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    Stature of our academia

    September 04, 2019

    (The Address by C. M. Madduma Bandara, Ph D (Cantab.), D Sc. (Hon.) Emeritus Professor, University of Peradeniya at the Postgraduate Convocation, Kelaniya University on August 27.)

    As a small country we cannot imitate or duplicate in toto of what happens in China or India or for that matter in US, UK or Europe. The challenge before us is to develop our own systems of education and governance and learn to live off our wits when it comes to dealings with bigger neighbours and more powerful nations. By ‘wits’ I mean, the development and use of our imaginative and inventive faculties to their maximum. But then, can we feel content with our present system of education both at school and university levels.

    I often wondered, as a small developing nation, whether we have paid adequate attention to identify and add value to the intellectually superior and the smartest young ones and to provide them with the best resources and facilities that we can afford, at both school and university levels to reach greater heights in serving our motherland and the world at large.

    Originally, it was such lofty ideals that were behind the free education movement around the time of national Independence (Kannangara Reforms, 1944). The ‘Double Promotion Schemes’, ‘Fifth Standard Scholarships’ and the screening processes at Eight Standard level, were some such strategies that became forgotten over the years or even discredited by the so called education pundits with socialist ideologies. There is hardly any doubt that, we have to open our windows absorb new ideas and trends of education world-wide, to be en par with them in every respect. But then, we have to address our own needs and go by the results of what had taken place particularly during the last 70 years after Independence.

    Our free education process in general that, permitted high literacy rates, compared with most other developing countries is well applauded here and overseas. In the higher education sector the numbers graduating from the universities, that increased significantly, have shown highly positive trends. The State University system has also expanded from a single university to over 15 today, with at least one university for each Province, although nearly half of them located in and around the Capital City. Unfortunately, while we can be proud of that ‘quantitative change’ can we by any means be complacent with the rate of their ‘quality improvement’.

    Realizing this situation, some attempts have been made by the higher education authorities, making heavy investments often through foreign assistance, on developing and testing improved mechanisms for ‘quality assurance’. However, observing the quality of some graduates with ‘first class honours’ from the universities, and on the staff side, considering the academic stature of some ‘new professors’ appointed in recent times, reasonable doubts arise as to whether the quantitative increases noted above match with any quality improvements achieved. It is our view that, higher education authorities have signally failed in ensuring matching quality improvements that, forms a vital part of their formal mandate. If anyone believes that, increased spending in recent years and the endless stream of circulars alone, can achieve this gigantic task, without courageously undertaking fundamental changes, it would be only a dream. Sometimes, the circulars – a necessary evil, also contribute to aggravate the situation. More or less the same criticism seem to hold true, when it comes to awarding Higher Degrees such as M Phils and Ph Ds. Governed by circular instructions. For instance, in some of some assessments, external examiners marks are urged to be treated as sacrosanct, and even when glaring discrepancies between them arise due to biases or non-adherence to marking schemes, they have to be often overlooked by the selection committees.

    The underlying argument here is that the country is now in a political and leadership crisis where the rulers proliferate with their own progenies creating a form of ‘neo-feudalism’. Even the available constitutional checks and balances are ignored and endless amendments to the constitution are considered as the panacea. The aspirations of the society to have an enlightened leadership are deceitfully circumvented by constant political manipulations. Some politicians display a variety of honourary degrees earned through dubious means, or even by way of concealment of their actual levels of achievement. I must hasten to add that, I am not saying that academic laurels alone are sufficient to produce an enlightened political leadership. In their absence, the path to leadership in our country depends largely on nepotism, cash outlays (often generated by dubious means), regional sentiments, college and social affiliations.

    It is contended here that, innovative educational approaches may have the potential to change the above situation significantly, through for example setting up superior training grounds for the most intelligent and the smartest young people, who must be treated as gems of our society. Giving awards and sometimes scholarships for the highest achievers alone is not sufficient, unless we provide them with superior training grounds on our own soil. In addition, such superior facilities can also become the breeding grounds for high level researchers in sciences and liberal arts, enabling us to reach greater heights of academic fame and prominence. Then only we can dream for the day when enlightened leaders as well as Nobel class scientists are no longer a rare phenomenon! It is conceded that, we cannot produce them as factory products, but it may be possible to prepare the necessary environments and paths towards achieving such noble aspirations by way of attracting the best talent in the country.

    Research Culture in the Seats of Higher Learning

    A cursory examination of our present university research community may reveal that, there are different types of academics whose research personas are distinctly different. In our own view, the ‘cream of the cream’ of our research community consists of academics who prefer to work in silence and present their hard earned findings at high level seminars, and conferences at national as well as international levels and eventually publish them in highly reputed journals here and abroad. This silent minority is hardly seen or heard, and often more well-known outside the country. They live away from the limelight and the hullabaloo of social media and power politics and often they have to be ‘discovered’!.

    Another category consists of academics who prefer to go to town hastily with their quick research outputs, even if their findings are flimsy and often piece-meal and sometimes questionable. They seem to like publicity than their research and often oblivious of social impacts of their actions. For instance some of them propound competing theories individually regarding the possible causes of the killer kidney disease, but shy to come for any round table discussion.

