by Prof.Wiswa Warnapala
At the beginning, university education in Sri Lanka began as a middle class preserve, as it, in the very initial period, catered to the demand of the students from a select number of public schools in the country.
university education, in the early period, was built on a theory of elites, which, in turn, represented certain aspects of the then existing class structure.
The objectives of both secondary and higher education were colonial, and this structure underwent a change during the first phase of the post-colonial state. university education, which began in 1921, and later evolved into a full-fledged unitary university, made a major impact upon the social and economic life of the country, and nothing could illustrate this better than to compare it with the production of an elite, which went to the university and formed into a clan of intellectuals and professionals destined to influence the society in Sri Lanka in a variety of ways.
University, therefore, from its very inception, was regarded as a special institution which conferred a high social status to the university educated, and this, as anticipated, had a social significance in a society which, traditionally, was used to status and influence. Those distinguished members of the Ceylon University Movement, who advocated the establishment of an independent unitary university, were a set of visionaries who envisioned that the production of knowledge gave a nation a special kind of power.
Aftermath of independence
In the aftermath of independence, the aspirations of the State came to be heightened, and it came to be acknowledged that the universities or the demand for university education would grow in the future; the introduction of the free education scheme and the recognition of Sinhala and Tamil as languages of instruction naturally increased the demand for university education, for which the country was not ready.
Hence, there were a number of ad hoc adjustments and changes, without a proper plan for the increase of higher educational opportunities in the country. Several commissions examined the issue but their main emphasis was on the change within the existing structure. There was not attempt to estimate the country’s needs in the sphere of higher education.
There were many influences at work which led to important changes in the sixties; the sociologists and educationists who ably exposed the inadequacies of the existing system, for which there was not enough support from the politicians, and nationalists and language enthusiasts who wanted university education to be expanded more in the form of a part of an emerging nationalist enterprise.
It was thought that there was considerable waste of talent after the completion of the secondary school career, and it was this waste which needed to be arrested by opening the doors of the university.
By the early sixties, the ideological battle for the expansion of higher educational opportunities had been won, which incidently coincided with the Robbins Report in the United Kingdom, which, as in Sri Lanka, advocated a considerable expansion of higher educational opportunities. Sri Lanka, at this stage of her development, wanted to turn its back on elitism, which the University of Ceylon nurtured, and, the narrow intellectualism in higher education.
In the context of this change, and amidst considerable expansion which the system experienced in the two decades that followed the sixties, the universities remained an autonomous sphere of education sacrosanct from undue governmental interference. In other words, both academic freedom and university autonomy were made inviolable.
The experience indicated that the expansion of higher education was guided primarily by the need to provide places for those secondary school leavers, and hardly anyone had given thought to this expansion based entirely on a kind of social need; this, of course, was a complicated issue; both reformers and decision-makers fixed their minds on the question of the expansion of access for higher education without a comprehensive reform of the curricula, which, in fact, was the guide for the immediate future.
The decision-makers of this period were obsessed with the need to expand access, which, in the past, was restricted, and it needed to be expanded on the basis of a comprehensive reform, for which some ground work was done with the assistance of the World Bank.
The need was to work out a new pattern, knowing well that the number of students aspiring to enter higher education was continually increasing, as the higher education sector, as in other countries, has not been sufficiently diversified to attract a good number of students who, otherwise, would prefer to go inside a university.
An attempt has been made in the last few years to construct a development-oriented higher education policy, the main thrust of which was to recognize the impact of the global changes in the sphere of higher education, and this has now been converted into a centralized interventionist policy, where the priorities are more administrative-oriented than innovative policy-based. However, its main casualties have been the concepts of academic freedom and university autonomy.
Crisis in Higher education
Today the system of higher education is in a major crisis, the magnitude of it as bad as that of the late eighties where the universities remained closed for years and the impact of this major crisis persists in certain areas of the life of universities in Sri Lanka.
Again, the crisis in the late eighties was largely due to the inability of the administrators to gauge certain aspects of university life and its over-reaction to certain developments, which as today, was overtly interventionist and aggressive, for which they paid a heavy price. It was again a powerful regime with a five sixth majority in Parliament and the administrators of the period, who often took refuge in their political strength to hit back at the academic and student community.
