by Dr. S. Ratnajeevan.H.Hoole
Dr. S. Ratnajeevan.H.Hoole is Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Michigan State University,USA. He was formerly the Vice- Chancellor of the University of Jaffna and also University Grants Commission Coordinator for Engineering at the Jaffna University.
This paper titled “Location of an Engineering Faculty in Sri Lanka: The Unusual Criteria and Lessons Learnt” was presented 119th Annual Conference & Exposition American Society for Engineering Education held at San Antonio , Texas from June 10th – 13th 2012. The copyright to this paper is with the American Society for Engineering Education.
Location of an Engineering Faculty in Sri Lanka: The Unusual Criteria and Lessons Learnt –part one
Abstract – Sri Lanka recently decided to set up a new engineering faculty, in addition to the three already in existence. This paper describes the unusual considerations that went into the author making a recommendation on the location of the faculty at the behest of the University Grants Commission which is principally responsible for all university development and funding.
While in most countries the criteria on whether to set about establishing a new faculty and where would depend on need, in Sri Lanka, as in many countries where government is solely in charge of universities, the final process and its outcome depended on many additional criteria to the normal, including political criteria.
While need was certainly a part of it, in this instance, the author who was commissioned to write the report, had to
a) Examine regional aspirations in a country rent by communal strife;
b) Weigh the viability of big cities where industry can support an engineering faculty’s research and training programs and such programs’ associated placement needs, against the demands of rural cities long denied development;
c) Consider the worries of parents close to any new faculty that their children would be sent to an as yet undeveloped faculty as opposed to the established ones where they would otherwise go;
d) Look at the need to build hostel blocks in a cash-strapped national economy, which would become necessary in rural areas, as opposed to urban areas where private rooms for students are available from residential homes;
e) Worry about the need of politicians to show that they are influential in settling the issue against the actual optimal situation, playing off presidential, ministerial and local politicians’ interests and their positions;
f) Research the ability of students located rurally (educated in the Tamil or Sinhalese language to high school) to pick up English which is now increasingly important for employment prospects;
g) Consider the rich additional course offerings available to students in established cities through other faculties ;
h) Weigh the available water supply and recreational facilities in a rural setting and
i) Consider the fears of local communities that their “traditional homelands” would be vitiated by the government using the faculty to move in other ethnic groups for political reasons.
In the end, the issue was settled by ministerial directive based entirely on political considerations. The paper, using this experience, draws lessons on how best to serve the student community in such a situation; especially when the government is exclusively in charge of higher education as in Sri Lanka. This paper is also a full report on the development of the new faculty of engineering and raises many ethical issues for engineers in education administration.
1.University Education in Sri Lanka and Official Histories
The modern Sri Lankan university system began in 1823 with the Batticotta Seminary in Jaffna (in the North) established by the Presbyterian America Ceylon Mission from New England. This, together with the Wesleyan Methodist Mission’s Seminary in Jaffna (1834), is certified by the Colonial Secretary Sir James Emerson Tennent in a letter dated March 23, 1848 to Rufus Anderson, DD, of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions as “entitled to rank with many an European University.”1 Jaffna is the cultural capital of the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka, who occupied the North and East as the dominant majority while being scattered over the rest of Sri Lanka where the majority Sinhalese predominate (Fig. 1).
The curriculum at Batticotta consisted of “In the Academical Department, Algebra, Euclid, Conic Sections, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Astronomy, Logic, Rhetoric, Mental and Moral Philosophy, Paley’s Natural Theology, Butler’s Analogy, Classical Tamil and Sanskrit; in the Normal Department Arithmetic, Algebra, Grammar, Geography, History, Natural theology, Tamil, Classical Reader, English Bible, &c.”2 The Wesleyan Seminary’s is said to have been similar in Tennent’s letter.1
These missionary colleges turned their attention to secondary education after the colonial government established University College Colombo in 1921 as an extended part of the federated University of London with its system of affiliated colleges. This was upgraded to the University of Ceylon in 1942 under Parliament’s Ceylon University Ordinance No. 186 of 1942.
This one University of Ceylon for the entire nation catered to less than 1% of the aspiring population and maintained very high standards. Graduates of the independent University of Ceylon were well regarded internationally as judged by their employment and postgraduate admission track records.
