Making universities more effective
By Dr. C. S. Weeraratna
A knowledge society and knowledge-based economy are the latest catch words in the field of education. Knowledge, skills and resourcefulness of people are critical to the building up of a knowledge society which is crucial for achieving the objective of a knowledge-based economy. During the last two decades, most of the South and South East Asian countries have developed considerably by with the involvement of the academics.
Although education at primary, secondary and tertiary level including vocational training is relevant in building up a knowledge society, universities play a prominent role in achieving this objective.
In Sri Lanka, there are 15 universities and 7 postgraduate institutes maintained at an annual cost of around Rs 20 billion. These Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) under the jurisdiction of the University Grants Commission (UGC) have a total academic strength of around 5,000, most of them with postgraduate qualifications. Among these 5,000 are nearly 500 professors, 200 associate professors, and 1,750 senior lecturers and lecturers. The main objective of the universities in Sri Lanka should be to develop human resources to meet national development needs through innovative educational, research and outreach programmes.(In fact, this is the mission of one of our universities.)
According to Prof. Ranjith Senaratna: Underutilized treasure in our universities? In the Island of 12 June a considerable number of the university academics are accomplished scholars and scientists of international repute. They possess considerable knowledge, experience and expertise in their respective fields.
But, to what extent has the human and other resource base of our universities been used to meet national development needs through innovative educational, research and outreach programmes?.
According to RS there are some professors in the Sri Lankan Universities who do not belong to this category of intellectual elite. RS says "Regrettably, some have contributed minimally to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge even in their own fields; and have not published in any indexed journal." If this is the correct position, what is the UGC going to do about it?
Universities and socio-economic development
In Sri Lanka, government funds the public HEIs and expects/promotes them to contribute to socio-economic development of the country. But, the vast intellectual and infrastructural resource base of the universities has remained almost untapped or underutilized. It is obvious that our HEIs should initiate /implement programmes to mobilise and channel their resources for regional/national development.
The university academic staff are expected to do research and extension. Conducting research, especially laboratory/field research is a real challenge. In spite of many difficulties, a large number of university academics conduct research. How have these research benefited the country?
Ideally the universities and /or the UGC should have a programme in collaboration with appropriate public and private organisations to commercialise/make use of the research findings of the university staff. It is then only that the research conducted by them can have an impact on the socio-economic development of the country. There is at least one HEI in each of the provinces and the UGC, the apex body of the university system, need to develop an effective system which will give the academics in these HEIs an opportunity to effectively contribute to the socioeconomic development of the respective provinces. What has the UGC done in this regard?
The socio-economic challenges which we face in Sri Lanka have increased considerably during the last few years. To overcome these, the academics of the universities need to collaborate with the appropriate public-private sector organisations to implement short /medium/long term programmes. But, there appears to be no effective mechanisms for the university academics to be involved/coordinate with the appropriate public-private organisations to effectively address the challenges faced by the country. A few years ago there were attempts by the Ministry of Agriculture to coordinate with the university agriculture faculties to find solutions to the pressing problems in the agriculture sector by formalising links among the public sector agricultural research institutions and the agriculture faculties of universities, but these attempts appear have died down. If such coordination had been effectively established, we would have found solutions to some of the pressing problems such as the Weligama Coconut Wilt and other issues/problems facing the agriculture sector. .
The Vice-Chancellor is a full-time Officer of the University. According to a recent advertisement calling applications for the post of VC, he/she is the Principal Executive Officer, the Principal Academic Officer and Accounting Officer, an Ex-officio member and Chairman of both the Council and the Senate. Hence, he/she is responsible for providing academic leadership, formulating and introducing management policies and should therefore uphold the principles of academic excellence, transparency, accountability, and effective leadership.
But, according to RS (‘New breed of institutional leaders for internationalising Lankan Universities’ serialised in The Island of 29th, 30th and 31st May 2012,) the procedure currently adopted in appointing Vice Chancellors is outdated and out of step with current needs". Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, in his piece which appeared in The Island (4 June 2012) has said, "In our system of patronage appointments, the most unsuitable persons – embezzlers, womanizers, drunkards, political stooges and the down-right lazy – are put up for high appointments." Perhaps high appointments include VCs. Prof. O. A. I. Ileperuma, too, in his piece in The Island of 4 June says, "We in Sri Lanka are still in the dark ages as regards the appointment of Vice Chancellors. The University academic community and academic bodies like the Senates have no say in appointing their leader and no one really knows on what basis the Vice Chancellor is selected from among the three names submitted to the President. Clearly we are 50 years backward compared to other universities even in this region. No wonder that none of our Universities are ranked in the first 1500 in the world ranking of universities."
RS is of the view that Vice-Chancellors need to be given adequate operational autonomy. But there were many instances where some VCs were alleged to have been corrupt. Right now there is case against a former VC for giving false information about his son and daughter to obtain land which belonged to two poor farmers. As RS has pointed out it is essential to have a highly competent and independent Council that can advise and guide the university administration and control the activities of ineffective and corrupt VCs.
University Grants Commission
It is true that VCs play a leading role in the universities. But, RS in his contribution to The Island in May 2012, appears to have forgotten the importance of the University Grants Commission (UGC). This is the apex body of the University System in Sri Lanka. Among the main functions of the UGC are planning and coordinating university education, allocating funds to Higher Educational Institutions, maintenance of academic standards, regulation of the administration of universities and regulation of admission of students.
An applicant to any academic post in a university has to face an interview panel of eminent academics. In the appointment of a VC, the post is advertised, and the University Council selects three candidates from the applicants. But, no such procedure is followed in the appointment of UGC Chairman, and the Vice-Chairman who are expected to provide leadership to the whole university system. Minister of Higher Education (HE) is involved in the Formulation of Policies for the Higher Education Sector. Hence, the Minister of Higher Education needs to be a person of very high academic standing (not just a graduate) with wide experience in university/academic matters. RS in his article emphasises the need to have effective leadership in the universities, who can make effective decisions under different strategic and risk scenarios. But, if the Minister of HE, perhaps the highest in the higher education sector is not adequately qualified with no experience in university matters, the whole exercise of appointing effective VC s will be futile!
If we are to build a knowledge-based society, which will eventually lead to socio-economic advancement of the country, the institutions of the higher education sector need leaders who can give effective academic leadership and the students with staff looking up to them.