Nationalizing SAITM would be a mistake
Posted on May 22nd, 2017


Former State Minister of Higher Education, Rajiva Wijesinha spoke to Ceylon Today about the current controversy regarding SAITM. During the interview he stressed that SAITM was started in good faith, and the then government was at fault in not smoothing out any contentious issues immediately. But the questions with regard to quality are specious, because similar standards are not applied to government universities.

Following are the excerpts of the interview:

?: Last week the government requested SAITM to refrain from recruiting new students amidst threats of another general strike by the GMOA and other trade unions. Do you think that the government can resolve this issue through a consensus? If so how do you think that the two sides should proceed?

A: I think a consensus is essential, but it should be preceded by setting out principles with regard to education. This should involve establishing the obligations of the State with regard to education, as well as the rights of individuals with regard to obtaining education.

This should be accompanied by revision of the acts governing education in Sri Lanka. I am sorry to say the last government, which began this process, completely abdicated responsibility and failed to fulfil either expectations or obligations. The Education Act was practically finalized, but the minister was just not interested in getting it through. With regard to Higher Education, my predecessor as Minister, S.B. Dissanayaka, had prepared a good draft, but it was killed by the Legal Draughtsman’s Department. As I took office I started work on the Act, using the previous draft as a basis, but taking into account changing social requirements. Helped by an excellent committee of Vice-Chancellors and the Colombo University Professor of Law, we finalized a draft, but none of my successors was interested. I am not even sure that Lakshman Kiriella, who sees rent seeking as an occupation, can even understand the need for a clear vision.

?: What is your opinion of SAITM and the criticism levelled against it by various actors?

A: I think that SAITM was started in good faith, and the then government was at fault in not sorting out any contentious issues immediately. But the questions with regard to quality are specious, because similar standards are not applied to government universities. When I was minister, I had regular discussions with university students, and one of the most interesting was with students of the Rajarata Medical Faculty, which was hopelessly short staffed. But I was deeply impressed by the calibre of the students, and also what they said about the dedication of the few permanent staff members they had.

I was reminded then about the criticisms of all new Medical Faculties when they were started. I returned to working in the State sector at Sri Jayewardenepura, in 1994, when the Medical Faculty was started there, and I recall the snootiness of the established universities. But through dedicated work on the part of the staff there, it soon caught up and its products are now generally admired – not least I should note because of a dynamic English programme run by Oranee Jansz, so that our students were soon on a par with those who saw themselves as an elite.

These issues should not be approached dogmatically, especially since there is a dog in the manger attitude amongst Sri Lankans, and they are resentful of any broadening of opportunities – as I found also, for instance, when I opened English degrees to those who did not have Advanced Level English, and found myself the butt of criticism from both Peradeniya and Colombo.

But certainly with regard to medicine there is need for ensuring professional capacity, and that is why the licensing of doctors should be subject to further testing, after a degree has been awarded. That is what the GMOA should concentrate on, not denying opportunities for degrees to those who cannot qualify academically through the State system.

?: One of the arguments against SAITM is that it is a profit oriented entity, whereas other private universities in developed countries, for example MIT or Harvard, while they make profits, are not mainly oriented towards making money?

A: That is simply not true, in that there are profit oriented universities also in other countries, which provide a quality education – and those which are not mainly oriented towards making money, such as those you cite, have already made enough money to allow for more philanthropy than others. But in any case even SAITM is not mainly oriented towards making money, because it also provides a social service – and certainly the hospital that was associated with it was much more reasonable in its charging than most other private hospitals.

But I would agree that the State should monitor such institutions – including all private universities – not to stop them functioning but to ensure that they also provide a certain number of scholarships. One reason Harvard and so on are so generous with their scholarships is that they know there are very bright youngsters who cannot afford their fees who will contribute immeasurably to the wider learning a university should provide. Universities that do not have a good social mix generally do not provide a rounded education, and for this reason, as private education develops in Sri Lanka, there should be mechanisms to encourage diversity – which will require a proportion of scholarships with preference to educationally deprived districts.