II. Ethnic Politics and Engineering
As a result of the missionary (mainly American missionary) educational efforts in the North, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, then numbering some 22% of the population, used to garner close to 50% of the competitive seats in engineering and medicine at the University of Ceylon; but because they shunned the humanities and social sciences, their overall share of university seats was proportionately well below their population.3, 4
This was not acceptable to the majority Sinhalese who introduced ethnic quotas from the admissions for the year 1970, the arguments centering around who was over-represented. Tamils prided themselves in doing well in mathematics and the sciences; and out of the four G.C.E. Advanced Level subjects for engineering admissions, namely Applied Mathematics, Pure Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, they tended to score highly in the first two. Adding 28 marks to the 4-subject Sinhalese aggregate before determining admissions as they did in 1970, was brazen communalism and brought in a lot of criticism from outside. It was the reverse of affirmative action – a majority imposing a higher standard on a minority for university admission – and it seemed shameful to outsiders and even many Sinhalese. Therefore ethnic quotas were soon abandoned in favor of what the government called standardization3 whereby the means in the two language streams were equated as were the standard deviations.
Standardization is a legitimate exercise in education management when comparing performances in different subject streams. But this was the first time it was applied to compare students sitting the same subject papers in their different languages of instruction (the same question papers being used in translation). Since the Tamils did better in the sciences, standardization effectively brought Tamil marks down. It achieved the same goal as before of keeping Tamils out of the university but under the guise of a new scientific method.
Before this, Tamils were just kept out of the university but now under standardization their grades too suffered, precluding them, upon being denied university admission, from applying for jobs based on their reduced grades. For example, as a result of standardization in one year in the mid-1970s a Tamil scoring below 55% in Physics got the grade of F whereas a Sinhalese with 65% in the same paper got the grade of A.
Further, the government arguing that the G.C.E. A. Levels were too diverting of student attention from other necessary student activities, reduced the G.C.E. A. Levels to three subjects, combining the two mathematics subjects into one. The Tamils saw it as a deliberate move to cut their feet off from under them.
In addition, the government also introduced regional quotas. This gave a socialist cover to moving away from raw marks for university admission. This allowed Tamils from poorer areas like Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mannar and Vavuniya to enter the university more easily. Coopting some Tamils on to the standardization bandwagon muted the monolithic Tamil opposition to standardization while continuing with the overarching goal of eliminating Tamils from the professions.
In essence, engineering admissions from Jaffna were reduced further by regional quotas requiring a Jaffna student to score a lot more for engineering admissions.
The tougher admission standards for poor village Tamils vis-à-vis rich Sinhalese from Colombo on the grounds of Tamil privilege was embarrassing to the government clothing itself in the garb of socialism which therefore declared everything about examinations and admissions cut-off marks confidential. And under confidentiality, a lot of corruption was permitted which became public only when governments changed in 1977 – many had graduated as doctors and engineers (taking the most competitive university seats) and gone abroad by the time it was recognized that they never deserved admission for the few seats available although they possessed well above the minimum qualifications for admissions.
This writer’s wife’s father was high up in the administrative service and he was offered by Sinhalese colleagues in 1974 to have her marks altered behind the closed doors of the examination branch of the ministry to upgrade her admission from the Faculty of Science to the Faculty of Medicine, an offer that was politely declined.
Different admission and grade standards for the two different ethnic communities (often mistakenly referred to as races) by a government that insisted that Sri Lanka is one indivisible nation, stoked Tamil separatism and set off student unrest.5 The regional quotas ensured that the loudest voice for separation would come more from Jaffna than any other Tamil region.
The cry for separation enraged the Sinhalese who increased repression and set off a pogrom against Tamils in 1977 and 1983 as the Sri Lankan President justified the pogrom thus in the height of the killings in July-August 1983: “I cannot see, and my government cannot see any other way by which we can appease the natural desire and request of the Sinhala people.”6
In the brutal civil war that followed, the most educated of the Tamils fled the country, making it necessary by the year 2004 officially to categorize Jaffna as a backward region for university admissions. The Tamils, who had first had their opportunities restricted by standardization and regional quotas, now found that the system increased their admission. By and large, Tamils left behind were of lower quality (with the exception of some with strong reasons to stay) and these ensured their control of institutions in the Tamil areas by being obsequious to the government and keeping out those of good quality. It made life for Tamils even harder.
The ethnic war for separation by the Tamil Tigers from 1983 added to the all-round collapse of the education system as a poor country diverted its budget to defense, with defense spending (nearly always being marked by kick-backs) justified in the name of nationalism. Qualified Tamils nearly always fled. Sinhalese too fled as the inconveniences of a war-budget and checkpoints and bombings took their toll
III. Engineering, and Engineering for University of Jaffna
The university system was rapidly expanded to meet student aspirations, eventually accommodating about 3.1% of the population by 2004.7 The World Bank’s target for reaching Newly Industrialized Country (NIC) status was having 8% of the 18-22 age cohort in degree programs.8 The single University of Ceylon first branched into regional campuses in the early 1970s which were then broken off into independent Universities numbering 15 today; these, with the closest city center in brackets, being presented in Table 1. The cities are shown in Fig. 1 to give the reader an idea of the geographical distribution of the universities over the island.