A bit of Macarthism haunted the period. History has repeated itself and another powerful regime, reminding us of the late eighties, more in the nature of frightened administrators, have strived hard to plug an interventionist policy. Over-display of political arrogance has its own dysfunctional consequences; the academic community of a country cannot be converted into an appendage of a fist of political power.
Of course, financial constraints within the system need to be recognized. The call to treat all universities- fifteen in number- equally, and this demand of egalitarianism has created a fresh set of problems as the treasury does not want to allocate larger capital grants for university buildings.
In this country, all development projects have a constituency-orientation as politicians are likely to make use of them for their political advantage. Unfortunately for them, the capital expenditure for university buildings does not accrue constituency benefits in terms of more votes at an election.
University expenditure is often cut back in order to divert it to primary and secondary education. Expenditure is often compared by the Treasury by institutions and activities. At one stage, in order to discourage this call for equality of status for all universities, it was decided to treat all universities equally in order t reduce the attractiveness of the established universities but the student and popular perception was entirely different.
It was manifestly impossible to give all the fifteen universities equal status as the investment involved was heavy, and the increase in the investment, though a fundamental requirement for the system to develop into a major network, was to be on a staggered basis. It was thought that the universities would eventually move towards such a system where the respective universities would not differ enormously in their standards and aims as centers of intellectual activity.
The realization of this objective depended, to a larger extent, on a calculated program of development, which, with political transformations, would not be disturbed. Given the nature of competitive party politics of the country, one could not envision such a programme of development but the maturity of the intellectual and professional community is such that it could be successfully handled.
More opportunities for education
It is universally acknowledged that education is the fundamental mechanism for social inclusion through the creation of more opportunities for education, and it is necessary to ensure that no student is denied the opportunity for higher education due to financial constraints. This, in fact, is the crux of the issue today.
All governments have recognized the need to give higher priority to education as the major instrument for achieving rapid economic growth with emphasis on such issues as the expansion of access, and excellence and equity.
The academic community is guided by these considerations and they rightly demand an increase allocation for the development of universities. Higher education can definitely transform the economy and society, and the point argued is that the expansion and improvement of quality in higher education is not possible without enhanced funding.
In a country, where State funding is the cornerstone of the system, the increase of funding is always subject to controversy. This, of course, is the problem faced by all governments, the priorities of which are different as some of the priorities are guided by both parochial and political considerations.
Modern day Universities are not monastic establishments; they are knowledge institutions capable of responding to social needs. Over- emphasis on undergraduate education has, unfortunately, developed a different perception of the universities in the public mind and this has had a major effect on the process of policy-making; for instance, some tend to adopt a negative attitude to higher education. This, perhaps, was due to the lack of social responsiveness and a case has to be made for the recognition of universities as knowledge-producing institutions.
Transforming society into a knowledge hub
Sri Lanka needs, at this moment, a plan to develop and enhance the potential of its excellent human resource base to transform the society into a knowledge hub as advertised by the Government in power. A knowledge intensive environment would surely accelerate the process of economic and social development in the country.
Therefore, Universities, as in India, could be converted into active engines in this process of social transformation, as the Sri Lankan university system, since 1921 and 1942, made a tremendous contribution to the development through the production of a variety of talent required for the advancement of the country.
This contribution has been made in the context of a University tradition, which came to be built around both University autonomy and academic freedom; both these concepts were part and parcel of the Sri Lankan university tradition and it cannot be destroyed by a Sri Lankan variant of Macarthism.
It was both university autonomy and academic freedom which helped universities world over to conquer new frontiers of knowledge. In the experience of all universities, the assault on academic freedom comes via political interference, and often the attention of the public is turned towards the social sciences. The professions which have a long tradition and emphasize scientific and technological knowledge such as medicine and natural sciences become more difficult to be interfered with.
