University Education in the 21st Century

Posted on June 7, 2009  /  4 Comments

By Carlo Fonseka

The Island – 07th April 2009

Recently at very short notice I deputized for the Chairman of the University Grants Commission at the launch of “Adyapanaya 2009”, a Higher Education and Career Exhibition organized by the private sector. Obliged to speak impromptu, I made a few off the cuff remarks. I feel that Zacki Jabbar’s succinct report of what I said (The Island 28 March 2009) requires some elaboration to indicate what I meant to say on that occasion.

The basic point I attempted to make was that undergraduate education at least in technical disciplines such as medicine and engineering boils down to 3 issues.

1. What to teach (objectives).

2. How to teach it (curriculum).

3. How to ascertain whether students have learnt it (assessment).

Basic Medical Education

In basic medical education, for example, the knowledge, skills and attitudes that students must have ideally acquired on the completion of the MBBS course, have been precisely defined by medical educationists and made freely available. They can be downloaded from the internet. These are the objectives of the MBBS course.

How to teach students the content of the objectives is what the curriculum is about. Methods of instruction include lectures, practicals, clinical attachments, ward classes and so on. Just as there are more ways than one to skin a cat, there are various approaches to assisting students to achieve the specific educational objectives. In the case of abler students, for the purpose of acquiring the requisite theoretical knowledge, computer assisted learning can do much better than what hack teachers (like me) did in our time. It is mainly to learn practical skills that teachers are useful nowadays, and even in regard to this matter, skills laboratories can greatly facilitate the process. You don’t need distinguished, brilliant researchers to teach students elementary skills such as how to examine the pulse of a patient or determine his blood pressure.


In the 21st century the critically important issue in education will be assessment i.e. judging whether students have acquired what they must know in order to be certified as competent doctors (even if they are not compassionate and caring, as doctors ought to be). A great deal of research has been done in the field of assessment (or testing) and now there are objective, reliable and valid methods of assessment that can be used. Assessment and certification of competence must be strictly regulated by the government using the best available examiners and technical resources


If the objectives of a course have been authoritatively defined and assessment is done objectively, comprehensively, reliably, validly – and honestly – it really does not matter where and how the students acquired their knowledge, skills and attitudes. The certification of competence must be a totally transparent process.

I believe that in this century universities must be essentially concerned with advancing knowledge by research and with postgraduate education. Undergraduate education for thousands of students for whom a degree is only a passport to a job, is probably not a cost effective and worthwhile university exercise.


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