We are quite happy that the new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his election manifesto has given an undertaking that an additional 100,000 university places will be found for students qualifying at the GCE A/L exams. This also arose from the International Higher Education Conference organised jointly by CMA Sri Lanka and CPM Sri Lanka, supported by the Association of Management Development Institutions in South Asia (AMDISA) on the theme ‘Strategies to Bridge the Gap in Higher Education Intake – South and Southeast Asian Experiences’, in October 2019, where the need for an additional 100,000 university places were highlighted. Immediately after the announcement at the conference, Rajapaksa, at that time as the presidential candidate, made a statement of his commitment to implement this proposal, which was also included in the manifesto. This was indeed a dream come true for A/L-qualified students after the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President of Sri Lanka.
1.1 International Higher Education Conference
It was highlighted at the conference that approximately 160,000 students pass the AL exams in Sri Lanka and are eligible to enter universities. Only 25,000 to 30,000 get places in government universities. During the last 10 years, 1.0 million students have lost opportunities to pursue higher education. Sri Lanka needs an urgent solution to meet this mismatch in the secondary to tertiary education gap and to find urgent solutions to make Sri Lanka an education hub, increasing the university intake to a minimum of 50 percent of those qualifying at the A/L. For this purpose, we were looking at South and Southeast experiences to meet this objective, which should be the priority of any new government, driven by the public, private and public-private sector initiatives in these countries.
Out of this number qualifying at the A/L, the greater number qualifying and intake to universities is in the Arts stream, which is causing a major imbalance in the higher education system and is evident that the rural schools and the poorer sections of the population are deprived of a science and technology education, creating a major imbalance in society. This needs to be corrected early to reduce the large number of 60,000 Arts students passing at the A/L, especially from the rural areas. There is also frustration created among the schoolchildren, who are busy at school and thereafter at private classes and after qualifying are left high and dry without any recognition to their hard work.
There are limited opportunities for students to study Science at ALs. As of 2015, out of 10,162 schools, only 1005 (less than 10 percent) had the facilities to teach AL at Science stream, while there were 1801 schools that offered only Arts and Commerce stream for ALs. Consequently, more students are compelled to follow the Arts stream owing to lack of other options. Only a small proportion of students follow the Science stream at the AL, comprising only 13.2 percent of the 15 and above population. Also there are many constraints on ICT education at school level. Therefore, considerable challenges are faced in the future generations to have the necessary skills of ICT, science, technology, research and technology and to bridge the required skill gaps.
There have also been serious mismatches between the skills available and skill demand, in the supply and demand, showing the gap in the education system. ICT and English language are the most demanded soft skills in the country. There also appears a wide gap between schools, universities and the world of work. Many prefer government jobs rather than the private sector.
The lack of coordination between state universities and industry and private sector has led to a skill mismatch between the graduates and job market. Also, in the universities, one-third are studying in the Arts stream, which are less in demand or no demand, where the government has to find jobs for these unemployed graduates, creating a major burden on the economy. The introduction of a new Technology stream may help but it has been noticed that this has no impact on the Arts students as the students going for the technology stream are mainly from the Commerce stream.
In the 2016 budget proposals, the government proposed to encourage private universities. However, this has had no major impact. If we are to meet the target set to achieve 100,000 additional university places, then the whole process involved in the approval of private universities needs to be urgently reviewed. This would mean that these private universities could also make a contribution to provide additional university places.
We find that there is a growing number of private foreign university-affiliated institutes that are offering degrees and they have been increasing rapidly. There is no legal entity or regulatory authority to monitor the functions of these institutes, which are giving foreign qualifications. This has enabled to avoid the bottleneck of bureaucracy relating to government approvals, which is not applicable for private foreign educational institutes set up with foreign affiliation or collaboration. There is also the lack of an accreditation system for private higher education providers, making it difficult to monitor the quality of programmes offered locally but are assumed to be done by the foreign universities.
There is also a great fear whether strict controls to be brought in by the government may create a negative situation in the private education sector, which has opened up due to the inability of the government universities to cater to the needs of those who are qualified at A/L and unable to get university admission and done a great service to the youth of Sri Lanka. This is proved if you refer the education pages of the Sunday newspapers, where many opportunities are provided by these foreign affiliated colleges.
Professional education in many fields such as accountancy, marketing, human resource, supply and material management, management, science and technology are some of the fields also available to students after A/L. One of the main areas of difference between university and professional education is the compulsory practical training, which is mandatory for professional education coupled with ethics, governance and code of conduct for members. This has enabled professionals to obtain jobs easily and has also encouraged many undergraduates to combine a professional qualification while studying for the degree. This has really upgraded the quality of graduates and enabled them to obtain jobs easily and with a higher salary having a degree and a professional qualification.
