22 August 2012

The moral economy of academics

‘Governments are held to higher standards than terrorists’ is a line that was often used by LTTE apologists who routinely brushed aside criticism of the terrorists even as they demanded and conferred parity of status.  The proposition makes sense though.  By the same token, judges should be held to higher standards than ordinary citizens.  Academics should be more academic than non-academics.  Teachers and teachers’ unions should not behave like students and student unions.  From academics, moreover, by dint of professional training, one expects a greater degree of objectivity, close-to-comprehensive analysis, sober reflection and even more sober self-appraisal and so on. 

One expects more from academics (than from the government) because at this point FUTA (Federation of University Teachers’ Associations) is playing holier-than-thou.  This does not follow the logic of the LTTE-backers referred to above because government policy on education (and much else besides) is deplorable, a point which we have made frequently.  These thoughts are written down therefore in the firm belief that a FUTA with more integrity would not only be a boost to the larger struggle to obtain more allocations and better policy, but help bring some semblance of a scholar-culture to the university system.

A placard raised at recent FUTA protest a placard carried the legend ‘Prevent brain drain’, implying that if salaries weren’t raised, academics would migrate to greener pastures abroad.  No mention of the millions spent on FUTA members from cradle to academic position by way of midwife care, delivery, healthcare, education and loans at next-to-nothing interest rates.  Nothing on pay-back.   FUTA has joined hands with the JVP, a party that has caused untold damage to university property and wrecked education in ways that make them seem like blood-brothers of those who oppose free education for they make a huge case for privatization by their acts of vandalism and other antics.  The ghosts of Vice Chancellor, Colombo University, Prof. Stanley Wijesundera and Prof. Patuwatawithana, murdered for the ’in of trying to keep the universities open against the will of the JVP, have not haunted FUTA and this says a lot about FUTA’s integrity and politics.  

 Even as FUTA spokespersons rant and rave about the incompetency of the UGC and Examinations Department it was found recently that A/L papers set by academics have contained errors.  FUTA, in union-mode, is naturally silent about these things, but it is heartening to note that FUTA President, Dr. Dewasiri has acknowledged that those who set the papers must take responsibility for any errors therein.   

That’s hardly the story though.  I am wondering why no one in academe have ventured to speak on the gross happening within the fold as laid out in ‘Mage Naduwa Iwarai’ (My case is over), a no holds barred account of academe authored by Dr. Sarath Wijesuriya, Senior Lecturer, Sinhalese Department of the University of Colombo.  The sloth that pervades academe, the aversion to reading and research, manipulation for perks, misuse of research grants, promotion of favorites, rampant cases of conflict of interest in setting and marking papers for the near and dear and much more is laid out in the book, which was banned by the university until Wijesuriya sued and obtained redress.  It was a work of fiction, officially, but every member of FUTA knows that Wijesuriya’s ‘story’ is true. 

There are people who tweak the rules for personal benefit, even wrangling circulars to say that no MSc (except from AIT, Bangkok) can be considered for position of Senior Lecturer.  No guesses for who had the AIT degree!  FUTA has the scholar-ability to tell us that it is no coincidence and not about love-at-first-sight when academics marry recently appointed junior lecturers.  Much time is spent on getting ‘nominated’ for scholarships offered to the particular institution.  That politics is more important than the politics of ‘free education’.   There are faculties which are full of academics who obtained doctorates from Japan simply because JICA dishes out loans.  If JICA generosity was absent, one wonders who many would end up with PhDs!

Academics have been caught leaking exam papers to their blue eyed boys and girls. Some were caught stealing microscopes from the very faculty they work. Some were caught fixing video cameras in girls’ toilets. Hard disks of the university computers have made one way journeys to the homes of academics. Many ‘academics’ were found guilty of using their research grant money to buy furniture and build houses.  Many have produced documents little better than toilet paper in order to secure promotions and professorships.  In one instance a ‘preliminary’ study was submitted to secure professorial points!

The Internal Audit unit of Peradeniya has reports asking some Senior Lecturers to pay as much as Rs. 6 million ‘misappropriated’ during the medical exhibition.  Indeed, some sociologist could peruse the records of the internal audit units of all universities and write a classic about the culture of theft, misappropriation, loss of dignity and intellectual dishonesty that pervades the university system.  Those who study literature might even consider dislodging some fiction and replacing some fact in the syllabus for more informed and insightful perusal by students. FUTA can tell us how many of its members were investigated by these internal audit departments. 

FUTA is fighting for moral high ground. Why then is this community so terrified of scrutiny?  Forget scrutiny, shouldn’t FUTA start with sober self-appraisal?  Cannot FUTA tell us how many of its members got their jobs courtesy of political clout, sexual favors and other non-academic ways?  How many have been caught, will FUTA say, submitting false or fraudulent certificates to prove they have higher degrees (Remember 13 day PhD?)? How many go behind politicians for consultancies, advisory posts etc?

