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We must identify our strengths when developing human resources: SLIIT VC

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7 March 2018 01:39 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Following are the excerpts from an interview with Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT) Vice Chancellor Prof. Lalith Gamage.


Professor Gamage, let’s first talk about your vision in general for education in this country, especially since we celebrate 70 years of independence. What are your thoughts on the education system?


As you probably know, we were only second to Japan in terms of per capita at the time we got independence.   We talk about various resources we have in our country but today it is difficult for us to convert these resources into valuable competitive exportable products and services that can contribute to the economy.
I think the biggest resource we have in this country is our human resource. And how we can create economic value through this human resource is to educate and sharpen their skills, so they can create sellable products and services that would have a competitive advantage in world markets. The only paths to that are education and research and development. 


Today, out of more than 250,000 of students who do A levels, over 150,000 are eligible to enter a local university; last year alone, 163,000 qualified. Yet, how many can be accommodated within the state university system – only about 25,000 (15 percent). 


We are a middle-income country now (no longer poor) and our average enrolment for universities should be more than 40 percent, which translates to maybe 65,000 or so. If you really aim to use this resource, at least a 100,000 (60-65 percent) need to get tertiary level education.


You say universities are important for any country from an overall strategy and planning perspective, hence, the need for quality universities. Do you think that has happened in the last 20 years i.e. the private sector taking more initiative?


The private sector takes about 10-12 thousand students. My vision for this sector is to produce a talented highly skilled professional workforce, in the areas we can participate. As a small country, it is very difficult initially to build talent or have products in a multitude of areas. 


We must identify our strengths and develop human resources to support it. Information technology is a very good area, electronics another. There are industries that require huge capital infusion, which is why we need to identify them and selectively produce human resources to fit into the relevant industries.


I am a firm believer that the only way to becoming a developed nation is through top-notch human resource development.  


To get a little off track, tell me about your PhD. What is your specialty?


I did electronics and telecommunication engineering at the Moratuwa University and my PhD research is in artificial intelligence, computer vision, image processing and industrial automation. My school education was at St. Aloysius’ College in Galle.


You’re a good example of someone from an out of Colombo area that saw opportunity and rose to the level of being a respected educator. From that perspective, how do you see the way education is run in this country – especially the division of ‘dushkara palath’ and non-‘dushkara palath’? 


The only way for me to elevate myself to what I am today was through education. I knew that it was very difficult to enter the Moratuwa University. It was like a dream to get selected to do electronics and telecom engineering as they took only 25 students from the entire country. 


But today, it’s not like that and we don’t have to limit ourselves to that number and there are so many opportunities in the non-state higher education sector. Also, there are so many jobs out there. 


I remember it was in the early 80s when I was a student at the Moratuwa University that Motorola came to Sri Lanka. They came and asked our professors how many electronic engineers you can produce because they needed thousands but the answer was only 25. 


Motorola said thank you and departed – it was opportunity lost. We talk about GSP Plus and so on but the size of our export basket is so limited. How do we expand it? By developing innovative products and services around what we already have – rather than starting a different cluster altogether. 


What were your aspirations? Was it to come to Colombo and shine? What was going on in your mind at the time?


My father was a school principal but I wanted to be an engineer right from the beginning. We were told engineers are socially high up, respectable people and that’s what I wanted to be initially. 


What do you think of today’s education system?


Most students are so focused on doing exams that it’s a case of students going from one tuition class to another. They don’t do any sport or have any other life than preparing for this O level and A level from the day they are born. In that process, their mindset becomes totally different – tunnel vision – thinking that they have to get ahead of others.  


As a result, there is a lack of discipline, which can be seen when you’re driving, going to a bank or anywhere; people want to go first and that is because of the mindset created early on.  


It doesn’t have to be this way because of the initiatives and opportunities available today. It is no longer necessary to get 3As to become an engineer or a doctor. 


This is a very interesting factor. People are of the opinion that grades and performance are what matter. But isn’t it the market forces that decide how good or bad one is in any profession? What do you have to say?


Definitely, they know how to do exams well because they are taught how to do them by their teachers and tuition masters.  Thousands of questions are worked on with the expectation of those being on the exam paper. But this does not mean they have acquired knowledge or would be able to apply what is learnt to a real-life situation. If you give these students a completely unknown problem, they will fail. 


Most students don’t have the flexibility, thinking ability, social integration and other aspects needed to become a good professional or even a good citizen because they are on a single track. When they come to universities, it is difficult to make them unlearn some of these bad habits and transform them into professionals. 


So you think a more holistic approach is needed to becoming better professionals than scoring straight ‘A’s.?


Let me give you an example. We had a student who didn’t even have full A level results and according to the Sri Lankan system, we could not get him into one of our local programmes, So, he did one of our foreign courses.  This student came second in a world IT competition by Verizon for a NASA-sponsored project. The prize money was about Rs.75 million. If he did not have access to the kind of education we offer, where would he be now? 


So, what are we saying – restrict opportunities so you can’t even have a non-state education? Do we want everyone to be poor and do menial jobs?


Are Sri Lankan standards higher than those of foreign universities? Is there a disparity?


We have learnt a lot about academic standards from these other universities and one thing different is that they change with the changing world trends. Changing the local university systems requires a massive effort. 


There is talk about us being a hub for education. How far or close are we to this plan?


In order for us to be a hub, we need to have multiple providers and diversity in our offerings. Multiple disciplines should be available, whether it’s in healthcare, nursing, whatever, without restrictions but of high quality. 


In my opinion, there should be a single body to monitor quality assurance. All universities, including the state, must be given more autonomy. They should be allowed to compete with each other and private universities should be recognized.  With proper quality assurance and accreditation, private education institutions should have the freedom to call themselves universities.


Foreign universities should be given the opportunity to set up branches here. The living environment in Sri Lanka is much better than other places and we can easily develop ourselves as an education hub.


In the late 1980s, Malaysia was struggling to find good quality lecturers. They took people from Sri Lanka. You go to any developed university – there are Sri Lankan professors, students, researchers. Therefore, we are literally sitting on a goldmine.


You are one of the founders of SLIIT. What is your vision for the university?


Yes, I wrote the proposal for it when I was Director of Computing at the Moratuwa University because I saw that it was not possible to produce a sufficient number of information technology professionals to meet the industry demand through the prevailing university system. We did it for one industry segment – that is IT and proved it is possible to develop an industry by producing sufficient numbers. 


Today, we are proud to say that the IT industry is the fifth largest export earner for the country, making more than US $ 1 billion worth of software exports. We can do this for other industries. 


My vision for SLIIT is to make it an internationally high-ranked university. This is to be achieved by offering a multitude of diverse programmes, having foreign student population of about 10-15 percent, having an endowment fund that can provide scholarships to about 50 percent of students and advanced research programmes that develop new technology, knowledge, products, services and innovative companies. 


In order to stay competitive, you have to have innovation, research and development. You have to be able to develop new products and new services. When there is one university of international standard others will follow and then you have your education hub.


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