Cry for Help from Oluvil

A letter Engineering Students Union, South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, Oluvil had sent to Minister Lakshman Kiriella and Hon. State Minister Mohanlal Grero Ministry of Higher Education.)

We are three batches of engineering students from South Eastern University Sri Lanka (SEUSL). We write to you urgently because we feel sacrificed as a result of posturing by MPs, the Public, and Government Officials at our expense, while they themselves make no sacrifice.

Please recall the history of our engineering faculty. Following the 2012 Z-score fiasco, the Supreme Court ordered the UGC to incorporate an additional 5609 students into the university system. To accommodate an additional 100 engineering students easily the then government opened ourOluvil engineering faculty in a hurry. This was when Jaffna too was embarking on anew Engineering Faculty with challenges in recruiting staff.

The Supreme Court order was delivered in September 2012 – and the first batch of students was registered in March 2013. That is, the process of establishing this faculty barely lasted seven months. The first batch of staff, including the Dean, was recruited after the students registered. Nowhere has this ever happened. Setting up any faculty, especially an engineering faculty – given the sophisticated nature of the course involving laboratories, industrial work, and so on, takes years of careful planning. When this is not done – and those in power attempt to fix one mistake with another – a crisis is the inevitable consequence. We are that crisis.

The location of the faculty was political. Ours too was built in the outbacks of the Eastern Province, as it seemed, to address political imperatives. Educational principles were lost.

Many of us sent to SEUSL in the normal course would have been sent to read engineering at Peradeniya, Ruhuna or Moratuwa, all of which are known for high academic standards. Sri Lankan state universities have, over the years, consistently produced competent engineers whose contribution to the country’s economy is salutary. They command respect internationally because of the quality of education provided by the country’s engineering faculties so far.

Today this proud heritage is under threat from our Oluvil Engineering Faculty. Oluvil products will destroy the hard earned reputation of Sri Lankan engineers. There are nearly three hundred of us struggling with low quality education, scarcity of quality teaching staffleading to completing courses without lectures or labs, minimal physical resources, the absence of links to industry and other engineering faculties through isolated location, and long lapses between semesters for lack of staff.

Location is one of the foremost considerations when setting up an engineering faculty. Oluvil is a coastal village in the Ampara district. It is isolated from all the major cities – 350 km away from Colombo – and is not surrounded by engineering industry. We rarely receive invitations for exhibitions and engineering competitions as other engineering faculties do. Visitors do not come to lead colloquia. These shortcomings leave us bereft of the soft-skills engineers need besides technical competence.

With paddy cultivation and fisheries being the main drivers of the local economy, there is an inability to attract staff. Currently, there are eleven lecturers (3 senior lecturers and 8 probationary) – less than three lecturers per department. Only the Dean and two others hold doctorates.Most lecturers hold only bachelors’ degrees. Two out of four departments – electrical-telecommunications and computer engineering – do not have heads. Teaching standards are below par. The research output of the staff is thin. Most lecturers carry no academic experience prior to joining us. Often we have no classes Monday to Friday awaiting visiting lecturers over the weekend and then find that such lecturers have not come.

The faculty has regularly compromised the quality of education. Despite extremely poor student feedback, certain lecturers are re-assigned to teach the same subjects. Students are expected to digest material meant for a semester in a matter of days because visiting lecturers accelerate delivery to make do with fewertrips. Somelab sessions were cut down because of time constraints in finishing the semester.

Two-and-half-years is ample time to judge whether a faculty will progress. Any possibilities of improvement shouldshow by now but we seenothing.Instead,our Faculty, is rapidly spiraling out of control. Apart from the first semester for the first batch of students (from May to October 2013) every single semester that followed – for all three batches – were extended by a minimum of two weeks, because of the faculty’s inability to finish up academic activities within the allotted 15 weeks. The number of subjects taughtby staff attached to the faculty has dropped with each passing semester. For example, all the four subjects offered by the Department of Electrical and Telecommunications Engineering for third year students are being taught by visiting lecturers. This correlates with increased unproductive hours for the students during the week. Hardly anything happens during weekdays, with all the lectures lumped together on weekends. One subject for the mechanical students did not start until the twelfth week. Subjects that require semester-long digestion are force-fed in a matter of days. Holidays, too, have lengthened with each passing semester. It took more than five months to release exam results.

Since January 2015, a new president and prime minister, a new higher education minister and a UGC chairman, and a new Vice Chancellor have assumed office. But, for us nothing has changed: things have only worsened.

For two-and-a-half-years we have demanded better quality education, good quality teachers, regular schedules, shorter holidays, better research opportunities and links to industry. We have raised these concerns with lecturers, the dean; in faculty board meetings and in writing. We forewarned the faculty administration in a letter dated May-2014 that the lack of teaching resources will be more acutely felt with time. We warned that we would lag our parallel batches in other engineering faculties by an inexcusable distance if the administration does not arrest the situation. Sadly, the administration lacked our foresight. Nor did it act on our concerns: the net increase in lecturers since is only three. We lagg our parallel batches by a full year.

As students, we have supported the administration in every way possible in the belief that things would improve. In October 2013, the then minister for higher education visited our faculty. The concerns we have listed were explained to him in detail. He promised to fix them – particularly, the lack of human resources. The former Vice Chancellor of our university also made several grand promises of improving the faculty. Even under the reign of the new Vice Chancellor the situation has deteriorated. All we are left with now are broken promises.

The administration is unable to offer creative solutions. Is that not why UGC Institutional Review of 2009 ruled ‘limited confidence’ in the university?

Hon. Kiriella Sir, you have said “Universities’ standards have plummeted to the Maha Vidyala level today.” But at least in Maha Vidyalayas classes are held. You must do something. The best solution is to close down this faculty.

Therefore,

(i) As an immediate measure, we request the government to quickly reallocate the students assigned to SEUSL engineering faculty for 2015 intake to other engineering faculties.

(ii) We request that the government either relocates us – the three batches already enrolled in Oluvil – to the most viable location at another university close to industry and with a track record of sound management, or distribute the students to existing faculties.

To continue is to violate the business adage not to throw resources into a failing venture. Fixes in Oluvil will be money down the drain.

It is good to find ways to improve the lives of people in Oluvil. But that burden must fall on all Sri Lankans; not on a few of us who are being used as sacrificial lambs with no tangible benefit to the people of Oluvil.

We are boycotting classes because they are unacceptably bad. No longer can we wait. A decisive solution that takes into account our immediate concerns and the long term interests of the country and state engineering education is what will satisfy us after two-and-a-half-years of half measures.

http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=135999

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