Kuppi Classes


Posted on August 14, 2006  /  12 Comments

From what I have heard, the term Kuppi classes refers to group-tutoring offered in the universities by senior students to juniors. These classes may even take the place of regular classes for some students, because, as the seniors are said to advice the juniors, there is no reason to attend lectures and get the ‘same old same old’ when that ‘same old’ can be spoon-fed by senior students from their previous year’s notes. There is also the notion that these classes are ways of winning over the juniors for political purposes, explaining why seniors find time to do this.

I first learnt about the phenomenon early this year at a symposium on undergraduate education when some colleagues from the University of Peradeniya mentioned it. Later somebody suggested that the origin of the word may have something to do with filling up little bottles (kuppi = little bottle). I made further inquiries came up with the starting paragraph, but then, a young friend, a student from U of Kelaniya, said, for him the expression means any situation where students study together. He thinks the term may come from the image of late night burning of kuppi lampu, small kerosene oil lamps.

What is the real etymology of the phrase? Will that tell us something about the phenomenon?

What are the realties that underlie the phenomenon of “Kuppi classes”? Is it nothing more than self-help among students, or is there a widespread disdain for educators and a tuition culture, albeit with different economics, has taken root in higher education?

What really goes on in our universities?

For example, what is the learning environment like?

LEARNING ENVIRONMENT

All in all we have very few indicators. I was a teacher in the university system only for a short while, that too just before 1988-89, the tumultuous years that re-redefined the university culture, I think. What I hear now are anecdotes. Where is the data?

The Quality Assurance and Accreditation agency that was set up recently by the IRQUE project is making the rounds in the universities evaluating the quality of teaching– discipline by discipline—and the information is made available on their web site (http://www.qaacouncil.lk/). A cursory glance showed most departments receiving a passing grade with a rare department receiving an unsatisfactory in one of out of 8 factors considered. In the small world of the Sri Lankan university system it would be no mean task for a group of reviewers to give even that kind of marginal negative feedback to a set of colleagues in another university. I would not devalue the process of quality assurance, but I would not hold my breath in expectation of meaningful assessments either.

Inputs and outputs are better bets.

First what do we know about the outputs, the graduates?

THE GRADUATES

It is popularly believed that our graduates are ill prepared for the world of work. There are surprisingly few systematic studies to support this notion, although there are plenty of anecdotes. All anecdotes may refer to the same slice of the graduate population and we may not have the full picture. The chamber of commerce is supposed to have done a survey of employers sometime back, but when we inquired, they were hesitant to call it a proper study and were not keen to provide the data or the analysis.

Lack of employable skills in our graduates is a major driver behind the IRQUE project, the $50 million project to improve the relevance and quality of undergraduate education. To my knowledge there were no systematic studies in their technical preparation for the project.

We need tracer studies and employer surveys carried out at regular intervals. The labour market initiative of the IRQUE project has plans for one, with big bucks behind the plans, but I am not holding my breath.

INPUTS

I find inputs more interesting simply because we can identify and even quantify them better.

Input problems probably begin as early as ages 5-9. There was a short clip on TV recently (aug 12th evening news?) showing tots sitting for their grade 5 scholarship. They looked so serious and tense. Imagine the pressure. Imagine the process of learning that preceded this moment of truth in their lives. Once I overheard a 9-year old studying for the scholarship exam. Her half-hour session with an adult was a recitation of all the synonyms and acronyms that anybody ever did not need to know. A colleague in the university who is a dedicated teacher said that she can get about 40% of the students in her freshmen class to think critically at the end of the first year, if she worked very hard. Are the goods already damaged?

But, enough anecdotes. Do we have any hard data?

Quality of entering students

We know that the universities admit students above a certain Z-score received at the GCE (A/L) exam, but can they think? Do they read? What do they read? How many of them are they able to read a scholarly article in English? Do they care?

Recently there was a testing of English skills across the university system involving students where a sample of students was given the City & Guilds ESOL and SESOL tests (English/Spoken English for Speakers of Other Languages). The results of the survey are not meant for public consumption probably because the survey was preliminary and the sampling not too scientific. However, Skills International, the company that conducted the tests, kindly gave us an executive summary of the results.

About 40% of the students in the sample were judged to have the ‘ability to understand & express requirements accurately with an appreciable range to follow a university program in English effectively’ with the percentage varying by academic stream (Arts, 29% and Science, 57%). Almost all others in the sample were judged to have ‘the potential to upgrade their competency’. I see the glass as half-full.