Out of these 15 universities, it is seen that six are effectively in Colombo and five of these six universities have been the best9 and have grown much faster than the others because of the willingness and even wishes of staff to be close to Colombo, with the benefits of urban life including access to good schools for their children. The exception is the University of Visual and Performing Arts which is staffed mainly by artistes without university training, which explains its lower ranking.
Of the out-of-Colombo universities, Ruhuna is an exception in doing relatively well because the Matara area, like Jaffna, has produced many intellectuals and has had time to develop. If not for the war and the isolation which came with it, it is likely that Jaffna too would rank at the top at least with Ruhuna.
An element of regionalism was introduced with Tamil areas in the North and East getting University of Jaffna and Eastern University of Sri Lanka in the 1970s, while the Muslim Southeast got its South Eastern University a little later. Technically all universities are national under the central University Grants Commission (UGC). However, the war meant that only Tamils and Muslims were fully willing to go to the Tamil and Muslim Universities in the war-ravaged Northeast of the island. But the problem with expansion of the university system was staff. Many with modern western credentials to teach in a university had left as the country faced difficulties stemming from the war which also contributed to the politicization of the administration.10, 11
The humanities and social sciences, the pure sciences and even medicine adapted by issuing local postgraduate degrees, mainly at master’s level, to churn out large numbers of postgraduate degree holders minimally if not ideally qualified to teach in a university. Such master’s degree holders, however, usually lack the language skills to teach subject degrees in the sciences and medicine which are still officially conducted in English; as a result, in practice a lot of the teaching is in the vernacular. Nor did they have the research skills to do independent research of internationally publishable quality. But the arrangement sufficed to carry on.
In engineering however, with occasional exceptions such as the Department of Production Engineering at Peradeniya where unofficially teaching is in Sinhalese thereby keeping Tamils out of the program, the standard of a Ph.D. holder fluent enough in English to teach was retained; not in the centralized recruitment schemes, but at the selection committees following advertisement of vacancies. That is, the engineers academics on the engineering selection committees maintained standards higher than those required by the ordinances. This made expansion of engineering programmes very difficult – for finding those who can satisfactorily teach in English is well nigh impossible.
In late 1979, as the university system expanded, the Tamils staked a claim for an engineering faculty in the Tamil North which had the University of Jaffna at its historical peak. Smarting under the differential admissions system and given the relative peace of the times, many Tamil senior academics from Peradeniya had moved to the North and were publishing under the Jaffna imprimatur. The confident Jaffna Senate and university resolved that a Faculty of Engineering be established in Jaffna. In that era of nationalism preceding the civil war, however, when Sinhalese held all the power, the Senate made the mistake of appointing a feasibility study committee consisting entirely of Tamils in the academic system, albeit most of them accomplished, to study the matter and report. These were Prof. T. Sivaprakasapillai and his son Dr. Pratab Sivaprakasapillai, Dr. A. Thurairajah, Dr. Kumar David and Mr. A. Ragunathan. Many equally or more qualified Sinhalese were not brought on board to make the case.
As a result, their report of 1980 would have been seen by the UGC as pressure from Tamil quarters when it was passed on to them by the University. The UGC naturally sat on it – for years!
Prof. A. Thurairajah, a civil engineer and respected leftist with a Cambridge doctorate, had been Dean of the Engineering Faculty at Peradeniya which was once the only engineering faculty in Sri Lanka. His reputation for brilliance came from a reputed achievement of having the highest marks on record as an engineering undergraduate at the University of Ceylon, although his later performance in research was quite ordinary as is the case for most who return home to serve after their doctoral studies. This is because, in addition to being cut off from facilities, they are not subject to any pressure to publish and accorded a high status in society based on their undergraduate performance. But for undergraduate teaching with few research expectations as in Sri Lanka, that system works and works well.
