By Professor RP Gunawardane
Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT), one of the best and most popular non-governmental higher education institutions in this country, is in the news these days. It was established in 1998, with the support of the Mahabula Trust and its current status is being challenged by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) of the Parliament of Sri Lanka.
Mahapola Trust Fund (MTF) was established by the late Minister Laith Atholotmodali in the year 1981 to award scholarships to undergraduate students in need in the Sri Lankan university system. The head of the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force has long been the country’s chief judge. So far nearly half a million of our deserving undergraduate students have benefited from the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme. The strength of the MTF is certainly a noble organization, founded with a noble purpose by a great visionary, the late Athulat Mudali, who was one of the best politicians, the most intelligent and energetic minister this country has ever produced.
SLIIT introduces a new model of non-governmental, non-profit, fee-charging university to Sri Lanka even though such institutions are popular in the developed world. All the best universities in the world, including Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, all the Ivy League universities in the US, and even the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London in the UK, are of this type. Although they receive some funding from the government for specific educational and research projects, none of them are under state control.
Almost all the best universities in the world are located in the USA, UK, Europe, Australia and Canada. None of these countries have University Grant Committees (UGCs) or their equivalents, or university laws governing institutions of higher education. All universities are completely independent and run by their boards of directors without any interference from the government. All appointments, including the position of vice presidents, are made independently, by the Board of Directors. It is recognized worldwide that this type of autonomy is required for a university to carry out its duties and functions effectively, while maintaining the highest standards.
History of SLIIT
Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT) started its operations in 1999 as a non-governmental, non-profit higher education institution for training manpower in the field of Computer Science especially in the broad field of Information Technology. The development, with rapid expansion, was made possible due to the strong commitment by the MTF to provide a loan of Rs. 500 million and lease of land comprising 25 acres in Malabe, owned by Mahabula Trust. However, only Rs. $373 million was released by MTF as a loan for this purpose.
Work began at Ceylon Merchant Tower, Colombo 3, which is now called SLIIT’s Metropolitan Campus. After nearly 22 years of existence and rapid development, it is now a full-fledged national university-level higher education institution with wide national and international recognition.
I served on the SLIIT Board of Directors for nearly four years in the initial stages of 2000. I was nominated for membership of the Board by the then Minister of Education and Higher Education Richard Pathirana. I also served as a member of the MTF Board of Governors in my capacity as Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education.
During my tenure, I have noted the tremendous potential of SLIIT in the higher education sector and the effort, dedication, commitment, persistence and hard work of a group of academics led by Professor Lalith Gamage to take this institution to the present level. Whatever mistakes were made in the process of developing this institute, this achievement must be recognized and preserved. This institution should not be destroyed.
SLIIT is a national asset to be maintained and developed as a sectoral non-governmental organization with a framework of checks and balances in relation to broad national policy.
The current status of the institute
Currently, SLIIT has two campuses and four regional centers. The main campus with all laboratories, library, lecture hall and all other facilities is located on 25 acres of land in Malabe. Its metropolitan campus is still located in the BoC Merchant Building, Colombo 3. Its regional centers are spread across the country in the major cities – Matara, Kandy, Kurunegala and Jaffna. About 12,000 students are enrolled in this institution with about 400 highly qualified faculty members and 200 administrative and support staff. It has a large number of links and joint degree programs with reputable universities in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.
SLIIT, being a non-profit, non-governmental institution, is not under the jurisdiction of the UGC, nor does it have to abide by the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978, which has central and decision-making powers in the UGC. Thus, SLIIT has the enormous advantage and complete freedom to expand and diversify the programs in innovative ways, without any authorization or approval from any authorities.
This freedom does not exist in state universities and therefore approvals and approvals must be obtained from the University Grants Commission and other relevant ministries and bodies to start new programmes. In recent years, UGC has acquired more and more powers outside the Universities Act with regard to offering new courses and new projects requiring prior approval from UGC. Sometimes, it takes up to one year or more to get the necessary approvals or approvals. By the time approval is obtained, the program may be outdated or if it is a joint project with a foreign university or international organization, the other party is no longer interested.
This kind of freedom should be reserved for SLIIT to further develop and implement new and innovative programs. Our national universities do not have the kind of freedom currently available to SLIIT. This is the reason why our universities cannot compete with other similar institutions in Sri Lanka and abroad even though the state universities have sufficient experience but with limited resources.
