Colombo, Development, Education, Kandy, Post-War

Smarter investing in Science and Higher Education

I experienced three disturbing scenarios within the last 5 months. In no particular order they are as follows.

  1. I recently visited Sri Lanka after seven years. End of it I was overwhelmed by nostalgia and wanting to go back home. When I left my country for higher studies I had plans to come back. Right after the PhD, I wanted to stay a little longer and get some more research experience. So I took a postdoctoral position at a prestigious university. Of course I had to give up my probationary lecturer position and pay back the bond. After coming back from the recent visit, I searched for suitable jobs with enough chance to do scientific research in Sri Lanka. I actually sent my resume (CV) out. I am still waiting to hear. No vacancies! I also looked into becoming a lecturer at a university. That is the only viable option for science graduates. Starting salaries of a senior lecture positions are dismal. I don’t expect American salaries but I think it is not overly greedy of me to expect Indian salaries.
  2. One of my friends who has a PhD and a considerable postdoctoral experience in immunology wanted to returned to Sri Lanka and work at a well known research institute Kandy. He has been getting ready for this move in June of 2010. He has been offered a position. All but the letter was sent to him. He has told his current research director that he will be leaving and helped him to recruit and train a new person to take over his duties once he leave. He even asked me to bring a Sinhala 2nd grade book for his daughter so that she will have a smooth transition upon returning. Suddenly he received an email from this institute indicating that someone had filed a complaint against his recruitment. While I am not aware of all the details, the institute ended up retracting the job offer. I know my friend is a  very good scientist and his research idea was to develop a vaccine for a common illness unique to the South Asian region. Knowing his capabilities and plans (research and funding) he would have succeeded too.
  3. One of my former students was offered admission by two universities in the USA to pursue her PhD. She wrote and ask me about the quality of those two universities so she could make an educated decision. While writing a reply to her I did a Google search to find the rankings of those universities. I ended up using http://www.4icu.org/; a site where universities in the world are ranked. For fun I searched my work place, which is ranked number 59th in the world and the two top universities in Sri Lanka. The numbers were dismal. I am not literally going by these rankings but if they were within the first 2000, I would have been happy.

People of Sri Lanka, after the war and electing a strong government are hopeful of development and making our country the wonder of Asia. Infrastructure building and other investments and are flourishing. As it has been for the last 50 years Science and Technology is neglected. H.E. the President named 2009 as the year of Information technology (IT) and English. Ministry of Science and Technology has an incomplete website with most of the data outdated. Sri Lanka recently invested in a coal power plans and oil resources exploration while the whole world is talking about going green and developing alternative energy resources. One wind farm was started but this was done without proper planning. For a small country land wind farms are a waste of space. They are noisy and eventually people will start complaining. Some of the smaller European countries are building wind farms off shore solving both noise problem and the land problem. We need to get little more organized in out efforts. Need to take lots of baby steps and pay attention to the details. Need to be smarter even when doing the right thing.

If we are to achieve the goal of becoming the next wonder of Asia, we need at least few of our universities to be in the top 500 universities in Asia. If India can do it we definitely can do it. There are lot of trained and very capable Sri Lankans from chemistry, physics, molecular biology, immunology, pharmacology and other biochemical and biological sciences,etc. are eagerly waiting to return. Most of my Indian friends were able to return after finishing their degrees. Some of the Chinese students have started returning. We spend a lot of money in educating people in sciences and other than in IT, we lose most of them to the developed countries.

In addition to all these we as a country need an attitude change. Let the young blood to take over and inject new ideas. We have to feel less threatened by them. In a world where molecules are imaged using atomic force microscopy (AFM), barrettes have to make some space for AFMs. Things like what happened to my friend makes the young generation to move further away. We need these fires under the ashes to completely burn out. Hope someone is listening!

  • Sinhala_Voice

    This is THE problem in Sri Lanka.

    We have to spend on EDUCATION, EDUCATION and EDUCATION.

    Did you know that India plans to have 40 million University Graduates by 2030.

    We have to teach everyone (Sinhala or Tamil) + English + Mathematics + Science(Including computers Science or IT)

    This is the ONLY way forward…….

    We have to OPEN OUR DOORS TO LIFE LONG LEARNING.

