Academic autonomy and State-Private University debate | Daily News


Academic autonomy and State-Private University debate


In recent times as the horrible goings on at our universities receive increasing exposure, the authorities cite academic autonomy to explain why they should not intervene. University autonomy is a good thing to be upheld, but do we really understand what it is? According to the European University Association, academic autonomy refers to a university’s capacity to manage its internal academic affairs independently, and has four dimensions:

1) Organizational autonomy: This requires setting the selection procedure and criteria in hiring the executive head, the power to dismiss such head, choosing the term of office of the head, appointing external members of the governing body, and the capacity to determine academic structures and create legal entities.

2) Financial autonomy: This refers to a university’s ability to manage its funds and allocate its budget independently and thereby realize its strategic aims. This includes the ability to borrow money, retain surpluses, own buildings, and set tuition fees

3) Staffing autonomy: This dimension covers the ability to hire the most suitable and qualified academic and administrative staff without external prescriptions or interference. It includes free agency in recruitment procedures for senior academic and administrative staff, setting salaries, and determining dismissal and promotion criteria for staff.

4) Academic autonomy: It covers a) Setting student numbers and admission criteria b) Introduction and termination of degree programmes; c) Deciding the medium of instruction; d) Selection of quality assurance measures and the decision of who provides them and e) The capacity to design the content of programmes.

Sri Lankan controls

Our universities are heavily regulated by the Universities Act. The President ultimately chooses VCs and terminates them. The term of office is prescribed as three years even if they perform well and keeping them on is desirable. There is no financial autonomy. Salaries are fixed and admissions decided by the UGC. There is no free-for-all between universities to grab the best students and staff by offering better courses and salaries. Promotions criteria are set by the UGC. Academic programmes are approved at the UGC. Worse, the IESL which accredits engineering programmes, runs its own programme.

This is why the Act also provides for intervention by the minister.

Academics as cheats

The framers of the Universities Act just did not trust academics to exercise autonomy. They understood that we academics are cheats par excellence – in the West too but they will be punished if caught. When a Council member in Jaffna, D. Nesiah, CCS, pointed out how journal pages were being bought to get professorships and conference papers were being claimed as journal papers, nothing happened and the promotions sailed through. In a system where the VC with a general degree claimed a special degree in biochemistry in her VC application and such lies in applications pervade all universities (Peradeniya, Moratuwa and Colombo included), we cannot afford an inquiry which would open up a Pandora’s box where most professors will have to be charged with fraud.

Professor Mahalingam’s stand

Our scene is best explained by what the late Prof. S. Mahalingam told me, saying that any carefully designed scheme of recognition will be abused in Sri Lanka. When he was awarded the D.Sc. (Eng.) London degree, he was just a little junior to Dr. Chandran Chinnappah who held the chair in mechanical engineering. Under the older chair-per-department system, he would have had to wait for several years to be professor and then retire after a short time. So a national committee of (I think he said 9) academics was put together to see how he could be rewarded. They came up with the idea of merit professorship to reward exceptional performance like in his case. He was accordingly made Professor.

The next year or so saw all nine members of his committee being made Professor because of their so called exceptional performance! Today, every other joker is a professor. At the time he told me this, he also recounted how he was offered the Vidya Jothi, he declined the offer, they went ahead and gave it to him anyway and he was getting multiple calls from the Presidential Secretariat to pick it up which he had not done. He felt every award was subject to influence in Sri Lanka and he therefore wanted no recognition from the system because he had his solid D.Sc.

EUSL – Contempt for the Supreme Court despite January 8

Thus even VCs come in with influence and receive patronage protection. In an ongoing case, Dr. Kiddnan Kobindarajah, former VC of SEUSL applied for VC again, the process was heavily manipulated by the Competent Authority Prof. Uma Coomaraswamy, who was sent to clean up the mess Dr. Kobi allegedly created. She kept him off the ballot, he challenged it before the Supreme Court which ordered the CA to include him and observe Circular 800 which she had brazenly flouted. She tried to suppress the CVs of the applicants and wanted the members to vote on an evaluation committee score sheet which showed her candidate positively. This happened before Christmas. So the court decision has not been communicated formally to EUSL although the Attorney General who represented SEUSL was present and heard the decision.

