Thursday, January 21, 2010

Time to strengthen CWW Kannangara vision

The liberation from the iron fist of Government financial regulations will serve another vital purpose. That is none other than the urgent need to revitalize the research culture in Sri Lankan universities.
By Thrishantha Nanayakkara, PhD

(November 18, Washington, Sri Lanka Guardian) Every human baby born to this world has the right to obtain an education. The article 26 of the Universal declaration of human rights clearly identifies education as a human right in itself as well as being an indispensable means of realizing other human rights.

Article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights 1948

* (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
* (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
* (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

The great visionary, Dr. C.W.W Kannangara identified this need way back in 1944. Thanks to the current practice of free education in Sri Lanka, a vast majority of Sri Lankan children can obtain an education up to the GCE (A/L) examination free of charge. His vision has also enabled about 3% of the students who sit for the GCE (A/L) examination to obtain a university education free of charge. However, successive Governments have neglected the right to higher education of the rest of the 97% of the student population by not allowing alternative institutes (other than state universities) to supplement the demand. Successive Governments blamed the JVP for this practice. However, as a result, a vast majority among this neglected citizens end up joining the low skilled labor force while a handful manage to obtain that education from foreign universities at a cost many folds larger than what they could have enjoyed inside their mother country had the Government been liberal to respect the right to higher education.

Therefore I am proposing a new model to the higher education in Sri Lanka that could be debated among the interested parties.

I propose the Government to elevate the recognition given to the present quota of students recruited to the universities based on merit by offering them a Fulbright scholar status. Therefore, all university students at present will not only be able to enjoy the university education free of charge, but also claim in their curriculum vitas that they have won a Fulbright scholarship. The Fulbright scholarship exempts one from paying any tuition fees. On top of that, the Mahapola scholarship can continue to provide a monthly stipend. However, the universities should be made open to other students who are willing to enter at a fee. The universities may offer part scholarships depending on their merit, subject to the limitations of the financial resources of the institute. This will allow the universities to earn an extra income from foreign students and those local students who can afford to pay. However, the Government must pledge that it will continue to provide funding to offer Fulbright scholarships to the existing quota for free education. For instance, at present 700 students enter the University of Moratuwa each year. The Government must continue to offer annual Fulbright scholarships to at least 700 students in the University of Moratuwa. In addition, the Government should continue to provide other funding to improve the infrastructure facilities. It should be an irrevocable pledge. This will alleviate any fears among the staff and the students. However, the university should be released from Government’s central control structure to enable them to recruit as many paid students as their resources permit.

The liberation from the iron fist of Government financial regulations will serve another vital purpose. That is none other than the urgent need to revitalize the research culture in Sri Lankan universities. For instance, at Harvard University, we can keep our research funding in a laboratory account. When we wish to purchase an item for a research project, the researchers have the complete freedom to decide which item they should buy from where. Researchers do not waste their own research funds because they have to compete with other laboratories to achieve higher performance standards (higher citation rates for their publications for instance). While I was in Sri Lanka, even to buy a computer, I had to call for three quotations, get the approval of the Head of the Department, then the Dean, and then the Vice Chancellor. The purchasing department strictly goes by the recommendations given in this line of command. Sometimes this process takes six months. I have never heard of anybody who has purchased a computer within a month. At Harvard, the process takes as long as I take to click on an internet site of a computer manufacturer, and I get to buy the brand I like. I pay using the laboratory credit card. The insane process in Sri Lanka kills the passion to do research. The process to obtain permission to leave the country to attend a research meeting is even worse. The request letter should go through the above process that does not end at the Vice Chancellor but goes through the ministry of higher education all the way upto the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka!!! Apparently, Sri Lankan researchers can not cope up with the fast phased track of other research colleagues. Therefore, the above liberation from central Government financial regulations will enable local universities to be as dynamic as the most effective universities in the rest of the world.

The expansion of the percentage of citizens who can obtain a higher education will in turn stimulate healthy cultures in many cross sections in the society that includes the parliament, the military, the private sector, and the Government service.

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