    WE have to teach people HOW TO LEARN ? Not just learning random/discrete pieces of information. What to do with information.

  • Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    ‘Education’ needs improvement not only in Sri Lanka, but the whole world, although Sri Lanka is currently a ‘basket’ case. The over-emphasis on the sciences and employment-related skills has resulted in the mass production of persons who who are some- what skilled , but incapable of ‘Thinking’ in a broader sense. The word ”Education derives from the Latin ‘Educere’ meaning literally to stand-up, question and inquire, and hence think. The decline of liberal education has robbed not only Sri Lanka, but the world of this capacity.

    The cram-shop and examination success driven education system has further prevented many intelligent and talented individuals from achieving their potential. Books are a luxury that few can afford in Sri Lanka due to their high cost, compared to India. The reading habit is in its death throes and home libraries are things of the past.

    School teachers are mostly of poor quality, poorly paid and poorly motivated. It is a profession of last resort to many. Teachers are not the respected members of society any more.

    The Universities too have lost their ‘Cream’ in terms of their faculty. Most of the ‘Best’ have left because of poor salaries and the inability to realize their academic and research potential. Universities are not a cluster of buildings located in various places! Universities, should be temples of learning where the ‘Best’ of the ‘Old’ interact with the ‘Best’ of the “Young’, to create an environment of intellectual excellence. Universities should produce ‘Quality Leaders’. The whole ‘University ‘system has become the sum total of averages and not excellence. Averages breed averages and mediocrities.

    Revolutionary changes are required in the education system at all levels in Sri Lanka, if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century and the process of nation building .

  • Ed

    I returned to Sri Lanka in June 2009 and set up a foundation hoping to harness the will and potential of some of the more intelligent civil society and diaspora like you to mostly address the issue of Human Resources Development. But so far there is no will power within civil society to put pressure on the government to implement the much needed changes. If there is something to be done by people like us, that would be to persuade the government to allow private universities. Its a stop gap measure but at least thousands of our intelligent youth will have a chance in the job market here or abroad. Revolutionary changes are need across the board so don’t give up the fight and keep agitating for change!

  • Travelling Academic

    There is much truth in Muditha’s post and Narendran’s comment, but still the reality is not as depressing. We should avoid comparing the worst we see today with the best we saw 20/30/40 years ago. Top students I know from my old university in SL, graduating in the last couple of years, are intellectually no worse than the top guys who were with me some 30 years ago. I would say the same about faculty who teach there. I interact with a large enough sample to say this with some confidence. Some of the faculty there are doing a fantastic job against all odds in a monotonically worsening infrastructure (student-staff ratio, bureaucracy that blocks you from buying a small electronic component or mounting a book-shelf on the office wall etc).

    My own belief is there is now a great opportunity for SL expats to work WITH colleagues back home in improving things. This is not going to happen by whinging about the negatives, of which there is plenty. The likes of Muditha and Narendran have talents SL can potentially tap into in various ways, but the initiative for doing this is not going to come from the government who seem to have other priorities. Individual efforts big (an institute for nanotechnology was set up a couple of years ago, and I understand expat Sri Lankan experts in the subject helped out — and incidentally that institute has a nice microscope) and small (next to me is a cardboard box with a collection of 50 books to go to an SL university library soon) will have to be the catalyst in getting this process moving.

  • What is lacking in Sri Lanka is not science and higher education but the Truth.

    Without knowing the truth a person knows what is wrong and not what is right.

    The purpose of education is to speak the truth, be honest and have moral character. This should qualities be brought right first before any attempt for truthful science and higher education.

  • Bakaero

    I worked for Sri Lankan University system for nearly 20 years, first as an assistant lecturer, then as a lecturer and finally as a senior lecturer II and I. When I joined the university system I had a Bsc and MSc and my salary was Rs 960.00. At that time I got an another job offer from a company where they offered me Rs3000.00. I decided to stay with the University system solely because I liked doing research. Then while doing my work I did an MPhil and then moved to a foreign country to do my PhD. After my PhD my boss offered me a job in his department. However I decided to go back to my country.
    I had lots of good plans, plans to contribute something to my motherland. But the way things are done in the University system and in Sri Lanka forced me to leave Sri Lanka. Some of the reasons I left Sri Lanka are:
    1. During the early years of my career I enjoyed a lot teaching to the brightest students in the country. Students were very intelligent and I could make them think and they were willing to take any kind of challenge. But over time there was a gradual erosion of the quality of students. Teaching became boring.

