By Prof. R.P. Gunawardane
It is heartening to read some recent news reports that the University Grants Commission is contemplating changes in the university admission policy. The current system is outdated, against international practices, and, thus, a complete overhaul of the university admission process is long overdue. In my previous articles, on the same subject, I have stressed the urgent need for the review of the current admission policy and the admission process in keeping with the current national context and international practices.
However, it must be stressed that the university admission in Sri Lanka is extremely competitive and, therefore, it is a very sensitive national issue. When there is a change in the selection methodology, one party is affected while another section of the community is benefitted. Therefore, any proposal to change the current system should go through a process of extensive consultation, debate and a thorough study before it is implemented.
Defects in the current scheme
Currently, the district quota system is applicable for selection of students to all streams (Commerce, Biological Science, Physical Science and Technology streams) other than the Arts stream, where all-island merit-based admission operates. In the present district quota system, 40% of the available places are filled on all island merit basis while 55% of the places in each course of study are allocated to the students from 25 districts in proportion to the population ratio. In addition, a 5% of the places in each course of study are allocated to the students from16 educationally disadvantaged districts. The distinct feature here is that it gives more weightage to the admission based on district quotas rather than island wide merit. This has affected a large number of students from urban areas who have performed better at the GCE A/L exam.
The current 40-60 quota system has been in operation continuously for over four decades. No serious attempts have been made to improve facilities in the schools in educationally disadvantaged districts during this period. High weightage (60%) given to district quota over the island wide merit in a highly competitive university admission process appears to be excessive and unfair. The quota system has many defects, and it has been extensively abused by many students. The policy is based on the assumption that educational facilities are not uniform throughout the island to adopt the island wide merit scheme. It also assumes that all schools in the same district are equivalent and have equal educational facilities. However, it is important to note that the discrepancy in the facilities is visible even more within a given district. Each district, whether it is Colombo or Anuradhapura has well equipped good schools as well as poorly equipped bad schools. Therefore, it is hard to justify the basis of this scheme.
Only criterion for university admission is the performance of the candidates at the GCE A/L examination, as measured by the Z score. Prior to 2002 aggregate of marks of different subjects was used for this purpose. In fact, Z score is universally accepted to be much more reliable than the aggregate of raw marks of different subjects in determining the merit order. No other student talents and experiences are considered deviating from international practices. Results of aptitude/IQ tests, school reports and other skills, recognitions, achievements, etc., are not evaluated. No additional testing/interviews are held even for professional courses which require specific talents, abilities, attitudes depending on the profession. To my knowledge, this situation does not exist anywhere in the world.
Need for major changes
Since there is disparity in the educational facilities within a district, it would be more appropriate to use a quota system based on islandwide school groups classified on the basis of facilities available in the schools for the selection process. In such a scheme, number of places allocated will be determined in proportion to the number of students sitting the A/L exam. However, in the district quota system, admission numbers are determined in proportion to the total population. The former method is more appropriate for the allocation of places for university admission.
It is disheartening to note that 16 out of 25 districts (64%) in Sri Lanka are declared as educationally disadvantaged areas. These 16 districts are Nuwara Eliya, Hambantota, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mulllativu, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticoloa, Ampara, Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Badulla, Monaragala and Ratnapura. Similarly, out of 9 provinces four entire provinces (Northern, Eastern, North Central and Uva) have been declared as educationally disadvantaged. Only the Western province is educationally advantaged. This classification needs re-examination. If this is the reality after 70 years of achieving independence from British rule, there should be something seriously wrong with our national policy.
In fact, this district quota system was introduced nearly 50 years ago as a temporary measure mainly because of the disparities in the facilities for teaching science subjects at the GCE A/L in schools of different districts. Simultaneously, it was also intended to develop the identified schools on a priority basis and to review the status in the districts after every three years to make necessary policy adjustments. Unfortunately, this did not materialise even after a half century!
Furthermore, it is important to note that practical exams for science subjects at A/L were abolished a long time ago. As a result, practical components of the science subjects are completely ignored in the schools, making laboratory facilities irrelevant. Thus, the need for district quota-based admission even for science streams cannot be justified in the current context. In addition, tuition facilities in science subjects are now widely available in both urban and rural areas.
