The World Bank (WB) has decided to give a 100-million-dollar cash injection into the fund-starved higher education sector of this country in a bid to help ‘increase enrolment in priority disciplines, improve the quality of degree programmes and promote research and innovation’. Most Sri Lankans, like their counterparts in other parts of the developing world, tend to view WB assistance with suspicion. Financial assistance from the Bretton Woods twins never come without strings attached and what the WB conditions anent the aforesaid funds are not yet known.
The WB has announced its aid package at a time the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration stands accused of trying to let the free education system wither on the vine; the yahapalana leaders have also drawn a great deal of flak for promoting private universities. Successive governments have failed to raise the standards of national universities significantly.
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The resource-starved seats of higher learning need a radical shake-up and massive cash injections among many other things if they are to bounce back as brain trusts. The government must not only make a serious effort to develop the university system but also be seen to be doing so. That is the only way it can convince the public, if at all, that it is not trying to shift the onus for catering to the increasing demand for higher education to the private sector.
If the criminal waste of public funds is stopped there will be enough money for developing schools and universities. The present government has so far spent more than Rs. 2 billion on super luxury vehicles for ministers during the last two years or so. Billions of rupees are wasted by way of rent on buildings that house various ministries, created to please some greedy politicians notorious for defections. Public funds are also splurged on opening ceremonies and anniversary celebrations. If the yahapalana politicians who came to power promising to adopt austerity measures and develop the country fulfil their promises, they won’t have to depend on the WB and the IMF for funds to develop the higher education sector.
Some of the WB observations about our higher education sector are really depressing. The WB has revealed that in 2014, Sri Lanka was ranked 88th of 115 countries for higher education participation. And its higher education enrolment rate of 21 percent is well below the average rate of 23 percent in Lower Middle Income Countries; and 44 percent enrolment rate in Upper Middle Income Countries. This has been the contribution of the braggarts of the two main parties to the education and higher education sectors!
The WB has stressed the need for Sri Lanka to focus on improving student participation in disciplines of vital importance to economic development such as the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). That need cannot be overemphasised, but universities must not be transformed into factories, as it were, to churn out graduates capable of promoting economic development alone. They must not be reduced to job training centres. What universities should strive to achieve is imparting a well-rounded education. It may be recalled that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) report (2013), titled, The Heart of the Matter, has recommended a well-rounded education where science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are coupled with the humanities and social sciences; it has stressed the fact that ‘all disciplines are essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness, security, and personal fulfillment’ of the public.
Commenting on the AAAS recommendations, we argued, in an editorial comment, A gem-studded report, on June 25, 2013, that what was needed was not the promotion of STEM at the expense of liberal arts but an education system that facilitated the cross-pollination of disciplines for the benefit of students who needed to be equipped to face multifarious challenges in life.
It is fervently hoped that the WB money will come without constricting conditions attached thereto and all precautions will be taken to prevent it from going down the gurgler.