Connect with us

Features

What are universities there for?

Published

on

By Dr. C. S. Weeraratna

(csweera@sltnet.lk)

Former Professor, Ruhuna and

Rajarata Universities

During the last two decades, most of the South and South East Asian countries have developed considerably with the involvement of the academics. In Sri Lanka, the universities, and postgraduate institutes are maintained at a huge cost. In 2018 the expenditure related to university education was around Rs 60 billion. The universities are under the jurisdiction of the University Grants Commission (UGC), and have a total academic strength of around 6000, most of them with postgraduate qualifications. Among these 6000, about 825 are professors, and 5,200 are senior lecturers and lecturers. The main objective of the universities in Sri Lanka is to develop human resources to meet national development, through appropriate programmes. These include teaching, research and outreach programmes.

Education at university level providing appropriate technical knowledge is critical to the building up of a knowledge society and knowledge-based economy which are the latest catch words in the field of Education. Proper use of science and technology is vital for achieving the objectives of a knowledge-based economy, but, to what extent the human and other resource base of our universities have been used to meet national development needs through innovative educational, research and outreach programmes?.

 

Universities and socio-economic development:

In Sri Lanka, government funds the state universities and expect them to contribute to socio-economic development of the country. But, the vast intellectual and infrastructural resource base of the universities has remained almost untapped or underutilized. It is obvious that the authorities should, initiate /implement programmes to mobilize and channel the resources available in our universities for regional/national development. The socio-economic challenges which we face in Sri Lanka have increased considerably during the last few years. Among these are a. High Cost of Production in the plantation and non-plantation (domestic) sector, b. Land Slides mainly in Badulla, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya districts , c. Water shortage in many parts of the country., d. Chronic Kidney disease of unknown etiology which is affecting nearly 200,000 people in 10 districts, e. Poverty mainly in the rural sector;.f. Effective disposal of solid waste, g. Malnutrition among children, h. Power shortage and alternative sources of power.

To find solutions to these issues, appropriate public-private sector organizations need to collaborate with the academics of the universities to implement short /medium/long term programmes. But, there appears to be no effective mechanisms for the university academics to be involved/coordinate with the appropriate public-private organizations to effectively address the challenges faced by the country. It is necessary that the government institutions need to establish systems to collaborate with appropriate academics, if the authorities are really keen to find solutions to the pressing problems indicated above. A few years ago there were attempts by the Ministry of Agriculture to coordinate with the university agriculture faculties to find solutions to the pressing problems in the agriculture sector. But, these attempts appear have died down. If such coordination was effectively established, we would have found solutions to some of the pressing problems such as the Weligama Coconut Wilt and other issues facing the country.

 

Quality of Education:

It is essential that the total student population passing out from the universities needs to be given satisfactory education/ training. The quality of education in a university depends to a considerable extent on the standard of the academic staff and the other related facilities such as library, laboratory and field. In most of the faculties in the recently established universities, these basic facilities are not at a satisfactory level. The students passing out from such universities also tend to be of lower quality, not because of their faults.

Closely related to academic standards in universities is the relevance of the courses offered by the universities. While a large number of graduates remain unemployed or under –employed, employers complain that the graduates are of no use to them. They say that their standard of English is inadequate. The total annual expenditure by the UGC is in the region of Rs 60 billion. What is the use of spending so much money, if the country cannot make use of a large number of the graduates passing out. If what the employers say is correct, has there been a concerted effort by the UGC to modify/change the university courses so that the graduates are more useful? The Dept. of National Planning should play a more active role; interact with the employers and advice the UGC on the modifications/changes that need to be carried out. Perhaps these changes may not need additional expenditure.

Should the country continue to spend billions of rupees on higher education if it has no significant impact on the socio-economic development of the country? It does not mean that the universities should be closed or privatised as what was done in the case of some public sector organizations. What needs to be done is to examine what ails the university system and take appropriate measures to rectify them so that the universities could contribute positively towards achieving a knowledge-based economy.