The role of the private educational institutes for both foreign university educational colleges and the recruitment for foreign universities is evident from the large number of advertisements that have separate educational pages in the Sunday newspapers, showing the demand for foreign university degree courses.
Therefore, we need to identify and implement immediate practical solutions to reform the university education system, which cannot be met totally by the public universities and where we need to consider public-private partnerships, such as affiliated university colleges and private universities, to bridge the gap.
We can also consider the experiences of the South and Southeast Asian experiences as was discussed at the conference, which will be a valuable input and will assist the government and the relevant authorities as to how these countries have emerged to become knowledge hubs, providing the necessary skills for local and foreign direct investment as evident in many of these countries.
If you analyse the school education system closely, a child starts education at the age of five and by completing 13 years of schooling, they sit a common GCE A/L exam and at the age of 18, pass the exam and are ready to enter university. Credit should be given to our school system as there are well-defined syllabuses, time tables, strict opening and closing times, discipline, trained teachers, school examinations, evaluations, good management of schools by the principals and deputy principals, regional and zonal administration with proper planning, follow up making free education, providing real value for the money spent by the government. All this is backed with a strong network of private classes attended by almost all students. Parents and all Sri Lankans should appreciate the value that the children are getting from the free education system. Also there is no disruption of the school education system and the students sit O/L and A/L on the due dates. Unfortunately, we cannot see this same generation of value in the billions of rupees and dollars we spend for various other ministries and state institutions.
In all our neighbouring countries and the developed world of the USA, UK, Australia and Canada students after A/L or university entrance enter university at the age of 18 and pass out at 21 or 22 or in the case of medical students at 22 or 23. This will enable them to give of their best in their youth and go for postgraduate studies at a young age. In Sri Lanka, it is rather unfortunate that students waste their valuable youth because of the unpredictable university education system, which needs to be streamlined.
Although we achieved independence in 1948, the higher education system has not been able to meet the needs of the country. Unfortunately, many speak of economic development not realising that without expanding the higher education system, which is now a bottleneck and unable to meet the needs of our country and shows the great lack of professionalism and planning. Unless we produce the required graduates, who could be a vital part in economic development, the country can neither go forward nor will any foreign direct investment flow into the country.
We need to maximise the opportunities for higher education in Sri Lanka, which should be the prime objective of any government and higher education authorities. We should spend the maximum resources to make Sri Lanka an education hub, which will produce the technocrats, doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists, managers and skilled workforce to make Sri Lanka an economically, socially and culturally rich country that could match up or surpass our neighbours and any Western country. There is also an absolute necessity to provide degree programmes, which are in demand, creating new skills and additional numbers required for the IT, engineering, science and technology, business, management and services sector for the development of the economy.
Today India is a destination for the world outsourcing industry, earning valuable foreign exchange for the country and providing employment and good salaries to its graduates, due mainly to the availability of the IT and engineering graduates in large numbers with the ability to converse fluently in the English language. This is due to their ability to produce graduates with the required skills, qualifications and numbers. Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, gave a new impetus to higher education when he set up the Indian Institutes of Technology, Science, Management and Medical Sciences, which are today world renowned for their high educational quality and exceptional graduates and postgraduates coming out of these institutes, some of them with links with reputed foreign universities such as the Harvard Business School for management education and leading management schools such as Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad or Bangalore.
2.0 Making SL a knowledge hub – Options available
If we are to make Sri Lanka a knowledge hub and provide higher education to the balance 85 percent, many from the rural areas who do not have the money to go overseas, then we need to look at alternative methods to provide higher education to a larger number, especially the qualified youth and increase the percentage of university-going students to over 50 percent from the current 15 to 16 percent. We need to develop the skills, knowledge, language fluency and of course English, research capability and opportunities for the youth to be trained in disciplines, which will provide a future to them in their motherland rather than look for opportunities overseas. English will make our students global rather than local, which is now appreciated by all.
At present, many foreign universities conduct degrees programmes through private institutes without any control from any governmental educational regulator such as the University Grants Commission (UGC) responsible only for local universities. These degree programmes are also offered at a very high cost and not regulated locally. Also many students go overseas pledging their parents’ house and property by obtaining a bank loan and enter foreign universities. It has been noticed that many of them after qualifying do not return to Sri Lanka and we lose some of our best students whom we should try to attract to their motherland.
Have we realised that in the school education system, schools spread throughout the country prepare students for one common exam. Is this not an eye opener for the higher education authorities to consider similar systems such as the affiliated university college system that has been set up to broad base university education, as done in other countries?
