Undervaluing Social Science and Humanities teaching in the Sri Lankan University System

BY Farzana Haniffa

The Sri Lankan University system celebrated 100 years of university education in the humanities and social sciences in 2021. As part of commemorating the centenary, the UGC with the Standing Committee Head as its convenor organised a conference on the present status of Humanities and Social Science Education. The conference brought together some of the best minds in the Humanities and Social Sciences (H and SS) in the country and was an indication that the disciplines were alive and well within Sri Lanka.

Yet, there is very little recognition or acceptance of the kind of knowledge the H and SS can bring to the table at the level of the UGC mediated Quality Assurance process. Even a cursory look at the level descriptors of the quality assurance framework reveal how little input H and SS perspectives seem to have had in their formulation. While recognising the Standing committee’s important ongoing work to raise the profile of the H and SS within our universities, I would like to discuss a recent experience that spoke to the current level of disregard for these disciplines within the Quality Assurance world.

The AHEAD project is the latest World Bank-funded university improvement exercise and the mantra of “employability”– the contentious ground from which all recent higher education policymaking is done—drives this particular project cycle as well. The workshop we attended was entitled “How to incorporate employability skills into teaching and learning in University Education using the Sri Lanka Quality Assurance Framework (SLQF).” These workshops are ubiquitous within the University System and are conducted by a group of academics who have long been engaged with the SLQF process.

The workshop was part of the systematisation process being carried out in the university where we are required to write our course outlines within a uniform format that names all intended learning outcomes (ILOs) for the programme and the course. This workshop was about how to write learning outcomes at the lesson level.

The first 15 minutes of the workshop was devoted to describing what outcome-based education is. The outcome that we anticipate needs to be programed into our activities at the outset, we were told. If we don’t do that we will be disappointed in what we “produce.” The final “product” that we were to envisage using the SLQF framework was a “good citizen” who could contribute to society. We were then asked to imagine the production of a building, or of a car. Such a product needs plans and a blueprint. When planning a “human product” too, we should think about planning for the production process. A “human product” is more complex, because we must take individuality into consideration, we were told. Every individual is different, and we have less control over the process with Human Products. We were also told that regardless of how difficult it is, if we have a plan for the process, we can be assured of at least some broad similarities in our “products.”

In our H and SS programmes, we constantly strive to teach students to unlearn what has become “normal” in popular parlance. Using the language of the market and the production process of saleable goods to refer to students would be an example of the neoliberal marketisation creep that we would warn students to be attentive to. We would suggest that not referring to students as complex individuals with histories and particular personalities, and as people we form relationships with, and whose talents and abilities we nurture, is a process of dehumanisation. We would draw attention to the fact that such language encourages thinking of students as nondescript cogs in the wheel of a capitalist system, and that using dehumanising language has dehumanising consequences.

My point, in relation to the training workshop is this: there is no inherent problem with designing course outlines and broad learning outcomes. It is good for planning and is efficient. However, the lack of any sensitivity to language, indicates the absence of an H and SS perspective. Outcome-based education could also have been described as a process of preparation essential for the thriving of students, for the encouragement of their creativity and for the nurturing of their skills. Direction and structure are a necessary foundation from which creativity can emerge. The fact that such language was not used speaks both to the ignoring of the H and SS approach and also to a paucity of imagination in the formulation of the purpose of quality assurance. The ultimate goal of the SLQF format and the workshop – as its title suggested– was to incorporate “employability skills.” And the current definition of “employability skills,” as has been discussed repeatedly in this column, is egregious and limiting.

The usage of a metaphor of production to refer to students also meant half the participants at the workshop were completely put off by the presentation. More troublingly, the other half were eager to learn the corporate language to ensure that they performed well in keeping with the requirements of the current dispensation. In the process, irreparable harm was being done to how both sets of young H and SS scholars approached and valued their disciplinary training.

The trainer’s own assessment of H and SS knowledge was illustrated further in the example that she finally used to teach us how to write a lesson’s learning outcomes. We were required to use verbs to correspond with different levels of learning, and provide content to match the verb. As an illustration of how to do that, the trainer used an example she believed would be familiar to us in the H and SS: the Social Determinants of Health, known to people in Economics, Sociology, Psychology and other disciplines, we were told.

The following is a faithful description of the discussion regarding how to produce ILOs when teaching about the Social Determinants of Health.

We should start with the verb “List”, it was suggested, and have the first ILO be – “List common social determinants of health” because these are “basic things a student should know before finding what social determinants a particular person is affected with.”

The second ILO was more puzzling. The trainer said it should start with the verb “Explain”— “an act that require[s] a little more intellectual activity.” She then described what a student should be able to “explain” regarding the Social Determinants of Health. “What would be a social determinant of health that affects a heavy smoker? Maybe the smoking is done in a group with social pressure, maybe it’s his job—there are some jobs where you get free cigarettes.”

The trainer went on to tell us that we should next require that students analyze a health problem to identify Social Determinants of Health and then design strategies of modifying Social Determinants of Health. It soon became clear to some of us that the trainer had no idea what Social Determinants of Health were: the macro social factors impacting the unequal conditions in which people live, and not reducible to a single individual’s social circle or social life, as assumed by the trainer.

The WHO’s somewhat critiqued but easily googled definition reads,

“[The social determinants of health] are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life. These forces and systems include economic policies and systems, development agendas, social norms, social policies and political systems.

The trainer had made no effort to look up the Social Determinants of Health when choosing to use them as an example.

I choose this incident not primarily to shame the trainer, but to point to a larger malaise affecting the university system and policymaking on education. The assumption behind the trainer’s failure to understand Social Determinants of Health prior to using them to teach us with, is that H and SS knowledge requires no expertise. The years we spend teaching students to recognize different forms of inequality and marginalization, to explain their histories, how they continue to persist, to analyse the material effects of such situations and their prevalence in students’ own contexts, and to design creative strategies to overturn persisting inequality and marginalization, are negated in the trainer’s assumptions.

I present this instance as an illustration of what we, teachers and researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities experience every day – an undervaluing of the expertise we can bring to the table. The general lack of value placed on Arts Degree holders has transformed into a policy on “employability” widely held within the university system – even among some Social Sciences and Humanities Educators. These policies devalue the worth of H and SS perspectives and undermine and weaken the integrity of these programs.