By Chathuri Dissanayake and Isuri Kaviratne
As student clashes and student-management disputes increase in the State universities, the quality and standard of the local universities was being questioned with university academic activities being disrupted regularly and campuses hit by academic staff shortages.
This week Rajarata University students launched a hunger strike demanding improvement to basic amenities such as hostel facilities and provision of lecturers and lecture halls. Last week’s clashes between Arts and Science faculty students in the Colombo University resulted in hospitalization of two students prompting the authorities to close the two faculties for the week. The Arts-Science student dispute in Kelaniya University ended with the Police arresting one student while the University of Visual and Performing Arts was closed for academic studies at the beginning of the year for nearly 100 days.
These are few of the instances where university academic activities have been disrupted during the year. In addition to the disruption of academic activities State universities face a bleak future as they are short of the basic necessities to deliver a degree such as lecturers, teaching material and infrastructure.
The Rajarata, Wayamba and Sabaragamuwa universities face an acute shortage of lecturers. The only Aesthetic University in Sri Lanka doesn’t have basic equipment and also face the common problem of lack of lecturers. Common to all universities is the shortage of hostels. In Moratuwa alone, only 20 per cent of 4,446 students have access to hostel facilities. The lack of proper canteens and high price tags has also plagued the university students.
Time and again students have strongly voiced their opinion against the lack of a proper education policy in the country as many claim this to be the cause of the current situation. The shortcomings have prompted the students to resort to forcible and violent means of voicing their demands.
“The future of this country depends on education, not war. We should have a national policy on education,” University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman Prof. Gamini Samaranayake said. An estimated 2,000 university students took to the streets last week and marched to the UGC premises at Ward Place, Colombo 7 carrying placards and posters. Among the issues raised by the students, the protest against private universities took centre stage while demands for basic facilities such as hostels, lecture halls and other basic resources were strongly voiced.
They charged that the newly established para-medical courses at the Peradeniya and Colombo Universities and the medical faculty of the Rajarata University had no proper plans for the future. “The board of the Peradeniya University para-medical faculty has postponed the new intake of students for six months and the Colombo para-medical faculty has not been legally established. The fisheries faculty board of the Ruhuna University has decided not to admit any students to the faculty this year,” Inter-university Students’ Federation (IUSF) convener Duminda Nagamuwa said.
The IUSF charged that the Vice Chancellors of the relevant universities maintained silence when the issues were raised by the student bodies. Mr. Nagamuwa disagreed with the popular notion that the university degrees should cater to the job market. He said the scope of courses offered should be widened to enhance the skills of the undergraduates. The undergraduates were compelled to follow extra courses such as CIMA and AAT as the subject area of the degree offered has not been broadened, he said.
However under the regulations the UGC can only propose the course units. It was up to the universities to form the syllabus. According to the IUSF the latest additions to the local university cluster – the University of Visual and Performing Arts – which is housed at five different locations has no theatre, auditorium, art gallery or camera equipment. It was said that the dance faculty does not even have sufficient drums and the music faculty does not even own a CD player.
Mr. Nagamuwa told The Sunday Times this situation was common to most universities. The Government allocates only 2.5 % of the national budget for all education services but the standard percentage is said to be 6%. This means the money allocated was enough only to maintain the existing facilities and not to develop or expand them so as to increase the student intake or improve the quality of the degrees offered.
This year a clear 20% has been deducted from all Government budgetary allocations. This situation has led some universities renting out their buildings and other facilities to earn an income to cover at least the basic maintenance cost. “The Treasury releases only part of the money which has been allocated even after deducting the 20%. Thus effectively the universities get only 50% of the money allocated. The VCs waste their time going from office to office trying to get the money released,” said Mr. Nagamuwa.
As a result, the Colombo and Peradeniya Universities have taken to hiring out of their playgrounds to earn revenue. When the students of the Colombo University protested against this, the VC threatened to cut funding for sports activities. However, now students and the authorities have come to an amicable solution.
The Ruhuna University has gone one step further by hiring out the medical faculty auditorium. The recent clash between the students of the medical faculty and the administration was due the board decision to rent out faculty lecture halls, which decision has now been rescinded. Prof. Samaranayake said the UGC was planning to expand the intake and introduce more programmes but there the availability of lecturers, resources and infrastructure was a handicap.
He admitted that infrastructure for IT was not sufficient, and thus the UGC was unable to increase the intake even though there was a demand for IT professionals. The acute lack of lecturers especially in the Rajarata, Wayamba, and Sabaragamuwa Universities was attributed to the reluctance of lecturers to go to such universities as they were far from Colombo.
Prof. Samaranayake said, according to recent statistics, nearly 80 staff members did not return to the country after going abroad.
“Senior lecturers retire and junior lecturers go abroad without filling the vacancies”, he said. He admitted that since the country was Colombo-centered most lecturers do not want to go to any outstation universities. The IUSF claimed the situation had arisen as the payment made to visiting lecturers was not sufficient.
Currently there are close to 20,000 unemployed local graduates in the country, according to the unemployed graduates union president Sujith Kuruwita. Mr. Kuruwita said there should be an effective change in the entire system to reduce unemployment in the country. The economy has no room to absorb the graduates and the labour force that enters the economy each year.
Prof. Samaranayake said some courses like medicine, engineering and law are job-oriented but others are academic courses. Though some students blame the university courses they follow as the cause for their failure to get proper jobs, it is not the university but society and the economy that is at fault, he said.
“We hope to introduce an IT course for the Arts students after they sit their degree exam. It would be a three-month course till they get their results,” Prof. Samaranayake said. Mr. Nagamuwa said that even though the Government gives the lack of computer literacy and fluency in English as reasons for graduate unemployment, it was Government’s responsibility to provide such an education in State universities. The VCs of the Peradeniya and Rajarata universities were unavailable for comment while the Colombo University VC declined to comment.