Vacant Seats for Vice Chancellors
By Thameenah Razeek
The latest circular issued by the University Grants Commission has resulted in vacant positions for the role of Vice Chancellor at seven of the 15 State Universities, as it has raised issues over the relevant appointment procedure.
Vacancies in the Kelaniya, Visual & Performing Arts; Sabaragamuwa, Wayamba, Uva Wellassa, Buddhist & Pali; and Jaffna Universities are yet to be filled.
The Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) highlighted that the main reason for the delay in appointments is the shortcomings in the new circular released and published on 04 May, which left many applicants ineligible. The FUTA objected to certain criteria in the new UGC circular, pointing out that it was basing the appointment of a Vice Chancellor on non-academic businessmen’s opinion of the matter.
While insisting that the UGC’s move to repeal the circular of Appointment to the Post of Vice-Chancellor was a pointless exercise, FUTA President, Prof. Shyama Banneheka noted that the new circular was intended to prevent political appointments being made to university Vice Chancellor positions, although it still fails to effectively prevent this from happening.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) at its 1,029th meeting held on 30 April, having reviewed the existing procedure specified in the said Commission Circular No. 04/2018 in recommending three names of the candidates to the Commission for the purpose of appointment to the post of Vice Chancellor of a University in terms of Section 34(1) of the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978, decided to repeal the provisions stipulated in the said circular and replace them with a new procedure.
However, applications were called for under the old circular, as the advertisements were published in the newspaper before 30 April. Prof. Banneheka noted that the UGC never mentioned a new circular in the vacancies they published before 3 April, and so applications submitted under the old circular had to be resubmitted after the new circular was released. “It created a delay in appointments and the UGC had to appoint Acting Vice Chancellors at the universities. The new circular has a lot of shortcomings, which are serious issues that should be addressed thoroughly,” he added.
Prof. Banneheka explained that the UGC issued this latest circular out of the blue on 4 May, after taking a decision on the matter at its Special Meeting held on 6 February. The circular repealed the previous appointment guidelines that were set by an existing circular since June 2018 and stipulated a new appointment procedure.
Preventing political interference
When asked about the reason behind the new circular, Prof. Banneheka said that UGC Chairman, Professor Sampath Amaratunga had found the appointments of Vice Chancellors to be politically influenced, with all Vice Chancellors harbouring their own political agenda.
According to the old circular, all eligible applicants for the post of Vice-Chancellor are to be invited for a brief 10 to 15-minute presentation to the Council of the university prior to commencing the election. Under the new circular, the Secretary to the Council of the university is to adopt a two-step evaluation process to recommend three names to the Commission from among the candidates that applied for the post of Vice Chancellor.
Prof. Banneheka noted that in the first step, the five-member Evaluation Committee constituted by the Council conducts a detailed assessment of the suitability of applicants for the post of Vice Chancellor, shortlists a maximum of five candidates, and ranks them in the order of marks obtained. He noted that three names from among the shortlisted candidates are to be selected by a Special Council Meeting convened for that purpose on the same day.
“All candidates that apply for the position will be able to let themselves to be evaluated by the Council of the university, but under the new circular, it seems like the Secretary to the Council can still take an arbitrary decision without even considering others’ recommendations, which can be also politicised. All the applicants had a chance to showcase their qualifications and talents before, while the current circular only allows a maximum of five applicants to showcase themselves at the Special Council Meeting convened for that purpose,” he noted.
Besides these shortlisted candidates, no others are allowed to participate in the presentation and evaluation process, even in the case of such a candidate being a member of the Council.
Prof. Banneheka said that according to the old circular, after nominating three candidates, a ballot paper will be prepared containing the names of all eligible applicants and the final determination shall be made by the Council voting by secret ballot, which can be less transparent. The Professor noted that removing the secret ballot was a good move to increase transparency in appointments.
Speaking about the five-member Evaluation Committee appointed prior to the closing of applications for the post of Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Banneheka said the Committee would include one member nominated by the UGC from among the former Vice Chancellors of other universities, provided they are not a member of the relevant Council, who shall be the Chairman of the Evaluation Committee.
Two senior-most Academic Members of the Senate, other than those two members who represent the Senate in the Council, will be nominated by the Senate of the University, and another two should be personnel from the Sri Lanka Administrative Service of the highest grade, who had held or is presently holding the Post of Secretary to a Cabinet Minister. The last member of the Committee will be someone that had held or is presently holding the Post of CEO or Chairman of a reputed public/private sector organisation.
The UGC’s inclusion of personnel from the private sector in the Committee raises concerns as to why someone from the private sector should evaluate an appointment to lead a State University. “We don’t understand the contribution of the private sector representative to the committee. We also have no idea about their qualification level and if it is enough to evaluate someone applying for such a high-level post,” added Prof. Banneheka.
He also stated that the UGC is taking such a stance to ensure that even though the university is State-run, it should have a touch of the private sector.
The Secretary to the Council, immediately after publishing the advertisement calling for applications for the Post of Vice Chancellor of the University, is to request the UGC for the appointment of three members for the Evaluation Committee, as well as a suitable person to serve as the observer for the UGC at the Evaluation Committee and the Special Council Meeting proceedings. The UGC shall provide the Terms of Reference of the Observer at the time of appointment.
UGC Chairman clarifies position
In regard to this issue, UGC Chairman, Prof. Sampath Amaratunga said that applications for the post of Vice Chancellor have been called for, but only those eligible for the vacancy will be appointed after the General Election.
“The UGC has issued a new circular regarding the appointment of Vice Chancellor. Prior to the issuance of the circular, the University of Kelaniya had called for the position and sent the names of three eligible persons to the UGC. However, according to the new circular, the university has been asked to re-apply,” he added.
FUTA has informed the commission in writing regarding the issues that have risen accordingly after releasing the new circular and the consequences the applicants are facing.
When asked why the UGC decided to include the contribution of a private sector employee, Prof. Amaratunga noted that this would be a CEO of a private institute, bearing the full education qualification required to evaluate an applicant for the position of Vice Chancellor.
Explaining the main reason for repealing the old circular, Prof. Amaratunga said that the appointments that have been made according to the circular issued and signed by former UGC Chairman, Professor Mohan De Silva, could have been politically influenced due to the use of the secret ballot method.
Insisting that the forthcoming Election is one of the reasons in the delay in appointments of the Vice Chancellors, Prof. Amaratunga said that not only the position of Vice Chancellor, but even that of an office assistant could not be staffed during an election period. “So all the appointments should be done after the election, no matter the pending vacancies,” he added.
A Fundamental Rights petition has been filed in Court regarding the circular’s shortcomings and the obstacles posed to eligible applicants thus far. Prof. Banneheka said that the former Vice Chancellor of Kelaniya University, Prof. D.M. Semasinghe filed the petition since the circular violates the university’s autonomy.
“Many who have applied to the position have faced huge irregularities and on their behalf, I filed the petition at Supreme Court. The hearings will start on 16 July,” Prof. Semasinghe added. The respondents are the UGC, FUTA and the Council of the University of Kelaniya.
Confirming the petition has been filed in Court, Prof. Amaratunga noted that he cannot comment on the matter since proceedings are still underway.