Knowledge society and knowledge-based economy are the latest catch words in the field of Education. Knowledge, skills and resourcefulness of people are critical to the building up of a knowledge society which is crucial for achieving the objective of a knowledge-based economy. Universities play a prominent role in achieving this objective. At present there are 15 universities in Sri Lanka. Graduates qualifying from these universities have a very significant role to play in all the different professional/non professional spheres of the country which are important in achieving a knowledge–based economy. However, only about 20% of students who get qualified to enter universities get admitted. For example in the year 2016, ,103,000 students who sat for GCE (A level) qualified but only 19,000 (18.52 %) were admitted. Current data are not available.

Inability to utilize a large percentage of human resources in the country to contribute to the endeavours in achieving a knowledge society tend to retard to a great extent the socio-economic growth in the country. Insufficient opportunities for higher education cause serious problems leading to youth unrest, and as a result of inadequate local opportunities for higher education, a large number of students go overseas to follow various courses. In the year 2009, the total outward remittances for educational purposes were around Rs. 2 billion.

 

University Academic staff:

The success/achievements of a university deepened to a considerable extent on its academic staff. Currently there are around 5,700 in the academic staff of the 15 universities. Nearly 2,500 of them have postgraduate qualifications.

 

By being involved in research/extension and other related activities, they could make a significant impact on the socio-economic issues affecting the country. A large number of them are highly committed and go out of their way to contribute to improve the output of their institutions. If not for them, the various programmes and activities of professional societies, such as Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS), which have an catalytic effect on the socio-economic development of the country, would come to a halt. All these are done on a voluntary basis.

Most of the university academic staff have to work under very trying conditions. Some of the basic facilities necessary for the staff to carry out their work satisfactorily are not available to them. Although staff quarters available for the academic staff of Peradeniya University, most of the staff in regional universities such as Wayamba, Rajarata etc. do not have proper places to stay and they have to pay a considerable portion of their salaries on accommodation. Communication and transport facilities are limiting. I am aware of some university academic staff members who have to start early morning, walk to the bus/train station, and travel hundreds of kilometers to attend to various academic/professional meetings in Colombo or Peradeniya. These are done on a voluntary basis. When the staff member has to stay overnight in Colombo or Kandy, he/she has no place to stay and has to depend on a friend or a relation. Thus they have to face untold difficulties in attending to their professional work.

Most of the recently recruited probationary academic staff need to obtain post-graduate qualifications so that they could provide a better service. It will also raise the standards of the respective universities. Some time ago, there was a programme to send the university probationary academic staff for post-graduate training to overseas. This made it a possible to have a well-qualified academic staff. However, there is no such a programme at present. It is essential that this programme is continued if we are to maintain/raise the academic standing of our universities.

 

Research

The university academic staff is expected to do research and extension. Their research out-put is given due consideration when they are given promotions. They need to publish their research findings. I brought to the notice of the UGC through the Chairman of the standing committee in which I was a member, the need to have a compendium indicating the research projects, conducted by the academic staff of universities of Sri Lanka, and to publish the research papers of the university staff, at least in an annual journal. But this was not done.

Conducting research, especially laboratory/field research is a real challenge. Most of the basic requirements for research such as laboratory (equipment and chemicals) /communication/transport etc. are limiting. In spite of many difficulties, a large number of university academics conduct research. How have these research benefited the country? Ideally the UGC should have a programme to commercialize/make use of the research findings of the university staff. It is necessary to have an effective mechanism to interact with the industry so that the research findings could be used by them. It is then only that the research conducted by the university staff universities can have an impact on the socio-economic development of the country. Merely conducting research is not going to be of use.