    2. After going abroad for my PhD I realized that the quality of research we did in Sri Lanka was far inferior to those of other countries. With foreign experience I realized that the facilities available in Sri Lanka are not adequate. Therefore after returning from the foreign country I used to compare things which ultimately led to a kind of frustration.
    3. In the University system seniors are there not to help you but to harass you and subjugate you to their authority. Recruitments and promotions are not based on merit but on inside politics. I got research grants from other countries but to spend my own research money I had to wait months, spend lot of time just for paper work.
    4 The salary I got was not enough. A mere pay check to pay check existence. I had a car but had to go to work by bus since gas prices were so high.
    5. A University education for my kids was uncertain because there was a very keen competition for that and I did not have money to send them abroad.

    Currently living in a western country leading a much fulfilled life. Hope this will help to understand why some university teachers in Sri Lanka leave their motherland.

  • Dhakune Kolla

    Science? We have a highly developed science of sending our young and not so young to work and even prostitute themselves in the Middle East, so why bother? Isn’t USD 3 Billion from remittances not enough? No problem, we’ll send more since we can get the Chinese to work and build those roads and harbors in Sri Lanka. Its the perfect solution. What do we need science for? Send someone to the moon?

  • Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    I agree with ‘Truth Finder’ that seeking the ‘Truth’ is the purpose of education, irrespective of the specialization one engages. The scientist seeks the truth as much as a philosopher. The ‘Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) is titled so because at the frontiers of knowledge, the arts and sciences become philosophies, reaching beyond known/ confirmed knowledge. Oppenheimer and Einstein saw meaning in the ‘Dance of Siva’ from the vantage point!

    ‘Education’ in a broader sense is a blend of knowledge, culture, experience and wisdom. The modern educational system crams in knowledge, but imparts very little culture. ‘Culture’ is the refinement of mind, morals and taste. Knowledge, culture and experience come together in an individual to create wisdom. The broader the knowledge , deeper the culture and wider the experience, the brighter the resulting wisdom shines. Good teachers impart not only knowledge, but also culture and wisdom. While some experience can be transferred, most must be acquired.

    To what extent do our teachers and the education system fit these criteria?

  • niranjan

    Muditha,

    My advise to you is do not come back. The reason is that there are many people here who are resistant to change and you may well end up being frustrated. So do not waste your talents here. You are better off living in the USA.

  • niranjan

    Muditha,

    The young blood died in our battle fields (over 30 years of war) or as our recent O/L results suggest are failures in the system.

  • Jack Point

    I was talking to a friends Uncle sometime back, he was an engineer, a graduate of the University of Ceylon. He had worked in the UK, Africa and Hong Kong and was telling us his life story.

    He graduated in 1956 or 1957. He was in London in 1958 and he told us that was the year in which University of Ceylon Degree was equated with the University of London degree. He was able to find a job in London very easily as a result and then went on to work in the colonies in Africa, and when these became independent, to Hong Kong.

    Compare the standards of the past with that of today, especially the point highlighted by writer on the ranking of the Universities.

    I am relating this story because not only have the standards of the past been lost, they have even been forgotten.

    Maybe it is time to undo all what successive governments have done to the system to restore it to the standard set by Sir Ivor Jennings?

    See also

    http://www.lbo.lk/fullstory.php?nid=985632273

  • Dilan

    To those who encourage the brighter folks to leave the country, a question:

    How is this ever going to solve THE problem?

    Those who get frustrated have two options.

    1). Leave the country for a (temporarily) fulfilled life in the West, albeit most likely as an eternal second-class citizen. This is an easy option. But one that can backfire too easily the moment Western countries start having problems (which, judging by the way they are going, will no doubt happen). Those who will suffer first are the non-natives, whether you want to accept it or not. Even a tenured position no longer means lifelong employment, as the numerous layoffs from even the very best state (and private) universities in the States have shown us. Where will you be then? Back at square one.

    2). Find other like-minded frustrated people and band together to put the necessary pressure on the system. Eventually, the pressure will be too much. It won’t happen tomorrow, or in a year, but given a period of time, it will happen. This can only be achieved through collective effort (including the aid of those abroad, such as through advising and collaborative research with their Sri Lankan counterparts. This is an excellent way to serve your country).

