Education In Freefall
By Niranjala Ariyawansha – Picture By Asoka Fernando
The Sunday Leader met with Senior Professor of the Sri Jayawardenapura University Prof. Gunapala Nanayakkara and asked him about the current crisis facing the education system in Sri Lanka. Prof. Nanayakkara is also a founder director of the Post Graduate Institute of Management, Sri Jayawardenapura University.
Q: Does the basis of trade union action by the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) go beyond the salary increase?
A: Yes. The real objective of the trade union action by FUTA is the revamping of the higher education system which is collapsing. Although we have been telling the authorities about this for a long time, they did not take any action. We believe that 6 percent of the GDP should be allocated for higher education.
Similarly they should implement the salary proposals recommended by the Committee appointed in 2008. The aim of our struggle is to increase the number of students admitted by creating an expanding university system. If the government wants to establish private universities, it is necessary to get the support of university teachers. If the country has a democratic structure university teachers should be allowed to exercise their democratic rights. Teachers are leaving the country since they do not receive a competitive salary.
If the government wants to make Sri Lanka a knowledge hub, then it should not create a situation where the teachers are forced to take strike action. But the government does not want to do that. They are not prepared to make the large investment necessary for education.
Q: Is FUTA opposing the establishment of private universities?
A: I am personally in favour of the establishment of private universities if it is done using the proper methodology. Even FUTA may agree with this. However, high quality private universities are not established properly since the government only wants to give legal status to low quality institutions at every juncture.
If private universities are to be established there must be a proper public private investment partnership. For example the Moratuwa University can offer a Degree in Civil Engineering in partnership with an American University. They can select 30 percent of the students from the UGC list while 10 percent could be foreign students and the rest can be fee-paying Sri Lankan students. Then the university can become an income generating institution. Funds for increasing the salaries of the faculty can be generated through consultancy services, research programmes, training and short term certificate courses without depending on the government.
Q: According to international standards you should have a Doctorate from a recognized university and a minimum of ten publications. How many professors in Sri Lanka qualify under these criteria? If not, why?
A: All state universities in Sri Lanka are internationally recognized universities. There is a system of giving marks for research publications, books published, administrative duties performed and contributions to social development, etc. Most professors in Sri Lanka have followed these international standards.
However about 5 percent have become professors even without a Doctorate. There are such people in the management faculty of the Sri Jayawardenapura University. There may be such professors in other universities as well. There is a Professor of Marketing at the PIM who has not published a single research document. He only writes articles to the journal published by this institution.
Such things do not happen in any recognized university in the world. But it happens in Sri Lanka. The reason is political patronage and political connections. Under such circumstances it is a big question whether the professional dignity of University teachers can be maintained.
Q: The University Grants Commission complains that over 550 university teachers who have gone abroad for higher studies have not returned. Are they not going to take any further action beyond complaining?
A: The UGC is responsible for this situation. Previously the government sourced foreign scholarships for university teachers. But now teachers have to find these opportunities on their own. During the time when the government sourced the scholarships, the only condition for going abroad for higher studies was that if a teacher spent three years abroad then s/he was required to serve in Sri Lanka for 9 years. If this condition was breached then the teacher would be required to pay the full monetary value of the scholarship to the government. The value of such a scholarship would be about Rs. 7 million.
The UGC used to obtain a progress report from the teachers who had gone abroad for their studies every six months during the three year period, and also maintained a continuous dialogue with them. As a result of this dialogue the teachers were also reminded of their responsibility to return to Sri Lanka.
This system is not in practice now since the UGC is not doing its job. As a result, after a year or so the teachers conveniently forget even where they came from. They also forget that they studied through the free education system and what their responsibilities are to their country. This is the main reason for the decision not to return to Sri Lanka.
Furthermore those who do come back after studying at a foreign country expect some recognition, responsibilities and facilities within the university, but do not receive any.
So, after creating the problem the UGC only complains about it but does nothing to rectify the situation.
Q: Even internationally salaries in the teaching profession are lower than those of private sector employees. Why is this? Is this comparison correct?
A: Historically and even internationally the teaching profession was considered a service and not as a job. But now it should be considered a job with competitive salaries. The reason is that in the past the transfer of knowledge was not considered a marketable commodity. But now it is a commodity that can be sold at a high price.
Comparatively in countries like the United States of America and England teachers receive high salaries. In addition to which the society in those countries is much more disciplined and therefore devote their full time towards their profession. However in Sri Lanka teachers do not receive high salaries and invariably do a second job through the provision of tuition. What the government must do is to ban tuition and instead pay the teachers well.
Q: In the US teachers go to the classroom half an hour before the class commences and write the relevant facts on that day’s topic on the board. Similarly when school closes at 3.30 p.m. the teachers do not leave the class room. They go through the notes, assignments and other activities related to the subject. They remain in school until 5 p.m. and prepare for the next day’s lessons. They are required to face tests with regard to improving their knowledge and qualifications. If we compare this practice with those of the teachers and university lecturers in Sri Lanka what is your response?
A: The answer is zero. If you expected that answer then you are correct. In Sri Lanka some teachers leave the school even before the children do. But there are several reasons for this situation. Basically it is the low salary they receive and as I told you earlier they give tuition as a second job. Hence they have to leave early to attend to their tuition work and give more attention to their second job. It is difficult to say that teachers in Sri Lanka work as hard as their American counterparts.
