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?
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?
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.
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.