Using Universities For Political Goals, How Dare You Speak Of Principles!

10686941_968205323205909_8310390184152939935_nBy E. Saravanapavan

E. Saravanapavan MP

I rise to commend His Excellency the President on the commitment to Higher Education enunciated in this budget. In principle, the government is on the right track. New faculties are in the offing – an Engineering and Technology Faculty at Jayawardanapura University, an Information Technology Center at Kelaniya University, an Advanced Medical Faculty at Peradeniya University, and Electronics, Petroleum and Aeronautical Engineering Faculties at  Moratuwa University.

A hostel construction program for 25,000 students will be embarked upon on an accelerated basis. The Mahapola Scholarship monthly allowance will be increased to Rs. 4,000 per student from January thereby making higher education a reality for poor children. Incentive payments for academic and non-academic staff will be initiated. Minister SB Dissanayake has promised us in The Sunday Times of Sept. 28, 2014 that university intake will be increased from this year’s 25,000 students to Rs. 35,000 next year.

I am happy. I congratulate this government for this commitment to higher education because, as experts have it, unless 8% of the 18 to 22 year age cohort of the population is actively engaged in higher education programmes of study, there is no chance of a country reaching its development goals. To give perspective, successful economies like Malaysia’s have reached this goal while we are said to hover around 2%, far short of the 8% target expressed in the UGC’s Five Year Plan document. This is why I see the expansion of the higher education sector as progressive. If we need the private sector to reach this 8% target, we must all welcome that.

But as they say, the Devil is in the details – or should I say in the budget allocations? After laying down the right principles, the allocations fail to meet these noble targets. This is poignantly true compared to the high and vulgar allocation for defence in the times of peace that His Excellency has boasted about in his preamble to his budget speech – from Rs. 334.039 billion in 2014 to Rs. 357.278 billion in 2015, an increase of 6.9%, well above the rate of inflation. The rupee figures for defence are absurdly astronomical compared to the paltry sums we will spend on Higher Education.

Consider Section 171 of the budget about summary allocations pertaining to Higher Education. It shows recurrent expenditure going up from Rs. 19.562 billion in 2014 to 20.532 billion in 2015, an increase of a mere 4.9%. It is insufficient to meet the new salary outlays that must match the increased intake that the Honourable Minister has promised us. Capital expenditure similarly goes up from Rs. 13.244 billion in 2014 to 16.356 billion in 2015. It reflects an increase of a more commendable 23.5%. But even this increase is of misplaced, insignificant priority for such an important subject compared to defence.

As for the allocations for capital expenditure, I state that buildings do not make a university; it is people who do. I come from Jaffna where cadjanned schools with dedicated teachers produced doctors and engineers before the war destroyed us through death, migration and exile. The first university in Asia was Batticotta Seminary in Vaddukodai. It was established by American missionaries with hardly any buildings but dedicated staff. They produced what has been described by Colonial Secretary Sir James Emerson Tennent in his book after his visit to the Seminary in the 1850s. To quote him,

“The knowledge exhibited by the pupils was astonishing and it is no exaggeration to say that in the course of instruction and in the success of the system for communicating it, the collegiate institution of Batticotta is entitled to rank with many an European University.”

Sir, I therefore say that the initial focus of university expansion should be the recurrent expenditure in our budget. We need good lecturers who speak English and can communicate their subject knowledge in English, and with it their knowledge of English to their young charges. It is indeed difficult for all of us who love our own languages to concede the greater importance of English in the context of higher education. But without fluency in a modern language like English, we cannot read textbooks nor write scientific articles to communicate our research findings. Truly, when our scientific communications are in Tamil or Sinhalese, they will not be subject to scrutiny and criticism by outside scholarship. This is what led to Sri Lankan professorships being earned by writing self-published books and occasionally introductions to temple opening ceremony souvenirs; for no one outside the country could see what we wrote for our professorships. Shaming as an important part of the process of exposing fraud and incompetence has become absent. Such exposure comes only from the use of an international language for our scholarship.

Therefore while I endorse increased emoluments for our academic staff, I do not advocate simply throwing increased salaries at them. Rather I advocate a well-managed programme of university governance to attract truly qualified academics who will nurture our coming generations through salary and other incentives and to retain them.

Honourabe Speaker, the key phrase is “well-managed.” Until we get this right, nothing will be right. Indeed, it is within our abilities to get this right. A well managed university must have a good Council and good Vice Chancellors. They will not give routine promotions to reward their friends but seek out truly qualified persons to join their staff. The University of Jaffna’s Jaffna Science Teachers’ Association, JUSTA, has issued a carefully thought-through document showing how unqualified persons are recruited to the university and good applicants are ignored. I respectfully table that report as appeared in the press as Annexure

I. This gives all the details, Honourable Chairman.

Honourable Chairman, the UGC Chairperson promised The Island newspaper that an inquiry would be held if the matter is raised with them. JUSTA then did raise it in writing. So far nothing has happened. Patronage reigns supreme. And the UGC has become an expert in covering up the mess. I am sure that the Vicar General of the Catholic Church who is on the University of Jaffna Council will not lie. He is indeed a man of God. If asked, he surely will testify to most of JUSTA’s allegations.

