A speech made by Prof. Wiswa Warnapala – Minister of Higher Education at the Conference of Vice Chancellors held at the University Grants Commission on May 4, 2007
SPEECH: The purpose of this meeting is to enter into an active dialogue with the Vice Chancellors of the Universities of Sri Lanka, and the primary aim of the dialogue is to make use of the experience of the distinguished Vice Chancellors in formulating a new Higher Education policy for the country.
The objectives of Higher Education, due to a wide variety of reasons, have undergone a change, and the university system, which came into existence in 1921 with the establishment of a University College which was later elevated to the status of a fully-fledged University in 1942, fulfilled its tasks and the system expanded to such an extent that Sri Lanka has a fairly developed university system which has had a considerable influence on
the intellectual life of the country.
With this expansion and the nature of its contribution, no proper policy perspectives have been advanced to bring about changes in the system to make it more meaningful and relevant. In other words, the system did not expand in relation to the social and economic development needs in the country and the guiding factor in the expansion was the need to provide access to higher eduction, which became an immediate need as a result of the impact of the Free Education Scheme.
Today we are living in a new millennium, and the 21st century is the most advanced period in the history of mankind, most advanced period in terms of knowledge as well. In a rapidly changing world dominated and driven by knowledge, we need to give preference to the important objectives of Higher Education.
In other words, the Higher Education institutions must give consideration to both relevance and quality, and it is on this basis that the Higher Education institutions in Sri Lanka can become real partners in the social and economic choices of a society.
The greatest challenge in the 21st century for higher Education is the recognition of relevance. By relevance, we mean the need to adapt to the immediate needs of the job market. This, in other words, means that the universities should produce an employable graduate.
Through the universities, we need to prepare individuals to contribute to the social and economic development and this could be fruitfully achieved if the undergraduates are provided with the relevant skills and the knowledge. It is in this context that Higher Education needs to be defined as a public service.
Higher Education can also be defined as one, which contributes to cultural, economic and social development within the context of pluralism and cultural diversity. It is accepted that Higher Education, in any given society, developed or developing, has to play a role in the production and transmission of knowledge. Knowledge is universal and it has become the heritage of the mankind.
How can we convert universities into knowledge institutions? The institutions in the sphere of Higher Education needs to be encouraged to perform an active, creative and innovative role to help the society to change.
In other words, universities should function as a development institutions – institutions which promote and encourage development; this means that universities have a development role in a country. Can we say this in respect of the universities in Sri Lanka?
Have they contributed to the process of development? In the last fifty years, they, undoubtedly, made a noteworthy contribution in producing an educated labour force and advanced human capital. In addition, they helped in the establishment of an active intellectual enterprise as well.
In order to ensure full recognition of the role of Higher Education for social and economic development, certain vital considerations are necessary; two of the basic considerations are: (1) the need for institutional autonomy and (2) academic freedom. Sri Lankan universities, from their inception, enjoyed these things and they came to be institutionalised as a result of the influence of the British academic tradition.
Next important thing was the revision of study programmes in the universities; the modernisation and the diversification of academic programmes was yet another vital requirement.
It is here in this context that we need to look at the relevance of inter-disciplinary studies and multi-disciplinary studies. This is very much of a fashionable thing in the modern university whereas compartmentalisation was made in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Sri Lankan Universities, due to the dominance of the traditional disciplines, still believe in compartmentalisation of subjects, and this academic culture must undergo a transformation. In my view, international partnerships and international cooperation could bring about a change and the introduction of inter-disciplinary courses could also enhance quality.
I would like to draw your attention to the need to promote more and more research in the universities. Universities should have a research mission, and it needs to be re-stated from the perspective of contributing to development.
Yet another fact is that research must focus on local and global needs and issues, social and economic issues, and the universities, through this kind of research, could enter the international sphere. No need to do research for the sake of doing research; research should be done with a relevance and it could be social relevance and developmental relevance.
Research should also focus towards preparing students for Higher Education; in other words, students also should benefit from research. In the developing countries, research need to be made relevant to the needs of the country.
The Government must also promote education systems and institutions that are capable of efficiently adapting to changes in the social and economic environment. Today there is a strong need for a clear definition of the overall priorities and development policies. Steps need to be taken to improve the capacity of the Higher Education institutions, which must show their readiness to accept the national priorities.
