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 two
VIII. New Realities in 2011
Several things had changed since the original reports of 1979 on siting the new faculty of engineering. First, civil engineering classes in the west had shrunk drastically from around and since 1984 and few training opportunities would be available there to train a university’s academic staff.
Training of undergraduates in universities is now based increasingly using software models and computer-aided design. Large labs are obsolete. Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering are at the fore in modern industry.
This has not dawned on many Sri Lankan educators (especially administrators who are older and therefore more obsolete) who worked in Sri Lanka from the time of their degrees. For in Sri Lanka where there are few design jobs, engineers who did not go abroad work in sales, commissioning and maintenance – ironically with the exception of civil engineering where engineers occasionally take on new design tasks in buildings and roads. Work done in the West by technicians and engineering technology graduates is done by Sri Lankan engineers whose academic training is for design far more than in the West because of the mathematical strengths of Sri Lanka’s engineering students.
(Indeed, as we have seen, the distinction in nomenclature between Engineering and Engineering Technology in the educational literature is not readily recognized and the new Faculty proposal from the University of Jaffna by a committee of non-engineers had a Department of Computer Technology when what was meant was Computer Engineering). Further,
1) When Prof. A. Thurairajah planned on Kilinochchi, the North-East Province was one Tamil province under the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution hammered out under Indian pressure which was justified by the hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees seeking shelter in India from a violent Sri Lankan army. Kilinochchi was at the middle of this North-East Province and being promoted as the provincial capital by the Tamil Tigers. Since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, the province had been broken up into two.26 Therefore Kilinochchi as the center of the province was no longer a viable argument after the split (or de-merger as it is commonly called) of the province back into two. For Kilinochchi was no longer the center of any province.
2) Thurairajah’s was a time when under the centralized administration of the Tamil Tigers, university staff ordered to move to Kilinochchi would not have argued. Today with choice, we cannot guarantee such ready compliance as we can see with the Agriculture Faculty where for a decade the academic staff had given various excuses for not moving when asked to do so (see section X.II, subsection on Proximity).
3) Thurairajah’s was a time when Kilinochchi had some schools, but even they were in a terrible state compared to the rest of Sri Lanka then. Taking from a 2-year study concluded in the year 2004 at Save the Children Fund for the World Bank,27 with the best schools in then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Gampaha District benchmarked at 100 points, material resources were the worst in Kilinochchi at 38 points as seen in the bar chart of Fig. 4.
Figure 4: Resource Distribution District by District
Human resources, as seen in the same bar chart, although seemingly comparable in terms of raw numbers according to Dr. Dushyanthi Hoole’s study,27 were equally as bad as material resources in quality because, for example, 67% of Kilinochchi teachers were untrained while the figure for the rest of the country was 23%. Furthermore, specialized teachers as shown in Fig. 5, were relatively unavailable in Kilinochchi and Mannar (also a Tamil district). But that is not the whole story – for 50% of English teachers in Kilinochchi were volunteers hoping for permanency whereas the rest of the country had nearly all English teachers in the permanent paid cadre. So the actual commitment of the government to providing specialized teachers is far poorer than reflected in Fig. 5.
Likewise, Fig. 6 shows the roads leading to schools in Tamil speaking areas are relatively nonexistent. School buildings as shown in Fig. 7 are also poorly provided to Tamils.
Figure 5: Availability of Specialized Teachers District by District
And that was all before the war finished off Kilinochchi. This writer has seen the devastation. Although reconstruction is occurring along the main road, away from it there are many institutions that have vanished. Nearly all buildings had been bombed into oblivion by May 2009. Prof. Thurairajah’s decisions no longer hold although they might have had some validity in his time.
Figure 6: Availability and Condition of Roads Leading to Schools District by District
Figure 7: Availability and Condition of School Buildings District by District
IX. Budget Problems
It was also this writer’s mandate, as the UGC Coordinator for Engineering for University of Jaffna, to identify sources of funding.
In the year 1999 when the University of Ruhuna built its engineering faculty close to Galle, the cost of buildings – all up stair blocks in a tiny area of land – had been SL Rs. 900 million. Based on estimates made with civil engineers from the building industry with the help of engineers at the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka Jaffna Centre, in today’s rupees, this would translate to Rs. 2000 million (US $ 20 million). It was our estimate that laboratory equipment and books for the library would come to another Rs. 1000 million. This $30 million was small by US standards but a heady amount in Sri Lanka where a senior professor makes but US$800 per month.
