Blighted seats of learning
Sri Lankan universities, which
at one time ranked among the best in Asia, are today in the
doldrums, mainly on account of student unrest. This assessment
by Higher Education Minister Prof. Vishwa Warnapala confirms
afresh an impression about local universities which is widely
held among the public and which has crystallized in gradual
degrees over the years in the popular consciousness as a truth
Endemic student unrest is undoubtedly a principal factor in
the qualitative decline of our universities. The intermittent
interruption of academic activities by student agitations has
not only precipitated the closure of many of our seats of higher
learning over the years but has led many a student and parent to
It is the grief among the latter on seeing the careers of
their children being shattered which has prompted the more
wealthy parents and guardians to seek for their wards higher
educational opportunities abroad.
On the face of it, no one could fault them for making these
choices because of the almost universal yearning in parents to
shower the best on their children in regard to the vital needs
However, it is not many who could thus send their children to
seats of higher learning abroad. The vast majority of parents
whose children qualify to enter local universities lack the
means to send them to alternative higher educational
institutions abroad and are left utterly helpless and desperate
when their wards cannot be accommodated in local universities or
when the latter are shut-down on account of student unrest.
Our belief - which is widely shared - is that every student
who qualifies to pursue a higher education should be given an
opportunity to do so. Denying them this precious and great
opportunity merely because the absorptive capacity of our
traditional universities is limited, amounts to a grave
This is the reason why the possibility of establishing
private degree-awarding institutions which meet the standard
specifications for a sound higher education set by the State,
needs to be explored.
This idea may be anathema to some, but what must be
remembered is that these institutions would be operating under
the purview of the State.
In other words, degree-awarding status would be accorded most
discreetly by the State and very selectively. This proposition
should now be carefully assessed by the authorities. This would
not amount to compromising the concept of free education.
The qualitative decline of our universities could also be
traced to a gradual deceleration of what may be called the
disinterested pursuit of wisdom and knowledge among some of our
That is, the tendency to conduct research for expanding our
knowledge frontiers is softening among our academics and this,
of course, is transmitting itself to our undergraduate
This accounts for the diminishing of the stature enjoyed by
our universities as centres of intellectual and creative
activity. Increasingly, the feeling is gaining ground that we
are lost in a “cultural desert”.
We need to act on these insights before it is too late and
recoup our losses in the higher education sphere.