Academic quality is of utmost importance in the field of higher education. The University of Colombo is in the forefront of higher education in Sri Lanka. In addition to providing high quality education to both undergraduates and post-graduate students, the University is involved in many high-quality research projects. Ensuring quality and strength of faculty is important in this regard. It is important to ensure that the junior academic staff is given the opportunity to develop as individuals under the guidance of experienced academic staff members.
It is important to have a central process that focuses on overall career development of new faculty through continued and close attention. This is useful to ensure that newly recruited academics face challenges in teaching, research and interpersonal relationships as they are made to adapt to an environment which is very different from which they received their initial training. This need was identified during the institutional review process conducted in the Faculty of Medicine, by University Grants Commission in 2014-15. The Academic Mentoring Program was established in 2016, as an initiative to help early career academics to overcome these challenges. Academic Mentoring is an essential part of the academic development of well-established Universities around the world, though this concept is new to both Asia and Sri Lanka. Therefore, the concept of formal programs in academic Mentoring was introduced to Sri Lanka for the first time through this Program in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo.
The program was initiated as a pilot which was a simple in-house program within the faculty. This program was established with very little prior experience while facing the challenge of having limited resources. During the first phase both infra- structure and guidelines were developed and approvals were obtained. The in-house Academic Mentoring Program was started for the newly recruited academic staff of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo and all the newly recruited academic staff members were invited to join as mentees. The senior academics served as mentors. The program was evaluated at the end of the first year and the results were encouraging. Thus, ensuring the continuation of the in-house program to date. Each year newly recruited academics are enrolled into the program.
After completion of Phase 1 activities, the next challenge was to share our experience with the rest of the University of Colombo. The main focus during Phase 2 was on developing a culture of academic mentoring within the University of Colombo. In order to do so, a program was designed and this was fully funded by the University of Colombo. Mentor training sessions were offered to academic staff of all faculties/institutes /campuses of the University of Colombo. These sessions aimed at developing the mentoring skills and capacity of academic staff to serve as mentors.
A series of six workshops were conducted with the support of established overseas University programs on mentoring. These sessions had 3 main objectives. They were, raising awareness, enhancing individual skills, and providing support to develop similar in-house programs. Therefore, this was an opportunity for experience sharing, critical self-appraisal and obtaining input from content experts. As a result of these sessions, some of the faculties/campuses/institutes that participated in the program have gone on to establish Academic Mentoring Programs in their individual institutes.
During this phase, two of the main challenges were the lack of expertise and awareness. The many international collaborations thus developed helped overcome these challenges. This phase saw some noteworthy collaborations between many international institutions including the Academy of Medical Sciences, University of Birmingham, University of Cambridge, University of Bristol and University of Oxford in the UK, University of California San Francisco, USA and Monash University in Malaysia.
In addition to the above-described workshops of the Program Establishment Support Series, the Academic Mentoring Program realized the need to raise national academic awareness on mentoring. The Academic Mentoring Program has offered national level open activities during this phase. Including a pre-congress session on Mentoring in February 2020 in conjunction with the Colombo Medical Congress held to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo and a Mentoring Day in January 2021 organized as a post congress activity of the University of Colombo Annual Research Symposium.
The Academic Mentoring Program is now moving into its third phase. The two main objectives of this phase are the establishment of the University of Colombo central process to facilitate, and to raise awareness and support the development of similar programs in wider academia. Academic Mentoring Program continues to provide support to individual faculties/institutes /campuses of the University of Colombo, through its University Network in mentoring which was developed from a network of academic staff members nominated through each faculty/institute/campus. Additionally, a central process to support early career academics is being developed.
The Academic Mentoring Program developed a University Pool of mentors comprising of academic staff members from the entire University of Colombo and this is currently being expanded. In addition, fellow state Universities in Sri Lanka were invited to express their interest in introducing mentoring in their institutions. Nominees were identified from each of these institutions to form an Interuniversity Interest Group (IUIG). Professional colleges in the field of medicine were also invited to join our professional colleges network (PCN). At present, state universities and professional colleges attend regular training session series and are in the process of establishing mentoring programs in their respective institutions.
The Academic Mentoring Program also identified this initiative as a great learning opportunity for the University of Colombo through the sharing of experience between universities and organizations.
Although many challenges and obstacles had to be endured throughout the years since the commencement of this program, it has been an eye-opening experience to be a part of Sri Lanka’s first Academic Mentoring Program. We are hoping to spread awareness on mentoring and encourage other higher education institutions and professional colleges to establish their own Academic Mentoring Programs.