The rise of universities and the social sciences as one of the main disciplines of the university, rather paradoxically, was considered the reason for both expansion and the problem of the modern university. This was very much true in the Sri Lankan context, and the growing dominance of the humanities and social sciences irked the policy- makers and all kinds of inroads were made into both university autonomy and academic freedom.
Many theoreticians such as Harold Laski, Jennings, G.D. H.Cole, Ernest Barker, R.H. Tawney, Bernard Crick and Ralph Miliband were of the opinion that such subjects made a profound influence on the political wisdom and the political destinies of the country. In 1968, the most students who revolted against the State in France came from sociology and Cohen Bendit himself was a Sociology major.
Universities: Vehicles of indoctrination?
Therefore, universities cannot become vehicles of indoctrination, promoting a particular political ideology or a religious point of view. As Max Weber rightly pointed out, “Universities are not institutions for inculcation of absolute or ultimate moral values”.
They teach the select facts, their conditions, laws and their inter-relations, with a view to “sharpen the student’s capacity to understand the actual conditions” and “discover the truth on his own and in accordance with his own conscience”. A university needs to give recognition to pluralism of methodological and theoretical approaches in the search for knowledge.
Surely any university will always be plural, by which we mean the existence of different ideas. Harold Laski was of the opinion that it was a place for both assent and dissent. As such, one cannot convert the university to toe the political line of the party in power.
Today, the distrust of universities has become a distressing subject; for some strange reason, the part of the Government establishment has begun to distrust the universities and this has inhibited the universities of this country. University, which represents the great tradition of freedom from State interference, offers a platform for the discussion of the major issues affecting a country.
Yet, universities supported by the state have seen a threat to their academic freedom. But one must be reminded that the state, whatever its power and resources, cannot kill and destroy academic freedom, which, in reality, is the life-blood of a university.
Political interference becomes disastrous, and when universities are weakened, its effect on both society and the State is more. Universities cannot be asked to betray their great tradition, which Cardinal Newman enshrined in his work, the Idea of a University (1852), which laid a solid foundation for intellectual freedom.
University is an institution, which cannot discharge its functions and responsibilities without a measure of freedom. In Sri Lanka, as in other developing countries, Universities attract public attention and all governments are concerned with the cost of expansion.
The critics, as usual, look for problems in university administration, and the Treasury imposes controls on university expenditure; all these criticisms and controls are viewed as attempts to interfere in the manner they manage their affairs. It was the high cost of university education which calls for the introduction of new patterns of university government, and the UGC was invented to bring about a compromise between control and autonomy.
Control, and political interference, to be exact Ministerial control, was avoided by the UGC, which, of course, was the instrument of governmental policy. UGC is the best guarantee against overt attempts by politicians to interfere in the affairs of the Universities.
Ideally, as Lord Annan said, “the UGC must be able to absorb all the political pressures and shocks in the form of a buffer.” It will be for the UGC to decide which pressures are unreasonable and which ought to be transmitted to the universities.
Hence, the accepted position of the UGC is that of a “buffer” between the government and the universities interpreting each party to the other. According to the British tradition, the UGC is independent of the universities, though most of its members are academics of repute, and it is also, for the most part, independent of the government; it is the accepted source of expert advice on university affairs, including the allocation of resources which the government made available. From the point of view of universities, it is the effective medium for representing their opinions and needs of the Government.
Therefore, the creation of the UGC, which has been emulated by all the Commonwealth countries, has been regarded as an “eminently successful example of administrative ingenuity”. This function can only be performed by the UGC which enjoys the confidence and respect of both the government and the universities.
In the Sri Lankan context, it is not easy to satisfy the two institutions mentioned above. In the United Kingdom, it began in 1919 as a channel of communication between the state and the universities, and the specific function was to interpret to the government of the policies and financial needs of the universities. Later, as in Sri Lanka, it was called upon to plan their development, and it was here that the government adhered to the fundamental principles of academic freedom and autonomy.
The Report of the UGC of the United Kingdom (1947) stated that “education and research in the universities of this country are not functions of the State”. It further stated that “it was essentially one of a partnership between Universities and State”. The general character of this relationship came to be substantially changed during the post-war period in the UK.
