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Non-state actors in higher education in Sri Lanka: Issues and challenges

2017-02-27 10:47:12
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Following is the synopsis of the 27th J.E. Jayasuriya Memorial Lecture delivered by Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka Executive Director Dr. Saman Kelegama.

 

1. Capacity constraints of the state higher education system – Need for a parallel system with private sector involvement
Today, Sri Lanka faces a great challenge with limited higher educated human capital unable to meet the demands of the market. According to the population census 2012, only 4 percent of the age 25 years and above population have degree-level qualifications. This is mainly due to the higher education system catering only to a very small proportion of the population of 
the country. 


University intake has become progressively more competitive throughout the years due to the limited number of placements available. Of the 149,489 students who were eligible for university entrance from the A-level 2014/2015, only 17 percent were admitted to state universities due to limited placements in the state-funded universities. Consequently, each year, about 120,000 students who qualify for university admission have to abandon their ambitions to enter a university. Moreover, many students who pass out from international schools with Edexel or International Baccalaureate or any other equivalent qualification are not able to find a place in 
local universities.


Annually, around 12,000 Sri Lankan students are estimated to go overseas for higher education opportunities. The drain on foreign exchange is estimated at US $ 50 million per annum. Those who cannot afford overseas education have been increasingly looking at the domestic market for alternative options. 


To fill this gap, many non-state actors have come into the field of higher education. Various private sector degree-awarding institutions have sprung up across the country to cater to the rising demand for higher education. The expansion of higher education opportunities in Sri Lanka via non-state actors have enabled many students, some of whom would otherwise have studied abroad, to graduate locally at a considerably lower cost and saving foreign exchange.


2. Emergence of non-state actors in higher education in Sri Lanka 
As currently practised in Sri Lanka, private higher education institutes (HEIs) fall into two categories: (i) institutes registered under the Higher Education Ministry as degree-awarding institutes and (ii) Unregistered HEIs that operate outside the purview of the Higher Education Ministry.
Registered private HEIs as degree-awarding institutes
Section 25A of the Act empowers the minister, by way of a ‘Degree-Awarding Institute Order’, to recognize any institution subject to fulfilment of the stipulated conditions, as a ‘degree-awarding institute’.


As of 2015, there were 16 such non-state institutes offering 64 recognized degree programmes in the field of information technology, engineering, psychology, management and medicine. These include NIBM (National Institute of Business Management), CINEC (Colombo International Nautical and Engineering College), Horizon Campus, SANSA Campus, SAITM (South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine) and ICASL (Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka). Many of these institutes are private organisations established under the Companies Act No. 07 of 2007 (or BOI Act No. 16 
of 1992). 


The institutes offering professional diploma and certificate courses in the field of accounting, marketing and information technology also operate with recognition from the Higher Education Ministry. At the end of 2014, 8,892 total enrolments were recorded in these degree-awarding institutions for local degree-awarding programmes. A further 60,000 plus students were enrolled in diploma and affiliated degree programmes in these institutes.


Unregistered private HEIs 
Many institutions of the private sector have not applied for registration/certification. They have avoided the process of paying fees and going through the process of getting approval as they make use of an affiliation to a foreign university to assert their presence in the market. A foreign university-affiliated institution does not face legal barriers in offering degrees under the current regulatory environment. 


The University Grants Commission (UGC) in terms of the provisions of the Public Administration Circular No. 16/92 dated March 13, 1992 recognizes universities listed in the International Handbook of Universities and Commonwealth Universities Yearbook but not the degree programmes offered by recognized other foreign universities. Courses offered at these institutes are predominantly in commerce and management fields. These non-registered higher education institutes had around 4,518 students enrolled in their degree programmes in 2015. 


With the growing number of affiliated institutes, the lack of policy on quality and a governing authority are issues that have been raised by many stakeholders in society. There is no legal entity or regulatory body to monitor the functions of these institutes. The proposals presented in the ‘National Policy Framework on Higher Education and Technical and Vocational Education’ of 2009 recommends these institutions to register under the foreign university and provide training to students for degree programmes which are to be offered and conducted by the parent university. Furthermore, the National Policy Framework suggested that the establishment of these institutes needs to be regulated by ensuring that the parent institutions and courses are recognized in the country of origin as well as in Sri Lanka.


3. Emerging regulatory issues 
Even for those non-state higher education institutions with the degree-awarding status granted by the Higher Education Ministry, there are issues in regard to the recognition of the degrees. This is when the regulatory body relevant to the subject/discipline does not see the approval of degree awarding in the same manner as the Higher Education Ministry. Case in point is the Medical degree offered by SAITM, which has been questioned by the regulatory body for the discipline of Medicine, viz., the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC).