The UGC asked this writer to see how this sum could be raised under foreign aid. But with the end of the war, there was little interest in funding education. For Sri Lanka’s per capita income and per capita GDP had made the International Monetary Fund switch her into the group of Middle Income Countries, out of the previous list of “Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust” eligible countries as of Jan.
2010.28 As such Sri Lanka is no longer eligible for foreign aid as a poor country. Moreover, without the war, there seems much less interest in giving foreign aid except for purposes of having influence in the region. This meant playing China against India by sending the same proposal to both as urged upon this writer by some in high authority, which this writer was reluctant to get into.
The Minister for Higher Education, however, was confident of funding; the Indian Prime minister had assured him, he said, that funding would not be a problem. The Indian High Commission, on the other hand, informed this writer that they were not a funding agency and promised at most two grants of SL Rs. 2.5 million each since SL Rs. 2.5 million (Indian Rs. 1 Crore) is their ceiling on a project.
The prospects of a ready solution to the budget needs seem slim. The Minister for Higher Education felt that starting with the Indian funds and Rs. 500 million from the Sri Lankan Treasury, the faculty could be slowly built up. Even these figures and the planning based on them are now in serious question because the country has been forced to devalue its currency by almost 10% since the beginning of 2012 as the Sri Lanka Rupee is allowed to float because of excessive imports.29 While the resulting inflation will push up costs, the partial funding from India, pegged in Indian rupees will go a longer way. Which the larger effect would be is difficult to assess.
These considerations made clear that any new engineering faculty would be on a shoe string basis at least for the foreseeable future and well below the other engineering faculties in academic standards to which Tamil students would go if there were no engineering faculty in Jaffna.
On the positive side, from a national perspective, the new faculty would give opportunities to read engineering to those for whom there is presently no place in the other engineering faculties.
X. Assessing the Most-mentioned Sites for the Faculty of Engineering: Jaffna and Kilinochchi
The assessment of where the faculty should be sited had become emotional with people taking fixed positions without considered reasoning. The various authorities were keener to prove that their decisions would be final rather than in doing what is best for the university. It was therefore decided to simply make a technical recommendation and let the die fall as it would.
It was clear from the flow of events that wherever the faculty is sited, getting competent teaching staff would be the foremost problem. More than the Government of Sri Lanka which rarely seemed to understand what it means to keep its word, there was every hope that eminent Tamils abroad of goodwill would promise to come forward to help the faculty reach world standards. Therefore despite the seeming odds, this writer felt the need to push forward.
X.I Approach and Hope through Tamil Expatriates
An arrangement was made with Michigan State University’s College of Engineering and its Dean (Professor Satish Udpa) to help develop the faculty and to train probationary staff who might be hired. Michigan went so far as to appoint a Coordinator. Qualified Tamils abroad sympathetic to the idea of a faculty but unwilling to return full-time, were persuaded to form “Friends of the Engineering Faculty Jaffna.”
They promised books and to come themselves or send qualified persons to teach any accelerated semester course taking suitable vacation leave from their jobs. Although few are willing to risk their established positions by resigning and returning, many have sufficient goodwill to help in this way. At least one mechanical engineering Ph.D degree holder in whose country the retirement age is 60, agreed to come to serve up to the age of 65 as permitted in Sri Lanka. A few of expatriates visited Jaffna to emphasize their commitment. Other committed Tamil expatriates in the West promised slightly used equipment from their universities.
Dr. T. Devendran from Germany, a distinguished Tamil who had retired from the University of Goettingen and University of Munich, offered the possibility of collaboration with the University of Stuttgart involving the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation. There was much hope.
However, even to use these kind offers and opportunities, the faculty had to start. To clear the air it was decided formally to assess the merit underlying the claims of the two most-mentioned sites, namely Jaffna and Kilinochchi, one against the other.
To this end, a literature search was done. The University of New Mexico’s site selection criteria30 had one project manager like the Coordinator here deciding on the criteria and using committees to assess on their basis. This gave comfort that the process being followed was in order and with precedent. There is extensive literature on game theory methods of playing the various criteria and desiderata against each other. But most considerations at play here were political and matters of the heart rather than lending themselves to numerical assessment. So an early decision was taken to rely on expert testimony and consultations; and keep any numerical assessment to the minimum.