?: Government has decided to take over Neville Fernando Hospital, which once again makes SAITM a Medical University without a teaching hospital. Given that how do you feel about proposals to nationalize SAITM?

A: Nationalizing SAITM would be a mistake because it would tie up more government resources, which should rather be used to provide better English and maths and science in rural schools, to train up more teachers in these subjects and ensure that they are deployed where they are needed. It makes no sense to meddle with something that is working relatively well; all that is needed is to resolve the questions that have arisen with regard to quality, while also introducing a mechanism to make it clear that the country is also benefiting from the institution.

?: What do you think of government maintaining non-profit yet fee levying universities without reducing present university intakes for State universities?

A: That would be a disaster because of the appalling rent seeking that has become endemic in government institutions. You saw how Kiriella thought it his right to put people into academic positions, and he is not the only one. Even in the Vocational Training sector, where the minister is trying to stop fees for regular courses, officials are demanding massive sums for certification.

Recently the Treasury had to step in when the National Apprenticeship and Industrial Training Authority wanted to charge 1 million rupees for this, and brazenly said that the Chairman, Vice-Chairman and Director General would be paid Rs 27,500 between them for one day’s supervision.

Government is seen as a bottomless pit into which the hogs dip their snouts and, when State resources run out, potential beneficiaries are charged, ruthlessly. Well, because it is claimed that education is free, they cannot question the plundering that goes on. So who can blame these hogs, when hogs such as Mahendran and his masters go scot free?

?: You were a lecturer as well as a Dean of a Government University. How do you see the approach of students in expressing their concerns over SAITM?

A: Part of our problem is simply a refusal to listen. I must confess given the sheer dishonesty of this government, I am glad that I am not part of it. But I am sorry that the type of work I did as a minister, talking regularly to the students, and trying to solve their problems immediately, had to stop, because I know that I could have led by example – and no one else in the education sector is able or willing to do that.

You know what I achieved in the various government positions I held, introducing English medium in government schools, expanding numbers in English degrees, running a very productive GELT course – I am still greeted all over the country by youngsters whom I met on those courses, since I made it a point to visit all centres – and I know that the sort of change I could accomplish is beyond other politicians. But on our present system, politicians who are qualified and can think and plan have no place – which is why the genuine talent in the UNP is squashed and prominence given to jokers such as Kiriella and Malik and Sagala and Akila Viraj and of course the delightful John Amaratunga.

During my tenure I found that most problems could be resolved very easily, and also that in most cases the students had good reason to complain, but the administration of the various universities simply had no mechanisms to look out for problems and deal with them promptly – squalid toilets in hostels at Ruhuna, long delays in establishing new departments as at Sabaragamuwa, failure to respond promptly to requests for transfers when there are vacancies. I did what I could, and in three months more I would have done much more – as I am now doing at the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission, where we have made English and Soft Skills compulsory, introduced short courses developed by industry, and produced trainer guides and quality manuals – but productivity is not what the Prime Minister and his sidekick Chandrika want.

I should add that, even with regard to SAITM, which came up often in our discussions, I found students willing to listen provided one took their arguments seriously. I still recall talking about the issue with Economics students at Sabaragamuwa – who had an antiquated syllabus, which as one of them ruefully told me was all about Adam Smith and Keynes (Friedman had been dropped after I stopped being Dean, and obviously Stiglitz was beyond the staff there). They appreciated the need for a new approach to State involvement, though obviously one needed to have mechanisms in place to prevent exploitation as well as to reduce shortcomings in the State sector.

I am sorry that now the issue has turned violent, and I am not sure, given the bitterness those who are not profiting feel about this government that it will be easy to resolve the issue amicably. I am reminded of the situation in 1988, which the UNP overcame by getting rid of its leader. I suspect that, until that happens; the problem will not be resolved. I can only hope that Karu Jayasuriya had the courage, as Premadasa did, to make it clear that he was willing to lead – but he is so nervous, that once again the chance of serving the country will pass him by.

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