We need more systematic surveys of university students to learn about their knowledge, skills attitudes and concerns. I am familiar with two surveys that are done by the universities in the US (Freshmen survey and the College Student Survey, respectively, coordinated by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) located at UCLA-University of California in Los Angeles)

Surveys are costly but our students are worth it. Decisions should not be made on the basis of slogans of a few students or anecdotes shared at cocktail parties or even education seminars. We can’t wait for the school system to fix itself. In the universities we get a chance to work with a selected group. Why not work with them and try to fix education from the top?

Quality of teachers

If I were to fancy getting one issue to throw money at, I would pick continuing education for university faculty. Yes, our universities are generous with sabbaticals. All senior staff, academic and non-academic, are entitled to sabbaticals. (To my knowledge, no where else in the world will a university send its registrars, fiscal officers and other senior administrators on paid time off for pseudo-sabbaticals. That is another matter.)

Yet the majority of students in the arts and humanities are taught by teachers who effectively have no more than a bachelors degree. Many acquire a masters degree from the same department from which they graduated and call it a day. We did a comprehensive study on the quality of Arts and humanities faculty in our universities. The publication will be out soon. In the meantime I’ll close with quote by an educator who said:

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

Stagnant pools and Kuppi classes–may be there is a connection.

12 Comments


  1. I’m not too qualified to comment on the system, I’m not attending local university,but in the recent months, I’ve had some exposure into the system, not from the perspective of a student but as something to the sort of a intern,academic and research.

    Commenting on the notion of ‘kuppi classes’, if they are tuition classes, it shouldnt be too surprising, our school system, be it local or london, is always supported with tuition classes,everyone goes for tuition classes, whether they are necessary or not;so it’s not a surprise if university students go somewhere for some extra coaching, because by the time we come to uni,tuition classes have been inculcated into our minds so much, that we have learnt to depend on them,we begin to ‘need’ them. In fact, I know people who terribly missed tuition classes once they went to university abroad.

    As for the training of skills such as critical thinking and being more uptodate with the current developments, I beg to differ. I think it’s slightly too late to train someone to think beyond the box when they come to university at the age of 19-20.It is imperative for the school system to be changed;it has to be induced to them at more younger age, so that they are in sync with it,by the time they come to university.This requires a vast allocation of funds to bring the resources to places outside of major cities like Colombo and Kandy.The student cannot be blamed for this at all.For most students in the rural areas, who strive to enter university, their classroom textbook and notes are all they have.Most of them do not have internet access and their libraries arent equipped with the latest science journals etc. Some of these schools do not have science teachers of OL standards, keep away science journals!

    Same thing with issues like the content of the Grade 5 scholarship exam,it should encourage kids to learn more uptodate affairs and science should be included to the test.(It’s been 10yrs since I last came across a Grade 5 scholarship paper, so this may be different now!) Introductions to very basic econ and comeputing skills wont hurt either.

    More than anything, it should test their general knowledge.Again, not a bunch of dates and names, but general awareness of today’s world.

    Making them learn pages and pages of acronyms that they will never use in real life, in whatever the situation doesnt do anybody any use. It should be an exam that will give them a stepping stone into a better school and therefore a better chance at the real world.

  2. I think both the descriptions of Kuppi classes are not correct.

    They are classes conducted immediately prior to examinations, by the members of the same batch (rather than seniors) who have studied and confident with their knowledge for the benefit of the others. The objective of these classes are not to “teach” anything as such, but to fill the minds of the students with some information (which most of the times they may not even understand) so that they can go to the examination and write something to get a simple pass.

    It is not unnatural for Sri Lankan university lecturers to “leak” more than half of the question paper before the exams. (usually there is a special session meant for this immediately before the exams) Lecturers have to do this because otherwise the students might not score well and that will badly reflect on the former. Sometimes “kuppi classes” are meant to discuss these questions.

    In the contemporary university sub-culture “kuppiya” is the name used for a student more intelligent/informative then the rest. (Kuppiya stands for brightness.) The classes are known as “kuppi classes” because they are conducted by the “kuppiyas”

    As for seniors conducting classes, I will be very surprised if a university student today (with the possible exception of medical students or some engineering/physical/bio students of some subject streams) remembers his/her stuff one year after an exams to the level to teach a batch of juniors. For them, subject matters are something to be studied (mugged) for the exams and to be forgotten the day after.

    Having said that, let me also acknowledge there are rare exceptions. I know a student at Peradeniya who is deeply interested in Quantum Physics and plans to be a Physics professor in future.

  3. Re: Private sector job opportunities for graduates

    I have enough practical experience in recruitment, while working for my former company.

    As a policy, we always went the last mile to get as much graduates to our team, but there were so many reasons that prevented us from doing so. Finally, out of the people I have involved in recruiting only about 10% were local graduates.

    1) None of the local graduates whom I have interviewed ever wanted to take a job in marketing. (There are always plenty of vacancies in marketing, in the private sector) However, invariably every graduate wanted a “technical” job and was not willing to take a challenge.

