I have been wondering for some time about whether this column should also deal with the problems of university students. Last week, having found myself by far the oldest among the Sri Lankan delegates to a Conference on Indo-Sri Lankan relations held at Osmania University, and older too than most of the Indian participants, I realized I had to accept I was clearly of an age to think of university students, and indeed many lecturers, as children in need of care.

This feeling was exacerbated by the excellence of the presentations by the younger participants at the Conference. Whilst some older lecturers seemed to content themselves with jargon, the session I chaired had two very bright girls from Jawaharlal Nehru University who produced excellent and very practical papers on the Sri Lankan diaspora. They however were postgraduates, and from a place I have long known as a centre of excellence, admission to which is highly competitive. To my surprise they were equaled by two undergraduates from Patna University, who did a precise and well argued presentation on Indo-Sri Lankan trade relations.

I cannot imagine many Sri Lankan students doing as well. This is not because they are not equally capable. The problem is that we hardly stretch them, with many lecturers in many departments thinking that reading out notes to be copied constitutes teaching.

Of course there are exceptions, and I can think of at least two universities, and several faculties, the products of which are as good as those from Indian universities. But one of the universities that is of high quality is the Kotelawala Defence University, and it is precisely because its staff as well as its students are not allowed to sink into complaisance that its students have improved in quality.

Peradeniya, on the contrary, seems to sink lower and lower with every passing year. The second immediate reason for my worries about what our students are getting is that, on the two days before I left for Hyderabad, I attended sessions of the First COPE Sub-Committee, which now looks at academic institutions. One reason however that one should not complain too much, is that for almost all the time spent inquiring of seven institutions in the two days, I was the only person present apart from the Chairman. If our legislators do not care enough to try to ensure that students get value for the public money spent on them, I suppose we cannot really expect university administrators or lecturers to care either.

Ultimately we will only achieve accountability if we ensure that information is made available to all stakeholders, and they are given the right to question. Students should not be decision makers, but their views must be considered, and I have long argued that they should be given access to university accounts. When I first made this suggestion a decade back, the then Chairman of the UGC told me that they were accountable to Parliament, which I did not think adequate. Having seen how COPE functions – and it clearly does much more now under the Chairmanship of D E W Gunasekara than it has done for decades – I now know this is not adequate.

I was delighted that the Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Peradeniya also advocated this, perhaps because he too was in despair about what had been going on at the University. He and the new Registrar seem to be trying to set things to rights but, for the first time in looking at University accounts, it seemed to me that there were clear indications of fraud and corruption. Previously – with one institution attached to Colombo being an exception, about which the Vice-Chancellor agreed that crookedness seemed obvious – the worst we could be sure of was incompetence. Here clearly the incompetence, if that was all it was, was culpable. The idea that sub-standard furniture should be accepted because buildings had to be equipped in a hurry was for instance totally unacceptable. It must have been obvious to anyone, certainly including those waiting to place more orders, that beds which shook when they were received would soon collapse under student usage.

But as bad was the failure to ensure that students were actually taught. The schedule of lecture hours by all academic staff that COPE had had to ask for (since clearly no one with administrative authority had thought of this before) had not been looked at by the Peradeniya administration. We had to instruct the UGC Chairman to send the schedule to all universities, asking them to study it and send back a report on how they would ensure that lecturers actually did what they were supposed to do, and were held accountable for the public money they absorbed.

The sheer absurdity of what many of our universities do became obvious to me during the last few weeks, during which I found Divisional Secretariats packed with graduates who have been recruited with no clear understanding of what they were supposed to do. Some of them had given up proper jobs because of the government indulgence they greedily grasped, but I suppose government thought it had no alternative since so many others were otherwise unemployable. Sadly it has not occurred to any government that the obvious alternative is to make educational institutions target employability, with full accountability for their activities.

One bright young Divisional Secretary told me that, having tried to identify talents amongst those entrusted to him, so he could make gainful use of them, he found almost all without the capacity to work productively. He was a product himself of a Faculty that many years ago the Chairman of the UGC described as the cutting edge of the University system, and I could understand this, having realized his competence, as that of another Secretary from the same Faculty, one Tamil, one Sinhalese. But unless we try more intelligently to replicate this, we will simply be wasting public money.

The Island 18 Nov 2012 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=66372