I certainly blame this government for appointing unqualified councils and associate professors as Vice Chancellors and Members of the University Grants Commission. At University of Jaffna, we have trained teachers as Council members appointed by a Tamil minister. The EPDP Lawyer Rengan Devarajan, is a wastrel. Being regularly in drunken stupor, he missed several court appearances in the UK as a result of which his clients were deported from there. Contrary to the ethics of the profession he had also borrowed large sums of money from his clients. These are yet to be returned.  Facing disciplinary action from the British Bar Association and unable to face angry clients, he fled the UK and has become the EPDP’s chief legal strategist and a Notary appointed by this government to boot. He had been appointed to the University of Jaffna Council on his return. He missed three consecutive meetings in a state of drunkenness and was deemed to have vacated his post. But that was no problem for this government. The Tamil Minister and the UGC simply reappointed him, violating the spirit of the Universities Act. Despite this record, the UGC has dutifully again issued a new re-reappointment recently when the term of the last Council expired and since then he has again missed meetings. I told the UGC Chairman about these appointment. I had several discussion with her. All my attempts were futing. I am sure she is listening from the row. I think with the university which is the highest institution those in the highest positions must work sincerely. They must not bow to any publish pleasure. The country as whole  will lose trust.

There is another lawyer, Sherine Xavier, who has dinners with the Governor of the Northern Province while her family is settled in Canada. She has employed in her NGO a dreaded LTTE cadre who has switched loyalties to this government. She too has been reappointed to the Jaffna Council. She has also been absent from the last 2 meetings of the Council and would be deemed to have resigned if she misses the next. Is it a sign that the Tamil Minister has run out of stooges for his Council lists and is just stuffing names to keep out the many able men and women available to serve and contribute to the University of Jaffna?

Moreover in Jaffna we have pre-council meetings as testified by JUSTA where council members are dictated to as to how they should vote on every issue. They are even told how to vote on who the Vice Chancellor should be. The Vicar General of the Jaffna Diocese has been at such meetings and will not deny it as a man of God.

The UGC has a circular, the notorious Circular 876, that demands that recruitment to lower positions should be from a Higher Education Ministry list. That is, even to be a peon in a university, one must be a government supporter. That is, all citizens cannot apply as equals. No wonder then that our peons refuse to sweep the floors and keep our universities clean. Their patrons will not let them be reprimanded. And because security guards from the party list will not do their work, defence related security firms are given lucrative contracts. State universities are hamstrung by political appointments and patronage from the very top to the very bottom. [Interruption by Hon. Anwer]. Then they are blamed as if the problem can be solved only by private universities. It is demoralizing to dedicated academics who would naturally want to leave. When our universities are used to serve political goals, how dare we speak of high principles about university education!

Speaker Sir, this budget rightly has increased expenditures on capital outlays. But we must first put right the projects we have started before we embark on new ones. The concept of affiliated University Colleges of the late 1980s and early 1990s envisaged the starting and nurturing of new universities. It has seen some successes. Peradeniya, Sri Jayawardenepura and Kelaniya have grown their Affiliated University Colleges into full Universities. But the two notable failures of the concept are the Trincomalee Affiliated University College which was made the Trincomalee Campus of Eastern University and the Northern Province Affiliated University College, now the Vavuniya Campus of the University of Jaffna.

These failures I attribute to the authorities at the parent campuses. They use these campuses as sinecures for their senior academics. It is the same patronage management. Trincomalee Campus once had students protesting at the UGC because the Rector was away most of each week in Colombo getting qualified as a lawyer. Vavuniya has seen Rectors who are always from Jaffna and do not even move residences upon appointment. They leave their families where their heart is. In Jaffna. Vavuniya staff vacancies are always filled by University of Jaffna graduates; rarely by Vavuniya graduates from outside Jaffna. I remember Vavuniya’s students were in rented houses in the town as classrooms for 18 years. They had to go to the surrounding trees to relieve themselves for lack of toilets.  Special allocations were made in 2005 for shifting out of these houses to new buildings in Pambaimadu after stringent criticism of the Rector and VC by COPE. Today, 2014, some progress has been made. But the shift is still not complete. Perhaps commissions might explain the reluctance to move out of the houses.  The present Rector without a PhD and unable to make himself even an Associate Professor at Jaffna has been sent to build up the Vavuniya Campus!