    2) The local graduates have either little or no practical experience on the type of the work we did. So we could only take them as trainees. The allowances for entry level trainees were in the range of Rs. 3,000 – 5,000. (This will change after six months or one year later, depending upon the performance to a higher level, say may be Rs. 10,000 – 20,000 or even more) Usually graduates wanted higher salaries, in spite of not having any experience and obviously could not be productive from the day one.

    3) Overall, graduates were not ready to take challenges and risks. The high school dropouts (especially those from Colombo schools) were always ready to take challenges and risks, and flexible, so they obviously got the preference.

    4) Some of the graduates were already married (even before getting a job) and expected high salaries. So there was no way we could accommodate them.

    5) English knowledge was not all that good in case of local graduates. (But we were prepared to overlook this.) PC literacy was usually okay with every one of them.

    So it is not just a question of lack of knowledge per say. It is a more complicated issue.

    To summarise what I can say is most of the entry level jobs at the private sector are (perhaps unconsciously) designed for high school dropouts.

    So, if graduates wanted to enter the private sector they have to either;

    (a) Forget they are graduates, bite the bullet and go through the process (as I myself have done) or
    (b) Have some sort of practical experience before they apply for the jobs

    There is no other way they can beat the system.

  4. Comments from a young friend:

    Kuppi? Well, to my understanding, it’s mostly used in reference to
    revision classes that take place close to exams. It doesn’t really
    mean “seniors teaching juniors,” although it _could_ be used in that
    nature. Maybe it originally had a narrow meaning like that.

    As far as I know though, it currently means a revision class of any a
    kind. As in, even group study classes are often referred to as kuppi.

    For example, a batch mate might tell me – “Exam uth langay, heta
    kuppiyak damuda?”.

    Another use is where a kid gives another student individual help in a
    certain subject. Like, if someone is doing particularly well in a
    certain course, another student might ask him/her – “Mata ara anthima
    kotasa therenney nae bung, kuppiyak deepang ko.”

    Of course, the seniors-teaching-juniors meaning is also still present.
    Close to exams you will see posters from the various Student Councils
    with dates for kuppi for each subject. These are usually taught by
    seniors.

    To sum up, I’d say the semantic meaning of ‘kuppi’ is pretty wide, and
    encompasses just about any study class on campus.

    One thing I haven’t seen however is what you mentioned at the end of
    our conversation yesterday – that seniors tell kids that the stuff
    taught in class is “old” and that they need to come for kuppi to be
    taught current stuff.

    Maybe this is campus specific, because I’ve never heard/seen this KLN
    at all. In general, be it seniors or juniors, everyone is trying hard
    to keep up with the workload, and any kuppi that take place are just
    hurried revision classes closer to exams. I doubt that seniors have
    the time or energy to keep up a continuous kuppi for juniors, let
    alone find them ‘newer’ information than the Faculty can. 🙂

    Oh, and you obviously know this, but just thought I’d make sure –
    etymologically, kuppi was probably coined from ‘kuppi lampuwa,’ the
    universal (at least in the universe of Sri Lanka 🙂 symbol of
    studying. Interestingly, the term doesn’t seem to have existed in the
    undergraduate vocabulary when my parents were in university.

  5. Chanuka’s comments about private sector job opportunities for graduates are still anecdotal but give us some guidelines for designing a good survey.

    His comments also support the analysis of Dr. G Usvatte-aratchi that there is a limit to the number of graduates that our economy can absorb at this point. Is that true for IT, though? According to a SLICTA survey of employers, there is a significant gap between the demand and supply for IT graduates, more demand than supply. More on that in a later post on the job market for graduates.

  6. Dr. G Usvatte-aratchi is not the only economist in our country, who professes negative feelings about the private sector.

    Is there a limit to the number of graduates we can absorb to the private sector?

    I do not think the situation can be generalised so easily. The number of graduates that can be absorbed to the private sector at any moment depends on how fast the private sector grows at any point.

    After 1990s, the Sri Lankan banking sector grew fast and many graduates find good jobs in banks. The same happened in the apparel sector. Not many people know that a large number of graduates work in the apparel sector, not in the factory floor, but in the offices, as IT support staff, procurement officers, accounting officers etc.

    Of course, nobody can expect the private sector to do blunders like giving jobs for 40,000+ graduates, without checking for their skills, and for vacancies that never existed in the first place. No private company wants to be an inefficient yet huge dinosaur as the government. After all, business is not charity.

    Very briefly these are some of the things various parties can do, if they want more graduates finding jobs in the private sector.