Thus, in the current context, continuation of an arbitrary district quota system cannot be justified. The effective long-term solution will be to develop the affected schools in the districts on a priority basis with equitable distribution of qualified teachers and get away with the quota system gradually. Furthermore, it is very clear from the above facts that there is no justification for the selection of students to the commerce stream and music, drama and related disciplines using the district basis. It is high time a comprehensive review was done immediately to formulate a more reasonable and a rational admission policy.
Along with policy changes, the admission procedure also needs to be changed. University admission in Sri Lanka is highly centralised at the UGC level with no participation of the universities, except for obtaining number of available places in each course from the universities. This is considered one of the main reasons why a large number of vacancies remain unfilled in the university system every year. It is a waste of resources, in addition to the loss of opportunities for many students seeking university admission.
One group of Sri Lankan students has been eliminated from our university admission process. They are the students who are studying in private/international schools, which do not offer Sri Lankan GCE A/L but instead prepare students for London (UK) A/L exam. These students are in international schools mostly not by choice but by necessity due to unavailability of places in reputed government schools in urban areas like Colombo, Kandy, Galle and even Jaffna. They are also true Sri Lankan citizens who have legitimate expectation to seek admission to state university system. It is very unfair to close the door for these students to our universities. They also should have a pathway for admission to state universities.
Practices in other countries
We have a lot to learn from the experiences of university admission schemes practiced all over the world. Although most countries select students purely on merit, quota systems are operating in a few countries such as China, Venezuela, Brazil, Malaysia and Nigeria for varying reasons. The quota systems are based on criteria such as ethnicity, provincial and territorial identities. These quotas are generally unpopular and heavily criticized in those countries. In India, there are no fixed quotas, but the national universities make sure a fair representation of students from different regions and ensure adequate number of underprivileged sections of the society are admitted.
In almost all the countries in the developed and developing world, the selection of students for university admissions is done entirely by the individual universities based on agreed national, provincial or university policies. In some countries, an independent central body (not the government) does the coordination work while actual admissions are carried out by the universities. This central coordination of university admissions is done to help students apply for several universities in one application form indicating preferences. Since the whole process is done on line using a sophisticated system there is no delay in processing. The individual universities will make sure their additional requirements are satisfied and the interviews will also be conducted as required. Then the offer letters will be mailed and the students will have a deadline for acceptance. This situation prevails in most of the developed world including UK and European countries, Scandinavian countries, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In some countries like USA, the admission is done independently by the individual universities without any central coordination.
In all these countries, many factors are considered for admission. The results of national exams and aptitude tests (e.g., SAT, MCAT), school/teacher reports, work/practical experience, extracurricular activities etc. are all counted in the selection process. The students are subjected to additional testing and interviews depending on the course. The interviews are compulsory for professional degree programs to test their suitability to follow the course and practice the profession. Some of these aspects should be included into our admission policy.
Proposal for changes
As described above, there is an urgent need to change the admission policy and improve our admission procedure in line with international practices. The following proposals are presented for that purpose.
The long-term national policy should be to abolish any quota system and achieve island wide merit in all disciplines in the university admissions. Evaluation of merit should also include all other achievements, practical experience, extracurricular activities etc. The following policy guidelines are presented:
1. 100% all island merit should be used for the entire Arts stream (including music and dance) and commerce stream with immediate effect.
2. For the Physical Science, Biological Science and Technology streams all island merit percentage should be increased gradually to reach 100% within a reasonable period with the implementation of a transitional school group-based quota system.
3. Z Scores should continue to be used to measure the merit order of their GCE A/L performance.
4. A transitional quota system based on all-island school groups should be formulated and implemented replacing the district quota system. All schools offering A/L science classes should be classified into 3 or 4 groups on a rational basis depending on the educational/ laboratory facilities, quality of teachers, previous A/L results etc. This should be undertaken as early as possible and completed within a year. After testing this scheme, it should be implemented until such time the selected poorly equipped schools are developed to an acceptable level within about 3 years. At this stage all admissions will be based purely (100%) on merit conforming international norms.