This much academically respected Thurairajah had been disillusioned when he himself had been turned into a refugee at the University of Peradeniya when a calculated attack on Tamils was made at the university in May 1983.12 Over his problems there he had once even resigned, but was persuaded to withdraw his letter of resignation. As a leftist with a vision for a socialist world, and thus distinct from Tamil nationalists who wanted a separate state, he was socially respected in the South. When he was appointed Vice Chancellor (VC) of Jaffna in August 1988, the Engineering Faculty for Jaffna moved a further step and a UGC Committee consisting entirely of Sinhalese but good friends of Thurairajah’s (Dr. S.M.A. Perera, a member of the UGC with rich industry experience and, Prof. C. Dahanayake, Prof. Willie Mendis, and Prof. Milton Amaratunga, all at the full academic rank of professor unlike the Jaffna committee) plus a nominee of the Vice Chancellor of Jaffna, endorsed an Engineering Faculty in their report of Nov. 1988. They recommended that the faculty be sited at Kilinochchi, 45 miles South of Jaffna with agricultural lands and a man-made lake, called Iranaimadu, which had been made to retain rain water for irrigation. A hundred acres of land in Kilinochchi were alienated by the government for the faculty.
It was the time when civil engineering was booming through river diversion projects in Sri Lanka and jobs in the Middle East and Africa. Thurairajah had come from an older era where civil engineering had large labs with models of fluid channels almost 40 m long.
Accordingly land had been allocated as recommended. But Thurairajah could not build up the faculty even then. Although the government approved the faculty with the assumption of protection from the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), the Tamil Tiger rebels began an insurgency against the IPKF disrupting the region with a bloody secondary conflict.5 Thurairajah was wooing this writer on a visit to California in 1989 to come as a department head and it was agreed that this writer would return in 1993 as classes got under way and students reached the second or third year. Thurairajah spoke of his plans to invite Korean contractors to build the university with a Sri Lankan army guard. But the rebels, the Tamil Tigers, were too strong in disrupting normal life to the Tamil population, the key strategy employed by most rebel groups. As the IPKF departed in March 1990 when the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers joined forces against it, the Tamil Tigers had a field day. A senior Professor of Civil Engineering, Prof. V. Navaratnarajah, a Jaffna Tamil working as a senior academic in Malaysia, was hired in September 1990 – although the war had resumed, the approval of the faculty and the cadre during the ceasefire allowed the university to still hire him to set up the Faculty working under Thurairajah. But there was no progress.
Without progress all plans for the faculty were frozen. VC Thurairajah was frustrated and disappointed, and became increasingly nationalistic, going so far as to make fiery separatist speeches at Tamil Tiger festivities and asking the English Unit of the University of Jaffna to assign staff to work full-time for the rebels as translators. He died prematurely of leukemia in Oct. 1994 and posthumously received from the Tigers the highest title they had for a civilian.
When the University of Jaffna did not launch on the approved faculty and the pressure from all communities for increased admissions became unremitting, the next Engineering Faculty was given to University of Ruhuna in the deep Sinhala South in 1998. This writer was engaged for a period as the most senior person on site, planning the faculty with and under the Coordinator Dr. H.H.J. Keerthisena of Peradeniya. Jaffna was told that until this new faculty was on firm footing, Jaffna’s engineering Faculty was on hold. However, since the time this writer finished his contract at the rank of Professor at the new faculty at Ruhuna in 1999, that faculty to this date has been unable to attract a person at the rank of Professor or even Associate Professor.
Even junior academics from Peradeniya offered the post of Dean, going so far as to violate the ordinances in making such an offer, could not be induced to move from positions at Peradeniya. (In the Sri Lankan university system, one with a PhD joins as Senior Lecturer and rises in that position until switched to the professorial track when there is a substantial accomplishment in research).
Those at Ruhuna Engineering who did rise as Senior Lecturers and acquired the qualifications to be professor soon moved abroad or to established Faculties at Peradeniya or Moratuwa, which are also constantly looking for qualified staff as their own personnel flee abroad to greener pastures. It seemed then that Jaffna would have a prolonged wait.
IV. The 2002-2006 Cease Fire: A New Opportunity for Engineering
A new ceasefire between the Tamil Tigers and the Government of Sri Lanka was imposed through western intervention with Indian approval in 2002.13 This was an opportunity to restart the long awaited engineering faculty. During this period, with peace being in the air, the University Grants Commission was sympathetic to Tamil ambitions for an engineering faculty and encouraged the University of Jaffna to go ahead and renew its plans for engineering.
At the time there was a system of two governments in the Tamil North, the Sri Lankan government militarily in control and running Jaffna peninsula where the university was, and the rebel Tamil Tigers in charge of the Vanni, the southern part of the Northern Province (Fig. 1) and mingling freely with the population in the peninsula.
