by N. A. de S. Amaratunga
The government seems to be planning educational reforms in every sector, according to its proposal to revamp the higher education system by doing away with the UGC and have in its place an independent National Higher Education Commission. One can only hope that this will not be a mere cosmetic change. The government must understand that higher education cannot be reformed without overhauling the primary and secondary education systems, which are its foundation and nothing strong can be built on a weak foundation.
What is the product that must come out of our schools, our universities, and other higher educational institutions? The primary function of schools must be the development of the child’s enquiring mind, the self-learning ability and the inborn creative talents. These are related characteristics and are inherited from the parents. These genetically determined abilities and talents have evolved for generations, beginning from the inception of life and are of crucial importance for human progress. With these abilities, the child would be better equipped to acquire knowledge, retain it and apply it in his or her career and to solve life’s problems. This is the best way to learn. The rote learning, now being carried out, is of little use to anybody and could be the cause of many an ill that plague the educational system from kindergarten to the university, in this country. Further, new knowledge, scientific discovery, technological innovations, creative art, literary work are born out of these talents. The foundation of the development of these abilities must be laid at a very early stage of a child’s formative age. Therefore, it is the school that must provide the opportunity, the freedom and the facilities to uncover, foster and nurture the enquiring mind, the self-learning ability and the creative talent of the child. This process must extend to the universities and other educational institutions and these principles must form the cornerstone of our national educational policy.
However, our schools, and also the higher educational institutions, do the opposite. In our schools, the child is not given the time or the freedom to develop the aforesaid talents and abilities. There are time and facilities only for rote learning to stuff the brain with so much material, most of which, however, is not retained after examinations. What is the purpose of such ‘learning’? This system suppresses the development of inborn creative talent, the learning ability and the enquiring mind.
Further, it is a burdensome task for students as well as teachers, necessitating extra classes and private tuition. Thus, the phenomenon of private tuition came into being. Now, there are teachers who prepare notes for their private tuition classes during school hours, and there are students who do not come to school but attend private tuition classes!
This kind of burdensome, oppressive ‘learning’ or ‘cramming’ which serves little or no purpose could be damaging to the formative mind. Killing of the natural talents in itself is damaging but what is worse is it could produce neurotic, psychiatric, mental wrecks out of our children. Mental illness and suicide are quite common in this age group.
Competition starts very early in the school, the Grade Five Scholarship examination for admission to more popular and prestigious schools leads to a rat race and private tuition also starts at this level.
Thus, the product that comes out of our schools is not a sensitive, generous, talented, kind young person with a developed enquiring mind and self-learning ability and thirsting for more knowledge but an exhausted, mentally unstable youth with a killer instinct which the fierce competition had instilled in him or her. Mental illness, violence and ragging have resulted from this system.
The separation of subjects into watertight compartments at the GCE A/L and also in the universities is not conducive to the development of inherent talents and abilities and also a sensitive person with good human qualities. Subjects like art, music and literature could make a person kind-hearted, understanding and appreciative and tolerant of different points of view. Knowledge of history could enhance the vision for the future; it is said that how far you could see into the future would depend on how far you could see into the past. Further, the inborn talents cannot be separated into watertight compartments; the system has to be sufficiently flexible to provide for the variation of inherent talents and abilities. An individual may have a special ability in mathematics and also in the humanities. If he or she is allowed to develop in both fields, he will become a better mathematician, more appreciative of different views and even develop into a great mathematician and perhaps create literary works also. More importantly, he or she would be a good human being. It is perfectly all right to admit to a university a student who has done quite well in a combination of science and humanities at the GCE A/L. The university, too, must be flexible to allow students to pursue studies in both subjects and award a double degree, if necessary. An economist, who had also studied history at the university, would be better equipped to solve economic problems as he or she may have the ability to develop a solution that is more suitable to the country instead of borrowing from abroad something that may ruin our economy. The freedom of choice of subjects and flexibility in the courses, both in schools as well as in the higher educational institutions is the need of the hour.
It has been found that medical graduates who have no exposure to the arts and humanities tend to be less kind to their patients. This attitude is attributed to the brutalising nature of the subjects they study during the larger part of their careers. The segregation of human beings into several streams instead of being allowed to study them holistically does not provide them with an opportunity to understand how they work, much less develop empathy towards that whole, which is essential for the practice of medicine. It has been found that the introduction of a few modules on humanities into the medical curriculum improves the attitudes of the medical professional.
A university should serve as a training centre, research centre and cultural centre. Everybody in the university must have a role and be involved in all three activities and contribute to all of them. Space must be provided in curricula, infrastructure and facilities for students, academic and non-academic staff, to participate and be a part of activities in all three areas. A national education policy must take into consideration our history, our culture and civilisation and our heritage, all of which give us a sense of national pride. At the same time, it must pay attention to the need to be appreciative of other cultures and points of view.
Universities must have an adequate degree of autonomy. The regulations that the present UGC enforces on the universities often have a restraining effect. The UGC, is mainly composed of individuals drawn from the university system itself and their capacity to interpret the University Act and other government ordinances and codes cannot be any superior to that of the members of the governing bodies of the universities. Hence universities should be able to manage its own affairs and for this purpose university governing council could have expertise from all important fields, such as management, finance, legal, medical, engineering, art, culture, etc., and also representatives of the Ministries of Higher Education and Finance so that a wide range of opinions would be available for consideration in the policymaking process.
The government, while formulating a National Higher Education Committee, in place of the UGC, must take cognition of the need for greater autonomy for the universities. Centralised control of finances and formulation of national guidelines in collaboration with the Ministry of Higher Education could be the responsibility of the proposed Commission, but in academic matters universities must have full autonomy. The requirement for UGC approval for such matters like the creation of new faculties, departments, chair positions, marking schemes for promotions, curricula, cadre, buildings, etc., which is the current practice, must be done away with and universities being given freedom to decide on such matters.