Education and skills attainment in Sri Lanka, which in the early 60s was better than that of countries like Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, has in the last 20 years fallen behind, undermining the country’s growth prospects. Undoubtedly, talent needs to be a strategic driver for inclusive economic growth to help Sri Lanka become competitive as a middle-income country. Sri Lanka however faces two big challenges that we need to solve if we are to achieve a growth rate of over 8 percent. The two issues that need to be addressed are:
Today most of our young people coming out of secondary education:
1. Only, 20 -25 percent attend higher education, of which large share of students are in humanities & arts relative to sciences/engineering (50 percent vs. 17 percent); where there is variation in quality, in addition, very poor quality External Degree Programs (40 percent of total enrollment)
2. Another, 20-30 percent enroll in Technical & Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector with low quality and relevance to market needs
3. The remaining 45 percent, have limited opportunity to acquire further job-specific skills other than joining a company to acquire skills. That too is limited and centered in the 3 to 4 main cities.
Most employers see skills shortage as a major constraint; and question the quality and relevance of general education, vocational and skills attainment and higher education.
In the past five years the country has made great strides on many fronts, especially in education. However Sri Lankan universities, due to limited intake capacity, by default only open their doors to the top five percent that sit for the Advance Level exams. The majority joins the work force. Also around 10 percent pursue their high-education in foreign universities or their satellite branches in Sri Lanka and enroll into professional qualifications in accounting, finance, management and marketing.
These are mainly professional British qualifications like Chartered Institute of Management Accounting, Chartered Institute of Marketing and Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. Therefore as a country we need a strategy to successfully move our young people from education to employment and we need to scale up our interventions for maximum impact because there are many different views among the stake holders on how our young people should be made ready to succeed in entry level positions.
As a result of this mismatch education to employment highway has become very messy. Therefore education reform must find way to focus our youth from becoming mere certificate collectors and refocus them to acquire skills and competencies that are needed to deliver on the current job and also acquire skills that can be built on for the future.
In most successful export economies the training provided by Vocational Training Institutes (VTIs) jointly with the companies to upgrade the skills of their work force has been crucial, since high-level skills are essential for manufacturing related activities. But while vocational training is widely recognized as important, such training is rarely cost–efficient when provided by the state systems. Most firms therefore prefer to do their own training, partly because many skills are company specific.
There is ample research to show that the return on the training investment is higher in industries that engage well-educated workers and also in environments where there is rapid technological change. Singapore’s use of training to promote the information technology sector through a concerted program that involved educational institutions, providing training subsidies to schools and office workers, and digitizing of the civil service, helped the country to achieve leadership in technology related services. This success illustrates the importance of a government’s ability to foresee a major opportunity and then promote public-private partnership to invest in human capital formation. However, to make it a success, businesses must also stand ready to take advantages of the support the government is willing to provide to promote human capital formation. In addition, the state must ensure that they maintain the per student share, in real terms, of government funding education.
Since the country’s university education is only limited to the brightest students in the country, the universities need to work very closely with industry to improve syllabi and the facilities to ensure that the country’s brightest students are instilled with the skills and knowledge the country needs not what the universities want so that they can make a meaningful contribution. In the final analysis,
Sri Lanka has the potential to become a high income economy through a strategic focus on improving its talent pool.
A package of financial investments, policy and governance reforms will make the existing system more efficient, equitable and effective. However, before we pour more and more money into education and skills training, Sri Lanka needs a vision, a clear strategy backed by solid funding, realistic targets and effective implementation and monitoring to ensure we realize that vision of having a future ready workforce.