University administrators had to answer to both, and the government and the rebels permitted officialdom to operate in that fashion – for example getting the budget and operating under governance ordinances from the government’s UGC and the Universities Act while simultaneously building monuments for the fallen rebels on campus and holding festivities where rebels would be the chief guests and determining days to shut down classes to permit students to attend rebel functions. Another example would be that cited of the university’s English Unit staff paid by the government working for the rebels. Fig. 2 shows persons appointed to high office in a government institution, University of Jaffna, declaring open a monument, at that institution to the Black Tigers, the Tiger suicide squad which had killed several innocent people.
At this point the Tigers insisted that the faculty be sited in the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi which they were cultivating as the capital of their planned future Tamil state. The UGC believed it should be in the city of Jaffna where they could inspect it at any time to ensure that their funds were not being used for weaponry. The Member of Parliament for Jaffna also wanted it in Kilinochchi. Sensing the logjam, a senior Tamil Member of Parliament pitched for his electoral district, Trincomalee in the East (Fig. 1).
The Council of the university too, in a situation where the Tigers could not be disobeyed, took the rebel line, insisting that the faculty be located in Kilinochchi. There was no Tamil position acceptable to the UGC.
The university’s first job was to recruit for the only approved cadre position for a senior academic to begin planning the faculty as the previous person recruited in 1990, Professor Navaratnarajah, had retired as professor of civil engineering without taking a single lecture in engineering and had voluntarily done some work in physics to salve his sharp conscience because he felt he was drawing a salary without doing any work. His giving up a lucrative position in Malaysia and coming home to serve but ending up having contributed little, now served as a warning to other accomplished Tamils settled abroad who might be moved by his same sense of dedicated service to his homeland to return and contribute. Getting staff would now be all the more difficult.
By now Sri Lanka was largely bereft of Tamil engineering academics. There were only two at the grade of professor, one a mechanical engineer and the other an electrical engineer. When the university advertised, the electrical engineer applied along with some junior persons. It was widely known that the electrical engineer was interested in the Vice Chancellor’s post soon to come vacant and some of the internal candidates and Council members did not want him working with the council as it was seen as increasing his chances of being elected by the Council when the time came. So ignoring his application planning proceeded with a committee without any proper engineering academic, although commonsense demanded engineers for that task of planning an engineering faculty. As a result, absurd sections of the proposals of the new Committee bereft of engineering academics who would have caught the absurdities, passed by the Council. The new committee in charge said about the site in its report:
“Jaffna peninsula is over populated. The land is scarce and expensive in Jaffna and finding water is a problem. Kilinochchi is the major town nearest to Jaffna in the mainland. It is only about 60 km from the Main Campus of the Jaffna University, and land is available in plenty and cheaper [sic.]. Kilinochchi is not too far from Jaffna. If the roads are maintained in good condition, Kilinochchi is [sic.] only an hour’s journey by road. Iranaimadu tank can be used to supply water to Kilinochchi city and the Campus of the [sic.] Jaffna University […] It has been a consistent policy of successive governments and the local administration since independence to move the population out from the peninsula, to areas in an around Kilinochchi.”14
A savvy council would have seen that the over-population of Jaffna was not an issue because as a result of the war it had been more than halved, at the time the committee wrote this, from its peak around 800,000. A University Council of responsible and educated members who read the report under the then Dean of Science, Prof. R. Kumaravadivel, would have asked in which document at independence is this policy of moving the population out of the Tamil cultural capital formally stated. In fact the practice of political stooges and uneducated persons being appointed to the governing University Council with electoral considerations in mind had already begun and it is widely known that some Council members came to Council meetings only to have their palms read by a soothsayer appointed to the Council while another came bare-bodied to Council meetings.
In fact the Committee was catering to the Tamil Tigers who wanted to move the Tamils’ cultural capital to Kilinochchi. It was nationalist Tamil Tiger ideology pure and simple, having no chance of success either in getting the people to consent to such a move from their ancestral homes or in winning an engineering faculty from the government.
Moreover, Kilinochchi is 45 miles from Jaffna and the allocated land was a further 9 miles South of Kilinochchi, well over the report’s 60 km (the equivalent of 37 miles). If the report had mentioned 45 or 54 km, it might be believed as an accidental error in typing km for miles. Engineers familiar with new faculties in big western cities would have known that little land is required for an engineering faculty and most colleges of engineering are built upwards as indeed the Faculty at the University of Moratuwa was, taking up little land, and continues to expand upwards.