Therefore, we need to provide a solution to conduct a quality university education at an affordable cost to the many who are deprived of a university education in their motherland and to consider solutions provided by other countries.
3.0 Affiliated college system for university education
One of the best opportunities available for Sri Lanka is to consider the Indian model of having affiliated university colleges, which has been very successful and has produced a large number of university graduates in India in different fields of specialisation. This system would immediately increase the intake to university degree courses via the college system with the entry regulated by the UGC and all syllabi provided by the universities and exams also conducted by the universities while the education will be provided by the colleges.
The affiliated college system is a well-tried and tested system of our closest neighbour India and has benefitted the large number of students seeking entry to obtain higher education and has contributed immensely to the development of the national economy.
We also have university affiliated colleges from the UK, USA and Australia currently operating in Sri Lanka.
3.1 Indian affiliated university college system
India has universities established under the University Grants Commission Act, which have territorial jurisdiction over a particular area.
According to the latest data from the UGC, the first five universities with the largest number of Affiliated University Colleges are as follows: 1. Hyderabad Osmania University with 901 affiliated colleges, 2. Pune University with 811 affiliated colleges, 3. Nagpur University with 800 colleges, 4. Rajasthan University with 735 colleges, 5. Mumbai University with 711 colleges.
For example, in Pune, they have University of Pune, which has jurisdiction over three districts – Pune, Ahmednagar and Nasik. Similarly, there is University of Mumbai, having Aurangabad, Kolhapur, Amravati, Nanded and Solapur districts in the State of Maharashtra. These are all state universities, which are established by the state government but recognised all over India and the world.
All these universities have affiliated colleges in their jurisdiction. Pune University five years ago had 474 affiliated colleges with the total student population of 550,000 and Mumbai University had 531 affiliated colleges with 650,000 students. Today they have many more colleges and students showing a growth in the number of affiliated colleges and students.
The syllabus and the examination are decided by the university and the examinations are also conducted by the university. The final degree is awarded by the university. There is no distinction such as internal and external for those students who are qualified to enter university, which is existent in Sri Lanka, which would mean that the 160,000 students who qualified at GCE A/L to enter universities should all be treated as internal students.
Affiliated colleges are the mainstay in the country’s higher education system in India and they enrol 89.3 percent of the undergraduate students and about 72.2 percent of postgraduate students.
Examinations are conducted by the university and the students of the colleges affiliated to the university appear for these examinations.
It has also been noted that many of the colleges and private universities in India have been set up under Trusts Ordinance and are not-for-profit organisations and self-funding. Sri Lanka too could follow a similar policy and attract big business organisations, rich individuals and philanthropists to come into the higher education sector as non-profit institutions for which the government could grant tax incentives to attract these wealthy individuals and companies.
4.0 Way forward for Sri Lanka
4.1 The Universities Act should be changed for state universities to provide for university colleges to be set up and the relevant regulations made.
4.2 All universities should be given authority to approve university colleges with the older and reputed universities playing a major role in making this scheme a success.
4.3 (a) Government to set up colleges affiliated to universities by using some of the institutes such as the advanced technical institutes and technical colleges together with new colleges in the different districts.
(b) Private educational institutes currently in operation and new ones encouraged to set up affiliated colleges. The government should give partial or full grants to these institutes.
(c) Use of new technology to make use of e-learning, video lectures to provide lectures for university students, Wi-Fi connections given free of charge for registered students.
4.5 Government buildings and school premises be made available in the afternoon session for the university colleges where required in the initial stages in the rural areas and other districts.
4.6 (a) A scholarship fund to be set up by the government to fund the needy students.
(b) Bank funding provided for higher studies, where the interest is paid annually by the government and the loan repayment to commence after completion of degree and obtaining a job.
4.7 The admission to the affiliated colleges to be based on the UGC criteria, similar to the selection to other state universities.
4.8 The degree certificate will be issued by the respective universities. The syllabus will be provided by the universities and exams also conducted by the universities. The education will be provided by the affiliated colleges.
4.9 Preference to be given and financial and grants and loans provided to affiliated colleges starting science, engineering, technology and IT courses.
5.0 Benefits to country and economy
5.1 Make Sri Lanka a knowledge economy by increasing the numbers entering higher education and providing opportunities for qualifying students at A/L to pursue their higher education.
5.2 More students would be able to obtain a degree qualification and the number of educated youth and more skilled graduates will be available in the country. This will immediately increase the percentage of students entering university from 15 percent to above 50 percent and thereafter to be increased annually. Minimum of 100,000 to be achieved, as per the election manifesto of the new government and the announcement made by the president.