5. There should be a pathway for students (SL citizens only) with equivalent foreign qualifications such as GCE A/L London from local private/ international schools to apply for admission to state universities.
It is necessary that the university faculties are given a specific role in the university admission procedure based on the national policy. The coordination and the monitoring of the admission procedure should be done by the UGC. Highly sophisticated computer system/programme should be employed for this procedure at the UGC with links to universities. The students should have access to this site for application on line indicating their preferences. Universities are expected to select students based on the agreed national policy after any additional testing, interviews etc. This procedure will expedite the admission process and avoid the difficulty in filling vacancies in the faculties currently experienced by the university system.
(The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka)
Playing politics with science!
It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
If you thought it was only our politicians who played politics with science, you thought wrong. Admittedly, ours are pretty bad as evident from the Dhammika peniya episode. We had our Health Minister freely advertising the concoction by ingesting it in her office and wasting the valuable time of academics by instructing them to test it for efficacy. Getting a pretty bad attack of Covid-19 demonstrated the idiocy of her action but she continues unashamedly to be our Minister of Health!
A Professor of Pharmacology turned politician did likewise. Forgetting what he taught his students, he supported the untested therapies, the explanation given by one of his colleagues being that he behaved as a politician, not a scientist! By implication, even scientists can forget science when they become politicians! Funnily, he was rewarded by being appointed the Acting Minister of Health the day the Health Minister was discharged from hospital, which was rather bizarre considering that during the Minister’s prolonged period of hospital-stay there was no acting appointment! Perhaps, fearing that he might take the bread out of her mouth, the Minister returned to office within a few days of discharge.
Although the first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic was very effectively controlled, the loss of efficiency as regards the second wave was due no doubt to allowing non-scientific ideas to creep in. The refusal of permission for the burial of Covid-19 victims in spite of a group of top scientists recommending it, made us look foolish and turned international opinion against the country.
The clamour for vaccination is a welcome sign, more so because the UK is continually producing evidence for the extreme efficacy of vaccination.
The UK was the first country in the world to start vaccination and has already vaccinated more than 21 million of its 66 million population. It started with the Pfizer vaccine, closely followed by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. EU, which was a late starter, was critical of the Oxford AZ vaccine. The French President Emmanuel Macron is obviously guilty of playing politics with science as he was one of the vaccine’s most vociferous critics, calling it “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly. As a result of political comments of this nature, more than half of EU countries limited the Oxford AZ vaccine to those under 65 years, in spite of the European Medicines Agency approving it for all age groups.
Another political appointee, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, had a public spat with AstraZeneca over gaining more of its vaccine doses and introduced a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland; she was forced to reverse her decision, quickly. She then suggested the UK had compromised on “safety and efficacy” by approving the jab so early, despite the EMA reaching the same conclusions as the UK’s internationally-respected MHRA, which approved the Oxford AZ vaccine for all ages. Millions of doses of Oxford AZ vaccine, which they obtained in spite of criticism, remain unused in France and Germany. Why did they not have the generosity to give these to struggling countries like Sri Lanka?
Data released by Public Health England (PHE) shows that both the Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are highly effective in reducing COVID-19 infections among those 70 years and over. Since January, protection against symptomatic Covid-19, four weeks after the first dose, ranged between 57 and 61% for Pfizer and between 60 and 73% for the Oxford AZ vaccine.
In the over 80s, data suggest that a single dose of either vaccine is more than 80% effective in preventing hospitalisation, around 3 to 4 weeks after the jab. There is also evidence for 83% reduction in deaths from Covid-19 with the Pfizer vaccine and data for Oxford AZ vaccine is awaited.
European aversion to Oxford AZ vaccine is, no doubt, due to Brexit than to science. Very soon, all EU countries would be forced by science to allow all age groups to have the Oxford AZ vaccine which, by the way, is the cheapest vaccine that is easier to transport and store. Politicians who criticised Oxford AZ vaccine have had to eat humble pie but they will no doubt come out with some claim to justify their idiocy!