Excessive reliance on the model of single storey large labs followed by Peradeniya from where most Tamil engineers come was partly to blame. Indeed, if Iranaimadu can supply water “to the Campus of the Jaffna University,” why go to Kilinochchi and not stay on at the main campus? Whether in Tamil subservience to please Colombo or in incompetence, the report asked for a mere Rs. 800 million in buildings whose construction would go on till the year 2007 whereas the government had already spent Rs. 900 million on buildings for a similar sized faculty in Hapugala/Galle completed the year in 1999. The report naively recommended a Department of Computer Technology (rather than Computer Engineering), not realizing that Engineering Technology is a sub-engineering field not appropriate for students whose strengths are in mathematics as in Sri Lanka
It seems that in writing the report, its authors were confident that no one on the Council would have the competence and expertise to read it and ask simple questions. That was the depth to which Jaffna, the pride of the Tamils, had sunk in its education endeavors.
In a milieu where the main shortage was qualified personnel rather than money, in a short sighted move the Council without processing the application received from the electrical engineer for the post of professor, readvertised for an IT person or civil engineer. When the electrical engineer still applied since he had experience and publications in computer science, that advertisement too was disregarded and they advertised for a civil engineer arguing that the first professor needed to supervise the construction of faculty buildings.
Although it was pointed out that the university’s medical faculty had been built without first hiring a professor of civil engineering, the Council nonchalantly went ahead and interviewed some junior civil engineers who were finally deemed unsuitable. In effect, the Faculty was sabotaged as the post went unfilled and the faculty forgotten for some years.
V. A Faculty for Jaffna: To or Not To?
The demand for a faculty for Jaffna comes from the people. Whether or not to found one, although a technical decision at the level of national education policy is based on the demand of the people as budget allocations are driven by political considerations.
As a people who prided themselves in their mathematical inclinations, the Tamil people generally wanted an engineering faculty. But one thing held them back. It concerned the area rule operated by the University Grants Commission which selected students to universities.
Of those to be admitted to engineering and medicine, the most competitive faculties for the physical science and bioscience streams, the top 40% based on all-island merit are allowed to choose the faculty they want15 and they usually choose the best engineering faculty, nearly always in their perception the one at Moratuwa. Few eligible under the all island merit list want to go to the University of Peradeniya or the third, the University of Ruhuna situated near the town of Galle. Indeed, Tamils felt very unwelcome at Ruhuna. But for the other 60% of the students the allocation is based on proximity and so long as they got that rare engineering seat, they would take it despite any personal preferences.
The fear among Tamil parents about starting engineering in Jaffna was that those Tamils coming under the balance 60% would be shoved on the basis of proximity into a new Faculty in the University of Jaffna which was already suffering in quality because those Tamils who could flee had fled. Children who go to a university in the South tend to pick up language skills in English and Sinhalese which stand them in good stead when it comes to employment. Further, by the area or proximity rule, most of the children getting into engineering from Colombo, the capital, end up at Moratuwa (Fig. 3).
Since many of the students at Moratuwa speak English as a result of coming from the Colombo homes of people in the public service and the private sector, others who go there invariably pick up English. But Jaffna graduates, with a few rare exceptions, come out essentially monolingual. It has been observed by Suresh Canagarajah,16 previously an academic at Jaffna teaching English and presently holding a named chair at Pennsylvania State University, that University Lecturers from Jaffna (increasingly including senior dons too) cannot hold a sustained conversation or present an academic paper in English.
He adds that a small percentage of senior members in the upper social groups, especially those who have gone abroad for training, or have studied in the older educational system, display better proficiency in English (By the year 2012, nearly all in this fortunate group have retired). And with the incestuous recruitment practice of getting their own graduates on to the staff, the fate of the University of Jaffna as a monolingual institution seemed sealed. An engineering faculty with the traditions of a fully English education and staff trained in the West had a chance of uplifting the whole university but was spurned.
For long, therefore, parents with children who would seek admission in the foreseeable future did not like the idea of an engineering faculty in Jaffna. For then, their children would be in a yet to be developed engineering faculty in Jaffna. However, by 2006 a new factor came into play. It was reported by the Vice Chairman at the UGC that a Korean team that had come to invest in an electronics factory in Sri Lanka packed its bags and returned upon learning that only some 50 electronics engineers per year were produced in Sri Lanka. Nationally it had therefore been determined that because of student demand and development needs there would be another engineering faculty. The need to provide more engineering seats had made the UGC determined to start another faculty.
The existing three faculties claimed to be full and and persuading them to admit more had been a daunting annual task for the UGC, having to offer more and more money for the facilities the universities claimed not to have to admit more students. However, Jaffna had a pre-eminent claim to the next Faculty of Engineering based on the previous promises and failed plans. But if Jaffna did not show a keen interest in taking on engineering, another university would. Rajarata University, close to Anuradhapura in the middle of the country (Fig. 3), had shown some interest.
