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The controversy surrounding private higher educational institutions

6 December 2013 04:44 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Na­du­ni Jaya­singhe

Mar­tin Lu­ther King, the lead­er of the Afro-Amer­i­can Civ­il Rights move­ment once said, “Change doesn’t roll on the wheels of in­evi­ta­bil­ity but comes through continued struggle."

 Private educational institutions and campuses in Sri Lanka operate amid the dawn of change and the resulting controversy. There are opposing views and arguments by advocates on both sides. While some see private univertisies as a blessing to the Sri Lankan economy and to students, others are less optimistic and are gung ho about state institutions be­ing the on­ly means of high­er ed­u­ca­tion.

Amid such in­tense con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing these in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es in the coun­try, Pro­fes­sor Ksha­ni­ka Hir­im­bur­e­ga­ma, the Chair­per­son of the Uni­ver­si­ty Grants Com­mis­sion (UGC) claim­ed that non state high­er ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es broad­ened the ave­nues of ac­cess for stu­dents to ed­u­ca­tion and there­by strength­en­ing the back­bone of a coun­try.

“Ed­u­ca­tion is a right of all citi­zens. Ed­u­ca­tion calls for pri­mary, sec­on­dary, post and life­long learn­ing. Right now, state uni­ver­si­ties ca­ter to about 15% of stu­dents who sit the GCE Ad­vanced Lev­el Ex­ami­na­tion. Out of some 50,000 uni­ver­si­ty ap­pli­cants, on­ly about 25,000 are for­tu­nate to gain uni­ver­si­ty en­trance. Thus, there is a risk that suf­fi­cient pro­fes­sio­nals will not be pro­duced to meet the fu­ture needs of a rap­id­ly de­vel­op­ing coun­try,” Prof. Hir­im­bur­e­ga­ma said.

She said it was there­fore nec­es­sa­ry to es­tab­lish non-state uni­ver­si­ties which would func­tion un­der tight qual­i­ty as­sur­ance and su­per­vi­sion in the coun­try.

“It is of­ten de­ba­ted that non state uni­ver­si­ties chal­lenge so­cial jus­tice in the coun­try. How­ev­er, at pres­ent the tough com­pe­ti­tion faced by stu­dents at the GCE A/L ex­am tar­get­ing state uni­ver­si­ty en­trance has opened up the trend for ‘tui­tion classes’. Tui­tion classes de­mand huge amounts of mon­ey on an an­nu­al ba­sis. This makes us ques­tion wheth­er the state uni­ver­si­ty en­trance is in con­form­i­ty with so­cial jus­tice,” she add­ed.

Mean­while, Pro­fes­sor Nar­a­da War­na­soor­iya, the for­mer vice chan­cel­lor of Sri Jaya­war­da­ne­pura Uni­ver­si­ty ech­oed Prof. Hir­im­bur­e­ga­ma’s sen­ti­ments say­ing that pri­vate high­er ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es im­proved the ed­u­ca­tion­al op­por­tu­ni­ties for a large num­ber of de­serv­ing stu­dents who were de­prived of an op­por­tu­ni­ty be­cause of var­i­ous rea­sons like af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion of the dis­trict and dis­ad­van­tag­ed by the quo­ta sys­tem.

“How­ev­er, I can’t say that pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties of­fer a su­pe­ri­or qual­i­ty of ed­u­ca­tion when com­pared with state uni­ver­si­ties. Si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly, the ma­jor­i­ty of pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties are clear­ly in­fe­ri­or in terms of learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment, teach­er qual­i­ty and strin­gen­cy of as­sess­ment when com­pared with for­eign uni­ver­si­ties they are af­fili­ated to,” he said.

Prof. War­na­soor­iya poin­ted out that the sig­nif­i­cant su­pe­ri­or­i­ty of pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents over those at state uni­ver­si­ties was the com­pe­ten­cy in Eng­lish, spe­cial­ly spo­ken Eng­lish. He al­so high­ligh­ted the op­por­tu­ni­ty to save val­ua­ble for­eign ex­change as one of the ma­jor ad­van­tag­es of pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties. On the oth­er side of this de­bate, the Fed­er­a­tion of Uni­ver­si­ty Teach­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion (FU­TA) is strict­ly op­posed to pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties.