Employment of graduates:

A substantial percentage of those passing out from our universities and other higher education institutes are unemployed or under-employed. Thousands of graduates have been appointed as Development Assistants in many government offices and are not involved in productive work. Inability to utilize a large percentage of human resources in the country to contribute to the endeavours in realizing the objectives of a knowledge-based economy tend to retard to a great extent the socio-economic growth in the country. There are many enterprises in the fields of industries and agriculture where there are opportunities for the graduates to find productive employment. But, the previous governments have not being able to increase employment opportunities so that those passing out from the universities can be gainfully employed. Instead they simply gave employment to thousands of graduates as Development Assistants who do not have much development work to do. This may be one of the reasons for the widening trade deficit. It is extremely important that the numerous organizations such as Industrial Development Board, Export Development Board, and Institute of Post-Harvest Technology develop appropriate programmes which will have a positive impact on employment opportunities in the country. Inability of the government to create adequate employment opportunities so that the graduates can be gainfully employed would cause serious problems leading to youth unrest, which the relevant authorities need to give serious consideration.



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

Scarcity, prices, hoarding and queuing

Published

on

By Usvatte-aratchi

We live in a scarcity economy and will do so well into 2024, past the next Presidential elections if it comes then; it may not. (The new minister may open bets.) All economies are scarcity economies; otherwise, there would be no prices. We also live in plentiful economies; look at the streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris or San Francisco during day or night. Scarcity is a relative term, as most terms are. A scarcity economy is one where prices rise relentlessly, where cigarettes are more expensive in the evening than they were the same morning. Scarcity economies will have two or more sets of prices: one official, others in markets in varying shades of grey until black. Scarcity economies are where everyone (producers, traders, households) hoards commodities, hoards everything that can be hoarded, at reasonable cost. Scarcity economy is one where productivity is lower than it was earlier, where both labour and capital idle. Scarcity itself may push down productivity. Observe thousands of people standing in queues to buy all kinds of things whilst producing nothing. That is labour idling. Others hang on to dear life in crowded trains arriving in office late to leave early, to get to ill lit homes where to cook each evening they repeat what their ancestors did millions of years ago to light a fire. Money is one commodity that can be hoarded at little cost, if there was no inflation. The million rupees you had in your savings account in 2019 is now worth a mere 500,000, because prices have risen. That is how a government taxes you outside the law: debase the currency. In an inflation afflicted economy, hoarding money is a fool’s game.

The smart game to play is to borrow to the limit, a kind of dishoarding (- negative hoarding) money. You borrow ten million now and five years later you pay 500 million because the value of money has fallen. US dollars are scarce in this economy. It is hoarded where it can wait until its price in Sri Lanka rises. Some politicians who seem to have been schooled in corruption to perfection have them stored elsewhere, as we have learnt from revelations in the international press. Electricity is not hoarded in large quantities because it is expensive to hoard. Petrol is not hoarded very much in households because it evaporates fast and is highly flammable. That does not prevent vehicle owners from keeping their tanks full in contrast to the earlier practice when they had kept tanks half empty (full). Consequently, drivers now hoard twice as much fuel in their tanks as earlier. Until drivers feel relaxed as to when they get the next fill, there will be queues. That should also answer the conundrum of the minister for energy who daily sent out more bowser loads out than earlier, but queues did not shorten.