The Chairman of the UGC, a former VC from Rajarata, was expected to be sympathetic to a bid from there. It seemed a given therefore that if Jaffna did not grab the opportunity to start engineering, there would be one in Rajarata. Under the proximity rule therefore, as seen in Fig. 3, the students from the major Tamil population centers – Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya and Trincomalee with the exception of Batticaloa – would get shoved into Rajarata University which had also ambitiously started a medical school. Due to lack of staff, however, Rajarata had for long been unable to graduate its medical students in due time as a result of beginning a medical faculty without the staff or the facilities. The prospect of Tamils students being shunted to Rajarata was scary to any sensible parent.
Based on proximity, with engineering at Rajarata only the people of Batticaloa would have access to the well-equipped and well-staffed University of Peradeniya while a few Tamils from the Amparai District might be sent to Galle. It was no longer the case that if the launching of the faculty under Jaffna continued to be postponed on various pretexts by Jaffna’s university authorities, their children would have continued access to the good faculty at Peradeniya. Instead, it became clear that their best children could end up at Rajarata, which was perceived as hostile Sinhalese country by most Tamils and posed many health risks, including an infestation of malaria bearing anopheles mosquitoes.
VI. Ramifications of the End of the War
From Dec. 2005 the war escalated and the government appears to have decided to pursue the war regardless of civilian casualties. The policy paid off for the government (but not its Tamil citizens) and by May 2009, almost the entire leadership of the Tigers was wiped off and the government was in full control at the cost variously estimated from 10,000 to 40,000 Tamil civilian casualties in the space of 6 months.17-19
Government policy appears to be that the war for ethnic separation had been possible only because there were minority enclaves or homelands and thus that these should be eliminated to preserve the integrity of the country. Since the war, many Sinhalese had been settled in Tamil areas in the East and now in the North too. Sinhalese students have increasingly been admitted to the universities in the North and the East just like Tamil students have always been admitted to universities in the South. Vavuniya campus of Jaffna University has almost 50% Sinhalese students; yet the university’s exclusively Tamil authorities have stubbornly not recruited a single Sinhalese academic. It was asking for trouble in a system where Tamils had little power, especially when Tamil students had entry to universities in the South.
Immense problems are created by the fact that with the collapse of English proficiency many science lectures in the North and East which officially are in English had been unofficially conducted in Tamil or with a good admixture of Tamil (Arts course are in the vernacular and therefore do not have this problem, showing how important engineering is to bringing the University of Jaffna into the modern age). Now, with Sinhalese students in the science classrooms, the lecturers have to lecture fully in English. The governing Councils of the universities also now have Sinhalese members appointed by the government – it has already been done at Eastern University and will happen soon at University of Jaffna. With the government taking a hard-line in its postwar policy, changes are imminent whether the Tamils like it or not.
As such the university of Jaffna and Eastern University are being transformed from the parochial universities they were into national universities. Although this will benefit Tamil students, it is unsettling to many Tamils who feel they are losing the security of the few places where they are in majority.
The universities are in confusion as many of those who were once in allegiance to the Tamil Tigers are now obsequiously subservient to the government. A Vice Chancellor who used to compose lyrics for the Tiger Leader killed in May 2009 now was at the Sri Lankan President’s residence singing his own compositions to him in Tamil. A Medical Dean who had worked full-time for the Tigers, now gave testimony against them to the government.20 Even top ranked rebel leaders are now working for Army Intelligence openly. An atmosphere has been created where the university community does not know whom to trust. Even senior academics are rarely willing to give their honest opinions. These are the survival skills they picked up during the rebellion.
VII. The Faculty of Engineering: Postwar Authorities
With the government’s military victory over the Tamil Tigers, there is now talk of rebuilding Tamil areas – i.e., the North and East.
Tamils by and large are distrustful of the government and vote for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which was affiliated with the Tigers until their defeat in 2009. Although the TNA leadership was quite moderate in its views even at the time, there was little space for dissent under the coercive hegemony of the Tamil Tigers.
As a result of Sinhalese governments being unpopular with the Tamil public, various governments in their time had cultivated a few select Tamil individuals and made them cabinet ministers so as to claim that they had Tamil support. In 1994 a group called the EPDP, a former Tamil militant group with a track record of murder of opponents and kidnapping for ransom,21 which the Tigers had tried to eliminate, sought protection from the Sri Lankan Army and soon became a vassal of the state winning seats in Parliament with 0.14% of the vote because the Tamil Tigers demanded a boycott of the election and only the EPDP dared defy the ban.
