Sri Lanka’s paper degrees and learning culture

May 08, 2008 (LBO) – As an educator, I have found the economic transaction at the heart of education to be deeply problematic. If I was selling bread, and gave the customer less than what she paid for, she’d be outraged and haul me before the Consumer Protection Authority, if not worse.

When in the course of “selling” education, I cancel a class without giving a makeup, my “customers” do not complain; they are overjoyed and begin to think I’m a nice guy, after all. So I never do.
What is this weird transaction?

Let’s take “free” education, where educational services are paid for by third parties (no, Virginia, there is no free lunch), off the table, though I can extend the argument to “free” education too.

Let’s take the for-fee MBA programs offered by local universities as the base case. Let us also compare these local degrees with the multiplicity of “MBA”s offered by various foreign universities in Sri Lanka.

Perverse transaction

I taught at one of the MBA courses offered by a local university. I was utterly frustrated because my students would not do any reading that I assigned; they would not spend time in libraries or search data bases. In my book, relying solely on what went on during class time is not education.

Based on the assumption that human beings have good reasons for deviating from good behavior, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about the demands on their time. Making reasonable assumptions about how much time a person has to spend at work (40 hours a week), how much time they need for sleep (56 hours a week), how much time they need spend on travel, and so on, I concluded that the 12 or so hours of in-class time the university expected of them on weekends and evenings left them with zero time for reading and library use.

My students were not being obdurate. They could not read, given the multiple demands on their time. My fight had to be with the university, not with the students.

I talked to course administrators about the problem and got nowhere. They were insecure about themselves and were not willing to reduce class time or to increase the time it took to graduate. So I gave up expecting my students to read and scour the Internet for relevant information or do the other kinds of things I used to expect routinely from my students in the US and the Netherlands. I held my nose and taught; I gritted my teeth and graded.

The Deal

Why would students pay good money for this kind of sub-standard “education”? The answer is simple. They were not paying for education; they were paying for a degree, a piece of paper, a certificate.

The “deal” was this. The students would pay the fees and turn up for most of the classes and the exams. The instructors would pocket the money (not much; but every little bit counts, these days); fill class time with teaching; and not grade too hard at the exams. The university would take its cut and not ask too many questions.

It was like Soviet Russia where the workers pretended to work and the apparatchiks running the factories pretended to pay them. That lasted for 70 years; this unholy equilibrium can last longer.

After some ritual activity, the students would be given degrees. They would be happy. The university lecturers would be happy because this allowed them to supplement their incomes; and maybe even the visiting lecturers would be happy, if not with the piddling payments, with the “glory” of being able to say they taught at a “university.”

It can’t get worse . . .

But it does.

Disillusioned, I gave up teaching in Sri Lanka. But there is no peace for the wicked. I had multiple requests for help with theses for degrees offered by foreign universities in Sri Lanka.


In one conversation with a MBA student, I happened to ask how many students were being supervised by the supervisor. Forty, I was told. Things are worse; much worse than anything the Sri Lanka universities dish out.

How can a human being holding down a full time job supervise 40 MBA theses in his spare time? I lose sleep over two; and feel I am not giving enough input to the students writing the theses.

“In the course of this degree program, have you read a book related to the subject from beginning to end,” I ask. No, I am told. Same answer I’d have gotten in the program I taught in.

“Why do you pay good money for this s**t,” I ask. I know the answer; what the student is paying for is a degree, not an education. “Why don’t you just cut the crap and buy yourself a degree on the Internet,” I ask; “Takes only two weeks, just enough to make sure the credit card payment goes through.”

“Are those degrees accepted,” I am asked. If yes, I’ll buy, is the implication.

Now we get to the heart of the problem. Why do employers allow this charade to continue? Why don’t they get together and specify what minimum standards must be met for degrees to be accepted for promotion, recruitment, etc.?

The collapse of the Soviet system began when large numbers of East German citizens said this is enough; packed their Trabis with their goods and pets and just left. When will the firms that are being subject to this elaborate fraud say “this is enough”? When will the charade end?

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