SAITM was established in 2009 and was granted the degree-awarding status for the subject of Medicine (MBBS) by Gazette No. 1721/19 of 2011 subject to fulfilment of several conditions stipulated in the gazette, including the establishment of its own teaching hospital. After the establishment of the teaching hospital in 2013, the MBBS degree offered by SAITM was fully recognized by the Higher Education Ministry by Gazette No. 1829/36 of 2013. 


The SLMC however refused to recognize the degree of SAITM stating that the courses offered do not meet the required standards. In short, it is argued that the clinical training in the SAITM-affiliated hospital is inadequate due to the limitation of patients and thus the two courses, viz., Forensic Medicine and Community Medicine do not get adequately covered in the degree. 
Normally such courses can be covered in clinical training associated with government hospitals. To fulfil these gaps, SAITM requested two government hospitals (Avissawella and Kaduwela) for training on a fee-paying basis but the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) objected to granting such facility to SAITM students.


Can a regulatory body like the SLMC overrule a decision made by the Higher Education Ministry on recognition of a degree by following the set process and rules? This fact among others was the issues that the judgment on January 31, 2017 by the Appeal Court had to address. The court observed that the SLMC had no powers to decide whether or not to grant registrations or decide on the suitability of a university, which was the power vested with the Higher Education Minister. The verdict was that the SLMC should provisionally recognize SAITM-qualified students for registration and SAITM is empowered to grant the MBBS degree. The SLMC and GMOA and some political parties have still not come into terms with this judgment.


There are a number of issues here which have made the matter complicated. First is an issue of double standards by the SLMC and GMOA as it is not logically clear to the outsider on what basis the Kotalawela Defence Academy, which did not even possess its own teaching hospital at that time, was granted the MBBS degree-awarding status by the SLMC. Second, when it comes to standards of Medical degrees, should the state university medical faculties be treated differently from the non-state HEIs? Questions have been raised about the standard of teaching and training facilities in the Medical Faculties of Rajarata and Batticaloa, where neither the SLMC nor GMOA have made any comments. Third, it is an agreed fact that people’s livelihoods are important and in that context, medical doctors should be of very high standards when it comes to dealing with patients. However, this argument is equally valid for some other professions. Thus, the so-called super standards cannot be confined only to one profession and the corresponding regulatory body acquiring the role of the sole custodian of standards has been questioned. Fourth, politics have made in-roads to the issue and thereby blurring the technical issues and bringing social class issues to the forefront of the debate.  


This all points to one issue: the need for an overall independent accreditation board for monitoring standards of non-state universities. This becomes all the more important because the key stakeholders in a particular discipline can always work together to stymie outside competition and make life difficult for new entrants. If the government intends to open more private medical colleges in the future, such a body should be in place to ensure both quality and fair play.


Need for an accreditation institution
When the non-state institutions in higher education was growing in the economy, the last government recognized the need for an independent accreditation system to be in place instead of the existing approval system in the Higher Education Ministry in order to recognize or reject the degrees offered by such non-state institutions.  It was noted that the prevailing quality assurance mechanisms and regulatory systems have a very narrow coverage, excluding the vast non-state HEIs functioning independently. 


In 2011, the government attempted to introduce new legislation under the Bill on Quality Assurance, Equalization, Qualification and Framework with the aim of uplifting the quality of the diplomas and degrees which were being offered by private sector degree-awarding institutions. Under the proposed framework, degrees and diplomas awarded by the non-state sector were to be regulated to ensure quality. However, the government had to withdraw the proposed Bill owing to the escalating protests from student groups and academics opposed to private HEIs.


Student groups alleged that the Bill would curtail the free education currently enjoyed by the state-owned university students. Besides, the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) also opposed the Bill, on the grounds of transparency, in particular, the manner in which it was processed, arguing that the Bill should be discussed with all stakeholders including students, before being presented to parliament. Although the draft Bill had been approved by the Cabinet in 2011, its provisions were never made fully public.


In these circumstances, with the aim of bringing private universities into operation while avoiding the escalating conflicts, the then government took measures to attract foreign universities to set up campuses and research centres in ‘free investment zones’ as BOI-approved projects. Under this scheme, foreign investors were to be offered land and tax concessions. The aim was to create a higher education hub in Sri Lanka, which was cost effective for foreign students. Also, the establishment of branches of foreign universities like in Malaysia was expected to encourage local students to study at international universities at home and lessen the drain of foreign exchange from Sri Lanka. 


In September 2013, a Gazette Extraordinary was tabled in parliament to grant a 15-year tax holiday to a British university (University of Central Lancashire) that was planning to establish a branch campus in Sri Lanka. The then British Foreign Secretary William Haig laid the foundation to the campus when he visited Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Summit in 2013. Plans to allow 10 private universities to operate locally by 2020 in six such education zones were announced in 2014. However, there was no positive outcome from any of these initiatives because the foreign investors saw the student protest against such higher education institutions and the government’s ambivalent role in moving forward with the Quality Assurance, Equalization, Qualification and Framework for higher education. So they decided to take a “wait and see” approach before committing their funds.