It was allowed to rig elections in off-lying islands by the Jaffna peninsula and, as it is imperative for the government to have elected Tamil Members of Parliament in the cabinet to show Tamil support, the government not only looked the other way but even lent its institutional arms such as the police to the EPDP to help in rigging.22 Consequently, any government business with the Tamil people is done through the EPDP, though the EPDP has been accused by the US Embassy in Colombo, the elected representatives of the Tamil people, major human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and even the government’s own commission of inquiry, of armed extortion and all sorts of political thuggery.20
However, so desperate is the government to show elected Tamil support that the EPDP is treated as the Tamil people’s effective representative. Few things in the North therefore can be done without the EPDP’s consent and blessing.
In this atmosphere, the government decided to go ahead with the engineering faculty as the President promised in a speech while campaigning in Jaffna during the 2009 presidential elections. Subsequently this writer was appointed as Coordinator for Engineering by the University Grants Commission with the charge of recommending a site for the new faculty. This meant working with all political authorities, good or bad, if anything is to be achieved for the people.
All universities in Sri Lanka come under the Universities Act No. 16 of 197823 with its subsequent amendments which carefully prescribes the powers of the President, the Minister for Education, the University Grants Commission and the Council governing each university. This Act prescribes under Article 22 of the Universities Act that the Minister, in consultation with the University Grants Commission, shall assign a campus to a university.
As any engineering faculty on a new campus for a university must comply with this, the appointment of a Coordinator by and answerable to the UGC, was justified by and accorded with the Universities Act. The Vice Chancellor, backed by the EPDP and the university’s Senate, however, appointed a Senate Subcommittee to make a recommendation on the site. Such a recommendation would not have been binding on the Minister but anyone in a democracy was free to make a recommendation – that is while the statutory responsibility for determining a site was the Minister’s in consultation with the UGC which had appointed a Coordinator to make a recommendation, there was no bar to the university making its own recommendation. There was therefore some untidiness about authorities and the chain of command.
Thus to summarize, the forces at play in a decision on siting the engineering faculty were:
1) The President and Minister of Education: They ultimately were responsible for a decision, but being politicians would be guided by political considerations.
Thus although even the Auditor General had accused university officials of embezzlement (see Appendix for the report which this writer received while a member of the UGC), the President, Minister of Higher Education and the UGC, knowing the serious nature of the Auditor General’s charges against a Dean of Medicine, did not seem to care as they appointed her to the highest university office, the Vice Chancellorship of University of Jaffna, all because it was politically expedient and the EPDP wanted the appointment.
2) The EPDP and its Minister in Cabinet: They would be more concerned with propping up the few Tamils who supported them by endorsing the decisions of such persons. The Universities Act specified that the Council send three unranked names for the post of Vice Chancellor and the President picked any one of these three. In this particular case, as the government’s chosen agent among the Tamils, the EPDP’s recommendation was followed and as a result the EPDP would back the decision of the VC it had effectively chosen. The President’s choice via the EPDP for the post of VC of the University of Jaffna has included those who never made it to full professor, embezzlers, those found sexually abusing female students and staff and so on,24,25 so long as they would help the EPDP make patronage appointments to the university staff and invite the EPDP to university functions.
3) The TNA, the main elected representative of the Tamil people: Mindful that their wishes might be deliberately gone against by a hostile government, the TNA would only express opinions in private.
4) The University Grants Commission: The usual practice is for them to make a technical recommendation but then not care if their recommendation is not followed by the political authorities because they found it difficult to challenge the authorities. For example when this writer was on the UGC and objected to the UGC following through on the ministry encroaching on powers vested in the UGC by the Act, he was told by friendly fellow Commissioners half jokingly: “Go ahead and object if you want to be thrown off the Commission.” This might explain why Commission members appointed by the President and theoretically left alone thereafter to do their duties, never insist on exercising their statutory powers, especially if they are looking for reappointment.
5) The VC and Council of the University: Many of these persons have been appointed technically by the President or the UGC as described in the Universities Act but in reality on the recommendations of the EPDP. Before key Council meeting, the EPDP Minister has a “Pre-Council Meeting” where he instructs these Council members, according to the Section 44(vii) of the Universities Act appointed by the UGC “from among persons who have rendered distinguished service in educational, professional, commercial, industrial, scientific or administrative spheres,” meekly follow orders on how to vote. When this came to light, such meetings were suspended for a while but have now resumed. They were keener on showing they are in charge, preserving their positions by bowing to their political masters and were adamant of the old decision from the 1980s to site the new faculty in Kilinochchi. (TO BE CONTINUED)