By Aboobacker Rameez –
The Future of the Engineering Faculty of South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, Oluvil
I am writing in reference to a recent article appearing in Colombo Telegraph on the 27th November, 2015, entitled “Minister Kiriella: Engineering At Oluvil To Be Closed And Students Shifted”. I felt that this article was inimical not only to all those students pursing their studies at the university, but also to all those who have been working there as part of the university community. It seriously dents the image of the university.
I believe that some of the concerns of the Engineering students of SEUSL/Oluvil are valid. Nevertheless, their demands and reactions are unreasonable and disproportionate.
New faculties and new university do encounter challenges at the outset
It is common that new faculties or universities, when they are first established, encounter numerous challenges in terms of lack of physical and human resources. I know of a medical faculty in a university in the Eastern Province, when it was founded in 2005, was faced with a lot of challenges. It had only one consultant and a PhD holder. The rest of the teaching staff, all, had only undergraduate degrees. This predictably caused a lot of hue and cry from the students and parents. Nevertheless, this medical faculty continued to operate under these difficult circumstances for a few more years before the situation began to improve and completely changed for better. At present, this medical faculty is equipped with over ten consultants with either post-graduate or doctoral degrees. Its students are now fully satisfied. The same was also the case when the Engineering Faculty was first established in another University in 1997. The Engineering Faculty of South Eastern University has now got fifteen academic staff. Of them, five are senior lecturers. Three of them hold doctoral degrees, and another three graduate degrees. Those with undergraduate degrees are reading for their masters in various reputed universities. The quality and quantity of the teaching staff are expected to improve fast. The new incentive offered by the UGC recently, in a circular, to senior academic staff working at the Engineering Faculties of other universities but are willing to move to the SEU is a great move in the right direction. There is also the likelihood of a coordinator being appointed to oversee visits by the visiting lecturers from other universities. There are a lot of positive steps being taken. Therefore, it is important that students take note of all these positive developments before they engage in any activism.
I learn that the curriculum of the faculty was designed by a team of prominent consultants, numbering over twenty from Moratuwa, Peradeniya, Open and Ruhuna Universities; and that it is on par with curricula in world-class Engineering universities. A delegation, which included the State Minister of Higher Education and a Senior Professor of engineering, recently visited the university to look into the issue at hand. It was fully satisfied with the curriculum of the faculty. Criticism about the quality of the curriculum seem to have no sound basis.
Lab equipment and machineries
Another concern of the students is the lack of equipment and machineries. But the faculty is equipped with modern equipment and machineries, purchased at colossal cost. Under new governmental allocation, procurement process is still underway to purchase more modern equipment.
Visiting lecturers are experts in their specific field
The visiting lecturers are experts in their fields, and are already employed at Moratuwa, Colombo and Ruhunu Universities. It is true that having visiting lecturers result in conducting of classes during the weekend, and that cancellations too occur due to unforeseen circumstances preventing them from arriving in the university on scheduled times and days. This issue, without no question, should be addressed forthwith. Nevertheless, there is no question about the professional integrity and suitability of these visiting lecturers.
Ample Opportunity for Linkages with Industries
There have been some criticism against the choice of Oluvil as a location for an engineering faculty. But Oluvil is in the coastal areas of Ampara district, which was very badly affected by both the civil war and the tsunami in 2004. Ampara district is currently home to a lot major construction and reconstruction works, which provide ample opportunity for civil engineering students to have onboard training. Ampara is also the home to Hingurana Suger Factory (Galoya Plantation), Bio Mass (Bio Energy Power Plant), Inginiyagala Power Plant, and a number of rice mills, all of them offer many and varied opportunities for engineering students to undertake their training in.
Closing down the engineering faculty, or even shifting it, is impracticable; and has no precedence in Sri Lanka. Should it happen it would establish a bad precedence making it difficult for new faculties being established elsewhere in the future. In addition, finding placements for the three hundred students would be a monumental task. Even if some of them were to find placements in other universities, the differences in the curricula would make it harder for them to pursue their studies. It is true that there are valid concerns, but calling for the shifting or even closing of the faculty is not the best solution. Better solutions can be found by the students engaging the authorities in dialogue and negotiations. I personally know that the University authorities are receptive to the valid concerns of the students. The intense nature of their reaction to the problems would do more harm than good. Boycotting lectures would delay the completion of their degrees; and when they pass out later than the planned year, they might be entering a saturated job market.
It is to be noted that, according to a Tamil website, the Minister of Higher Education and Highways, Hon. Laksman Kiriella, has yesterday dismissed the news about the closing down of the Faculty of Engineering, SEUSL and requested that students and parents be not misled by such fabricated stories. He also promised that the faculty, like other faculties, would be upgraded with all necessary requirements in the future.
Moreover, the Higher Education Ministry, the University Grand Commission and the university authorities need to seriously look into the concerns of the students and address them immediately. The circular issued by the UGC recently, promising incentives to those senior academic staff wanting to join the faculty of engineering at SEUSL, and the appointment of a coordinator are both welcome gestures. I am optimistic that the university authorities would do everything they can to address the concerns of the students to their fullest satisfaction.
*Dr. A.Rameez is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Department of Social Sciences, SEUSL.