Kath Noble

Target practice

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on May 22, 2013

On the attempt by the Minister of Higher Education to get rid of one of his most consistent and effective critics

sb dissanayakeDealing with ‘inconvenient’ people is one of the Government’s main talents. Upset somebody important and you will be made to suffer. It is only the form of punishment that is to be decided, according to who you are and what the Government imagines you will do to save yourself.

Last week, it was the turn of Anuruddha Pradeep, a lecturer at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura.

Pradeep was sacked for not completing his Masters within the specified amount of time after his appointment. Except that the only thing standing between him and the completion of his Masters is the university, since he has submitted his thesis and is waiting for them to approve it. Indeed, he submitted it nearly three months ago.

Every other lecturer in this position – probably in the entire history of the university if not also throughout the university system in Sri Lanka – is granted a temporary appointment until the matter can be sorted out. Once their thesis is approved, their permanent appointment is backdated to the date of submission. Even people who haven’t finished their research are granted this facility, since it is commonly accepted that universities should help their young researchers to develop their capacities, rather than obsessing over deadlines.

Given the difficulties in retaining talent, this is understandable.

The Government is desperate to encourage the thousands of academics who have left the country in despair at the state of the university system to come back, to establish its as yet purely imaginary ‘knowledge hub’, so why does it want to get rid of Pradeep?

To facilitate his removal, the university has even stooped to the level of falsifying the submission date of his thesis in the papers the Vice Chancellor presented to its council meeting.

Why go to such lengths?

Because the Minister of Higher Education is obsessed with establishing private universities, and Pradeep has consistently and very effectively raised doubts about the policy and the manner in which it is being implemented.

Of particular importance is the Malabe Medical College.

Towards the end of last year, Pradeep and FUTA president Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, together with Dr Sankalpa Marasinghe and Dr Upul Gunasekara of the GMOA, filed a fundamental rights petition against SB Dissanayake regarding the Malabe Medical College, otherwise known as the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine.

Curiously, when it was established in 2008/9, it was called the South Asian Institute of Technology and Management.

At least they both start with an ‘M’.

The Board of Investment approved the project on the condition that the approval of both the Sri Lanka Medical Council and the Ministry of Health would be obtained prior to starting any courses related to health, but they are yet to get around to that ‘detail’. They are also yet to fulfil any of the targets included in the gazette notification issued by the Ministry of Higher Education when it granted the Malabe Medical College the right to award degrees under the University Grants Commission.

In any case, it is not clear whether this gazette notification was legal, since the rules of the University Grants Commission require the approval of the relevant professional body for all of its courses, and this has not been given.

Silly doctors, not yet convinced by SB Dissanayake’s master plan.

How very irresponsible of them, for example, to think that medical students should be trained in an established hospital so that they can see for themselves how the most important ailments in Sri Lanka present and gain experience of treating actual patients.

The Malabe Medical College has managed to turn out seven batches of young people without troubling itself with such concerns.

The case was dismissed by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it was brought more than a month after the gazette notification, but the petitioners argue that the violation is ongoing and progressive in nature, albeit having begun some time ago. They also stress the fact that the issue is of widespread public interest, in the sense that it affects the two vital social services of health and education.

It would certainly seem to indicate how ineffective regulation of private universities is likely to be.

Pradeep has written a very useful book on private universities (‘Private Universities: Fashion and Reality’, Ravaya Publishers 2011) that explains the likely fate of the university system if SB Dissanayake is allowed to continue his crusade unchecked. He has studied the situation in other countries, concluding that many have no or very few private universities (e.g. the UK), while in places where they are common they are often almost exclusively not-for-profit institutions (e.g. the US). Where for-profit institutions are significant, a strong oversight mechanism is essential to prevent corruption.

But SB Dissanayake is confident that corporations – both domestic and foreign – have people’s best interests at heart, so why all this fuss?

It’s only education and health.

These were among the issues stressed by FUTA during its three month long strike last year, and Pradeep was one of its more visible participants.

The Minister of Higher Education made his displeasure absolutely clear in an article in Lakbima, in which he announced that ‘Pradeep can be expelled from the university any time’.

How exactly, when universities are supposed to be autonomous?

Well, SB Dissanayake has packed their councils with his supporters, including both his relatives and people eager to set up private universities. At Sri Jayawardenapura, the Minister of Higher Education appoints nine members, while eight come from the university. Even the university representatives are under tremendous pressure.

FUTA has issued a media statement condemning the dismissal of Pradeep, complaining of political interference. It says that it has received reports from several other universities of similar incidents, especially in the North and East. Perhaps the willingness of Pradeep to come forward and challenge his treatment stems from the fact that he is also an office-bearer of the JHU, giving him some protection from the full weight of the administration. He is fortunate. If he were a member of the TNA, he would have been labelled a Tiger and that would have been the last of him.

According to FUTA, political interference in the university system is now reaching unprecedented levels, as Shanie reported in these columns on Saturday with special reference to recent developments at Peradeniya.

This is hardly surprising.

The one thing that the Government is absolutely committed to is getting its own way. It doesn’t matter what you do, only total commitment to its goals and to the specific objectives of its key personalities will be enough to keep you out of trouble.

This article was not published by The Island.

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