The engineers from the Institution of Engineers of Sri Lanka (Jaffna) were most helpful, especially in brainstorming and as a sounding board for ideas. They summoned all engineers working in Jaffna (numbering about 50) for meetings where possibilities were discussed.
President Eng. Rajaratnam Muthuratnanandan and Assistant Secretary Eng. Amalendran Jesudasan provided transport for field visits to potential sites and in identifying several engineers working in the North with master’s degrees who could help with teaching until new probationary staff qualified and returned. It was judged feasible, based on the people identified, to start the faculty and teach with such engineers as Adjuncts while a full staff-body is built up slowly.
Two of Sri Lanka’s most experienced engineering academics were consulted and called upon to make written submissions. These were Prof. L. L Ratnayake (former UGC Vice Chairman, and former Dean/Engineering, Moratuwa) and Vidyajoti Prof. K.K.Y.W. Perera (former VC/Moratuwa and Dean/Engineering, Moratuwa), both Sinhalese.
They were unequivocal that the site should be Jaffna because to be successful, an engineering faculty needs to be surrounded by commerce and industry. Going by student choice, the once unique and superior faculty at Peradeniya had been clearly overtaken by the once backward University of Moratuwa, near Colombo. Both experts attributed this to Moratuwa’s proximity to Colombo’s industrial and commercial base, the training opportunities available to students near Colombo, and project opportunities available for staff research.
Prof. Ratnayake advised a 7-8 storey building in Jaffna and pointed to the challenges of attracting good staff to Kilinochchi, especially considering that even Ruhuna’s Hapugala campus (close to the semi-urban town of Galle) did not have staff of the level of even Associate Professor, since once qualified by research for professorial positions, staff regularly move to Moratuwa or abroad as soon as opportunities present themselves.
Ratnayake in fact believed that judging by the potential for merit and effectiveness of the proposed faculty, the new engineering faculty should instead be at the University of Colombo with its industrial and commercial connections, but if such a faculty is to be given to University of Jaffna for political reasons, it should be located in Jaffna and not Kilinochchi.
Vidyajoti Professor K.K.Y.W. Perera also favored Jaffna, which would have advantages over Kilinochchi in its greater ability to recruit staff and visiting lecturers, its proliferation of good schools, better interaction with other faculties, especially in consideration of the need for industry interaction for a successful engineering faculty. Both of them gave their recommendations in writing.
In addition, discussions were held with Professor Dayantha Wijesekera (former VC/Moratuwa and Open University) when he visited Jaffna to review the University of Jaffna as an institution for an accreditation exercise. He too emphasized the need to site in Jaffna and promised to convey that to all authorities.
Among the factors considered in decision making, the availability of land, which is most often cited by those advocating Kilinochchi, was not considered at all. Anyone who has been about and knows engineering will know that modern universities are today built upwards, taking little land. The advantages are many as spelt out elsewhere.
This writer made many site-visits with the help of engineers from the Institution of Engineers Jaffna Center. We were convinced based on professional advice that land is not an issue. There was land within the main campus of the university itself and close by too. We also identified other land within 5 km of the campus which was promised free by the Additional Government Agent in Jaffna.
Even as the nay-sayers at University of Jaffna were arguing that multi-storey structures are inappropriate for Jaffna, the government’s Ministry of Economic Development, the Mercantile Merchant Bank Ltd and the Jetwing Group, announced a Rs. 700 million 14-storey, 76-room, star-class hotel project on a 46 perch land area on the Old Clock Tower Road, in the heart of Jaffna town.31 It seemed that key decisions on the faculty had been left in the hands of incompetent people with high academic degrees, but not the good sense of far less qualified persons in the commercial sector, often without any university training.
The plan for evaluation involved assessing the importance of the relevant factors by assigning a weight for each and then scoring each site with respect to these weights. The final score would be made up by the sum of the weighted scores to make up a composite score.