    A single frustrated person is pretty much useless, angry, and even dangerous. A group of frustrated people, on the other hand, are and will eventually cause the “system” to cave. History has enough examples, in Sri Lanka as well.

    So what’s it going to be?

  • ordinary lankan

    I believe that a strong focus is needed to develop our character – as individuals and as a nation. Self knowledge and spirituality or what they refer to as life skills must be a part of education – social work – the art and science of helping other human beings – this must also be integrated into the curriculum of every professional – everyone must put in their best effort and we must all put the best foot fwd – we have about 10-15 years to resist the dangerous tide that is now turning – if we fail now it will be a catastrophe.

    we now have a moral emergency – we have to re-establish our values now – and what we are fighting now is a force that is far more dangerous than the LTTE –

    it is now or never –

  • niranjan

    Dilan,

    I disagree with you on the second class citizen thing. There is quite a bit of equality in the UK where I studied some years ago. I was not treated as second class.
    Even if as you claim non-natives are the first to be thrown out of jobs there is a social security system which helps them to survive. Besides recession is a temporary factor. Once those economies come out of recession they are going to need skilled workers.

    Many SL ‘s who live abroad are not going to come back to SL and live here just because the war is over. There are other factors such as education, english language, salaries, cost of living etc which matter.

    Also it is not always the case that non-natives are the first to be thrown out. It depends on the place of work. In some cases non-natives are valued for their hard work, intelligence and dedication to the organisation that they work for. take for example the SL doctors who work in the NHS.

  • Boo!

    India’s success in higher education is a partly due to the fact that it realizes the limitations of the state in providing higher education system and as a result created a much more diverse environment with Universities that are both public and private and of varying degrees of quality.

    Currently the state higher education sector is a behemoth of a bureaucracy that encourages mediocrity, dullness and intolerance. The system is populated by people who are extremely insecure in their academic capability and who are threatened by anyone who is more capable then they are or is willing to work beyond the call of duty.

    In my humble opinion, the most effective, pain free and cheap reform would be to put an end to the stifling centralization of the higher education bureaucracy and give greater freedom to universities to utilize their resources in a manner they see fit and giving the power to promote or hire, promote or dismiss lecturers and students.

    http://siteresources.worldbank.org/SOUTHASIAEXT/Resources/Publications/TOLreportfinal.pdf

  • Dilan

    Yes yes, Niranjan, live in denial [Edited out] as much as you want, it’s not going to change the fact that you will die unloved and alone in an alien country, where nobody cares that you pimped yourself for 90 hours a week just to usurp everything that country had to offer you, while contributing nothing to either that country or your own. We’ll see who’s laughing in 20 years time.

  • Senarath

    Actually, Dilan, I believe Niranjan insinuated he lives in Sri Lanka.

    Anyway, the problem is that most academics who leave our shores do not end up as top researchers at Harvard or CERN. Many of them remain as junior faculty (even into their senior years) due to a different command of English and poor communication skills. This is not just hearsay but something I witnessed living in the USA for 15 years and visiting college campuses of varying degrees of fame, with Sri lankan faculty members in various disciplines.

    The reality is there are over 4000 universities in the States, and I honestly believe the majority of them are crap. Work just dumbed down to suit the masses of folks who attend but are not interested in learning, classes taught by teaching assistants, and rampant grade inflation (I know of cases where students got A’s after missing exams that accounted for 20% of their grades – how is this possible)?

    For all their crying about how the Sri Lankan system sucks, those who are now decrying their country abroad are mostly the same people who did not want to think outside the box, left work at 4.30 every day, took as much leave as possible, and did only what they were told. This is the same reason they imagine they enjoy life abroad (although inexplicably having to work much longer hours), since the SYSTEM itself has already been set up by someone else, and all they need to do is keep oiling it. Niranjan, the Sri Lankan doctors in the NHS are not loved because of their “work ethic,” but because they are willing to pimp themselves to do 36 hour shifts for not much more money in real terms than they got in SL, after having milked the Lankan system for all it was worth, for free, and then turned their backs on trying to develop the medical profession in the country, showing us that all they really care about is money.

