Sri Lanka universities live up to their billing: Reject PhDs and hire non-PhDs

Dec 24, 2010 (LBO) – In a recent column on the failure of Sri Lankan universities, I said that: 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.

This charge has been proved by the recent news story in Ravaya about how the Department of Sociology at University of Peradeniya disregarded the applications of 3 persons with PhDs and hired non-PhD applicants instead. I am not interested in the nuances of whether or not the letter of the law was followed. The problem lies deeper.

It lies in the people who draft and implement the procedures: the current “big dogs” who want to safeguard their positions by admitting only weaklings. I am not claiming that the current “big dogs” are actually big; they were weaklings hired by their predecessors. They are merely keeping up with tradition and are by most standards, weak themselves (the evidence on the lack of quality in Sri Lankan universities, especially in humanities and the social sciences, was presented in previous columns).

Half-way house

I was invited to speak at IIT Delhi (one of the two South Asian universities that made it into top 200 of the Times Higher Education rankings) recently and took the opportunity to ask them how they were handling the problems caused by the ill-considered 2008 decision to expand the number of IITs, IIMs and central universities (http://pib.nic.in/release/release.asp?relid=36955).

In any market, if the demand is increased without addressing supply constraints and under price control, the result has to be a decrease in quality. This is what the central government in India did by creating eight new IITs, seven new IIMs and many central universities at the stroke of a pen. But I was impressed by the response from a faculty member who had just happened to have gotten off the phone talking to an international applicant for a faculty position.

I was told that the doors had been flung open for foreign faculty hiring. Interviews were being conducted on video links and where possible airfares were being paid for face-to-face interviews. Indians who had given up citizenships were said to be the easiest to recruit, but I was told that even non-Indians, including a Sri Lankan or two, were in the running for new positions, not only in the newly created IITs, but even in the old established ones like IIT Delhi.

It appears that at least some Indian academics are trying to do the right thing to give the students attending their universities a good education, despite the best efforts of their government.

They have not got all the details right. The non-Indians were being offered five-year renewable contracts. Nothing wrong with that, as long as five-year contracts are the norm for all. If Indian citizens are offered something better than five-year contracts, the non-Indians are being treated as second-class faculty. They are still looking at performance in the first degree as a factor, not at overall research productivity and teaching skills as the sole criteria.

They are yet to institute the “no-incest” rule that is the norm in North America. For those who wonder why one has to impose rules against incest in North American universities, a clarification is in order. The reference to incest is purely metaphorical.

To hire one’s own graduates is described as incest and a bad thing. Hiring the graduates of other universities increases the quality of the “gene pool” by bringing in new ideas and new ways of looking at problems. It reduces vulnerability to the diseases of small-mindedness and group thinking.

No incest, at least?

In contrast, incest is the rule in Sri Lankan universities: they hire only their own acolytes, except in unusual circumstances. No wonder that our universities are lacking in new ideas and are rife with small mindedness.

So it seems that there are solutions to the problem of poor quality in university faculty, short of the “reboot” solution that I have proposed which is considered by some to be radical (http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20101217222537640).

Does anyone within the university system have any interest in debating these moderate options at least?

No incest, at least? Relook at the subverted-beyond-recognition sabbatical rules?

Or is all so fine in la la land that no remedial action is required?

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.