FU­TA Pres­i­dent Dr. Nir­mal De­va­siri ar­gued that the de­grees awar­ded by Pri­vate high­er ed­u­ca­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es were on­ly by-prod­ucts of ide­al uni­ver­si­ty de­grees.

“The main es­sence of uni­ver­si­ty ed­u­ca­tion is re­search and gen­er­a­tion of knowl­edge. Mush­room­ing pri­vate high­er ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es are mere­ly prof­it-ori­en­ted busi­ness­es that sat­is­fy the peo­ple’s need for pure­ly a qual­i­fi­ca­tion that is used as a sta­tus sym­bol,” he said.

Dr. De­va­siri said it was not nec­es­sa­ry to pro­duce de­gree hold­ers out of ev­ery citi­zen in the coun­try. He said that job seek­ers re­quired skills-based train­ing, which was en­tire­ly dif­fer­ent­ly from the serv­ices pro­vi­ded by aca­dem­ics.

He said many pri­vate high­er ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tutes and cam­pus­es were af­fili­ated to uni­ver­si­ties abroad be­cause they nee­ded prop­er uni­ver­si­ties which could cer­ti­fy the de­grees they of­fered.

There is no de­ny­ing that stu­dents are the cen­tral fo­cus of the con­tro­ver­sy.

In­ter Uni­ver­si­ty Stu­dents Fed­er­a­tion (IUSF) Pres­i­dent San­jee­wa Ban­dara ar­gued that pri­vate high­er ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tutes and cam­pus­es de­fied the so­cial right to ed­u­ca­tion.

“Pri­vate high­er ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es charge a lump sum from ap­pli­cants. Thus, these in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es have turned out to ben­e­fit a se­lec­t crowd of peo­ple called the weal­thy mid­dle­class. There­fore, these in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es vi­o­late the equal right to ed­u­ca­tion of ev­ery citi­zen dis­crim­i­nat­ing them on the ground of wealth,” he said. “The main aim of ed­u­ca­tion should be ad­vanc­ing the hu­man civ­i­li­za­tion and ach­iev­ing so­cial de­vel­op­ment. Yet, pri­vate high­er ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es seek prof­it. Hence, we call them de­gree shops that in­jure the well-be­ing of so­ci­ety and the pro­gres­sion of hu­man civ­i­li­za­tion.”How­ev­er not all stu­dents shared this view. Poor­na Jaya­sun­dara, a stu­dent study­ing at a pri­vate cam­pus, re­vealed that pri­vate high­er ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es were su­pe­ri­or in in­fra­struc­ture when com­pared with state uni­ver­si­ties.

“As Pri­vate high­er ed­u­ca­tion cam­pus­es and in­sti­tu­tions of­fer a wide range of ed­u­ca­tion­al fa­cili­ties, learn­ing and teach­ing pro­cess­es can be car­ried out more ef­fec­tive­ly. At the same time, these in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es do not en­cour­age po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ty thus cre­at­ing a peace­ful en­vi­ron­ment for stu­dents to car­ry out their stud­ies,” she said.

Na­ta­liya Hew­age, an­oth­er stu­dent study­ing at a pri­vate cam­pus said the es­tab­lish­ment of pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties might re­duce the num­ber of stu­dents seek­ing ed­u­ca­tion­al op­por­tu­ni­ties abroad. She said many stu­dents who went abroad adopted the west­ern cul­ture de­fy­ing the aura of a Sri Lan­kan. She said as such these in­sti­tu­tions and cam­pus­es would con­trib­ute to­wards the pres­er­va­tion of the Sri Lan­kan cul­ture.

This is­sue is not about pleas­ing one side or the oth­er. It is not about vic­to­ry for one par­ty and a loss for an­oth­er. There­fore, in the midst of all the con­tro­ver­sy, what is most im­por­tant is to take a de­ci­sion which ben­e­fits the stu­dents upon whose ed­u­ca­tion de­pends our fu­ture.
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