5.3 This will save valuable foreign exchange going out of the country.
5.4 Local professors, lecturers in the universities who undertake lectures will be amply rewarded for their hard work and this will result in stopping the brain drain, which is a serious problem for the country.
5.5 Those who are in overseas universities will be encouraged to come back to Sri Lanka and start their own colleges and will attract overseas Sri Lankans back to their home country.
5.6 In subjects where colleges are short of lecturers then recruitment could be done from overseas countries.
5.7 Government could be a facilitator and as a regulator control the quality and fees of these colleges through the universities and UGC.
5.8 With the new Technology stream introduced at A/L, more colleges could be set up for skills and technology that are in demand and will advance economic development and the development of industry, commerce and the services sector, plantation and agriculture.
5.9 The youth of this country will see a future in their motherland to earn a degree and this will also ease the problems of parents who are forced to mortgage whatever assets they have to send their children overseas for higher education.
5.10 Employers will be happy that they will be able to find sufficient skilled persons for employment in their businesses at a young age of 21. They would like to recruit young graduates who will be more trainable at a young age, compared to the current situation.
5.11 The money invested by the government in primary and secondary education will be amply rewarded by enabling students to go for higher education and to university affiliated colleges and increasing the percentage of students going to universities.
5.12 A close link will be established with the private and public sector to conduct courses in demand with science and technology taking a prominent place in addition to the others.
5.13 Will attract foreign direct investment to Sri Lanka to start knowledge-based projects for the export market due to the availability of technically skilled graduates in sufficient numbers, compared to the current short supply.
5.14 The government should give top priority to set up Sri Lankan Institutes of Technology, Science, Medical Sciences and Institutes of Management similar to Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), Sciences, Medical Sciences, which should be pursued vigorously with links with reputed foreign universities as these institutes have a direct bearing on the development of the knowledge economy.
6.0 Implementing policy of new government
We are indeed happy to note the promise given by the new government in its policy document and the announcement and action taken by President Gotabaya Rajapakse, which is indeed a dream come true to our youth who have passed the A/L exam and are confident of its implementation using tried and tested higher education systems in other countries as explained earlier.
At a time we are celebrating 71 years of independence, the national higher education system needs to gear itself to meet the aspirations of our youth in keeping with global developments. During the last 71 years, we have provided less than 15 percent of the students qualifying at AL to enter higher education. As a result, we have sacrificed a minimum of 5.0 million of our youth losing the opportunity to proceed to higher education and enter universities, which has been successfully done in other countries. We cannot afford to have a closed national higher education system, which needs a radical change, if the country is to face the new challenges in a globalised world and advance to a knowledge economy. We are unfortunately falling behind many of the other countries that are progressing at a very rapid rate especially in science and technology and skill development, where we do not have sufficient numbers. In fact, Sri Lankan experts have helped many of these countries such as Singapore and Malaysia to forge ahead in education, technology and economically.
With the results of the 2018 AL exams, 160,000 have qualified to enter university but under the existing university intake, only 25,000 to 30,000 or 15 percent will gain admission and is highly inadequate. The balance 85 percent or 138,000 are deprived of an opportunity to pursue their higher education and students and parents are frustrated that despite them qualifying and now the future is assured with the new policies of the government and they will not be shut out from universities for no fault of theirs. Those who have the money to go overseas using our valuable foreign exchange and many do not return to Sri Lanka after qualifying, which is another big loss to the country as well as to the parents. The majority who have qualified at A/L are from the rural areas where free education has made them eligible to enter university and pursue a university degree qualification, get a good job, overcome poverty and be useful citizens to the country.
One of the main methods available to overcome this barrier and increase the number of university places is by implementing the university-affiliated college system as a public-private partnership, where the government and private sector will join hands to provide 100,000 additional places for those who otherwise would have been shut out of local universities. By implementing these new proposals tried and tested in neighbouring India and the developed world of the UK and USA will benefit the large number of educated and qualified youth after A/L, who will see a future in Sri Lanka through higher education opportunities.
The new government has promised in its policy document to provide 100,000 additional university places and hence a bold and expeditious decision should be taken to meet the aims and aspirations of the cream of this country the qualified youth produced by our own school system. This will also enable the country to produce more technically skilled younger graduates at the age of 21 or 22 and provide youthful, skilful, flexible, dedicated and devoted citizens to serve their motherland matching up to global standards.
(Prof. Lakshman R. Watawala, FCA, FCMA, FCMA (UK), CGMA, FCPM, is President of the Institute of Certified Management Accountants (CMA) Sri Lanka)