In this era where the people have rejected lawlessness on January 8, upholding the law is paramount. Yet, the Competent Authority for EUSL, has rushed the three manipulated names to the UGC despite the AG, her attorney, being aware and Dr. Kobi’s lawyers also communicating the decision to her. Her hope, I presume, is that the President will appoint her former botany colleague before the Court vacation ends and hears the contempt of court plaint freshly filed by Dr. Kobi. He is a controversial figure with many opinions being held against and for him. But in a decent society, the law has to be upheld. Is that not what our celebrations on January 8 are about?

Autonomy our style

So what is this autonomy? It does not exist here. The system cites autonomy to save bad VCs and CAs and claims the right to intervene as when the Open University was ordered to roll back tuition fee increases. Autonomy is a tool invoked to shield favourites and to intervene to advance political goals by siting important faculties to buy votes.

State versus Private Universities

In the West, new Presidents/VCs have to prove themselves to stay on and leave behind a good heritage to remember them by. Here the idea for many VCs is to reward themselves and cronies and defraud the university to the maximum before their three years are up. For example, a Peradeniya VC had his provident fund docked for Rs. 516,800 for illegal payments based on the Auditor General’s report, and according to Lakbima made payments to a non-existing Arco Pte., Ltd. He continues to receive state patronage.

The ongoing debate on state versus private universities therefore is really silly. Some of the best top ten universities in the US are state universities (e.g., University of California at Berkeley, Michigan, Illinois at Urbana Champaign). Here in Sri Lanka, the government imposes horrible persons as VCs/CAs and props them up to defend a bad decision, forcibly locates faculties where they cannot succeed as a political tool to buy votes, and forces excellent students nearby to these faculties without a future.

Then, after ensuring by our own acts that state universities fail, can we argue that they are bad?

This is the time to revisit the Universities Act. Let us make the revolution of January 8th real. Let us make our state universities truly free, facing real competition from private universities. Instead of admission, qualified students should be given a voucher to use for fees at any university they choose, whether private or state. The bad universities will fail (and will not be worth saving). But the really good state universities will be forced to abandon patronage and perform, if they are to survive.

Then we can properly judge which model, private or state, is better. 


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There are 5 Comments

Creativity revolution in your last paragraph about vouchers. Only trouble is that genii A/L can misuse like the car permits. Money can then buy a degree and is called privatisation of a fraudulent type. Any worthwhile scheme has to go from where we are now in a stepwise manner of transition to where we hope to be. We leaped into NCGE and fell back into O/L again with many casualties. Lets not do summersaults with our education set up. If innovation is needed, a model of success is the continuation of schooling into "Aquinas" allowing outsiders too to enter for a degree. Such a degree holder became commissioner general of inland revenue. It did not upset the stability of the schooling system, but flowed smoothly into the higher degrees. Authority is in the structure not individuals. This is a problem in the present privatisations with inflexible heads and stiff necks, caring for institutions rather than the future of students.

Education has become an industry. No imparting of moral values only book knowledge, Most educators themselves lack moral values. Alas! Srilanka!!!!

Just have an independent body to run universities. Politicians should be kept at a distance. There is no private or state education. Education is education. You can not run universities just with public funds. Let those people who can afford to pay, pay. There is nothing wrong with that.

One thing that can be done quickly is to seek accreditation, and that will mean keeping a relatively clean institution, or it loses its degree granting status. Do not to use a Sri Lankan one though.

Corrections I apologize for two corrections in the section titled "EUSL - Contempt ..." 1) In that section there are two references to SEUSL. These should both read EUSL with all due apologies to SEUSL. 2) The reference to Circular 800 should read Circular 880.

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