Decolonising SL universities


Recent socio-political debates in Sri Lanka on higher education suggest that universities are being viewed as neo-liberal institutions set up to produce human capital for the market. State imperatives to produce employable graduates with the desired mix of knowledge, skills, and competencies to serve the (global) economy have translated to a growing marginalisation of the arts in favour of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes at universities. How come our universities have uncritically embraced this approach to higher education? Is there still potential to shift the vision of higher education to one that envisages universities as places of critical learning, that produce passionate thinkers, as well as contextually relevant knowledge, in the service of humanity?

Colonial knowledge systems

Movements to decolonize universities are spreading across both the global North and South. When it comes to the Global South, however, the education institutions, and structures that continue to date are a legacy of cultural colonisation under western imperialism. As Edward Said argues In Orientalism, what we know and understand about our histories and ourselves has been constructed through Western epistemologies and lenses. Post-development theorists, like Andre Gunder Frank and Arturo Escobar, further point out that the development process that created underdevelopment in so called third world countries, has also marginalised other ways of imagining those countries and their knowledge systems.

Our universities currently follow deductive approaches to producing knowledge. Our undergraduates are taught theories and models developed in the West with little regard to their relevance to the local setting. The gaps and epistemological power hierarchies we experience in our higher education institutions and in society at large when we bring these knowledge systems to practice, could be also due to such cultural irrelevances. As Nihal Perera discusses in Transforming Asian Cities, we try to understand Asian cities through theories developed to understand cities elsewhere. This is common in most disciplines whether in the humanities or natural sciences. We seem to be unable to free ourselves of the colonial knowledge apparatus that continue to inform and shape our educational institutions, including the universities.

Today, many degree programmes include practicums or internships to sensitise graduates to corporate work. While such training opportunities do enable students to obtain hands-on experience, and “learn by doing,” this should not permit industry/corporate actors to dictate what they expect of graduates or influence the curriculum. The requirements of the corporate sector are not limited to the knowledge and skills to perform the work but also include “soft skills” to fit the neoliberal workplace. Universities, once the executors of cultural colonisation, are being colonised by the corporate sector, where the university must produce an employee to match the corporate culture.

Inciting passionate and critical thinking

Universities should be places where individuals who already have certain types of knowledge and sensibilities can come together to dialogue and build on their knowledge. Yet, this is not what is happening in most universities today. Most often it is assumed that undergraduates enter higher education institutions possessing zero knowledge on a subject. From this perspective, the sole purpose of a degree programme becomes support for students to stock up on knowledge. Overlooking or dismissing experiential knowledge as irrelevant is oppressive and even violent.

If we are to ignite passion in our undergraduates to explore and understand societal problems, we need to make pedagogical processes more relevant to their histories, experiences and aspirations. Developing vernacular epistemologies to read our own spaces and society is critical to developing grounded solutions to address societal problems. Critical pedagogies that employ bottom up or inductive approaches towards understanding local social processes are crucial, especially in the current moment when we are seeing devastation unfolding before our eyes with no foreseeable solutions in sight. Universities should develop mechanisms to understand and theorise local knowledge systems. How the universities can decolonize and indigenize knowledge production without going into the other extreme of nationalism is a bit tricky and will require dialogue and reflection.

Instilling in students the idea that they can collaborate in knowledge production processes, and be designers of their own theories and knowledge, is a responsibility universities hold.

The prevailing examination system at our universities values individual achievements over collective efforts. The closed book examination system and individual assessments reinforce and entrench individualistic ideals of achievement. Shifting towards collective approaches to knowledge production may create spaces that help undergraduates to grow into passionate and critical thinkers. While there are some informal systems and collective efforts led by students, it might be worthwhile to brainstorm how classrooms can adopt such methods, understanding that some of these may themselves be marginalising or violent.

The social sciences and humanities must necessarily play a role in this huge undertaking. However, as discussed previously in this column, the arts are increasingly being discredited and delegitimized at multiple levels. While the hierarchy between the natural sciences and the arts is pushing students to select STEM streams, this means that young people often select subject streams without passion or a sense of purpose.

Education for work?

After the Advanced Level exams every year, I receive calls from numerous young people hoping to enter a state university from different parts of the country. A common question, whether from district firsts or those with marginal marks, is “which degree programme will get me a job quickly?” Often the question is not even about what kinds of jobs they will get after their degree, but rather how soon they will get a job and how much it will pay. The passion to do something other than pursuing materialistic ideals of individual ‘success’ seems to have got lost somewhere along the way in the process of being educated.

The separation of passion and employment is also a form of divide and rule. Your contribution to the economy in terms of work must remain separate from your passion and other interests, which you are expected to pursue when you are no longer working for the neoliberal market. The separation of work and passion, like the separation of work and vacation, is happening through forms of coloniality.

As much as arts and humanities education are disdained in Sri Lanka for producing “unemployable” graduates, STEM education is also narrowing down to a technical orientation to produce graduates who can fit into the capitalist economy. While higher education as a whole is losing its humanity as well as philosophical touch, this power struggle is also leading to increasing compartmentalisation of STEM and arts education.

The multidisciplinary approach in STEM degree programmes is withering away to only accommodate more technical modules that will enable specialisation in specific tasks, but not enable critical intellectual readings of larger contexts. For example, this year, the BSc (Hons) in Town and Country Planning programme at the University of Moratuwa has changed the entrance criteria for new applicants. Earlier, students who fulfilled the required cut-off mark from any stream could enter, but now applications are entertained only from students from the natural sciences. The decision to restrict a multidisciplinary degree programme to students who took natural sciences subjects at the Advanced levels speaks to the hierarchical understanding of natural sciences and humanities, and the increasing compartmentalisation of degree programmes more broadly.

In a time when multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and/or transdisciplinarity are being promoted worldwide, our higher education institutions are applying more and more restrictions and compartmentalising programmes to be free of the social sciences and humanities. The Moratuwa example is just one example among many; recent curriculum changes in STEM programmes in state universities display a similar trend. Adopting “employability” as a benchmark, and marketing degree programmes on this basis, could be a key driver of developing arts-free technical curriculums in STEM education.

In conclusion, colonisation of the university system is ongoing with various pressures to conform to utilitarian approaches that seek to create employees for the global economy. To decolonise the universities, and create critical thinkers and passionate scholars, it is imperative that we make university curricula more relevant to the sensibilities and experiences of our undergraduates and indigenize knowledge production processes. The social sciences and humanities would necessarily play a major role in this undertaking.