Accordingly, the following relevant factors were considered in choosing a site, with weights assigned out of 100:
Staffing would be the biggest challenge. Given the experience at the Ruhuna Faculty of Engineering, it was not practically feasible to expect Sinhalese to come to the North unless motivated by die-hard nationalism that Jaffna ought to be Sinhalasized and not allowed to exist as a Tamil area. Among Tamils, as mentioned, most PhD holders had fled. At the time (2011) there were two Tamil PhD degree holding engineering academics at the University of Peradeniya, both of whom, for personal reasons, were, this writer judged, unlikely to transfer to Jaffna. At Moratuwa and Ruhuna there were two and one respectively. The latter, accomplished in research, experienced in administration and committed to working in Jaffna, at the time of writing (2012) has just moved to Malaysia after realizing that the faculty in Jaffna will take too long for him to wait.
To attract the remaining to the new Faculty would be difficult indeed. Being successful in building up the faculty would require the faculty being near good schools in a competitive environment. Most members of the faculty would need to be recruited as probationers with the condition of permanency as Senior Lecturers contingent on their getting postgraduate qualifications. And it must not happen, as often does, that such probationers stay on in the West after their postgraduate studies. This requires an attractive environment for professional development and family life, which includes competitive schools for children. Until such probationers come back, staffing would be shoe-string and reliant of the good natured cooperation of engineers working in the North with master’s degrees who are far more numerous in Jaffna than in Kilinochchi.
As mentioned, proximity to a good town is already a factor in staffing. Moreover, when getting senior staff would be the biggest challenge, an isolated faculty would have the added burdensome responsibility of getting staff for teaching ancillary subjects like mathematics, the sciences, management, humanities and the social sciences, rather than using the staff and courses already available on the main campus if the faculty is located there.
The administration, library, medical services, sports facilities, etc. would also need to be duplicated at a remote campus. Going by the experience of many of the regional universities in Sri Lanka, staff tended to leave their families in a big city and commute. It has been observed at Rajarata for example, that many academic staff members started for work on Monday morning, arrived late in the day and were gone on Friday morning. Similar stories exist at almost every remote campus, including Jaffna University’s Vavuniya Campus.
This writer recalls that in the early 1970s before the rail tracks and sleepers were removed by the Tamil Tigers to make bunkers, most workers in government offices commuted from Jaffna and it was understood that no transactions were possible on Mondays and Fridays.
If that was the story with government officials supposedly regulated by strict office hours, what was the scope for having a faculty staffed when lecturers have no office hours for reporting to work with the ready excuse of academic freedom for working from home?
It is equally pertinent that the University of Rajarata’s Faculty of Science was begun in far away Polgolla to make use of visiting staff from University of Peradeniya, but kept on in Polgolla for well over a decade because the academic staff, mainly recruited from the Kandy area and University of Peradeniya, did not want to move and had kept the Science Faculty away from Rajarata University by their refusal to relocate.
Particularly relevant to Jaffna’s case is the experience of Jaffna’s Faculty of Agriculture being sited in Kilinochchi. The Faculty of Agriculture, established at Kilinochchi in 1989 because of the scope for agricultural experimentation, was “temporarily transferred” to rented houses around the main campus of the University in Jaffna in 1997. Once the ceasefire of 2002 was announced, it was stated in university documents that “Action is now being taken to re-establish the Faculty of Agriculture at Kilinochchi in [the] year 2003.”14
In 2011, however, Jaffna’s Agriculture Faculty was still in Jaffna, experiencing the same staffing challenges as Rajarata’s Science Faculty, with few staff members willing to relocate to rural, undeveloped areas. Furthermore, the Faculty’s academic staff had bought houses in Jaffna and their children were well-settled in Jaffna schools in the year 2011, making it increasingly unlikely that they would resume permanent residence in Kilinochchi. There is no reason to believe that the experience at any Engineering Faculty established in Kilinochchi would be any different. If the students are to have engaged academics, the faculty needs to be close to the main university.
Prof. S. Mahalingam, D.Sc. (Eng.) Lond. of Peradeniya, a very experienced Emeritus Professor at Peradeniya, when consulted by this writer, warned of days of the one University with several campuses in the early 1970s, when on the day of the statutorily required monthly meeting of the Senate, universities would be bereft of Heads and Deans who would have gone to Colombo. For every interview, meeting with the VC, and even checking on leave applications, staff had to travel to Colombo. Urgent documents with deadlines like grant applications would be delayed as they went from the campus to the administration in Colombo and thence to the UGC with channeled signatures.
