The current discourse on the idea of Quality Assurance in Sri Lanka, particularly within the higher education sector of the country, is one that uncritically endorses neoliberal market economy. A close engagement with how the idea of quality assurance is perceived in other countries, from first-world to third-world alike, would show that we are simply, if not simple-mindedly, being part of a widespread global trend. One of the clear goals of the initiatives carried out in the name of quality assurance is to ensure that the higher education institutes, particularly universities and other similar degree-awarding institutes, cater to the needs of market economy. The widespread assumption seems to be that there are predefined slots out there in society, and these institutes need, as their primary, if not sole, responsibility, to produce individuals who would fit into those slots. The numerous calls to bridge the gap between universities and the world of work, design courses and degree programmes that cater to the needs of the world of work, promote soft skills over critical thinking, and get representatives from the industry directly involved in the designing of degree programmes and evaluating of students underscore this assumption. Within this discourse, those degree programmes that do not cater to the needs of the world of work are increasingly becoming not only marginalized but also stigmatized. The fact that they are not directly relevant to the kinds of work that the graduates would be expected to perform is considered an inherent failure of those programmes and their corresponding disciplines. This situation defines the current status of many of the humanities and the social sciences programmes, the former more so than the latter.
In response to this account, one could say that neoliberal market economy is a fact of the day and that the only option for the universities is to go with the tide. One could also say that therefore the only option for the programmes in the humanities and the social sciences is to refashion themselves to make themselves competitive within the current socioeconomic order. While this argument makes sense to a certain extent, to fully subscribe to this view is to completely neglect the special role that universities in general and the humanities in particular have historically been entrusted with.
Does this mean that universities should completely disregard the needs of the neoliberal market economy, which is the order of the day? Not at all. There is no question that universities, as the leading tertiary education institutes in society, need to cater to the needs of the system. The problem is with the indiscriminate call for all degree programmes in the country to be dictated, and that too in a rather servile manner, by the needs of market economy. This call completely disregards the role that universities have historically been assigned as centres of critical thinking. There are many instances in world history where universities have played an active role as centres of resistance. There is no doubt that this particular role of universities has always been frowned upon by the dominant system of the day to varying degrees, but a close engagement with the broader picture would indicate how this very role, once branded as being anti-social and anti-progressive by the centre, has contributed much towards strengthening humanist values of which the primary value is human freedom. Albeit difficult, universities have been able to go against the current precisely because of the relative autonomy that they have enjoyed to varying degrees over the past. The current discourse on quality assurance in the higher education sector is in a way pressurizing universities to give up their autonomous status and capitulate to the dominant order of the day.
There are many degree programmes, which could refashion themselves in order to ensure that they address the needs of neoliberal market economy, without causing much violence to the corresponding disciplines. This is true regarding many of the professional degree programmes where the goal is to produce individuals who are trained for specific professions. The system has predefined slots for professionals, and the responsibility of such programmes is to produce individuals who would fit into those slots. The success of those programmes would largely depend on how smoothly those individuals would fit into the slots. This shows how much the primary goal of such programmes is compatible with what the dominant system expects of them. Given this compatibility, the current call from the system to ensure the quality of those programmes does not necessary entail violence to the corresponding disciplines. This is much more than what could be said about the degree programmes in the humanities.
The majority of the degree programmes in the humanities are not professional in the sense that their primary responsibility is not to train individuals for specific professions. There are no predefined slots out there, which the products of those programmes are designed to fit into. The humanities is ideally about the development of the human mind and strengthening of humanist values. Ideally speaking, the unconditional celebration of human freedom is the necessary first step towards setting up programmes with a humanities outlook. Needless to say that this unconditional celebration of human freedom, which is at the heart of the humanities, is at loggerheads with what neoliberal market economy stands for. There is a clear disparity between what the dominant order of the day demands and what the humanities is in a position to offer without compromising its disciplinary integrity. In such a context, to say that the humanities programmes should somehow refashion themselves to cater to the needs of the market economy entails tremendous violence to the disciplines in question.
It is clear that many programmes in the humanities have cracked under the pressure from the system and tried to refashion themselves with a view to reaching a point where they can cater to the needs of the day in the same manner that their professional degree counterparts do. In trying to do so, they have lost their disciplinary integrity. At best they have become pseudo sciences, which fail to go much beyond jargonizing commonsense and christening half-truths as knowledge. In the process, they have rendered themselves exactly what the centre criticizes them of—non-serious, even useless, academic engagements. The widespread criticism against the humanities programmes, in this sense, is largely justified; nevertheless, that is not because the humanities as a field lacks depth and integrity but because the programmes in the humanities have drifted away from the principles and values that the field is based on. In this sense, what the system is in the process of doing in the name of streamlining the humanities programmes and assuring their quality is to drain life out of the field and turn it into a lifeless and spirit-less arid zone.
Does this mean that quality assurance is not for the humanities? The simple answer is no. The present discourse on the idea of quality assurance is so strong and pervasive that it is not an option for the programmes in the humanities to step out of the discourse. As problematic as the current conceptualization of quality assurance might be, it has become a fact of life, and it is clear that the humanities programmes have no option but to live with it. That said, all the stakeholders concerned have a responsibility to ensure that the humanities is afforded the room and academic freedom to be what it has historically been expected to be. This is extremely important for the reason that the humanities—the undiluted version of it—is what affords the space and conceptual framework for the rethinking of the system itself.