A Belgian minister, Budget State Secretary Eva De Bleeker, has angered vaccine manufacturers by revealing sensitive and confidential commercial information – the price that the EU has agreed to pay for the leading Covid-19 vaccines. Though her twitter message was deleted quickly, screenshots taken show that the EU agreed prices for the three vaccines used at present are as follows: Oxford/AstraZeneca: €$ 1.78, Pfizer/BioNTech : €$ 12 and Moderna: $18.
Moderna, a Bio-tech company, which has not been profitable so-far, is heading for wind-fall profits and the drug-giant Pfizer will get richer. No one seems to have followed the noble gesture of AstraZeneca, which agreed with the Oxford group to provide the vaccine on no-profit basis.
It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.
As Dolly Parton sang with a rewrite of her famous song ‘Jolene’ whilst having her jab:
“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate. Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”
Who wants to live forever?
The haunting lyrics of The Queen song and the almost plaintive tone in Freddie Mercury’s oh so unique voice, when he sang this song (particularly in his live performance at Wembley), echo through my mind these days. There are two main reasons why longevity is foremost these days.
The first, of course, being the pandemic that is among us. It may be the first time that the civilian population of the entire world is facing the possibility of sudden death, not from incoming fire or even suicide bombers but from an insidious, unseen, minute germ!
The second reason why the length of our lives and prolonging it for as long as we possibly can have been entering my thoughts, is when I see the scramble to get the anti-virus vaccine that I observe in the Pearl. Now, most of us are Buddhists and somewhere in those teachings is a belief that we come into this world with a certain amount of AYUSHA or length of life, and that when that is over the end happens and there is no choice. At least, that is the basic interpretation of undoubtedly very complex teaching.
If that is the case, why this scramble for the vaccine? Why are we using privileged positions (connections to rulers and politicians), connections to doctors, and even the Mayors of certain cities to short-circuit the waiting lists? Older people are complaining that they are being denied the vaccine, why? Those people have probably achieved all their objectives in life, completed successful lives, seen grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, why do they want to deny some young man or woman starting out on life with all those milestones to reach, the vaccine, particularly if they are devoted to the teachings of the Buddha.
Is it selfishness, greed, and avarice, things we should avoid according to these self-same teachings, or is it simply one-up-man-ship and the need to be able to boast that they got the vaccine when the “ordinary” man is still standing in queues and probably infecting each other due to the total chaos and non-observance of Covid protocols in these places of administering the vaccine? Think about it dear readers, especially those of you who have completed productive and useful lives, brought up “successful” children, and as is the way in our society provided them with houses, lands, dowries, and other ways of sustenance. Do we really need to join this scramble for the vaccine? Or, use our position of privilege to probably deny some younger person, with a life to live, the chance of getting it. Is it even our ego (something else we should control and make less significant in our lives and decisions) that allows us to justify our long existence in this world? They need my superior intellect, does this world and this society, therefore I must live as long as possible! Or, is it simply the basic animal instinct to live as long as possible, something that we as humans with our superior brains should be able to think around?
Here in Aotearoa, we have re-entered a level 3 lockdown in our most heavily populated city and a level 2 lockdown for the rest of our country. This has been due to certain non-observance of Covid protocols by people of a clearly identified community, living in a certain part of the city of sails, as Auckland is also known. This is the second time that the community, living in that part of the city has brought about an escalation of the pandemic and stricter lockdowns. It has brought more economic misery and spelled the end of the road to more businesses and enterprises. Now, in the Pearl, we may have resorted to attacking those communities and even rioting. All that seems to have happened here are of course the usual vitriolic racist attacks on the internet and a government decision to vaccinate those areas of the city first, in an attempt to control the pandemic. Wow! in the pearl either all these people would have been rounded up and locked up in a camp in the Vanni or locked down under strict curfew with the threat of being shot if violated. The jury with regard to if the Pearl alternative or the Aotearoa alternative of these should have been used is still out …
Maybe some readers are interested in the outcome of the threat that is looming over us from the upcoming United Nations action in Geneva? I have been trying to get some feedback from “intellectuals” currently living in the Pearl, but they seem distracted, and a feeling of helplessness seems to prevail. The incumbent Foreign Minister seems to think that a humble Indian Ocean Island with what strictly speaking, can be considered a failed or at least failing economy, can dictate terms to the UN, behaving like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Maybe our “new best friend” China, probably aided and abetted by Russia has lent strength to his arm.
