“Restart” Sri Lanka university faculty

Sept 21, 2010 (LBO) – When all else fails in a modern computer, we hit “restart.” The machine powers down, clears all kinds of dysfunctions from the system and starts fresh. Not a panacea, but works most of the time. This is what we need to do with our universities. All else has failed.

In my last column (Sri Lanka University Fees Reduced), I argued that Sri Lanka had universities in name only; that recognizing this central fact was the necessary first step in a program of recovery. Previously I argued that we cannot become a knowledge hub with dysfunctional universities (Sri Lanka ITES: The problem is people).

The responses were not as impassioned as I expected. Was this because my claims were less incendiary than I thought; that readers agree that we do not have real universities? Anything perceived to be an attack on the sacred cow of free higher education used to guarantee fireworks: sound for certain and light sometimes: http://indi.ca/2005/03/let-them-eat-rhetoric/ . But no longer.

I expected trite responses about how welcome our best students were in US and UK graduate programs. I expected references to webometrics rankings. But except for a little squeak, nothing.

Perhaps it was that university teachers were too busy deciphering the government‘s response to their salary agitation: warmly sympathetic speech by the Minister in Parliament; salary for strike days docked by the University Grants Commission. Do not such diametrically opposite reactions cause cognitive overload?

Anyway. Let’s fan the flames more.

The problem

Sri Lankan universities do not appear in the principal world university rankings; they do not appear even in the available ranking of Asian Universities (http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/asian-university-rankings/overall). Sixteen institutions appear in the Webometrics rankings (http://www.webometrics.info/rank_by_country.asp?country=lk&zoom_highlight=lanka) but they occupy places from a high of 2,185th for the University of Colombo to a low of 11,996th for the Eastern University.

I cannot fathom how one can be pleased with being ranked as low as 2,185th, unless the pleasure is derived from being ranked at all.

Rankings, especially those that give significant weight to publications, citations and reputation among peers, measure the quality of faculty (or the academic staff). They tell us that the quality of the faculty at Sri Lankan universities is poor.

Additional evidence on faculty quality exists. An annex to the Corporate Plan 2003-2008 of the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka contained a study of the quality of university faculty in the humanities and social sciences (H&SS) in 2004-05, benchmarked against University of Dhaka and University of Malaya (also at http://www.sljol.info/index.php/JULA/article/viewArticle/310). It merits extensive quotation:

“. . . even University of Dhaka . . . had 47% of faculty holding PhDs while University of Colombo had only 37%. Universities of Malaya and Hong Kong showed 43% and 90% respectively . . .. With the average for the Sri Lankan university system at 30% and the total number of Humanities and Social Sciences faculty in the system being close to 1000, this means that the Sri Lankan system needs 200 more PhDs to reach the lower end of regional benchmarks on faculty qualifications.”

The report states that 8 percent of H&SS faculty held local PhDs. Given the questionable quality of these degrees, the actual number of qualified faculty may be seen as even lower than 37 percent.

The report looked at publications of scholarly articles by faculty as a proxy for general productivity.

“H&SS faculty in Sri Lanka published 0.23 international publications and 0.70 national publications per faculty member. The survey also showed that 12% and 23% of faculty, respectively, had one or more international and national publications.”

The last sentence requires elaboration. It says, in effect, that 88 percent of H&SS faculty do not have any international publications to their name. There may be excuses for this miserable performance internationally.

But what of local publications, in journals edited by their own? Seventy seven percent of the faculty (close to eight out of ten) have none: zero, nada, zilch.

The total lack of publication by 77 percent of those teaching show that the students in our universities are, for the most part, drinking from the fetid and stagnant pool referred to in the quotation from the above UGC document:

“He who learns from one occupied in learning, drinks of a running stream. He who learns from one who has learned all he is to teach, drinks ‘the green mantle of the stagnant pool.’” A. J. Scott, the first Principal of Owens College, Manchester, 1851

Yet they keep getting paid, keep getting promoted and keep getting granted sabbatical leave. What is sabbatical leave, the uninitiated may ask.

To quote an official document: “a Senior Lecturer Grade I [and above] is entitled for sabbatical leave of one year duration with pay or two years sabbatical leave with no-pay after seven years of service and are also eligible to receive passage for the staff member and the spouse.” You get one year’s salary plus airfare for two, if you work seven years and can find a foreign university to host you.

Curious about how unproductive faculty get promoted, I made some inquiries. I was told of a recent case where the justification for promotion included an article that had been published in an international journal. The problem was that the journal had subsequently “withdrawn” the article because it was found to have been plagiarized. Despite this fact being brought to the attention of the promotions committee, they approved the promotion, saying their remit did not include substance.