    The problem with the Sri Lankan mindset, be it academia or the public sector in general, is that nobody seems to have a collective goal, instead all having some individual notion of utopia, yet doing nothing to try and persuade others to help them achieve it.

    Because if these people claim to have worked so HARD to change things in SL, then why the hell haven’t we heard about it? We have an entire section of the media devoted to pointing out the slightest flaws in the government or the system, but we never hear about any academic or doctor trying to battle the system. All this so called “challenge” they’re doing is all in their minds, just another excuse to get a speedy visa out of here.

    Lets stop this constant whining, and excuses for why we must fail, and get on with the task at hand. Because there are no more terrorists to blame, no more war to blame, nothing to blame corrupt and idiotic politicians in power. If you want to change that, then now is the time for you to do it. Let those people who are living it up abroad do whatever they want, it is time for the future generations to take over and fix the problems the previous generations either left us, or ran away without fixing.

  • niranjan

    Senarath,

    I do live in Sri Lanka and have worked in this country for the past 15 years. I was a University student in the UK before that and all my medical friends who were at University with me from Sri Lanka are now working for the NHS. They never came back to Sri Lanka. Their families paid for their studies while at University and they were never a part of the Sri Lankan University system.

  • niranjan

    Dilan,

    I live and work in Sri Lanka before that I was a student in the UK. All my Sri lankan medical friends who were at University with me abroad now work for the NHS. Their University fees were paid for by their parents. They are happy there and I do not think anyone of them want to come back here right now. The war is over but they do not see a future for their children in Sri Lanka. As I said in my earlier post there are many reasons why Sri Lankans do not want to come back and work in the country of their birth especially the ones with families.
    Doctors anywhere in the world work hard including Sri Lanka. Doctors in Sri Lanka also work very long hours to earn good money. In the UK they can earn more by putting in the same amount of long hours.
    Second class citizen is a state of mind. I was never treated or felt a second class citizen in the UK.

  • niranjan

    Dilan,

    One can die unloved and alone in Sri Lanka as well. So many of our youth have done so in the past 30 odd years of war in Sri Lanka on both sides including the JVP insurrections of 1971 and 1989/1990.

    Britain is not an alien country. She ruled us from 1815-1948 and now so many Sri Lankans have made it their home.

  • Muditha Senarath-Yapa

    Thank you for all those commented.

    First of all I don’t agree with anyone discouraging people to come back (although my mother discouraged me from coming back once).

    Please don’t take this as whining. It was my idea to create a dialogue. I am someone who wants to pay back my dues to the country. I agree there are only a few of us. Also I do whatever I could do on my own time. So take a moment before judging me. I also don’t agree with the second class citizen comment. That is a state of mind. You can live like that in your own country too.

    Lot’s of people who has come back had done so after working overseas for a considerable number of years. After they established themselves and/or created political contacts. Most of them already had some contacts. There might be a few who started with nothing. It is a little skewed Gaussian distribution.

    My original thought was to point out that we are missing out on developing basic science research in SL. This is why I brought India as an example. I don’t want to go through a list of complaints but look around.

    I don’t want to place all the blame on the government but we are creating an environment in Sri Lanka, where a basic degree is not necessary to do most of the jobs which are being created. We spend a lot of money on education and higher education. We make our people work in jobs where they are overqualified, underpaid and under-appreciated.

    Simple things like finding methods to eliminate dengue carrying mosquito, evaluating environmental impact of war, etc. Some agency government or private should start funding simple projects. Government could encourage such things.

    We can make it work for everyone not just for the wealthy and the well connected (to steal from Mr. Obama).

  • niranjan

    Muditha,

    If you look at the LMD magazine for May 2010 under the title captioned ” Tourism’s regenration” Hiran Coorey CEO of Jetwing Group says ” I believe that professionals who left in search of grneer pastures will not return unless they lose their jobs, apart from those who went to the Middle East.”

    You are also correct when you say “you can live like a second class citizen in your own country.” It is a state of mind.

  • Muditha Senarath-Yapa

    Niranjan

    I know more than 1 person including myself who are willing to give up greener pastures to serve Sri Lanka.

    Muditha

  • Karunaratne

    After 4 years Muditha Senarath Yapa is now the head of Research at John Keels Research, Sri Lanka.
    Congratz!