A part of the problem is that there is no separate line item in the budget for Vavuniya Campus . When the campus expenditures are lumped under the one line item for University of Jaffna, the money is spent in Jaffna. The minister and the UGC will not interfere because the VC is their stooge who looks after their interests.

I see a pattern in this, Mr. Chairman. The Government appoints weak Vice Chancellors, their stooges. Like all Vice Chancellors I suppose. They are beholden to the government. For example consider Jaffna’s VC, Prof. Vasanthy Arasaratnam whose purchase of computers for University of Jaffna must be described as crooked. In his letter dated 08 June 2004 the Auditor General queried Jaffna’s then VC, Associate Prof. S. Mohanadas. I table that Audit query as Annexure II. It is fully here.

Associate Professor Mohanadas is now on the UGC. The UGC untruthfully lists him on its website as having been a full Professor of Chemistry. However, he was never even an associate professor of chemistry, but of the less prestigious Agriculture Chemistry.  It is a brazen attempt by this government through falsified websites to hide the fact that it routinely appoints unqualified people from Jaffna to make them their dutiful servants.

The AG’s query to Associate Professor Mohanadas  is about “Unauthorized payments for the procurement of Computer Network Facilities to the Medical Faculty” by Prof. Vasanthy Arasaratnam (His Ref. NE/JF/A/JU/2004). The Auditor General says in that letter signed on his behalf by Asst. Auditor General S. Sivaguru, to quote him,

“The Dean [Arasaratnam] … has deviated from the procurement procedure … and ordered equipment at a total cost of Rs. 3,000,000 whereas the procurement by a Dean is limited to Rs. 100,000. When the availability of grants was Rs. 963,000 order was placed for Rs. 3,000,000. No tender/quotation was called … to obtain the lowest and efficient bid. A sum of Rs. 722,550 … had been paid without any supporting documents. [Heckling by Hon. Azwer]… The price quoted by Delven Computer had been reduced to half of the original prices after negotiation made subsequently. It shows that the price had been quoted arbitrarily.  .. All equipment purchased was not installed. … The entire expenditure incurred could be considered irregular, unauthorized and fruitless.”

I request the house that the UGC Chairman should investigate the matter and prove to us that Vasanthi Arasaratnam’s hands are clean.

The government took no action. Why did this government knowingly appoint such a provenly dishonest Vasanthy Arasaratnam as Vice Chancellor? I respectfully submit that such a VC naturally becomes a government stooge. When such VCs are in power, those under them fall in line. Indeed, the whole system falls in line, even those who object to what is going on. For they must protect their own positions. This therefore seems to be this government’s method of taking over Tamil lands and institutions – by running our institutions through corrupt individuals who are beholden to the government not only for staying their prosecution demanded under the law, but also for rewarding them through appointment as VC.

And then what happens? Only unaccomplished men and women under the Universities Act are appointed as Heads of Department by the crooked and grateful appointee. This buys the gratitude of the Department Heads. It is these choices of the VC for headship who are eligible to be elected Deans under the Universities Act. That also explains a man of little ability as Rector of Vavuniya. These Deans and Rector are ex-officio members of the Council. Their appointments are matched under the Universities Act by the subservient UGC through external council members. This UGC itself as we have seen has low-qualified members ever beholden to the government. They pretend to have been full professors although some never were. They rubber stamp for the Council the list of stooges.  These are the trained teachers and drunkards and the occasional Vicar General, all from the list from the Minister from Jaffna through the Minister for Higher Education. This bunch then runs the university as the Council.  Thus we have a university run by stooges who will do anything to keep their posts and be safeguarded from prosecution, and be reappointed even when they absent themselves from meetings because of drunkenness.

Another example of the protection  for those lacking in substance or ethics is that of a previous Associate Professor Shanmugaligam who was appointed VC Jaffna. Students call him Umma Shanmugalingam because he tries to kiss his female students. When a Department Head he had been seen by a mason from high up in an adjacent building where he, the mason, was working. Shanmugalingam and a female student were nude in his office. The enraged mason complained. Nothing happened because of patronage management Shanmugalingam went on to be appointed VC by this government.

[Point of order by Hon. Azwer. Heckling. Speaker asks Hon. Saravanapavan to carry on]

Honourable Speaker, in this context of patronage I wish to raise the large Sinhalese contingent of students at University of Jaffna and its new Engineering Faculty. Even administrative appointments are beginning to be of Sinhalese. Normally such a multicultural experience would be welcomed by us as a necessary part of good education. Indeed it is like Tamils enjoying similar exchanges in the South without taking away Sinhalese dominance in predominantly Sinhalese areas. This is why we welcome cross-cultural exchanges. But we fear that Tamil predominance of Tamil areas will be taken away by the trend of the army poking itself in all matters including education. This is why we need independent officials and Vice Chancellors who will identify with our aspirations and regulate our exchanges. But when a corrupt VC is always playing the stooge for the Tamil minister in Jaffna, the University’s interests are badly neglected. We fear for our future. We of the TNA have been elected to seek greater devolution for the North and East. We fear that even in the two provinces where we can speak our language, we are being inundated into a minority position. We need independent VCs and administrators who can wisely regulate our welcome exchanges with the other communities in Sri Lanka. We do not want VCs and administrators who will simply obey the government to keep their positions and be protected from due prosecution.

