PPP, higher education and the State | Daily News

PPP, higher education and the State

PPP or public – private partnership is a remedy recommended for many ills of the system of tertiary education. It is introduced as a new concept in lieu of privatization. For example, the Government vows that it will not privatize state owned enterprises but would establish public-private partnerships instead.

First of all are PPPs that strange? Don’t we already have PPPs? The answer to the first question is negative while the second question has a positive answer. There are many institutions and enterprise that are in fact PPPs. For example take LECO – the Lanka Electric Company. It was born as a result of a partial privatization of the Ceylon Electricity Board.

Or take the entire private hospital system. They are termed private but are actually public –private partnerships. The private sector provides physical capital for it and that also with considerable financial and other privileges offered by the Government while the State provides almost 95 percent more of the human capital. Supposing health service personnel in the State sector stops working in the private health service sector it would collapse like a bunch of paper huts. The action of the State in this respect is similar to a businessman funding a rival competitor in the same industry and extolling his success over his own performance.

PPP is proposed as a solution even to the crisis about the controversial SAITM Medical Faculty. In the case of Hambantota port development, PPP is already a reality. PPP is only a different name for privatization just as the open economy was once known as Dharma Rajya and Human Phase of Capitalism later.

Equitable opportunities for education

The problems facing higher education are much graver. The Government must accept its responsibility to educate all its citizens, to provide them equitable opportunities for education. It is also accountable for its actions. Education should be considered a human right. The Government is therefore obliged to provide special financial and other benefits to the disadvantaged and marginalized sections of the population.

Sri Lanka’s premier standing among nations with commendable literacy and education levels is a result of the free education system initiated in 1945 and subsequent expansion of Swabhasha education. Of late, however, Sri Lankan education system has deteriorated due to lack of finances and political will among others.

If University education is considered, an Asian Development Bank (ADB) Report states: “… State University system has been unable to keep pace with developments in the labour market. It is confronted with challenges including limited accessibility, low quality and weak relevance poor governance and managerial capacity and inadequate resources”. This conclusion of the ADB sums up the ills succinctly.

The National Education Commission has among a series of recommendations has proposed the following: promoting equitable access, development of quality and assurance of undergraduate programmes, strengthening of graduate programmes and external degree programmes, promoting better governance, building management capacities and diversification of sources of financing.

The Commission also considered the University system as the hub of basic and applied research. It also called for industry – University cooperation in research. It must be mentioned here that the Sri Lankan private sector conducts only 5 percent of research while the State sector provides the balance 95 percent. The private sector lacks entrepreneurship and has shown great hesitation in taking risks. They had a challenge when the GSP+ facility was withdrawn. But instead of engaging in developing productivity through R & D it was begging the Government for assistance and the latter also had no programme than going after the EU.

Lack of qualified academics

Overall Sri Lanka spends only 0.14 percent of the GDP on R & D, perhaps the lowest percentage even in South Asia. Inadequate has limited the number of academics engaged in research and development. Only 5 – 20 percent of them are engaged in research and that also mainly in social sciences.

It seems that the Government has forgotten its responsibility to the State University system which patronized mainly by the less affluent strata of society. There is much to be done to develop it. Teaching as well as administrative staff vacancies have not been filled. There is a lack of qualified academics. To make matters worse, instead of rectifying the shortcomings the Minister of Higher Education and few other ministers are openly ridiculing State Universities comparing it with SAITM, whose qualifications are still debatable.

Besides Government politicians seem to hold outdated conceptions about University education. They consider University students to be school children who should be armed by using force or disciplinary measures. Even the failure of the so-called Act on preventing ragging has not opened their eyes. University students are youth in their prime and hence naturally revolting against injustice and discrimination. The violent protests could and should be solved through debate and discussion and above all creating a democratic environment for freedom of expression and association could thrive.

The Government blames the Universities for producing unwanted graduates, especially in humanities. On the other hand it never accepts the responsibility for the same. The principal reason for students in humanities being the majority is that the number of schools that could send students in physical and biological sciences being a minority, less than 1,000 or so. Beside the UGC being a bureaucratic denies sufficient autonomy for the Universities to decide upon their courses of studies. The under-development of the economy and the Government's mix up of priorities. We find, for example, agriculture graduates serving in the services industry with no connection to agriculture and science. Lack of planning in post-graduate education has also denied the country of qualified academics and researchers.

Another principal shortcoming is the lack of transparency in government activities. Most of its legislation is thrust upon the people suddenly without providing an opportunity for public discussion. Democracy to be meaningful must be participatory. 

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