    There is also a third category who are half academics and half politicians. The research they do is often laced and tainted with ideological biases, and sometimes they come out of their academic garbs and enter the mainstream political arena directly. Some such academics who crossed the line that way, have not only ruined their own academic reputations, but also brought much disgrace to the academia in general, shamefully sacrificing their independence of thought.

    Another category consists of those who blatantly seek power and prestige at any cost, often appearing at political meetings, strikes, public agitations, padayatras and the like, with tacit hopes of securing powerful positions in the emerging Governments irrespective of their colour or political ideology. Apart from politics, some researchers who represent a fifth category, are hell-bent on earning more money through lucrative research projects and consultancies. In these uneasy environs, with admixtures of contrasting personalities, how the young researchers can be guided is challenging.

    In consonance with the changing circumstances some younger researchers have also evolved their own academic traits and strategies. Their focus often appears to be more on quantity than quality. This appears at least partly, as an unfortunate response to the endless promotional circulars and their stipulations emanating from higher authorities that indirectly promotes sacrificing quality. In this bizarre scenario one can occasionally observe academics who have produced over 100 research papers within amazingly short periods or who have written 10-15 ‘books’ within a span of a few years – to beat the stipulated promotional requirements!.

    Some place the blame for this prevailing unhealthy academic culture with the wider changes in the economy and the society, particularly after the adoption of free economic policies during the last few decades. At the same time, it may be observed that, the university system was relatively immune to the so called ‘privatization processes’, despite many socio-economic compulsions for them such as the massive outflow of private funds to other countries for educating the young, who could not enter the local universities.

    Unfortunately, their destinations many such persons include, some of our less developed neighbouring countries, where even the literacy rates are much lower, and the university standards are obviously poorer. But then, they offer Degrees that can be easily and quickly, although at lucrative rates. In recent times, this situation compelled the medical authorities to insist that external degree holders must re-qualify before they enter the practice in the national health services. In this controversial setting, ideological and political considerations need not prevail over the hard facts of massive economic losses incurred by the country and the deterioration in the quality of training.

    A wiser path to follow would be to adopt policies that would result in the greatest national advantage, than following blindly the hackneyed ideologies of the past now shunned even by their early proponents and adopters.

    It is necessary to take cognition of the changing circumstances in our university system during the recent times. Our professors now enjoy some of highest salaries and perks in the public sector. Our students receive scholarships and accommodation facilities than ever before. Now our student population is predominantly female, in contrast with the situation that prevailed two or three decades ago. Most of our students have access to modern information technology, including cell phones, laptops, internet and online library facilities. The question is whether availability of all such opportunities had resulted in a visible improvement in the real quality of education and research and in the emergence of more civilized and sophisticated university communities.

    Our assessment in this context, is more on the negative side. When we see the endless student agitations, harassment of fellow students, closures of the universities on one hand, and the absenteeism and low real academic productivity among the senior academics, holding such a view is not unreasonable. So an issue arising out of this is whether we can sacrifice the interests of the most brilliant and the smartest young persons among our students, and their possible vital role in wider nation building?

    Present Politico-Admin System –is it rotten to the core?

    The rise of the present ruling classes irrespective of their party affiliations that had now become a subject of public ridicule, and their continuing hegemony, deserves deeper analyses. Therefore I shall refer only briefly to a few outstanding characteristics. Most of the present generation of politicians are the sons daughters of old and recent political families, and much had been written on the subject of kinship in Sri Lankan politics.

    Whatever is said and done, the real power still rests in the hands of the progeny of colonial Mudliars and Muhandirams who were instrumental in passing the country to foreign rule. Although political changes in the mid-1950s posed some challenges to them, the status quo continues to remain.


    These were the political ‘crown princes’ who have gained much from that enormous wealth and family power, inherited from their colonial forefathers. The roots of their power, and comraderie were deliberately nurtured by some colonial schools as reflected in the composition of the Cabinets of Ministers since Independence. In order to survive in their present positions of power they have hardly any choice than to be cunning to the extreme and rotten to the core, while cheating a gullible and unsuspecting voting public. To name a few examples, they can say in the manifestoes that the Cabinet size will not exceed 30 and later increase it even beyond one hundred. They appoint politicians who lost the elections as Ministers, Governors and Ambassadors handling vital affairs of the country. This is certainly not the hallowed democratic tradition of ‘good governance’ and countries that resort to this degree of vulgarism are indeed rare even in the developing world.

    The poor governance is rooted in the fact that, higher anyone goes on the hierarchy of power, less and less time they can devote for reading or deep thinking. The unfortunate predicament of a politician in our culture today, he cannot find time to devote even a small amount of time for reading and thinking. Almost all his time is spent on roads, political meetings, attending social obligations and the endless selfish requests of his constituents. Similarly, a high official in the administration has to keep on moving from one meeting to another having hardly any time to pause and ponder, but obliged to make far reaching decisions affecting the society often under political compulsions. On top of that, he has to render unto his political big-wigs with much awe and humility, and follow him humbly to all their public functions, if he has to have some peace of mind or even to save his own position. On the other hand, occasionally, one may come across Secretaries who are incapable of preparing a logical Cabinet Paper either due to language handicaps or due to other disabilities.

