The Minister of Higher Education, S.B. Dissanayake, is a man in a hurry and a man with a mission. He says his mission is to put the universities in order, which he claims no one has dared do until he arrived on the scene. He is in a hurry because he wants to do it right now. But one’s not always sure whether his intention is to make the universities or to break them.
One cannot be blamed if one begins to suspect and one hopes all other men and women of discernment in this country will do the same, whether he is more bent on the letter than on the former. Why does one say this? Because in the recent past, he has been making pronouncements about the state universities that can only tarnish their reputations and set in motion the beginning of the end of the state university system as we know it — that is, as the proud flag-bearers of public higher education in Sri Lanka whose contribution to creating a meritocracy of sorts in this country is beyond measure.
In an interview [aired over many TV channels the past few days], he claims that the state universities produce what he calls “Kaala Kanni.” The bright young students who, according to him, constitute the crème de la crème [except he did not quite use the French term] of our education system, come out Kaala Kanni after four years at university! And who, may one know, is responsible for this terrible metamorphosis in the best and the brightest? The university dons of course, who else?
One could respond to his statement, delivered with the Minister’s characteristic aplomb in one of two ways. One could ask, for instance, if the Minister’s finally revealing the truth about the state universities a terrible truth shrouded in secrecy up to now. In which case, he has to be applauded for his act of bravery, his local John Wayne act. But the revelation is both devastating and damning for a country and its tax payers that not only pays for that education but depends on the recipients of that education to give leadership to the country on many fronts. Take the educators, administrators, journalists and members of the electronic media, policy planners, engineers architected and scientists in turn. Or even member of the legal fraternity and the judiciary.
He has in fact, gone on record as saying that universities must earn money if university academics want higher salaries, a form of “self-privatization” as someone has called it. Those who make this claim forget that universities enjoy no autonomy when it comes to student, admissions or free-levying programmes — all such activities centrally controlled by the University Grants Commission. Cuts in spending have eaten into the availability of resources such as state-of-the-art teaching aids, smaller class sizes, tutors, library acquisitions, etc., that is a pre-requisite for quality higher education.
Undoubtedly, university academics are highly trained in their subjects. But they are neither wizards nor conjurers able to produce something out of nothing. The low salaries don’t help matters. Not only has it led to a mass exodus of academics elsewhere, it has forced those who remain to focus more on making ends meet, not exactly a conducive environment in places devoted to the noble pursuit of knowledge-generation! But, of course, in the recent past, political interference into the recruitment of academic staff and purely politically motivated appointments into the highest positions in university administration have only accelerated the decline.
But the question still remains. Has the decline led to universities becoming the breeding ground of kaala kanni or the wretched? And is that why he has decided to send the students selected to university to military camps, before they arrive at university, where they will learn to say, as in that memorable biscuit ad, if nothing else, “athi vishistai, Sir!” [everything’s perfect, Sir]. Perhaps the Minister of Higher Education sees himself as the presiding augur of doom for public higher education, which perhaps does not fit the agenda of the new economic and political vision for the country. To break the backs of university academics is to break the backs of the state universities.
Department of English,
University of Peradeniya