZeneka remains undeterred by the unfair treatment meted out by some misguided politicians and extend its noble gesture.

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Midweek Review

Everything non-inorganic is not organic

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By Chandrasena Maliyadde

The government has decided to convert the entire agriculture production from non-organic into organic. The President has declared that Sri Lanka is the first country to achieve 100 percent organic in farming. Genuine experts and practitioners have questioned the feasibility of this project. Pseudo experts are full of praise for it.

Farmers and smallholders who are not experts have to bear the brunt of the project. They experience shortages of fertiliser and are confused. They claim that during the previous election, politicians promised ‘more’ fertiliser free. But politicians claim that they did not promise chemical fertiliser.

We have been witnessing on electronic, print and social media, seminars, webinars, dialogues, debates, explanations, arguments, counter arguments, protests, rallies on the changeover to organic farming. Nobody speaks against organic farming. Experts, practitioners, farmers, researchers, extension workers are all supportive of it.

There is no single, universally accepted definition of organic food or organic farming. Organic farming is, in general, expected to conserve biodiversity, recycle resources on the farm, and bring about ecological balance. Withdrawal of inorganic inputs is not organic farming by any definition. The government has not declared a clear policy, programme or a formula on the use of organic matters to define what is permitted on an organic farm and what is not.

The changeover from inorganic farming to organic farming is time-consuming (takes three or more years) and expensive. Converting the entire country, at a prohibitive cost, is nearly impractical. There are no competent agencies and personnel to prove the farm is meeting organic standards. No specific standards and formula applicable to different crops and different stages of growth of a plant have been laid down. During the conversion the farmer incurs losses due to non-availability of any type of fertiliser, which in turn causes a decline in yield.

Organic farming is more labour-intensive; the tasks of weeding and applying tons of compost are done manually. Sri Lankan agriculture is characterised by a shortage of labour. As a result, farmers would have greater costs without a proportionate increase in yield. The farmer runs the risk of losing crops due to pests and disease that cannot be dealt with by organic methods. Organic pesticides are less effective and not necessarily trouble-free; they can be harmful to the environment and human health.

The density and dispersion of population have drastically changed from the Parakramabahu era to date. Land which was exclusively available for farming has been encroached upon by many other competing needs. Inorganic farm practices and materials were found and promoted to ensure the food security of a growing population worldwide and to overcome the non-availability of adequate farm land. The current farming practices and materials are results of extensive and lengthy scientific research. A suddent replacement of scientifically proven practices with alternatives does more harm than good.

According to findings of soil and agriculture scientists the top soil in many parts of the country especially in the hill country is eroded. Hence the enrichment of soil has become a priority. It has to be done through organic material. Agriculture extension services have failed to educate farmers on such soil enrichment practices. The farmer does not have access to research findings, technology, inputs and new knowledge, reflecting the failure of extension services. He chooses the type of fertiliser and the dosage according to his understanding instead of recommendations by agencies responsible. The government’s decision to ban imports and use of chemical fertiliser is tantamount to penalizing the farmer for the failure of officials.

In 1970s and 1980s food security took precedence over food safety. With population increase successive governments and agriculture authorities came under pressure to ensure food security. The Agriculture Department was busy with studies and research to develop high yielding seeds and planting materials, and effective fertiliser application. These measures were basically non-organic. The Department had been propagating, and promoting these practices until the day before the President announced banning of non-organic farming.

Consumer taste, preference, habits and affordability have changed over time. Many different varieties of agriculture products were produced in response to such changes. Production methods, inputs and cost have changed. The emphasis was on improving yield, productivity and cost efficiency. Scientifically researched and tested chemical fertiliser have come forth to answer plant needs and consumer needs. The farmer cannot decide what type and ratio of fertiliser is required for different plants at different stages. It is a science and experts have to make such decisions.

Sri Lanka has been exporting several agriculture crops. They all use nonorganic fertiliser, weedicide and pesticide. Use of non-organic material has not been an issue for the volume or the price of exports.

Attempts to produce export crops through organic farming will cause their quality to drop. On the other hand, some export crops are not edible, rubber and foliage for example. The said health hazards are not applicable as regards such products. Economic loss will be much higher than whatever the gain.

Chemical contamination doesn’t happen only in the field alone. Most food is processed before they are consumed. Unprocessed organic food undergoes processing, packaging, storage, and transport. They interact with chemicals such as preservatives, processing aids, additives, packaging material and fuel. What is produced on the farm organically reach the plate after much chemical interaction.

Sri Lanka never had a properly laid down Agriculture Policy. We did not have a direction; road map, adequate resources, right technology, right raw material and inputs with a policy and a programme. Our agriculture sector is disorganised. It moved from peasant to commercial farmer and many different actors in between. Our agriculture value chain is so unique. In addition to passing through varying actors, from farmer to the end consumer, it involves the President, ministers, and officials as well. The value chain is so fragmented; links are scattered or piled up in heaps. Pre-harvest actors and post-harvest actors never see eye to eye.

Some farmers who were in dire situations due to the inability to repay loans committed suicide. They are conducting streets protesting against the non-availability of fertiliser.

The government will be praised for the noble thought, but blamed for bad implementation.

The changeover from inorganic to organic is welcome, but has to be done in a systematic, scientific manner based on research and lessons learnt rather than rhetoric and emotion.

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Midweek Review

The Begging Option

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By Lynn Ockersz

 

Solitary, skeletal and grim-faced,

He remains in his car park vigil,

Though it’s some time since night set in,

But the money he’s been cadging,

From shoppers brushing past him,

Falls well short of what he needs,

For, his hearth’s flames,

Must be prevented from dying,

And bills that need to be paid,

Are dangerously piling-up,

But the sharpest pain within him,

Comes on his recognizing,

That he’s masking his true identity,

By getting into this act of begging;

For, he is a state sector retiree,

Who has been pushed into the streets,

By a pension that’s been steadily thinning,

But not so long ago he worked honestly for a living.

 

 

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