Moreover, to be well-rounded individuals engineering students would require interaction with peers from other faculties. With eighty five to ninety percent of engineering students in Sri Lanka being men,32 if the engineering faculty is located in Kilinochchi women admitted to a new engineering faculty in Kilinochchi would feel isolated outside classes, and remain voluntarily sequestered in the protection of their hostels.
Furthermore, there would be no recreational facilities in the area, such as restaurants or movie theatres, which could provide entertainment on an occasional evening. This writer’s experience at the University of Moratuwa in the 1970s was that the use of prostitutes and poor women of the neighborhood who were easily exploited by the relatively upper class engineering students, had become very common among students for want of any healthy social diversion in the evenings.
Student and Staff Housing
After the devastation of the final battles of 2009, Kilinochchi at present has no middle class housing in the required numbers. If located in Jaffna, the majority of students could continue residing at home or rent rooms in homes near the university, and the staff may be expected to invest in housing. In Kilinochchi, on the other hand, all residential needs would have to be provided by the state. However, there was in reality zero possibility that staff housing could be provided as the Jaffna university authorities expected in their budget proposals because a) there is no longer a tradition of providing housing to staff at other universities (excepting as token gestures) and b) giving the facility to Jaffna academics would open up a Pandora’s box at a time when the UGC is trying hard to contain demands from the teachers’ unions for better treatment citing conditions in Pakistan and India.
In Kilinochchi although water from the Iranaimadu Tank is available, it would need to be pipe borne over some ten miles. In Jaffna where ground water is the main source, recycling procedures may be used. Water would not be a critical issue based on the advice of civil engineers consulted.
Cost of Building
For government projects usually government land is used. But construction costs in Jaffna would be higher because the buildings would need to be multi-storeyed. Even so, Jaffna has a better supply of laborers (if still inadequate) for construction projects than does Kilinochchi, thereby somewhat off-setting the increased costs in Jaffna.
It is relevant to consider in the context of the social impact assessment required of all projects, the experience of the authorities at the Anglican Church – the Church of Ceylon, Colombo Diocese. Having to rebuild destroyed orphanages in Kilinochchi they have had to rely, in the absence of local labor, on Sinhalese laborers from the South and then to deal with problems of their drugs use on ecclesiastical premises (away from their homes and their families with nothing to do in Kilinochchi).
Development of the Surroundings
This is a key political consideration for many of the disparate stake-holders and would also come under social impact assessment of the project. Tamils see Kilinochchi as sentimentally important, especially if they were supporters of the Tigers. Many Tamils also feel that the people of Kilinochchi have suffered through the war, and thus that locating the faculty there would bring some much-needed development to the area, directly and indirectly benefiting the local population. Stakeholders ranging from clergymen to a Member of Parliament for Kilinochchi made personal pleas that Kilinochchi be recommended.
Government, it seems to this writer based on the undue interest taken by the Army and the Ministry of Defence [sic.] under the Sri Lankan President’s brother in the faculty, has an agenda for Kilinochchi because it raises the possibility of sending Sinhalese in as part of the university to break the Tamil preponderance in the North which is what makes political separation viable in government thinking. By any measure of social impact, this would be very negative for Kilinochchi, very much like the issue of ethnically Chinese persons being moved into Tibet to alter the composition of the Tibetan population under a proposed World Bank project which was therefore not funded for that very reason.33
However, it was politically explosive to get into that in a government financed venture and we steered away from a discussion of that at the time as, as to be seen below, there were many factors going for Jaffna in the building up of an academically strong engineering faculty without having to open up a can of worms.
The following weights were assigned to the above factors on a percentile basis for purposes of assessment as shown in Fig. 8 based on interviews with various stakeholders.
Water availability is an important factor but both places can manage with existing supplies, so 15%
The cost of building, though important, is not as important in this assessment exercise as it is not a significant variable from city to city. While the cost of land availability is important to siting considerations, this is usually taken care of through government allocations. So 15%.
Development of City:
Although individuals may have political imperatives, developing a city is but a minor aspect of a university’s mission which is to educate students. So the weight is 5%
The two sites were scored on the factors out of 100 based on extensive conversations with stakeholders. Keeping in mind that the Council seemed to favor Jaffna, out of abundance of caution the score allocations were tilted towards Kilinochchi.
