Minister of Higher Education Prof. Wiswa Warnapala is one of the few ministers who, so to speak, know their onions. Delivering a lecture at the recent inauguration of a postgraduate programme at the University of Colombo?The Island of June 3?he put his finger on what really ails the postgraduate education in this country.
Sri Lankan universities, he has pointed out, from the very inception, developed as undergraduate institutions and our over-concentration on undergraduate studies has taken its toll on postgraduate education. (However, whether they have at least become fully fledged seats of undergraduate learning is doubtful, if the deteriorating educational standards and the quality of their products are any indication.) One cannot but agree with him on the other factors that, he says, have led to the underdevelopment of postgraduate education, such as overemphasis on foreign postgraduate degrees, dearth of teachers and lack of incentives for graduates to engage in postgraduate studies.
Prof. Warnapala hits the nail on the head when he says the prestige of a university hinges on its qualified staff and its contribution to the generation of knowledge through research and publications. Prof. Vinnie Vitarana in a television interview with Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara expressed a similar view, a few months ago. He pointed out that university teachers had to impart knowledge and engage in research, if universities were to develop.
But, how can university dons, most of whom are hirelings of NGOs, conduct academic research? `The NGO-based research,` Prof. Warnapala says, `is yet another reason for the decline in postgraduate research in our universities.` How true! The number of academics prostituting themselves to various external organisations, lured by dosh, is evidently on the rise. Some of them are allegedly not even available in their universities.
Dr. Liyanage Amarakeerthi in his response to Prof. Warnapala`s speech, on this page today, draws our attention to another aspect of the problem. He minces no words when he describes universities as `complicated and dangerous places with so many rivalries and petty jealousies and factions`, which, he argues, have helped some dumb-heads to go places by ingratiating themselves with their gurus. That some teachers are not well-qualified, he says, is known to their students.
Recently, he adds, students of the University of Aesthetic Studies were shouting from the rooftops that their lecturers didn`t know the subjects they taught! William A. Ward?author, editor and teacher?famously said, `The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.` The vast majority of school and university teachers in this country only `tell`, those who `explain` and `demonstrate` are in the minority and those who `inspire` are something of a rarity. How can there be `inspirational guidance` for students in universities?
`Before long,` Dr. Amarakeerthi says, `students will realise that free education is destroyed not by the World Bank but by unqualified teachers.`
Besides, it should be noted, students themselves are ruining the university system by being mercenaries of certain sinister political forces bent on disrupting seats of learning so as to fish in troubled waters.
Prof. Warnapala emphasises the fact that postgraduate education and development process are integrally linked. True, in a world where everything is knowledge based, a small nation cannot aspire to success without the means of acquiring and generating new knowledge. Sri Lanka cannot afford to neglect its postgraduate education anymore. However, it is not only education at the university level that needs to be improved. The entire education system is rotten to the core from the kindergarten to the university. School education is in deep crisis and its development is a national priority. The high failure rate in subjects such as maths, science and English at the GCE (O/L) examination must be arrested forthwith. The genesis of the problem of `Monolingualism`, which Dr. Amarakeerthi speaks of, could be traced to the school level, where English is taught perfunctorily and students have adopted the teach-us-if-you-can attitude. The same goes for other subjects like maths and science, which are essential for the development of a nation.
The country, Prof. Warnapala says in the conclusion of his speech, needs at this juncture more university trained researchers, professionals and graduates who can enrich the intellectual enterprise in the country. But, Dr. Amarakeerthi says `nobody will start doing some serious postgraduate work just because a minister says so.` He asks the Ministry of Higher Education to introduce a specific well-funded scheme to achieve that lofty goal. Raising the issue of financial allocations for postgraduate education, he points out that with the price of a luxury car used by a minister, ten PhDs could be produced in quality Indian universities. How many PhDs is the country forgoing to maintain the jumbo Cabinet? How much does the maintenance of Parliament cost the country in terms of PhDs? It is not for nothing that we keep calling politicians parasites.
The JVP has called for halving ministerial salaries. That is a populist move. Why doesn`t the JVP campaign for stripping politicians of luxury vehicles and channelling the funds so saved for education? Most of all, it must rein in its student thugs running riot and turning universities into battlefields every so often! That alone will be a great service to the nation!
Dr. Amarakeerthi is right in calling for a feasible programme to develop postgraduate education. We only hope that Prof. Warnapala`s wise words will get translated into action. And fast!