As an aside, it is necessary to note that the scarcity economy, which has been brought about by stupid policies 2019-2022, and massive thieving from 2005 is partly a consequence of the fall in total output (GDP) in the economy. Workers in queues do not produce. The capital they normally use in production (e.g. motor cars, machines that they would otherwise would have worked at) lie idle. Both capital and labour idle and deny their usual contribution to GDP. Agriculture, industries, wholesale and retail trade, public administration, manufacturing and construction all of which have been adversely affected in various ways contribute more than 75% of total GDP. Maha (winter crop) 2021-22, Yala (spring crop) 2022 and Maha 2022-23 and fishing are all likely to have yielded (and yield) poor harvests. Manufacturing including construction are victims of severe shortages in energy and imported inputs. Wholesale and retail trade which depend directly on imports of commodities have been hit by the sharp drop in imports. Tourism, which is more significant in providing employment and foreign exchange, collapsed dreadfully since late 2019 and has not recovered yet. About 16 percent of our labour force work in the public sector. They have failed to contribute to GDP because they did not engage in productive work due to variegated reasons. Teachers were on strike for two months in 2021. In 2022, so far government employees have worked off and on. Wages of government employees are counted as contributions to GDP, by those that make GDP estimates. However, here is an instance where labour was paid but there was no output equal to the value of those wages. Such payments are rightly counted as transfers and do not count to GDP. For these reasons estimates of GDP for 2021 must be well below the 2020 level. The 3.6 growth in official estimates is unlikely. The likely drop in 2022 will be roughly of the same magnitude as in 2021. These declines are not dissonant with misery one sees in towns and the countryside: empty supermarket shelves, scant supplies of produce in country fares, scarce fish supplies, buses idling in parks and roads empty of traffic. There have been warnings from our paediatricians as well as from international organisations of wasting and probable higher rates of child mortality. It is this sort of sharp fall in wellbeing that engenders the desperation driving young and ambitious people to obtain passports to seek a living overseas. You can see those from mezzo-America amassed on the southern border of US. Will our young men and women end up beyond the wall of China?

Of this lowered supply of goods and services, this society is expected to pay a massive accumulated foreign debt. (Remember the reparation payments in the Versailles Treaty). In real terms it will mean that we forego a part of our lower incomes. Do not miss this reality behind veils of jargon woven by financial analysts. It is not something that we have a choice about. That is where international help may kick in. Gotabaya Rajapaksa government after much senseless dilly dallying has started negotiations with the IMF. There is nobody compelling our government to seek support from IMF. They are free go elsewhere as some who recently were in their government still urge. Examine alternatives and hit upon an arrangement not because it permits the family grows richer but because it will make life for the average person a little less unbearable.

If prices are expected to rise people will seek resources to hoard: money to buy commodities, space and facilities to hoard, security services to protect the property and much more. Rice producers cannot hoard their product because animals large as elephants and small as rodents eat them up. Because of the unequal distribution of resources to hoard, the poor cannot hoard. In a scarcity economy, the poor cannot hoard and famines usually victimise the poor, first and most. If prices are expected to fall, stocks are dishoarded to the market and prices fall faster and deeper. In either direction, the rate at which prices change and the height/depth of the rise/fall depends on the speed at which expectations of change in prices take place. A largescale rice miller claims he can control the price of rice at a level that the government cannot. His success/failure will tell us the extent of his monopoly power.

When commodities are scarce, in the absence of a sensible system of coupons to regulate the distribution, consumers will form queues. A queue is rarely a straight here, nor a dog’s tail (queue, in French, is a dog’s tail which most often crooked). Assembled consumers stagnate, make puddles and sometimes spread out like the Ganges, with Meghna, disgorges itself to the Bay of Bengal. They sometimes swirl and make whirlpools and then there is trouble, occasionally serious. There is order in a queue that people make automatically. To break that order is somehow iniquitous in the human mind. That is why breaking the order in a queue is enraging. For a queue to be disobeyed by anyone is infuriating, and for a politician to do so now in this country is dangerously injurious to his physical wellbeing.

The first cause of rising prices, hoarding and queues is the scarcity of goods and services in relation to the income and savings in the hands of the people.

Continue Reading

Features

Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine

Published

on

In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.

If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?

These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.

The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.

While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.

Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?

However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.

The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.

Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.

On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.

However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.

To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.

However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.

That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.

Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.

Continue Reading

Features

At 80, now serving humanity

Published

on

Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.

Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.

No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!

At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.

Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.

“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “

And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.

It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.

“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”

Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.

“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day

“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”

“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.

“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.

“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.

“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.

“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.

“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”

Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.

However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.

Continue Reading

Trending