SLIIT should remain non-state and non-profit institution – The Island

By Professor R.P. Gunawardane

Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT), one of the best and most popular non-state higher education institutions in this country, is in the news these days. It was established in 1998, with support from the Mahapola Trust Fund and its current status has been challenged by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) of the Parliament of Sri Lanka.

Mahapola Trust Fund (MTF) was established by the late Minister Lalith Athulathmudali in 1981 to grant scholarships for needy undergraduates in the Sri Lankan university system. The Chairman of the MTF has always been the Chief Justice of the country. Nearly half a million of our deserving undergraduates have so far benefitted from the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme. The MTF is certainly a noble organisation, established for a noble purpose by a great visionary, the late Athulathmudali, who was one of the best politicians, and very intelligent and energetic Minister ever produced by this country.

The SLIIT offers a novel model of non-state and non-profit fee-levying university for Sri Lanka although such institutions are common in the developed world. All top universities in the world, including Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford and all Ivy League universities in the US, and even Oxford, Cambridge and London universities, in the UK, are of this type. Although they receive some funding from the government for specific teaching and research projects, none of them are state controlled.

Almost all the top universities in the world are located in the USA, the UK, Europe, Australia and Canada. None of these countries have University Grants Commissions (UGCs) or equivalents, or Universities Acts to govern higher education institutions. All universities are completely independent and managed by their boards of management without any interference from the government. All appointments including the post of Vice-Chancellors are done independently, by the board of management. It is recognised all over the world that this type of independence is required for a university to carry out its duties and functions effectively, maintaining the highest standards.

History of SLIIT

Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT) commenced its operations in 1999 as a non-state and non-profit higher education institution to train manpower in the field of Computer Science and particularly in the broad field of Information Technology. The development, with rapid expansion, was possible because of a strong commitment by MTF to provide a loan of Rs. 500 million and a lease of a land encompasing 25 acres in Malabe, owned by the Mahapola Trust Fund. However, only Rs. 373 million was released by MTF as a loan for this purpose.

It started functioning at the Bank of Ceylon Merchant Tower, Colombo 3, now called the Metropolitan Campus of the SLIIT. After almost 22 years of its existence and rapid development, it has now become a fully-fledged higher education institution at national university level with wide national and international recognition.

I served the Board of Management of the SLIIT for nearly four years at the initial stages from 2000. I was nominated to the Board of Management by then Minister of Education and Higher Education Richard Pathirana. I also served as a member of the Board of Governors of MTF in my capacity as the Secretary to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education.

During my tenure, I noticed the tremendous potential the SLIIT had in the higher education sector and the effort, dedication, commitment, perseverance and continuous hard work by a group of academics led by Professor Lalith Gamage to bring this institution to the present level. Whatever the mistakes made in the process of developing this institute, this achievement should be recognised and preserved. This institution should not be destroyed.

The SLIIT is a national asset that must be retained and further developed as a non-state sector institution with a framework for checks and balances with regard to the broad national policy.

Current Status of the Institute

Currently, the SLIIT has two campuses and four regional centres. The main campus with all the laboratory, library, auditorium and all other facilities is located on a 25-acre land in Malabe. Its Metropolitan Campus remains in the BoC Merchant building, Colombo 3. Its Regional Centres are spreading throughout the country in the major cities – Matara, Kandy, Kurunegala and Jaffna. About 12,000 students are enrolled in this institution with about 400 highly qualified academic staff and 200 administrative and supporting staff. It has a large number of links and joint degree programmes with prestigious universities in Australia, the US, the UK and Canada.

SLIIT, being a non-state non-profit institution, is not under the purview of the UGC, and does not have to abide the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978, which has centralised powers and decision making in the UGC. Thus, SLIIT has a tremendous advantage and full freedom to expand and diversify programmes with innovative approaches, without any clearance or approval from any authorities.

This freedom is lacking in the state universities, and as such clearances and approvals have to be obtained from the UGC and other relevant ministries and agencies to commence new programmes. In recent years, the UGC has taken over more powers outside the Universities Act with regard to introduction of new courses and novel projects requiring to obtain prior approval from the UGC. Sometimes, it takes up to one year or more to obtain necessary approvals or clearances. By the time approval is obtained the programme may be outdated or if it is a joint project with foreign university or international organisation, the other party is no longer interested.