So we have not only unproductive and low-quality faculty. We have procedures in place that allow the unproductive to flourish.

This is no surprise. Faculty select their successors. Poor-quality faculty will select more poor-quality academics. Because they want to be the big dogs in the pound they admit only weaker animals. The big dogs retire, and the weaklings replace them. They apply the same logic, admitting even weaker dogs, and so on. We have a spiral of declining quality.

They also come up with additional procedures to compensate for their poor quality. The games played around sabbatical leave are a good example.

The rationale for sabbatical leave is the need for scholars to periodically recharge their batteries, get exposed to new ideas and techniques, and have dedicated time to write. I have taken sabbatical leave and can vouch for its value. The very language used in Sri Lanka documents suggests it should be outside the country.

Yet, you have to be productive to be able to arrange a sabbatical stay at a foreign university. This is an insurmountable challenge for the 77 percent H&SS faculty who do not have a publication to their name, and the possibly lower numbers of unproductive faculty in other fields.

But these people have plenty of time on their hands to think up workarounds.

The first step was to allow those enjoying a sabbatical leave to undertake “academic/administrative duties” under contract at another entity under the UGC in Sri Lanka (http://www.ugc.ac.lk/en/policy/commission-circulars/28-circulars-published-in-1991/263-commission-circular-no-487.html). What new ideas? Much better to draw two salaries without the danger of being exposed to new ideas.

It appears they have further plans to milk the sabbatical cow. They managed to insert the following language in the Mahinda Chintana II: “I will enact necessary legislation to facilitate lecturers and executive staff in the Universities to work as consultants in Government Ministries, Departments or Corporations and Statutory Boards during their Sabbatical Leave.”

No one asks why this should be done while on sabbatical. Why not give conditional no-pay leave, like in all university systems? This is how I first came to work in government in Sri Lanka, on no-pay leave.

The downward spiral will not end without a drastic solution.

The solution

Asia’s greatest university, Nalanda (427-1197 CE), Europe’s first university, Bologna (1158 CE- present) and the first university in the United States, Harvard (1636 CE – present) and many of the world’s greatest universities emerged from religious settings. It is therefore appropriate to look to religious context for guidance on how to reform the university system.

The solution lies in the bringing of upasampada from Thailand (Siam) and Burma (Ramanna and Amarapura). If we model ourselves on how the sasana was restored in the 18th Century, we may yet be able to create real universities in this country.

Lord Buddha set out strict rules for ordination of monks. Five monks in good standing are needed to ordain a monk. In the time of the Kandyan kings, it was not possible to find five such monks. The Most Ven. Velivita Siri Saranankara Thero (1698-1778), the last Sangaraja, emerged in this setting.

He did not take the easy route of defining away the problem and making do with five Ganninanses. He persuaded King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-82) to seek the assistance of the King of Thailand to send learned monks to establish the upasampada in Sri Lanka.

All had to go through studies and necessary steps in order to be ordained as monks, irrespective of age and seniority. The decisions were made by the Ven Upali Thero and the other Thai monks. There may have been the usual objections to foreign influence, but the leadership of the Sangharaja overrode those petty objections. We still call the order thus established by Ven. Upali, the Siam Nikaya.

This is what is needed to put the Sri Lankan universities right. A faculty” reset.”

Highly qualified, foreign faculty must be recruited for each of the disciplines and given the authority to interview and place the current faculty in positions commensurate with their qualifications, output and productivity (or direct them to gainful employment elsewhere). They would also oversee the reform of university curricula, internal procedures, and of course, incentive structures (of which more later).

Ideally, resources would be available to give remedial training to the willing seniors in the same way Upali Thero remediated the Ganninanses. Once this “reset” has been completed, the modern equivalents of the Upali Thero may depart, hopefully having contributed to the transformation of the dysfunctional culture of the universities in conjunction with other necessary reforms.

A variant would be to recruit the “reset teams” from among the many Sri Lankans teaching at reputable universities abroad. While this will assuage nationalistic sentiments, it is sub-optimal.

When career- and life-changing decisions are made, it is best that they be done in the most transparent manner by the most objective of decision makers. However eminent our expatriate faculty may be, there will always be suspicion that they were influenced in one way or another. It is best that the reset button be under the control of those who have no old-school or family ties with the affected parties.

This is not the only remedial action that is necessary to restore the higher educational system to the level that existed in the post-independence period, if not to the glory of the Nalanda-Taxila-Abhayagiri-Vikramashila era, when South Asia was the intellectual powerhouse of the world. But without this critical action, no other reforms are likely to succeed.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.