It is important to note that SLIIT (1999) has only achieved the present status in about 22 years of its existence while our oldest universities, Colombo (1942) and Peradeniya (1952), have been around for about 70-80 years. Remarkably, this institution has become a vibrant national university that outperforms most of our public universities with the exception of a few universities such as Peradeniya and Colombo.
SLIIT can be considered as a new experience and a new approach to higher education in Sri Lanka. Hence, this approach should be further explored to expand and diversify the higher education sector in Sri Lanka.
Issues and concerns
SLIIT management claims that a loan of Rs. 373 million obtained from Mahapola Trust (MTF) for the creation of SLIIT was fully paid out with interest totaling Rs. 408 million. In addition to this, they also pay the annual rent of Rs. 25 million to land in Malabe regularly, as agreed. However, it should be noted that MTF is not a commercial bank or money lending institution and does not provide loans to others. It has not provided loans to any other organization. It is believed that MTF at the time wanted to make a long-term investment in higher education in line with the philosophy of its founder Lalith Athulathmudali. The intent was to generate additional funding to support scholarship funding for a rapidly growing number of undergraduate students in need. Thus, supporting the creation of SLIIT is an investment that MTF has made for the future.
I consider SLIIT disconnecting from MTF a grave and unforgivable mistake made by SLIIT management. SLIIT would not have reached its present state in two decades had it not been for the original support of the MTF through a massive loan and 60-year lease agreement for land at a prime location in Malabi.
Furthermore, SLIIT’s refusal to appear before COPE is very unfortunate even though they may not have to do so legally due to their current situation. However, this act by SLIIT set up by a noble organization such as Mahapola Trust is highly unethical and needs condemnation. It was also a missed opportunity for SLIIT management to explain their side of the story to COPE members in order to gain some concessions.
Although they developed innovative and popular academic programs, and quickly attracted a large number of students, there were a number of outstanding and troubling issues, within the institute. Among them:
1. The insufficient focus on high-quality research and the lack of initiative to develop a much-needed research culture at the Institute are clearly seen.
2. In the past there were some news reports about irregularities in the financial management of the institute by some senior officials. These complaints cannot be validated until an investigation is conducted. It was reported that there was no appropriately qualified and experienced accountant or broker to handle the financial matters, and there had been no internal audit for an extended period of time.
It is imperative that the government does not take responsibility for the Sri Lankan Penal Code Bill. If that happens, it will surely do more harm than good to the higher education sector. First of all, its association with the Mahabula Trust, which can be considered the parent institution, must be fully restored. It is also necessary to reconstitute a completely independent board of directors, consisting of eminent and highly qualified professionals with no history of any crimes. It shall also include one representation of the Mahapola Trust. This institution shall continue to operate as a non-governmental, non-profit higher education institution with fee-charging status. Appointments at all levels must be made by the Board of Directors without any outside or government interference.
The matters raised above and any audit reports must be thoroughly investigated and appropriate action taken in order to improve the image of the organisation. As stated in SLIIT’s original agreement with the MTF, and also as a goodwill gesture, SLIIT shall pay 20% of its profits annually to the MTF to further the Mahapola Scholarship Program. This should be done even if MTF ownership of the institute is not legally established. This is in addition to the annual rent payment for the Mahapola Trust for its use of 25 acres of land in Malabe, where the main campus is located.
Furthermore, SLIIT shall establish a scholarship scheme by contributing sufficient funds to provide partial scholarships to needy students covering at least 10% of the total student population of the institute. This aspect is very important for the survival of a fee-charging NGO in a country where public universities provide free education.
There may also be a need to restructure the institute, avoiding unnecessary and unrelated structures, units and areas of study and strengthening the teaching, research and consulting functions in the core area of information technology. It is necessary to retain the non-governmental and non-profit status of SLIIT so that this institution can rapidly develop into one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in Asia, attracting a large number of foreign students. In this endeavor, it would be better for SLIIT if Professor Lalith Gamage, the direct corps of this institution, and primarily responsible for its phenomenal success, could continue in the position of Vice President/CEO for a longer period to see the best results.
(The author is Professor Emeritus, Peradeniya University, Former Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman of the National Commission on Education, Sri Lanka)