This kind of freedom available to the SLIIT should be retained for further development and implementation of novel and innovative programmes. Our national universities do not have the kind of freedom currently available to SLIIT. That is why our universities cannot compete with other similar institutions in Sri Lanka and abroad although the state universities have sufficient expertise but with limited resources.

It is important to note that the SLIIT (1999) achieved the current status only in about 22 years of its existence while our oldest universities, Colombo (1942) and Peradeniya (1952), existed for about 70-80 years. It is remarkable that this institution has become a vibrant national university beating most of our state universities except perhaps a few universities like Peradeniya and Colombo.

SLIIT may be considered a new experiment and novel approach to higher education in Sri Lanka. Thus, this approach should be further explored for the expansion and diversification of higher education sector in Sri Lanka.

Issues and Concerns

SLIIT administration claims that the loan of Rs. 373 million obtained from the Mahapola Trust Fund (MTF) to establish the SLIIT has been fully paid with interest totalling Rs. 408 million. In addition, they also make the annual lease payment of Rs. 25 million for the land in Malabe regularly, as agreed. However, it should be noted that MTF is not a commercial bank or money lending institution and it does not give loans to others. It has not given loans to any other organisation. It is believed that the MTF at the time wanted to make a long-term investment in the field of higher education in line with the philosophy of its founder Lalith Athulathmudali. The intention would have been to generate additional funding to support the scholarship funding for rapidly increasing number of needy undergraduates. Thus, the support for the establishment of the SLIIT is an investment the MTF made for the future.

I consider the severing of SLIIT’s connection to the MTF is a grave and unforgivable mistake done by the SLIIT administration. SLIIT would not have come up to the present position within two decades if not for the original support of the MTF through a loan of a huge sum and a 60-year lease agreement for the land at a prime location in Malabe.

Furthermore, the refusal of the SLIIT management to appear before the COPE Committee is very unfortunate although they may not have to do so legally due to their current status. However, this act by the SLIIT which was created by a noble organisation such as the Mahapola Trust Fund is highly unethical and needs condemnation. It was also a missed opportunity for the SLIIT management to explain their side of the story to the COPE members in order to get some concessions.

Although they developed innovative and popular academic programmes, rapidly attracting a large number of students, there were a number of unresolved and troubling issues, within the Institute. Some of them are:

1. Insufficient emphasis on high quality research and lack of an initiative to develop a much-needed research culture in the institute are clearly seen.

2. In the past, there were some news reports pertaining to irregularities in the financial administration of the institute by some higher officials. The veracity of these complains cannot be ascertained until an investigation is done. It was reported that there was no properly qualified and experienced accountant or Bursar to handle financial matters, and there has been no internal audit for a long period of time.

Way Forward

It is essential that the SLIIT should not be taken over by the government. If it does, it will certainly do much more harm than good to the higher education sector. First of all, its connection to the Mahapola Trust Fund, which may be considered as the mother institution, must be fully restored. It is also necessary to reconstitute a fully independent Board of Management, consisting of highly qualified and eminent professionals with no history of any misdeeds. It also should include one representation of the Mahapola Trust Fund as well. This institution should continue to run as a non-state and non-profit higher education institution with the fee-levying status. Appointments at all the levels should be made by the Board of Management without any external or government involvement.

The matters raised above and any audit reports should be investigated thoroughly and appropriate action be taken in order to improve the image of the institution. As stated in the original agreement of the SLIIT with the MTF, and also as a gesture of goodwill, the SLIIT should pay 20% of its profit annually to the MTF to strengthen the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme. This should be done even if the MTF’s ownership of the Institute is not legally established. This is in addition to the annual lease payment to the Mahapola Trust Fund for its use of 25-acre land at Malabe, where its main campus is located.

Furthermore, SLIIT should establish a scholarship scheme by contributing sufficient funds to provide partial scholarships to needy students covering at least 10% of the total student population in the Institute. This aspect is extremely important for the survival of a non-state fee-levying institution in a country where state universities provide free education.

Restructuring the institute may also be required, avoiding unnecessary and irrelevant structures, units and subject areas and strengthening the teaching, research and consultancy functions in the core area of information technology. It is vital that the non-state and non-profit status of the SLIIT should be retained in order for this institution to develop rapidly to become one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in Asia, attracting a considerable number of foreign students. In this attempt, it would be the best for the SLIIT if Professor Lalith Gamage, the live-wire of this institution, who is mainly responsible for its tremendous success, should continue as the Vice-Chancellor/CEO for a longer period to see the best results.

(The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka)

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