What’s wrong with our universities?

11 October 2013 09:24 pm - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Loopholes in the National Higher Education System

For a long period of time, the universities in Sri Lanka have been central to the success of the national higher education enterprise, pursuing distinctive missions while responding to changing societal expectations to expand and diversify their functions. In recent years, however, a number of educationalists and opinion-shapers have begun to question about many aspects of our universities and demanding greater attention to undergraduate education, and wider scrutiny of faculty productivity.

  In this article, I share my concerns as a senior citizen who is interested in the welfare of the future generation and offer few reflections as my personal opinion how our universities may be sustained as economically and intellectually viable and attractive places for academic work.


 The story of the present university education in Sri Lanka can be viewed as a story of mixed fortunes. Today, there are doubts whether our universities, under the current conditions, will be able to continue to lay claims on being central to national capacity to connect with the new international knowledge system and develop technologies needed in the wider society. Most educationalists believe that university governance in Sri Lanka today is nothing but crises management.

 I believe there are 5 reasons for the crisis.

1. Funding Shortage: It is not a secret that there is growing shortage of funds and learning resources in our university system. It is true there is a substantial increase in the proportion of total expenditure devoted to overall education, but allocation made to the university sector has been considered to be inadequate, considering the increase in undergraduate enrolment and ever increasing cost.

2. Deteriorated infrastructure: It is worrysome to note that our universities are fast decaying. All the resources required for the education production process are in short supply. Lecture halls, laboratories, students’ hostels, library space, books and journals and office spaces are all inadequate.  This condition of resource inadequacy is an offshoot of the endemic financial crises in the sector.

"The story of the present university education in Sri Lanka can be viewed as a story of mixed fortunes. Today, there are doubts whether our universities, under the current conditions, will be able to continue to lay claims on being central to national capacity to connect with the new international knowledge system and develop technologies needed in the wider society"

3. Brain-drain syndrome: University brain-drain refers to widespread migration of academic staff from the universities in the country to overseas universities or equivalent institutions where their services are better rewarded. According to information available, institutional deterioration has prompted substantial “brain-drain” of academic staff and impeded new staff recruitment. It must be emphasised that while the best brains are leaving the university system, the broad aim of producing high level manpower from the system for national development cannot be achieved.

4. Graduate unemployment:  The problem of graduate unemployment is a reality in Sri Lanka where some graduates had to wait for years to get a job in the public service.  It is even common in recent times for university graduates to be subjected to a series of competitive examinations for appointments.

5. Volatile and militant student unionism: One of the banes of effective university management in Sri Lanka in recent times is the unbridled student violent reaction to political issues and internal problems.  The result of student militancy and violent unionism has been the constant closure of universities. It has been observed that universities these days are not totally free from the hand of politics outside the university system.


 In addition to the existing crisis, we must also search an answer for another issue. Is our university education providing the skills the country needs for its economy? To answer this question, we need first to know which skills are needed.   For example, it is proven that the pattern of the occupations of citizens in Sri Lanka in 2000 and 2013 is similar to what is found in other countries in the region, and has remained remarkably stable. However, if the distribution of university students by fields of study for the past 10 years is analysed, one can see it is not compatible with this picture. 

There is a growing consensus that the abilities more widely required by our economy are related to skilled specialised fields in agriculture, forestry, fishery, health, manufacturing and engineering, technical skills, management and IT. However, scientific, managerial and technological competence is just one among other elements that make up the “innovation systems” that are considered essential for this kind of transformation.

 Sri Lanka as a developing country and a smaller economy can share the benefits of knowledge societies if we are able to link to the international economy, get the knowledge and information we need, and develop our own competence for innovation. We need to develop our “platform for transfers” and participation, which requires a large stock of qualified skilled manpower, a significant research and development establishment and an infrastructure for information exchange and communications.  


 It has become obvious that the broad aims of producing high-level manpower for national development are not being achieved as a result of the multi-faceted problems bedeviling the university system. It therefore becomes necessary to suggest ways of making the system more effective and efficient in relation to contemporary Sri Lankan society.

 For meaningful development to take place in the university system, the government must be ready to address the issue of funding the system adequately. The government should as a matter of national importance review upward the pay-package for academics, give consent to the university autonomy being clamoured for by the academics. It is also recommended that there is the need to make plans and projections on the nation’s manpower needs in a bid to integrate this into university programmes. 

University education in Sri Lanka today needs a total overhauling and restructuring.. The curriculum needs to be reformed in content and in methodology to give room for the spirit of inquiry, discovery and experimentation. Humanities placement policy has not been correctly implemented resulting in overproduction of humanities graduates while some areas of critical importance have been neglected. It has therefore become necessary to re-style the university education to become purely practical oriented for skill acquisition.

  Comments - 1

  • CHANDRAPALA Saturday, 12 October 2013 01:38 PM

    Before the 1972 constitution the degrees in the state universities were highly recommended and accepted not only in locally but also in internationally. But after the 1977 constitution entire education system was destroyed by our politicians.

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