Academic freedom misunderstood
Universities have a form of self-government, and it is the concept of academic freedom that has created so much of misunderstanding in Sri Lanka. Academic freedom is an essential element in the conception of a university which surfaced during the middle ages.
From the very inception, universities around the world enjoyed the right to manage their affairs and to decide on what to teach. Universities, thus, enjoyed a unique kind of freedom, but it, however, did not mean that they could teach or write anything they liked, for example they could not offend the Church as in the case of Galileo.
It did not mean that the governments could not interfere with the universities but there were accepted parameters within which it was done. Academic freedom and university autonomy are, therefore, intertwined principles which recognize the right to teach what and to whom; four kinds of freedom came to be associated with a university.
Firstly the selection of students who are fit for higher education, next, the freedom to appoint its academic staff; thirdly to determine the standards of attainment and the nature and content of courses offered, and last, to determine its size and growth. As in teaching, there is similar freedom in research. All these rights and freedoms are qualified as the rights of an individual in the modern state.
The central idea of the university is the pursuit of knowledge. However, a university is not just an institution of higher education, but a center of learning. It requires its teachers to carry out research if the main function of the university is to be realized,
In Sri Lanka, the funds for research are limited as there are no organizations to sponsor research, and this, in my view, is a matter which interferes with the quality and quantity of research in the universities.
However, the threat to academic freedom emanates from those in power who wish to control thought, and prescribe opinion on matters related to the production of knowledge; secondly, it emanates from those in power who, for different reasons, want to control the other academic roles of academics, and interference in respect of this role comes from inside the University as well as from outside.
In my own personal experience, such attempts to restrict academic freedom fell within this category. Therefore, the concept of academic freedom is central to the life of a university. If knowledge is to be refined for the benefit of the society, it is only through an institution that it can be profitably achieved, and the university, therefore, cannot play its central role without freedom and autonomy.
Public discourse on university education
Today, in Sri Lanka, there is a public discourse on certain aspects of university education in the country. The significance of this issue lies not so much in the profundity of the changes which the system produced in the last fifty years but in the convulsions of the current system. The growing public interest in the universities of the country is largely due to the realization that the university system can make a unique contribution to the national development of the country.
The conception that the university education is essentially for a small and privileged class is now redundant. The need for social justice for all classes of people had opened the doors of the universities more widely than in the period in which it came into being. The Sri Lankan state has given substantial support to expand access of higher educational opportunities. However, this phase of development is currently entering a period beset with obstacles and difficulties which need immediate attention of the state.
In the last three or four decades, there was a considerable expansion in the intake which, of course, was stimulated by a great demand for higher education. The rapid increase in the number of students, which had taken place in the sixties, was not simultaneously accompanied by a concentrated attention on quality.
It was in the last decade that a major effort has been invested in this direction, and the very process of transformation was accelerated in the last few years. It was the exhortation of this policy which called upon the universities to devote their energies to improving the quality of education offered to the students. This had to be done notwithstanding the increasing pressure for the expansion of the intake.
The compelling reason was that the country demanded a greater measure of social and educational equality which partly, was one of the aspirations of the post-colonial state. This had a direct impact on the expansion of the universities, and it became lop-sided because the inevitable expansion was on arts and humanities. As was inevitable, the expansion created numerous problems.
A numerical expansion was planned to be carried out within a period through a network of provincial universities; the objective of this policy was to make special innovations with regard to their curriculum and new specializations to be given priority. What was vital in each of them was the introduction of new disciplines; it was constantly mentioned that the quality of the University graduate must not be sacrificed to quantity. Character, temperament and wider qualities of mind are, of course, as important as intellectual attainments.
The maintenance of academic standards depended on two important factors, the quality of the undergraduate material reaching the universities from the schools and the quality of training provided by the universities themselves. The two factors are closely related. Well-educated teachers are required to train the school population and to avoid the schools from sending ill-educated entrants to the universities.
The main question was the capacity of the schools to produce such freshmen of quality. In this connection, it needs to be recommended that more than ninety percent of the undergraduates are recipients of the Mahapola grants.