    Government:

    1. Stop the war.
    2. Introduce and implement reforms.
    3. Let the private sector grow. (So there will be enough job opportunities)

    Universities:

    1. Change their syllabi to suit the needs of the industry better.
    2. Maintain close links with the industry. (Computer Science and Eng. Dept. of Moratuwa University already does this.)
    3. Encourage students to work as interns in the private sector so they will not go for the interviews as “fresh graduates” who knows nothing about the industry. (Management faculty of the J’pura University already does this.)
    4. In addition to the regular staff, always get visiting lecturers from the industry to teach students (So students will have a feeling about the industry)
    5. Do not limit the teaching just to theory. Teach students how to survive in the competitive job market

    Students themselves:

    1. Change their negative attitudes towards the private sector
    2. Improve English and IT literacy
    3. Work with private sector closely even while studying. Use their free time to work for a company, instead of organising strikes, attending protests and beating other student groups.
    4. Most importantly, have a goal. (If a student aims to work in a bank, there is less point in doing Chemistry as a subject)
    5. Do not think degree is everything. Do external examinations like CIMA, CCNA, BCS etc. These will be very helpful as additional qualifications.
    6. Get out of the mind set that someone else there is waiting to give a job, just because a student has a degree. It is a competition and if everyone has a degree, the one with most additional qualifications win.

    Computer Science and Engineering Department of Moratuwa University has a history of getting jobs for ALL its graduates, even before they are passed out. I agree that IT is a growing field, but if everyone else try, there is no way that they will fail.

  7. How kuppi was defined to me:
    Someone (senior, peer, even junior (yes, I knew of a couple of cases)) who held the light for others to find their way out of the darkness. The light was a kuppi lampuwa, characteristic of campus lingo. Seems like the term has gradually generalized over the years.

    I fully agree with Chanuka’s steps for the govt.

  8. Please also have a look at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4793311.stm. Kaushik Basu speaks about India’s faltering education system.

  9. Internships and additional professional qualifications are fine but those do not absolve the universities from the crime of perpetuating a kuppi-class culture (by which I mean a culture where a degree is reduced to success at cramming). The quality of the academic staff is the key, I think.

    True, the IT and management faculties are more loosely linked with the world of work. Those links are more difficult with the arts and sciences (A&S) where we are still producing about 50% of the graduates. The ratio of arts and science to other degrees has changed over time with the universities giving out more professional degrees, especially management degrees.

    In any event, the universities can not continue have a kuppi class culture and expect the industry to do the actual education of students. A&S education (or a liberal arts education as they say in the US), can be a good preparation for life, but much depends on the teachers. Academic staff in sciences has the PhDs and all but they themselves need to be trained in the art of education, before they educate their students. The staff development units are key in this regard and they are actually making a difference from what I have seen.

    In the Arts faculties, the qualifications of the academic staff is a real serious issue. Our study shows that 23% do not have any post-graduate qualifications. Of the 50% with masters as the highest qualification almost all are local masters degrees with close to half being masters from the same university. These teachers are often people who are themselves products of a kuppi-class education experience and I am sure they have spent all their lives either taking exams or giving exams.

    There are close to 1000 academic staff in arts and another 1500 in sciences. Investments in the continuing education and real-life (private sector) exposure to these individuals are the true leverage points in higher education reform, I think.

  10. This takes us back to the age old question.

    What should be the role of the universities of this country today?

    Is it to produce the workforce required in the job market of tomorrow or is it purely to make scholars, without giving any regard to the demands of the job market?

    If it is former, there is no point in producing a large number of Arts and Science graduates who cannot match the available vacancies in the job market. If government (=universities) continues to produce this high number of Arts and Science graduates nobody should question why the private sector cannot absorb them. The private sector cannot simply because it does not need scholars who know only about Buddhist Civilization. There might be few vacancies for Science graduates, but that too is limited.

    The kuppi culture will remain as long as students do not see a direct correlation between what they study and what they may later use in their professional life.

    A Chemistry graduate, who might later work in a bank, does not use 99% of the stuff she had studied in the university. So it will be more convenient (and more productive) for her to cram the equations, write it for the paper and then forget all about it.

  11. Role of the universities?
    There are universities and universities but in this country and most of the developing world we don’t care to differentiate. The USA has one of the best differentiated systems. The 2005 US News& world Report ranked 1362 4-year degree granting institutions in USA. They were distributed as follows:

    Doctoral 248
    Liberal Arts 217
    Masters 573
    Professional 324

    The first two types are more oriented to producing scholar types who have majored in some Arts or Science subject and the latter two types more likely to graduate students with professional degrees directly geared to the work place. We once had a undergraduate in classics interning in our office. She had no trouble learning the ropes help us set up a database in Access. Scholars may not be trained for a job but they can be quick learners.

    Universities in Sri Lanka produce neither fish nor fowl. More like they take semi-atrophied minds and complete the process.

  12. I like to deal with this again and agian

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