Why have our Universities Failed?
Posted on January 22nd, 2018

By Garvin Karunaratne

I am a product of both Universities- Colombo and Peradeniya, entering Colombo in 1950 and ending at Peradeniya in 1954.

It is true that in the initial period, called the Golden Age, Peradeniya did shine and it held personages like Dr Malalasekera and Dr Ediriweera Sarathchandra, who I think were in a super class, inspiring all of us.

The problem today is that Peradeniya as well as our other Universities have concentrated more on teaching, whereas the emphasis should have been wider- a contribution to the country and also to the world. To my mind the many ills of our country today- its foreign debt that has gradually built up, the poverty that engulfs the people etc. deserve attention by our University dons.

In a discussion with my contemporary the late Professor A.V.Suraweera, I was told that a major difference between then and now is that the vibrant relationship that we students then had with the Faculty members are not existent now because most professors decamp the campus after their lectures. Then the Faculty happened to be a part of us throughout. I learnt my econ ideas from Dr GVS de Silva though I was not a student in econ.  The Faculty members inspired us everywhere; they would give us a lift if they passed us in their cars and they would invite us for a morning drink of meera or a cup of tea very often. That was a great relationship that inspired us and was an essential part of campus life which is missing today.

It so happens that Sri Lanka is perhaps the only Third World country that has free tertiary education. It is incumbent therefore  that university education should make a contribution to the development of Sri Lanka. Instead, our universities have kept away from development. I quote instances:

At Matara I was the Government Agent in 1971 and we were concentrating on creating employment for our youth. We had to attend to the import substitution type of industry and I had a graduate in chemistry from the University of Colombo as my Planning Officer. I directed him to find the art of making crayons. He,  aided by  Science teachers conducted a myriad experiments closeted in the science lab at Rahula College, the most equipped science lab in the District, after school hours. In about a month we got somewhere but the product was far from satisfactory. Vetus Fernando, the Planning Officer sought my approval to go to his professors at the Chemistry Department of the University of Colombo from which he had graduated a year earlier. I approved the request and he went off enthusiastically. Vetus approached all the lecturers, spent three days going behind them beseeching advice but was turned away. He was told that they were too busy in lecturing and marking answer scripts and tutorials. Vetus came back with his tale of woe, a broken down man. I was not going to take it lying down. The refusal made us more determined than ever. We concentrated on endless experiments and in around a month we found the formulae to make crayons. We perfected it. A Crayon Factory was established at Morawaka and sales were opened by Minister Subasinghe, the Minister of Industries. Minister Illangaratne when he saw the crayons we made insisted on my establishing a factory at Kolonnawa. Coop Crayon   had islandwide sales and became the flagship industry of the DDC Programme.

It is important to note that the success of the American economy of today is ascribed to the services provided by the Land Grant State Universities– the State universities that took charge of development in addition to teaching. University Teaching was related to achivement in actual practice, a task in which  our Universities failed.

Our country has since the late Seventies moved from a self sufficient, self reliant economy that had no debts,  to a country that following the IMF has today piled up a foreign debt of $ 64 billion. In the Fifties the entire Gal Oya Development Scheme was built with the funds that Sri Lanka held. Not a cent was borrowed.