Even a “victory’ for Lanka at the UNHCR to this resolution should not be cheered too vociferously, as the countries ranged against us will have long term plans. Every step of this government will be monitored closely. The loss of our garment exporting privileges to the first world could result along with other economic sanctions that would make the cost of living in the Pearl even higher.
One rather interesting possibility seems to be travel bans on certain individuals and freezing of their assets held abroad. Now that could be stimulating, especially if the numbers involved are made public! However, if that was the case, I believe the attempt to rectify the situation would have been given to a more competent person than “the bull in the china shop”!
I cannot resist putting this out dear readers and I apologise profusely in advance. What if someone like Ranil W, was in charge of foreign affairs? Do you think we would have had a more professional approach and had a better chance in dealing with the complicated nuances of handling UN diplomacy, in the long term? At least we may have not insulted and possibly humiliated the visiting PM of one of our allies, Imran Khan of Pakistan! On the other hand, Mr. Khan, you may rest assured that even if you had addressed our parliament, no member would have understood anything you said or even been able to decipher your immaculate Oxbridge accent. It is only those of us who have shut ourselves out mentally from the shenanigans or gone into voluntary exile who watch with dismay, who would have savoured your words and briefly wondered …what if … ?
Thanks for quick vaccination; harmful dabblers in the occult should be severely dealt with
There has been much in the daily press on vaccination against Covid-19 in this fair isle of ours, or rather in Colombo and its suburbs
Let’s put aside complaints and say praise be!
Most of what was media-written was on the ensuing chaos of not knowing where to go for the jab; how to get a token; which age group will be given it (apart of course from VIPs and politicians who were close behind frontline health workers). Mercifully, the authorities righted the initial wrong of deciding on prioritizing the 30-65 age group and neglecting the over 65s, who were placed second in the priority list in more enlightened countries following WHO strictures. And so lots have got the jab and we anticipate a drastic drop in infection and Covid death rates. Cass contributed her fair share of criticism in this column but not stridently nor unreasonably. She had not seen the privileged list that passed off as Municipal workers on Tuesday 24 February at the Public Library, Colombo 7, arriving in Mercedes Benzes and SUVs. If she had, her ire would have emerged in pure vitriol! One friend said she enquired from several sophisticates in the queue how they got there, but received mumbled replies. So, a Rose by any other name, even Do-Gooder, smells as bad when it goes unjust! Things got much better and the service worked smoothly once the MOHs came into their own.
What Cass notes in summarizing the issue today is thanks and gratitude to the government and the Health Services particularly, for vaccinating so very many so quickly. People who wrote about this issue, Cass included, were all praise for the actual data takers and vaccine givers. In certain centres, the old and disabled were queued in a different line and vaccinated within an hour.
The gratitude Cass renders is because only part of the total amount of vaccine was gifted by India and the WHO. Our government booked early and paid for the rest, and of the Oxford kind. This vaccine is admittedly relatively cheaper, but it had to be paid for, which cost the government bore. We have to appreciate the massive organization entailed and excuse inevitable hiccups. This fact struck Cass as a feeling of much needed security and elimination of fear was felt, and all for free. Also when a friend in Melbourne wrote they were as yet awaiting vaccination.