Jaffna: The title “University of Jaffna” by itself gives the city of Jaffna a preeminent claim. Jaffna gets a full score of 100% and we take heart in the fact that in the selection criteria for the University of North Carolina, it was a consideration that “the New Hope/Chapel Hill site was chosen over other contenders—Raleigh, Williamsboro [in Granville County], Hillsboro, Pittsboro, Smithfield, and Goshen—because it was “as near the centre of the State as possible.”34
Kilinochchi: The campus being far away in an undeveloped area, students would not like it. Lecturers will leave their families in Jaffna and make only a nominal presence as at nearly all isolated university campuses. Teacher absenteeism would be a problem but cannot be addressed given the current norms on academic freedom. Every need has to be met in Kilinochchi through duplication. Score is 10%
Jaffna is congested so building more hostels is difficult. However, there is some compensation in that room and board may be available from homes interested in additional income. Score 30%
Kilinochchi: Hostels may be easily built as land is available. However, it is a mosquito infested area making living difficult. Score is 80%
Water is available in Jaffna at good quality but is limited in quantity. Score is 40%.
Plenty of water is available in Kilinochchi but must be transported by pipes. Score is 80%
Jaffna: The cost of buildings will be lower in Jaffna because of the relative availability of construction companies and workmen. But land acquisition will be expensive though government allocations are possible. Score is 60%
Kilinochchi: Laborers may have to imported to Kilinochchi but land is cheap. Score is 100%
Jaffna: The city is already relatively well developed but a lot can be done in terms of industrialization of the city through the Engineering Faculty. New industries can be brought in. A service industry can be spawned. Software services can be offered. Special solutions through upward building can be offered to address land shortage. Score is 60%.
Kilinochchi: Kilinochchi too can be developed together with the Agriculture faculty. As the area is already very under-developed, scope for improvement is much higher, Score is 90%.
Table 2 shows the final scores made up by weighing the marks scored by each location on a factor and summing all the weighted marks.
Based on these weights and scores the overall assessment is Jaffna 72.5% and Kilinochchi 58.5%
The recommendation is for Jaffna.
The VC, and Senate had appointed their own committee to assess the situation, feeling that the UGC was intruding. It was important that the faculty not be jeopardized because of this rivalry. This writer therefore met the university’s committee and the two parties agreed to work together. It was agreed that the best way to proceed was to get the students admitted to the faculty rather than plan for the distant future and grow the faculty progressively increasing annual admissions because without students the UGC would not make the necessary budget and cadre allocations.
It was further agreed that we start from temporary premises in Jaffna and decide on a permanent location later. It seemed the only way to overcome opposition to Jaffna as a site. Once students and staff were in, all stakeholders together could decide together on where to put up permanent structures.
A joint memorandum to the Senate was drafted, signed by all parties on 10 Feb. 2011 and forwarded for endorsement in the Senate and then the Council. It seemed positive. We were confident that the faculty would soon be up and running with students.
However, when the then VC refused to present the memorandum to the necessary authorities (Senate and then the Council) for endorsement and demanded that the University Committee change the decision to Kilinochchi and send a new memorandum leaving out the Coordinator (who technically was a UGC Contractor), the senior academics – a dean and three department heads, all with western PhDs – simply complied, without informing the Coordinator. They changed their position from Jaffna to Kilinochchi by this new report of 29 March 2011.35
Subsequently after the intervention of the previous Chairman of the university’s committee on engineering in the year 200214 who at the time had been the Dean of all the new committee’s members, they changed their position yet again bending to social hierarchy in a memorandum of 21 April 2011 saying that the decision earlier in 2002 was not to embark on a faculty until all buildings including residential quarters and hostels are built, books ordered and staff recruited and that Council decisions cannot be changed!
This rarely happens as the UGC’s priority is to increase student intake and they do not normally spend money for students far out in the future.
Years under the Tigers had taken their toll on integrity and leadership in Jaffna. In an eager rush to show competence upon the appointment of this writer as Coordinator for engineering, the until then indolent university rushed through a proposal36 which included as much hostel space for women as for men, something an engineer, knowing that Sri Lanka’s engineering faculties usually get only 10-15% women,32 would have caught immediately.
Likewise building costs also were exaggerated and the request for land was for 200 acres! It seemed that the focus, rather than training sound engineers, was to give government sinecures with permanency through university gardening jobs to EPDP cadres and political hangers-on and their families.