There is yet another sector to which we need to pay attention, and it is the responsibility of Higher Education institutions towards other education levels. This relationship is lacking in Sri Lanka, and the universities hesitate to promote links with other sectors.
Such a tradition does not exist, and it, in fact, was due to the isolationist attitude of the colonial university. The relationship with the schools sector is very limited and it is confined to some of the services rendered for the Advanced Level Examination.
An active relationship with the schools sector would ensure that students are better prepared for Higher Education. Such a relationship, in my view, could be developed by the provision of resources and expertise, teacher-training programmes, socio-economic research and educational policy alternatives and such things would help to improve education at all levels.
Access to Higher Education, in terms of the rates in developed countries is still insufficient, and the Government, therefore, must take measures to expand and diversity the opportunities for every citizen to benefit from higher-level skills and qualifications – with which they can enter the world of work.
The concept of employability needs to be advocated and articulated. Still the participation rates in higher education are poor, and this is despite the country’s achievements in equality of opportunity, universal primary education and near gender equality. Participation rates need to be increased, for which appropriate policies are necessary.
In the area of traditional higher education, not much attention is paid to productive public sectors. Higher Education institutions should promote continuous partnerships with productive sectors in the country; they must help shape the labour market, and this demands the introduction of entrepreneurial skills and the creation of self-employment opportunities. This is where the curricula demands diversification.
Universities could think in terms of introducing more and more diploma and certificate courses; work experience could be regarded as a part of a diploma course and this kind of a system is well established in developed countries.
Such innovations are immediately necessary in our universities. In the current international context, changes are necessary and they could embody the following:
1. The development of an entrepreneurial culture in the Universities;
2. a policy on intellectual property;
3. industrial research;
4. revision of personnel polices;
5. systematic staff re-appraisal;
6. development of professional administrators;
7. removable contracts and permanent tenure;
8. attractive salary packages;
9. curriculum reforms;
On the basis of such changes, the modern university should become more responsive to the varying needs of the society. It needs to be emphasized that relevance cannot be achieved at the expense of quality. The Government, in its role as the major player of the system, should try to establish policies of continual search for improvement and innovation.
An innovative approach is necessary if the universities are to be made more modern and relevant for the process of development.
In Sri Lanka, the system and modes of university administration have remained unchanged for a long period of time. Influence of the colonial legacy still remains and they are an impediment for modernisation. For instance, any attempt to reform is certain to be perceived as an attempt to disrupt the system.
Adaption and acceptance for change are immediately necessary. In Sri Lanka, there is no much of a relationship between the university and non-university sectors whereas this relationship is a vital combination in other parts of the world.
Non-University Higher Education institutions should be encouraged to provide more access. In all developed countries, these are two well-established sectors – University and Non-University sectors. Most countries tend to treat both as one, and it serves a useful purpose in terms of academic attainments and qualifications.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka, for some strange reason, does not encourage this combination and it is vitally necessary if we intend to provide the citizen with quality education. The recognition of this strategy would result in (1) grater social demand for higher education, (2) the need to cater to the diverse needs of students; (3) emergence of new professional fields and (4) the expansion of knowledge, based on inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary approaches.
Yet another important aspect is the State control of Higher Education. State as the major player, has to look at three issues in promoting Higher Education and the issues are quality, efficiency and equity. Sri Lanka, for instance, has a traditional State control model, and the World Development Report of 1997, making a general comment, stated that Government rules are not enough to bring about reforms in the sector.
It is here in this context, that we need to examine the relationship between the State and Higher Education institutions. Two features dominate the system – the degree of centralised control and the great deal of institutional autonomy. These things have come to stay and they are legacies of the system, which we inherited at independence.
In the Sri Lankan experience, the traditional predominant role of the State in the provision of Higher Education is rooted in the political culture based on the Free Education scheme of 1944.
The system remains well established and what needs to be done in the given context is the introduction of innovative changes so that the system can be made more functional and efficient. Adjustments, therefore, are necessary for the efficient functioning of the modern University.
What the country needs is a coherent higher education policy framework and the formation of a vision for the long-term development of a comprehensive and diversified Higher Education system, which can contribute to national growth.