    It is needless to say that, decision making without proper analysis and deep thinking is indeed obviously detrimental to the well-being of the country. Some actual cases in recent times indicating their adverse consequences included the infamous ‘Hedging Deal’ for petroleum supplies, and the current ‘Bond Scam’ of the Central Bank among many others.

    The persona of an average politician has been adapted over the years to serve his political over lords on one hand, and keeping his key officers under control, even resorting to unbecoming tactics of humiliating them before the eyes of the public. It could be recalled that, there had been occasions when administrative officers have not only been harassed and humiliated, but also physically assaulted, while allowing the culprits to go ‘scotch free’.

    The most tragic part of such episodes is that many such politicians are less educated, or had poor records in their schools than their more educated subordinate administrative officers!. So it has been reported that, almost one-third of our parliamentarians have not reached even their O’Levels. It is not peculiar to Sri Lanka alone, and the situation appears even worse in India, where it had been reported that, nearly one-third of the elected members have past criminal records! So it must not be forgotten that, our post-graduate degree holders may have to pay homage to Honourable Ministers who are less educated or have less qualifications and sometimes dubious honorary degrees. The problem is not just with those having such pseudo degrees, but with the failure of intellectuals to make a visible presence in the political arena, understandably for different and often justifiable reasons. Plato’s dictum that ‘philosophers should be the rulers of the Republic is valid and still seems persuasive i.e. “there will be no end to the troubles of States, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become Kings in this world, or till those we now call Kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands”.

    Aspirations for a Superior Seat of Higher Learning

    It is not the intention here to argue that the creation of superior centres of intellectual activity will be the panacea for all ills of our virulent political setting, or the deteriorating quality of our higher education and research that had evolved in our own country over the recent decades. However, it is our conviction that, the proposal for establishment of an‘Ecole Superieure’ may go at least few steps towards that ideal as it happened in some countries of the world.

    After the French Revolution, the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) was established in 1794 as a graduate school in Paris. It is one of the French grandes écoles (higher education establishment outside the framework of the public university system). It was initially conceived to provide the ‘Republic’ with “a new body of professors, trained in the critical spirit and secular values of Enlightenment”. It has since developed into an institution which has become a platform for a limited group of students to pursue careers in government and the academia. ENS has two main branches (literary and scientific) and adopted a highly competitive selection process consisting of written and oral examinations. While all facilities were provided to the selected students, during their studies, ENS students hold the status of paid civil servants!.

    The principal goal of ENS, namely the training of professors, researchers and public administrators was reasonably achieved according to its track record. Among its alumni there were 13 Nobel Prize laureates (ENS has the highest proportion of Nobel laureates among its alumni of any institution worldwide), and several scores of politicians and statesmen. The school has achieved a prominent place as the foremost scientific training ground in France. Its notability in the human sciences is well known as the spiritual birthplace of authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre, and Émile Durkheim.

    After the World War II, French leaders desired to enhance the manpower needed for enlightened governance and at the same time to promote high intellectual achievements. Thus in 1945, then French President Charles de Gaulle “with the ideology to raise a group of people capable of acting in the public interest” established, the ‘Ecole Nationale d’Administration’or the ENA. It was created “with a spirit of reconstructing France and renovating the state”, Aspiring students had to pass notoriously difficult entrance exams. Hundreds apply each year, but only around 10% make the final cut. “So many ministers, presidents, and prime ministers of France were its graduates. Many of the CEOs of major French companies were also alumni, even though it wasn’t meant for that”.

    The above represent only two examples. While we need not emulate the French experience in toto, there are certain lessons that can be learnt from it, in order to deal with the needs of our own country, both in the political arena and administrative services, as well as in the high intellectual pursuits. The days when a ‘Nobel prize winner’ from our universities or the country at large can emerge may not most like to happen during our life time. I do not for a moment say that, there is a certain standard or magical formula to produce Nobel Prize winners!. But then, we can at least create a fertile environment and necessary paths towards it through innovative efforts like the establishment of an ‘École Supérieure’.

    Some messages to the graduands

    It is necessary to contribute even in small ways to create a culture in which the knowledge and wisdom are valued and respected. The place that intellectuals deserve in society and their productive role in good governance will not automatically happen unless, you are ready to struggle for it. In order to reach this noble goal even a sort of a ‘cultural revolution’ may sound justifiable.

    In conclusion, the key message to the graduands who receive post graduate Degrees and Diplomas today is that, you are entering a world of fierce competition and power play. Higher you go up bigger the pressures and challenges will be. You, have hardly any choice than expecting to work often under less qualified politicians and bureaucrats without acrimony, but with determination perseverance and dedication.

    With those words let me wish you a bright future, and a productive and satisfying role in the development of our motherland!


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