Our University System needa Urgent Reforms
Posted on December 19th, 2019

By Professor R.P. Gunawardane Courtesy The Island


There are many shortcomings in the Sri Lankan university system which needs immediate attention. First of all, a proper legal framework should be established in the Sri Lankan university system in order to implement progressive reforms, to avoid political interference and misuse of power and for the smooth functioning of the universities maintaining the highest standards and integrity.

University education in Sri Lanka went through a process of rapid and unplanned expansion during the last four decades. It appears that the expansion has taken place in response to social demand for increased access coupled with political considerations. Currently, Sri Lankan university system consists of 15 universities representing all the provinces in the country. Of these 14 are conventional universities and one Open University. There are six other University level Degree Awarding Institutions established by Acts of Parliament but operating outside the UGC. In addition, there are 22 Degree Awarding Institutions in the non-state sector officially recognized by the UGC. A few private institutions in Colombo are also offering degree programmes conducted by the universities of some foreign countries.

Careful and detailed analysis of the Sri Lankan university system by the author indicates that for a country like Sri Lanka the current university system is more than adequate to satisfy our national needs provided the existing floor space in the system, infrastructure, equipment and the expertise are utilized to an optimum level conforming to international practices. At present the utilization of facilities is far below international norms. Thus, the establishment of new universities at a considerable capital expenditure at this time is unwarranted. What is required at the present time is to bring about essential reforms to the existing system to make it efficient, productive and a modern university system so that it will utilize its resources to an optimum level fulfilling national needs.

Need for Reforms

Urgent reforms are necessary for many reasons:

(1) It is evident that the proliferation of university system has taken place with minimum attention to diversification to satisfy national needs and disregarding the need for quality assurance. As a result, unemployment of graduates is rampant. Sri Lankan University system needs a proper mechanism for assurance of quality and relevance of the degree programs. Full academic autonomy to individual universities also should be restored.

(2) Sri Lankan universities are rated very poorly in the world ranking of universities. Its available resources are underutilized. Therefore, action is needed to correct this situation and to upgrade and modernize our universities.

(3) Research culture in the university system should be reestablished with more international contacts, staff and student exchange programs with admission of some international students at least at the postgraduate level. Community service by the universities also should be encouraged and promoted.

(4) Over 80% of those who qualified for university admission do not get placement in our state universities due to lack of places. Thus there is a great need to provide more opportunities for university education by expansion and diversification within the current system.

(5) State alone is not in a position to provide sufficient opportunities to satisfy the current and future demand for university education. As in most other countries, there is a need to get the non-state sector (private sector, non-profit foundations, professional organizations, foreign universities etc.) also actively involved in the expansion process.

The major components of the reforms package may be presented under (i) Role of UGC and Universities, (ii) Reforms in degree programmess and Teaching Methodology, (iii) Accreditation and quality assurance, (iv) Financing Reforms and upgrading facilities (v) Restoring research culture and community service and (vi) Increasing access to university education.

Role of UGC

The Universities Act no.16 of 1978 has defects and limitations for the operation and the development of the university system in the current context. This Act has centralized the powers and decision making at the UGC restricting administrative and financial autonomy of the individual universities. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to amend the existing act or implement a new Universities Act granting more autonomy and independence to universities to run their own affairs.

In the new legal framework, the role of the UGC should be restricted to its traditional funding role and the coordination and monitoring of the Sri Lankan university system in keeping with the national policy. Independence and accountability of the universities should be assured. The universities should be held responsible and accountable strictly with regard to quality and relevance of their degree programs, student performance and more importantly, employability of graduates produced by them. It is expected that the UGC should increase its role as a monitoring body relating to strategic planning, maintaining academic standards and effectiveness of the university system.

Role of Universities

In addition to granting maximum autonomy to the universities with regard to administrative and financial matters, academic freedom should be further strengthened by giving the universities powers to conduct any new programmess and to establish, if they so wish, new Faculties, Departments, Centres, and Units etc. Creation of positions and appointment and promotion of all the staff should be the matters for the university councils within their budgets. Universities also should implement Merit Award schemes to honour good teachers and productive researchers annually.

Periodic assessment and monitoring of quality of teaching and research in faculties and departments should be a function of the university councils. Self-evaluation, peer evaluation, external evaluation and teacher evaluations by the students may be used to assess the performance of individual teachers. It should be mandatory to obtain teacher evaluations by the students after each course. This can be done electronically by the university administration. These evaluations should be given special consideration in merit award schemes for good teachers.

Appointment of the Vice-Chancellor should be made more democratic and free from political interference. This will help the Vice-Chancellor to perform his duties impartially and effectively. Therefore, it is more suitable if the Vice-Chancellor is appointed after an open advertisement, a screening process followed by an election by an Electoral Body consisting of the membership of the University Council and the Senate.