FUTA is in competition with itself in this moral-high-ground match.  The university depends on the public.  FUTA is seeking public support.  The honest and decent thing to do is to come clean.  Until then, FUTA will flounder in its battle with the Ministry, the UGC and the Treasury, all institution which, we can safely say, are made up of people who can rub shoulders with the academics as same-clan fellows. 

FUTA can and must lead the way for education reform, for among its members are those who have the minds and the hearts.  They are being dragged down by the mediocre, slothful and dishonest.  Pity. 

[a version of this article was published in 'The Nation', August 19, 2012]
Reactions:

8 comments:

P.L.J.B.Palipana said...

Hi! Malinda I am very sorry for this article. Personally I can't accept 90% of the contents.The real science is the Government's failure to address most of the burning issues of the country.She wastes vast amount of public funds for the regime's grredy survival what the PRICE to the NATION. That is the Real Politic of the problem.

Dinu said...

The public has not been and don't seem to be too willing to support the FUTA unconditionally, partly because they are aware of what is happening in universities and also aware that the academic community is not completely above board. Moreover, this myth of 'free education' being spun by them is hard to swallow for a large proportion of Sri Lankan higher education students migrating as well as dumping large sums of money to overseas affiliated universities. But the upside is they graduate faster and employment prospects here as well as abroad are brighter.

The quality of the present day home degree is obvious
when it comes to the employability of the grad students. More often than not, the Arts grads churned out by the national universities are a drain on the Nation's budget. Wonder what the JVP bedding, politico economic FUTA thinks about that? Remember that corrupt politicos can be voted out but corrupt academics?

Having said all this, the President of FUTA has duly
acknowledged the errors in the Math papers & apportioned responsibility for failure where it's due.

One is hard pressed to point out the last time any politician or government official accepted any responsibility for the myriad transgressions made at the expense of this country, this Nation and it's economy.

Senal said...

You seems to be leaving out one aspect from all your articles regarding academics Mr. Malinda. You emphasis on a 13 day PhD and questions the academic integrity. However, you turn blind about a drug seller/thug/a person who tie people to trees getting a doctorate, the administration responsible for education, what they have done for the betterment of education, how qualified they really are to make education policies. You point out few cases and go on to generalize. There are cases of bad professionalism, that I fully agree. However, will that imply that all academics are worthless junk with no qualifications? Your evidence is not also convincing (although I must say I have heard some of these to be true) But again, I believe that these are isolated incidents. If not please give us viable statistics or evidence. Anybody can do what you are doing here right now and I think you are better than that. The impartiality in your writing suggests that you have a personal hatred towards academics.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

the issue is salary-hike. thuggery (a la mervin) and other ills of society are certainly comment-worthy and i have written extensively about these. all that doesn't make it ok for academics to play truant, surely? no, such incidents are not isolated. i mentioned only a few. the strange thing (since you ask for statistics) is that not a single academic is ready to divulge information about peer-reviewed publications! why? or, rather, why not? as for what the govt is doing (or not doing) to education, these issues too have been written about, long before the heenen-bayavela types (of academics) discovered and got hot under the collar about this thing called 'free education'. but don't worry, i will be visiting the govt side of the sordid story in the coming weeks. i am all for free education but i believe decency, responsibility and above all scholarship should go with it. sadly, the comments posted by 'academics' show them up in ways that make my 'revelations' rather mild.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Senal...in case you missed the comment on the other post on education...

the issue is salary-hike. thuggery (a la mervin) and other ills of society are certainly comment-worthy and i have written extensively about these. all that doesn't make it ok for academics to play truant, surely? no, such incidents are not isolated. i mentioned only a few. the strange thing (since you ask for statistics) is that not a single academic is ready to divulge information about peer-reviewed publications! why? or, rather, why not? as for what the govt is doing (or not doing) to education, these issues too have been written about, long before the heenen-bayavela types (of academics) discovered and got hot under the collar about this thing called 'free education'. but don't worry, i will be visiting the govt side of the sordid story in the coming weeks. i am all for free education but i believe decency, responsibility and above all scholarship should go with it. sadly, the comments posted by 'academics' show them up in ways that make my 'revelations' rather mild.

Senal said...

Malinda,

Thanks for the reply. I don't think academics are playing truant. It is worthy to see if it is purely the academic who is to be blamed. That's what I feel/see missing in your writings. We are just fighting for our rights (lets say to minimize cases like what you have reported in the future). I think I will wait for your story on the government before making a judgement.
"The strange thing (since you ask for statistics)is that not a single academic is ready to divulge information about peer-reviewed publications"
This I can't agree with you. You don't have to ask from them information is there. If you are genuinely interested this can be easily found. Nobody can hide this. My argument is that an academic who is doing no/little/poor/bogus research cannot hide that fact.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

if it is sooo easy, do me a favour, will you....tell me! that is, if YOU are serious about sorting out what you make out to be minor flaws. :)

Malinda Seneviratne said...

if it is sooo easy, do me a favour, will you....tell me! that is, if YOU are serious about sorting out what you make out to be minor flaws. :)