Black Magic and witchcraft in Sri Lanka
If you thought as Cass did that we would never ever resemble a dark Congo tribe resorting to occult cures or a re-enactment of shades of supernatural superstitious beliefs in witchcraft as in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, in 1692 (where some young girls caught prancing naked cooked up lies about good women in the village being witches), you and Cass were both mistaken. We’ve had these in different styles right here in supposedly majority Buddhist Free Sri Lanka with other religions holding people together, in the 21st century with some of our own doing brilliantly well in advanced scientific disciplines all over the developed world. Cass, as you now know, was born and bred in the hills of Kandy with its most sacred Dalada Maligawa and picturesquely situated quaint temples in peaceful green valleys with the sound of evening pooja bells, joined by Kovil tinkles and Sunday sonorous Church gantara and the cry of the Muzeen. We never had a bali or thovil ceremony. If an inauspicious time descended on the village or a household, it was pirith chanted by Bhikkhus. So to Cass what has been happening very recently is even stranger than to those who have village cousins who dabble in mantra and kodivina with kattadiyas in action.
I refer here to the stupidly preposterous belief in Dhammika’s peniya as both a prophylactic and cure for pernicious Covid-19. Where is that charlatan veda – oops sorry- Kaliamma devala kapurala now? Safe with his ill-gotten gains, we suppose.
The latest voodoo story, but with such a tragic ending, is that of the 9-year-old Delgoda girl who suffered an emotional (rather than mental) aberration and was subject to exorcism by caning her mercilessly. The exorcist could not be a woman; she must certainly be a sadistic aberration herself. Can you believe that she applied oil on the girl and used the cane on her till the kid went unconscious? Was the cane an ordinary one? At first I could not believe the story read in the papers – how cane a person to death, but it was a child receiving the torture and who knows what sort of ‘weapon’ was used. The mother definitely must be punished more severely. Maternal love, even in the animal kingdom, will never allow harming an offspring, so how on earth did the mother watch all that caning. One shot would have torn Cass to the defence of her child, or for that matter any child, with talons extended and blood now not turned to milk as the Sinhala saying goes, but to vitriolic fury. The woman exorcist with supernatural powers and the mother are in police custody. Why doesn’t she do a Houdini and astound handsome Police high-up Ajit Rohana?
People claiming superhuman clairvoyance and divine power crop up everywhere. Cass accompanied a friend to consult a girl in the suburbs of Kandy to find out where her hub had ‘donated’ a fairly large sum of money. This girl had given clear directions to find a lost Persian cat to a third friend; hence the visit. She was a pretty, soft girl of around 18. Once Cass and the other entered the room, the girl changed, was in a near trance and speaking in an entirely different voice, pronounced the reason for seeking her help and said “Look for a man always dressed in long sleeves and thinning hair parted in the middle.” The friend was baffled and defeated by this long shot, but finally she met a man of this description – the father of a girl in her husband’s office. She did not ask for the money!
Such ‘powers’ are temporary; maybe like poltergeist manifestations in a teenager’s home. But going for cures to them is unthinkable. Buddhist bhikkhus and maybe bhikkhuunis, so also certain Christian priests (the bulk of lecherous Father Mathew intrudes here) do have powers of exorcism. A medical doctor is the best bet, in any case, including even mental upsets.
Imran Khan’s all too brief visit was a successful veni, vidi, vici in spite of being snubbed ungraciously over the address to Parliamentarians (what a weak, threadbare excuse was offered – C-19 precaution!) and missing out two of our cricket greats: Michael Tissera and Anura Tennakoon from the list of cricket folk to say Hi to the great Cricketer at lunch at Shangri La. What was the success apart from charming everyone and showing off what a Statesman can look like and carry himself off? Why – the Muslims of Sri Lanka conquered. Burial was theirs or so it seemed. But hold it, is it gazetted or is this ‘yes’ like the Prime Minister’s definite ‘can bury’ pronounced in Parliament and then brushed aside and explained by the Gaman as “he was merely expressing his thoughts.”
Main headline in The Island of Wednesday 3 March:” PCol report on Easter Sunday carnage: AG won’t be given ‘sensitive’ volumes.” Why on earth? Is it X-rated and the AG underage?
Picture on page I of same issue of Dr Rajitha Senaratne arriving at the Colombo High Court to appear in a case involving two persons who accused then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa of various crimes. We have long forgotten even a single word of what they said. They will not get off free is Cass’ bet unlike Aluthgamage, who emerged very recently from a court house free as a bird, accused of corruption, Cass recalls.
Playing politics with science!
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