4. Technical education and vocational training (TEVT)
In this field also the role of non-state actors is gradually increasing. As of 2015, there were 718 registered non-state actors compared to 635 state actors in TEVT. 
But there are unresolved issues. Only 39 percent of non-state TEVT institutes are registered with the Technical Education and Vocational Commission as they cannot meet the required standards and infrastructure facilities. Only 26 percent of the non-state TEVT institutions offer National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) and all others offer non-NVQ. There is a need for more private-public sector partnerships and coordination to uplift the standards of some non-state actors. Clearly accreditation is an issue for the non-state sector TEVT sector just as it is for the degree-awarding universities and institutions from the non-state sector. 


5. Way forward
For those who oppose the increasing role of non-state actors in the higher education in Sri Lanka, the simplest thing to say is that we must curtail the growth of non-state actors in higher education and increase the capacity of student in-take of the established state universities. It is true that the allocation of expenditure for education in Sri Lanka is only 1.2 percent of GDP compared to 6.3 percent in Malaysia, 3.4 percent in both Indonesia and Philippines, 3 percent in Singapore, 4.1 percent in Nepal and 3.8 percent in India. The option for increasing this expenditure in Sri Lanka is limited given the current fiscal constraints. An entire overhaul of the budget is required if Sri Lanka is to increase education expenditure significantly, which is not possible in the 
short run.


Various options to increase the student intake under the state university framework have been discussed, such as night shifts, distant learning, etc. without any practical outcome. In this context, what the country needs is some form of a private-public partnership for the higher education sector upliftment, in particular, to address the crucial areas like limited student intake to universities. 
Considering the current status of state universities is also vital. There is an urgent need to grant them more autonomy to raise their own funds. A case in point is the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM) of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. The PIM has been self-financed since 2002 and does not depend on the government for any funds. Consequently, it has managed to acquire more autonomy and go into more ambitious expansion plans compared to other state universities.


This autonomy is also required to become competitive and improve the quality and standards of state universities. The overall quality of a number of state universities has declined over the years. As the World Bank Country Assessment Strategy report (2008) highlighted, none of the Sri Lankan universities are among the first 500 in the world. Almost 10 years later, all state universities are ranked below 2000 – Colombo University is ranked at 2171 (best) and the KDA is ranked at 9,938. This is compared to some Asian universities like National University of Singapore ranked at 24, Peaking University at 29 and Tokyo University at 39. 


Recently, Prof. Sunethra Weerakoon, a retiring Professor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, highlighted the following facts in regard to the quality of state universities: (a) incompetence and collusion among management personnel and academic staff; (b) lethargy of university administration and lapses in strategic management oversight; (c) poor motivation in regard to academic curiosity or scholarly achievements; (d) politicization and so on, and strongly recommended an independent body for monitoring state universities.


This shows that Sri Lanka needs an apex independent accreditation body that covers not only non-state sector institutions in higher education but also state sector institutions in higher education.
Clearly, setting a national standard in the country for all tertiary providers will help reduce doubt and controversy surrounding private providers. What we need today is an overall autonomous body to accredit both state and non-state actors in higher education in this country.


Furthermore, we also need to change the mind-set of the people of this country. For long years, Sri Lanka nurtured a welfare state that was inherited from the British rule. This welfare state led many stakeholders to consider free education as an entitlement for everyone. But as the state failed to provide free education to all those who qualified for higher education, the debate shifted from free education to freedom of education. Freedom of education is a constitutional and a fundamental right of every citizen of the country. In that context, every citizen had a right to education. However, many stakeholders in this country have failed to come to terms with the concept of ‘freedom of education’ and ‘right to education’.


The perception on private HEIs is very much influenced by social class and past politics of the country too. It ranges from the perceptions of rich having free access to education, exacerbating the income disparity leading to inequitable access to higher education, turning education into a ‘commodity’ and so on. Fuel to these perceptions is added by opportunistic politicians and student groups affiliated to various political parties. Thus, together with establishing an accreditation authority, a public sensitization programme highlighting the importance of non-state actors in higher education should be initiated by the government.


The rapid development of technology has spread mobile learning courses all over the world. Libraries are getting less relevant as bulk of the required references can be obtained online for studying. Thus, there is a need to recognize that the state’s controlling power to prevent the penetration of non-state actors to higher education-related services is gradually weakening. And there is a need to accommodate them with the necessary checks and balances.


Sri Lanka needs to see the active participation of non-state actors in higher education positively. The concerns that the stakeholders have in regard to quality of education services is the key challenge that needs to be addressed. It is not an insurmountable challenge. With the necessary dialogue and political will, the challenge could be met easily like most other developing countries have done. With meeting this challenge, Sri Lanka could move to greater heights in higher education and accomplish many other economic goals in its progress towards a middle income country. 


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