The ability to disagree with those in authority and those who are senior was totally gone even from among senior academics. All that western doctoral training in independent thinking seemed to have been for naught.
The Coordinator’s salary paid on behalf of the UGC by the University was regularly delayed and on a month by month basis required a formal complaint to the Labour Commissioner [sic.] to get it. The Coordinator was not invited to a single discussion at the university on the Faculty. Letters from the UGC to the Coordinator were lost in the internal mailing system.
So also correspondence to the Coordinator from Tamils outside who wanted to help, such as letters from Dr. T. Devendran from Germany.
Travel claims from the Coordinator submitted to the university with important invoices and bills mysteriously disappeared, making reimbursement of official expenses impossible. In those circumstances it was not even possible to present the draft Memorandum of Understanding from Michigan State University for the University to sign. Rivalries and jealousies had trumped the interests of the institution and the students.
Suddenly the announcement was made that the Faculty was being inaugurated in Kilinochchi. The Army would have a ceremony, the UGC Chairman informed this writer. The university was asked to provide details of invitee lists and other details in accordance with the Army’s plans.
This was the new Jaffna, run by the army but with a show of civilian input for public consumption as when the university was asked to provide a list of invitees for functions. Fig. 9 shows the Minister of Higher Education (in National Costume) and the UGC Chairman, both garlanded by obsequious hangers-on, on a trip to Jaffna with the army in high profile, making clear whether civilians or the military is in charge of education.
XII. Conclusion and Ethics Dilemma
In a country like Sri Lanka where the talented have flown, those remaining behind are very insecure about their positions. Rivalries are strong.
Patronage is important to secure and positions. Many in authority have stolen and been named by the Auditor General in his audits – see Appendix – but nothing happens because of the patronage they enjoy. Perhaps it is because those involved in fraud would be the most cooperative so as to avoid accountability, that they are appointed to high office.
So few things are decided on merit. Even this writer’s consulting the experienced Professors Ratnayake (who is close to retirement) and Perera (who is retired) made the UGC nervous. The UGC felt, despite their giving their opinions only following a written request from the Coordinator, that they had interfered in what was not their business and that the Coordinator should have decided by himself without asking them for their opinion.
An older person in retirement as Coordinator who would pose no threat to those in authority, might have been able to carry along those who wanted to undermine all decisions simply to assert themselves.
For the Sri Lankan university system to function there must be clear lines of authority. The army ought to have nothing to do with the university. Only the Minister of Higher Education should deal with the university and not the EPDP Minister.
The political goal of ethnically homogenizing a region should never have entered university planning. Until merit begins to rein again as in the days when the University of Ceylon flourished in its early years under its first Vice Chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings, the country would continue to lose professionals and the educational system would sink deeper and deeper into the bog in which it finds itself.
As for Jaffna’s Faculty of Engineering, some appointments will be made. With 100 acres of land for a small faculty, patronage jobs to clear shrubs and do the gardening will be made by the political authorities. A junior person may be made Dean and he may accept because of the early promotion.
It is unlikely that other academics would follow; at least not in the required numbers. The faculty would probably lead to engineering also being led by master’s degree level academics unable to conduct the daily business of the faculty in English. Tamils students might be shoved into a half-baked faculty which would be one more nail in the Tamil coffin.
Ironically it would now appear that if the Faculty had been given to University of Colombo, Tamil children would continue to be sent to the long established faculties in Peradeniya, and Moratuwa and to the new one in Colombo with good prospects of coming up quickly, to receive an excellent training. But with the Faculty given to Jaffna and to be sited in Kilinochchi with little chance of coming up in the short-term, Tamil children will remain disadvantaged.
If anything is to be learnt from this fiasco, it will be in studying and coming up with answers to questions of engineering ethics: Should an engineer function in a job where political authorities call all the shots? Should an engineer keep away from a situation reeking with political and ethnic manipulation? If so who is to serve the interests of the people who are being used as pawns in a big political game?
Who are the technocrats who will build universities working with political authorities who use murder, electoral fraud and patronage in retaining power? If engineering ethics requires keeping away from participation in the new engineering faculty, who would do the little good that can be done by serving in that faculty? How much of one’s personal integrity can be compromised in seeking to do the little good that can be done?
Perhaps most importantly, can one deal with unsavory characters for the sake of doing some little good as this writer tried to do, and still be an ethical engineer?
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