Q: Increasing income by giving private tuition or lectures is not prohibited for teachers and university lecturers. Within the state sector the most number of holidays are enjoyed by the teachers and university lecturers. They also get scholarships with allowances. Do the university teachers use the knowledge gained from such opportunities to improve the educational standards of students?
A: The first three statements you made are correct. The answer to your question is – yes. However even though they use the knowledge gained for improving the educational standards of students here, I do not think it is adequate. In this case too the UGC should take responsibility for this situation, since it does not make any effort to improve the educational standards to ensure maximum productivity.
Q: In other countries are the teachers paid additionally for school or university related activities such as setting of question papers and marking answer scripts, etc?
A: As far as I know they are not paid additionally. But even in other countries additional payments are made for marking papers of public examinations. Even in Sri Lanka only selected specialists participate in such work and they should be paid. Because of the low salaries, this would provide them with some additional income.
Q: If the Government is prepared to incur additional expenditure why can’t they increase the salaries without making ad hoc payments?
A: That is correct. But the government will not do that, because then the parallel services will also ask for the same salary increase.
Q: What is the monthly gross salary of a Senior Professor?
A: In 2008 the gross salary was Rs. 68,000 per month. According to the 2008 Salary Committee recommendations it is now Rs. 120,000. The Committee recommended this should be increased to Rs. 168,000 but the government is not implementing that.
Q: Where are the University Teachers placed in the hierarchy of State Services in Sri Lanka?
A: Until recently university teachers were on par with Class 3 administrative service officers. A Senior Professor and a Ministry Secretary were at the same level and received the same salary. But the 2008 Salary Committee placed the university teachers at a higher level.
Q: The annual report published by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation where details of tax structures in all countries are reported, states that tax in Sri Lanka is 61.1 percent. O. M. Weerasooriya a former Commissioner General of Inland Revenue claims that the government is taking Rs. 63 from every Rs. 100 earned as tax. How do you see this situation?
A: The state and private sector employees of this country pay a large amount as tax. They are not aware of it. The government finds the funds they require for highly wasteful activities by taxing us. In an economy where labour productivity and growth rate are not increasing people will have to pay higher taxes. This is what we can expect from a government that survives on spreading mythical dreams about development.
Q: The educational advisors who live in Colombo have no knowledge or understanding about the inherent abilities of the rural children. Therefore how relevant is their advice with regard to children in the whole country?
A: The answer lies in your question. The advisors must have a complete understanding of the situation. Otherwise they are not suitable to hold those posts. If they give wrong advice due to their lack of knowledge they are playing a very dangerous game with the future generations. They must resign or should be removed. But neither of these will happen in Sri Lanka.
Q: Do you agree that our politicians are a reflection of the education system in Sri Lanka?
A: Yes. The politicians constitute the worst group that has not completed their education properly and instead entered politics. In Sri Lanka politics is where the uneducated can find employment. Although there are a few educated politicians many have emerged from among the uneducated majority.
Q: Are university lecturers responsible for the education system in the whole country?
A: University teachers are responsible only for the university students.
Q: Do you believe that the social responsibility of university teachers begins only at the entrance to the university?
A: I believe in the broad social responsibility of university teachers but the education system is badly fragmented now as a result of the number of ministers holding this portfolio. Therefore if those legally responsible for higher education express some opinion about general education they will be told that it is none of their business. Therefore we cannot be directly responsible and the blame for this mess in the education system lies with the government which is pawning the people for their own survival and that of the UGC. However I agree that university teachers should discuss raising the education standards from school level upwards with the teachers’ unions.
Q: You are making some very serious allegations against the UGC. Can you elaborate?
A: The present UGC is an irresponsible institution working according to the whims and fancies of the government. It is no longer a place managed by intellectuals like Professors Stanley Kalpage and Arjuna Aluvihare. The present Chairman of the UGC Prof. Gamini Samaranayake is a political stooge of the government who speaks at political meetings. His actions violate the Establishments Code. I do not think such an official will do anything beneficial for the education field.
Q: What are your recommendations?
A: The Chairman and other officers of the UGC should resign or they must be removed.
Q: Will they be that honorable and resign?
A: No they will not. As I said earlier none of these things will happen. There is no culture in Sri Lanka where when you make a mistake, you resign from your post. The judgments of the courts are clearly indicative of their opinion of the UGC.
Q: Universities are places where students are encouraged to think freely and allowed develop their political thinking. But in Sri Lanka students are more concerned about politics than their degrees. Is this political activity the cause of most of the problems? What is the responsibility of teachers with regard to this aspect?
A: Universities are centres of free thinking and all those inside the University have a right to engage in political activities according to their convictions. But if someone’s political ideas override the freedom of another, then nobody’s freedom will be protected. Over the years the university teachers have been more involved in politics than the students. Furthermore, the political activities within the universities by both the teachers and the students have eventually benefitted only the politicians.
Q: Presently the whole university system is in an utter mess. What strategies would you propose to help the system emerge from this situation? Do you have a solution that would rectify the failed education process in Sri Lanka?
A: It is important that there should be an allocation of 6 percent of the GDP for higher education. I think university teachers and teachers’ unions should get together and discuss this issue. Some of the problems identified include the shortage of trained teachers and library facilities in schools.
FUTA is not making impossible demands. Now although the universities have been opened there is no teaching taking place. I think the government and the UGC want to punish the university teachers. If they want a university system without teachers they can continue like this. But as a responsible university community we would like the government to view this problem as a national issue, and not address it by behaving like village thugs.