Degree Programmes and Teaching Methodology

Although the course unit system as practiced in theUSA was introduced to our university system some years ago, some of the more important aspects such as flexibility of degree programmess, strengthening of general education component and inclusion of independent studies/ project work of this scheme are not properly implemented in most universities. Furthermore, insufficient use of modern audio visual techniques and lack of use of a Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as MOODLE for course delivery are clearly visible. These factors inevitably affect the quality of our programmes and international recognition and therefore immediate action is needed to correct the situation.

Curricula revision should be a continuing process in the universities. Particularly in sciences new theories, latest discoveries and other advances in the field should be incorporated in to the courses. Variety and flexibility of the degree programmes can be considerably enhanced by developing inter-faculty and multi-faculty courses in the universities depending on the availability of facilities and expertise in different faculties. This approach may be further extended to develop inter-university degree programmes by combining and making use of facilities available in different locations. With this approach a credit transfer mechanism also should be introduced facilitating the mobility of students in the university system.

The structural changes to the courses should be effected by broad-basing the degree programmes and introducing sufficient flexibility. In order to build up innovative approaches, analytical thinking and self-confidence it is essential to incorporate independent studies, project work and internships.

In designing new degree programs multidisciplinary approach should be promoted since the traditional subject boundaries are fast disappearing.

Drastic and radical changes are necessary in the teaching and learning process in our universities. It is essential to introduce modern interactive teaching methodologies with the extensive use of IT. Extensive use of educational software, web based teaching and assignments/ homework, advanced audiovisual techniques and videoconferencing should be promoted. All teachers should be trained adequately to use these interactive tools.

Accreditation and Quality Assurance

Improvement of quality and relevance of the courses should be a priority for the university senates. It must be emphasized that the real impact of the reforms will be felt only if the reforms in curricula and degree programs are properly implemented by the universities.

In the current context it has become necessary to establish an independent and autonomous Accreditation and Quality Assurance Council (AQAC) for the purpose of accreditation of higher education Institutions and their programs and to ensure quality of the programs. It should be a completely independent body outside the UGC. It will set standards and perform regulatory functions in respect of state as well as non-state sector university level institutions. Appropriate standards and procedures will be developed by the AQAC conforming to international practices and in association with relevant professional bodies. The AQAC will prepare guidelines for accreditation mechanism and carry out inspection in collaboration with professional organizations. Grading of the universities, faculties, departments etc. on regular basis will also be undertaken by the AQAC.

Financing Reforms and Upgrading Facilities

Current budget provision for higher education is grossly inadequate. A target of about 1.0% GDP should be earmarked for the state universities. Financial framework should include financial autonomy to universities, funding mechanism based on a scientific financing formula, competitive fund for novel projects and incentives for cost recovery and income generation. This necessitates the establishment of a separate Competitive Fund at the UGC level for novel projects in the universities.

As far as possible all universities should be well equipped by diverting sufficient foreign assistance for this important aspect. Instrumentation centers with modern sophisticated equipment may be located in a few major universities island wide with free access to other state universities for logistic reasons. The universities also should be encouraged to establish Consultancy Centers, Companies etc. in order to engage them in income generating activities while providing services to the community. Additional income generated by the universities should be allowed to retain by them for their developmental activities. It is only this way innovation can be promoted and the state universities will then be in a position to compete with non-state sector institutions.

Restoring Research Culture and Community Service

It is apparent that the research culture and innovation in our university system is diminishing rapidly with more academics preferred to engage in money making endeavors. This should be minimized and the research culture should be reestablished on priority basis by providing an attractive package of incentives and recognition in the form of special grants and awards to academics.

Public perception of the universities could be considerably enhanced by extending their service to the community, in particular paying more attention to disadvantaged communities in rural areas. Some of the activities proposed are programs involving dissemination of knowledge and science camps involving popularization activities in Science/ Math/ Food Safety/ Air Pollution/ Water Quality/ Food Safety/ Waste Disposal/ Fertilizers and Pesticides etc. We need to encourage and provide some incentives for undergraduates to actively participate in these activities.

Increasing Access to universities

Non-state sector university level institutions are fairly well established in Sri Lanka during the last two decades. There are over 22 such institutions approved by the UGC. They are also performing an enormous service to the country by providing alternative avenues for university education to our deserving students. These institutions also can supplement the state university system by cooperating in different ways. Thus, these institutions also should be guided by an accreditation and quality assurance mechanism provided by the government. Proposed Accreditation and Quality Assurance council will assure the quality of degree programs offered by the state universities as well non-state sector institutions.

Joint ventures between the state universities and private sector, professional organizations, nonprofit foundations, foreign universities etc. also should be promoted for expansion of university education in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, government initiative is needed to encourage and promote this expansion through a package of facilitating policies, tax incentives etc.

It is necessary to stress that the opening up of university education to non-state sector should be accompanied by (i) an independent accreditation mechanism and (ii) need-based scholarships and loan schemes for students. Broad-basing the providers of university education will introduce an important element of competition to the system. This competition is healthy because it will certainly improve quality and considerably reduce the cost of training providing more variety and opportunities to needy students.

(Author is an Emeritus Professor, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education & Higher Education, Chairman, National Education Commission of Sri Lanka, and Visiting Professor, Indiana State University, USA)

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