There is no question that the universities attract suitably qualified university students, who do not need cosmetic ventures such as leadership training programs in army camps, the authors of which, perhaps, never understood the mission of a University.
The existing school network is certain to increase the supply of potential undergraduates and the future increase, though not predicted with accuracy, will be substantial, and this indicates the magnitude of the investment needed for higher education. Given the number of universities, investments on an unprecedented scale will be needed, and to decide how this is to be achieved is the responsibility of the government.
Expanded access led to reduction in quality
It has been realised that the elimination of all obstacles to an expanded access led to the reduction in quality. There is no doubt that the average quality has substantially suffered. Apart from the quality of the undergraduate, the maintenance of university standards depends, to a large extent, on the quality of the life and the education which the universities are expected to provide.
Most complications of the system are tied to this basic proposition. The rapid increase of student numbers, resulting from a policy to expand access, has, naturally imposed severe strains on the system, contributing to the deterioration in the standards of university education in the country.
In Sri Lanka, standards depend on a number of factors-quality of the academic staff, bilingualism and monolingualism of the academic staff, the ratio of staff to students, the buildings and their adequacy to the present requirements, library facilities, residential facilities, extra-curricular facilities and canteen facilities.
The sudden expansion of numbers has exceeded the levels of accommodation. In the meantime, the student body, politicized or not, began to make new demands on the universities. In this environment of shortage and inadequacies, the leisured university life with adequate opportunities for regular contact between the staff and the student became impossible, which clearly affected the intellectual life of the university.
The doubling of the numbers of the students in the last four decades could be justified on the ground that it raised the proportion of the population which has had the advantage of university education. The output of graduates from all faculties has had a major impact on the social and economic potential of the country.
Advantages of university education for social and economic progress of a given society have been widely recognized. The creation of useful knowledge, as anticipated, has had a direct link with the creation of employment opportunities for the output of graduates in Sri Lanka.
The perception of the public is that the University education is a means of training for a particular career. As an inevitable consequence, the failure to provide employment has created a sense of frustration and disillusionment among the unemployed graduates.
One way out is to establish an active post-graduate intellectual culture, and the many forms of specialized study could be better left to the post-graduate students. The absence of such a post- graduate intellectual culture is a major deficiency in the present system, which, partially, has been rectified with outside assistance.
Sri Lanka does not have benefactors who can dole out money for research. Further, the notion of research has been given a different value. Unfortunately, for many policy makers, university is essentially a place for impartation of knowledge than a place for the creation of knowledge. Therefore, the teaching, at the expense of research, has gained importance.
Principle of public welfare
To conclude, the relationship between the state and the universities, by implication, is a difficult one, as the current debate of the question illustrates. The hard task is to devise appropriate means of reconciling the planning and control of the universities with the maintenance of academic freedom.
The need for some kind of central planning of university education through direct government intervention, as the system remains wholly state- funded, has been widely recognised. Universities, in the execution of their policies, needs to be based on the principle of public welfare.
However, central control and planning, even through the UGC, cannot involve the curtailment of academic freedom. It needs to be reminded to those who intend in invoking Macarthian techniques of witch- hunting and interference, that such forms of interference would definitely lead to intellectual retardation.
As Eric Ashby notes, “the price of autonomy is to abjure power”. There are examples of arbitrary political interference in the affairs of the universities in the Commonwealth, but they rarely became issues of political contention, because most governments have shown themselves scrupulously careful to avoid even the appearance of interference with academic freedom.
The relationship between the state and the universities, which evolved and conceived as a form of partnership, should not be disturbed and all conflicts between the two parties, each of which showing their own power at the expense of the other, need to be avoided in the interest of the development of the universities.
The main responsibility for this kind of arrangement rests with the UGC as the accepted intermediary between the state and the universities, and the accomplishment of this important task depends on the goodwill and understanding between the university community and the UGC.
The developing climate of distrust between the State and the universities is certainly not in the interest of higher education in Sri Lanka. The simple truth is that universities need to be given better resources as higher education is an investment in human capital