Sri Lanka became a debt ridden country when from  1978 she followed the IMF teachings to be liberal in spending foreign exchange, allow imports freely and when the expenses exceed demand, was advised to borrow and continue spending. This was the Structural Adjustment Programme of the IMF which was the conditionality to which every country that wanted Aid had to agree to. The IMF has plodded on for four decades, while none of the erudite dons in our Universities dared to critique and prove the ridiculous nature of the IMF teachings. Instead, they played poodle to the IMF.   In 1996 I addressed the dons in the Economics Department at Peradeniya in a lecture on what the IMF was doing to Sri Lanka by imposing its Structural Adjustment Programme. That was to be the beginning of a Visiting Lectureship for me. I came back to Sri Lanka in 1995 and hoped to get engaged in something worthwhile. None of them confronted my views. That lecture also ended my Visiting Lectureship perhaps because the dons felt that I was indoctrinating them with anti IMF and World Bank ideas. I rewrote the lecture and got it published in 1977: Microenterprise Development: A Strategy for Poverty Alleviation and Employment Creation in the Third World: The Way Out of the World Bank and IMF Stranglehold. (Sarasavi). That is  the first book contesting the IMF teachings. Professor Jeffery Sachs spoke of the detrimental effects of the IMF only in 2005 in his book The End of Poverty. That was  a passing reference stating that African countries were actually better off  before the inroads of the IMF and the World Bank. And later still the cat came out of the bag with John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman where he confessed to have designed Aid Packages where the projects not only failed but also somehow shunted back the Aid sent to the Donor Countries.

Dons not only at Peradeniya but worldwide have kept away from critiquing the Milton Friedman economics that underlie the IMF’s policies. Professors Stiglitz and Jeffery Sachs have been critical of the policies of the IMF but they only make criticisms but never get into finding an alternative path. They were themselves in the pay of those Institutions and failed to fathom the detrimental effects that their policies would bring to the Third World countries.

I can understand why the dons of Developed Country Universities have desisted from critiquing the IMF’s policies because it is the IMF teachings in implementation that have seen droves of students flocking to their Universities using the liberal use of foreign exchange that is borrowed. In that process it is the fees that these students pay that help those universities to survive. The IMF policies ensure that the Aid given to our countries and the dollars we get on loans move  back to the Developed Countries leaving the country that borrowed in debt. This is sad story narrated in mybook:How the IMF Sabotaged Third World Development (Kindle/Godages: 2017)

It is time that our Universities take on this mantle of delivering the Third World Countries from the clutches of the IMF and that itself will bring great worldwide prestige. That could thrust Peradeniya  or Colombo to the stature of the Ivy League. If only we dare that task could be achieved within a year or two.

I do hope that my Alma Mater the Universities-Peradeniya or Colombo will take on this subject and develop a course structure on this subject. They can be the first in the world if they dare. That will also help our Motherland to find a New Paradigm for Development.

Garvin Karunaratne

B.A Peradeniya 1954, M.A. Peradeniya 1958

M.Ed. Manchester, M.Phil. Edinburgh & Ph.D. Michigan State University

20 th January 2018

3 Responses to “Why have our Universities Failed?”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Another very timely topic.

    The main reason why the Lankan society has given up on taxpayer funded universities is because the society is not getting an economic return. People don’t see equity and there is a disproportionately larger Sri Lankan Tamil student population at universities. They leave the country far more than others losing the investment.

    As a start an ethnicity based university admission policy is needed. District basis is outdated and doesn’t create equity.

    Once people see equity and more doctors, etc. the society will be willing to invest more on universities.

    Our universities should also focus on producing business leaders for profit seeking public sector corporations. There is a huge mismatch here.

  2. Senerath Says:

    @Dilrook,

    Problem is even below the level of Uni. උතුරේ උ. පෙළ සිසුන් 274 කට විෂයන් තුනටම A. How can it be ?
    University standards have to lowered to let these cheats pass the uni exams.

    Racial quota system as in Malaysia is a must now. Let the exam cheats get 27400 , 3As. Only top 50 3A’s will get a place.

  3. Dilrook Says:

    @Senerath

    Newly Industrliased Countries Malaysia and Brazil used ethnicity based university admission and it worked very well.
    Muslim women have done very well in university entrance exams lately. Very encouraging. Ethnic quotas can bring equity to them too and to Upcountry Tamils. Once ethnic quotas are introduced, cheating will be managed within the community (or suffer).

    Unless people see equity, they don’t want their money to go into them. Without further investments, universities are not going anywhere.

    Our politicians cannot take decisive action as they are after Tamil votes and fear Tamil Diaspora.

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