Although I have described University of Jaffna to show patronage governance, much of this applies to all universities. Even Colombo has seen an Associate Professor as VC. An example of the waste that comes with Vice Chancellors enjoying patronage is the new Electronics Faculty announced for University of Moratuwa in this budget. Electronics is usually a Department teaching a few subjects that come under electronics. A faculty will have a Dean and several departments. Each department will have a Head of Department and be in charge of a few subjects. A Faculty will have multiple departments. I am advised by subject experts that Electronics cannot be so divided up into multiple subjects at multiple departments under a faculty. One department is enough. The Dean of the Faculty will be on the council. That under the Universities Act will require an additional external member of the Council who will be another party supporter. It is a colossal waste that only a Vice Chancellor with influence at the UGC and Ministry can successfully seek approval for. In contrast, as we start new faculties, University of Jaffna and South Eastern University have Tamil-speaking students without staff. Examination papers there are full of language mistakes. Please, I urge the Honorable Minister to think through this expansion, being mindful of equity, as the best Tamil-speaking students go to under-staffed and even un-staffed institutions and the predominantly Sinhalese institutions are overstaffed. Let us get right the projects we have started before we get into new projects.

Similar arguments might be made against the new programme in Aeronautical Engineering announced in this budget for Moratuwa at a time of urgent need elsewhere. A good part of aeronautics work can be done by electrical, electronicsl and mechanical engineers whom we have in plenty. In fact, the minuscule need for aeronautical engineers in Sri Lanka may easily be met by foreign qualified personnel. We do not need a faculty. Again, the fault lies in patronage management.

I therefore respectfully urge everyone who plays a role in managing our universities – from His Excellency the President who appoints Vice Chancellors to the Honorable Minister for Higher Education and the UGC authorities who appoint Councils and regulate administration, to depoliticize the system and give our universities a freer hand to manage their own affairs, and to first focus on getting the right people running our universities before going for glamorous facilities. Until then, however much we may allocate for higher education, it will be money down the drain.

We must have budgetary needs informed by the qualified academics at the grassroots, not by patronage management.

I want Honorable Azwer to know. I think you are not aware of the composition of the Jaffna Council. If you know the real situation you yourself will feel sympathy towards the university. Can you imagine, there are 4 principals. Mr. K. Rushankan contested in Northern Provincial Council. He has no qualifications. Ms. Sarangapani Local Government candidate. Mr. Sripathy General Elections and lost. D. Rengan whom I have already spoken about. Mr. Deivendran – mayoral candidate They are all from the EPDP. All failed EPDP candidates for the university. One party cannot appoint all these people. I told the UGC Chairman. The Universities Act asks for people to be appointed to the Council by the Commission from among persons who have rendered distinguished service in educational, professional, commercial, industrial, scientific and administrative  spheres. Can you classify these appointees under these qualifications, Mr. Azswer? Can you? I am asking for the best for the betterment of the people of the North and the East. You must come and live there for 2-3 months to understand what is happening there. I have been in touch with the UGC Chairman. Not today or yesterday, but several times before. She never listens to us. I have never asked for a single person to appointed to the Council. Ask the Chairman. It is the highest institution in Jaffna. Because we do not have a proper Vice Chancellor, Vavuniya is still a campus. You do not know the inner side of it. Hon. Azwer, Hon. Azwer, you do not know. I will give you this paper [from the Colombo Telegraph}. Read this article. Ask the UGC Chairman for the qualifications of her appointments. Ask her what qualifications her appointees to Jaffna’s Council bear. Ask about appointments at Colombo University, Peradeniya University, Jarawardenepura University and other universities in Sri Lanka. Since you have opened this subject, you had better study it. It is the UGC’s duty to identify and get the right people. I am not talking anything wrong. Just imagine. Someone who misses three meetings being reappointed.  Look here.

[Heckling in Sinhalese about JUSTA]

You read this paper and after that you speak to me.

[The Speaker declares it is time to stop]

With that I conclude my intervention. Thank you, Honourable Speaker.

*Text of Prepared Speech. The actual speech is slightly different because of heckling, particularly by A.H.M. Azwer, UPFA Nationalist MP in English and by other government MPs in Sinhalese who then asked Saravanapavan if he wanted the comments again in English. The actual proceedings may be viewed here;