It was in 1970 that the first batch of unemployed graduates was recruited as development assistants by the then United Front government. These graduates were among the many unemployed people at the time, in particular, those with educational qualifications. The last batch of unemployed university graduates was recruited by the present regime in 2012. Ironically, after four decades, the products of the local universities continue to be employed mostly within the state sector. While the first batch of recruits comprised a few thousand graduates, the most recent batch exceeded 50,000. So, graduate unemployment is a chronic socio-economic problem that has become worse over time.
The few thousand graduates who were unemployed in 1970 remained unemployed for two to three years. Many of them joined hands with the opposition parties to defeat the incumbent UNP regime, at the general elections in 1970. When the incumbent government was defeated, the newly elected government absorbed the graduates into numerous government institutions at a middle management level. On the other hand, the unemployment problem at the time was not confined to university graduates. Overall unemployment rate at the time was around 19%, while the unemployment rate among educated youth was around 50%. This was also a major factor contributing to youth unrest, and the JVP uprising in 1971 was very much aided by it. Once the dust settled after the JVP insurrection, ILO sent a mission to Sri Lanka to enquire into the unemployment problem in the country and made recommendations as to what policy measures the government should take to address the issue.
" The ILO mission came to the conclusion that the problem was very much a reflection of a skill mismatch; the young people leaving schools and universities did not have the skills that were in demand in the country "
The ILO mission came to the conclusion that the problem was very much a reflection of a skill mismatch; the young people leaving schools and universities did not have the skills that were in demand in the country. Policy reforms necessary to address the issue became apparent. The government introduced far-reaching educational reforms, both within the general education system as well as at university level. Many vocational subjects were introduced into the secondary school curriculum. Steps were also taken to introduce job oriented courses in the university faculties of Arts such as social work, estate management, valuation and developmental studies, and these replaced traditional Arts courses. These reforms did not last long. With the change of government in 1977, the status quo was restored by the newly elected UNP government.
The graduate unemployment problem has not only persisted over the last several decades but become more acute in recent years. Instead of absorbing unemployed graduates into the state sector, the post-1977 UNP government accommodated them in graduate training programme with the support of the private sector.
The trained graduates were expected to find employment in private firms and non-governmental institutions. Again, with the change of governments, these schemes have been abandoned. So, we are back to the old practice of accommodating unemployed graduates in state institutions irrespective of whether there are vacancies or not.
The only difference is that much larger numbers are accommodated today than several decades back. For instance, the most recent batch recruited in 2012 was over 50,000 strong. Whether these recruits contribute to any improvement in the services provided by public institutions is another matter.
The unemployment problem among university graduates has become more acute in recent years, particularly among Arts and General Science graduates. Those with professional degrees have been able to find employment in the country or migrate to developed countries. There are at least three main reasons for the unemployment problem among graduates.
Firstly, the steady increase in the number of graduates passing out from the universities. The country had just five universities in the 1970’s. Today, there are sixteen universities. Secondly, the inability of the country’s economy to absorb university graduates.
The structure of the economy is such that there are few employment opportunities for youth with university education. The largest sector of the economy is the informal sector but the parents send their children to university to avoid the vagaries of employment in this sector.
Private sector firms are mostly in the fields of retail trade, banking and finance, telecommunication, travel and tourism, etc. and they can usually manage with school-leavers carrying GCE O//L and A/L qualifications. The managerial level recruits in private firms are drawn from among youth with good communication and IT skills and these recruits usually come from privileged urban schools, both public and private.
Thirdly, the quality of education in general and university education in particular has declined over time, due to a range of factors including growing inequality within the education system, inadequate public investment and the absence of much needed reforms.
It is common knowledge that the privileged urban schools, both public and private offer the best educational opportunities in the country and the dream of almost every parent is to admit their children to one of these schools. The ensuing competition naturally places parents with the necessary means including social and political strings at a distinct advantage. Those who are left out end up in poorly equipped rural and estate schools. It is this natural selection that eventually determines the number and quality of unemployed graduates in the country.
Given the present structure of the country’s economy, it is difficult to imagine where these graduates can be accommodated. It is unrealistic to expect the so-called ‘cream’ of the younger generation to accept livelihoods in the informal sector as pavement hawkers, three-wheeler drivers, construction workers, etc. The private sector dominated by retail trade, banking, finance, construction, telecommunication, etc. does not need many graduates with a liberal Arts education, particularly when these graduates do not have the necessary skills. Besides, many international and private schools prepare youths from urban and suburban areas for employment in private firms that are often globally connected.
Moreover, even when they recruit local graduates, they usually favour the ones with a professional background such as management, statistics, IT and Law. So, the vast majority of graduates passing out from numerous local universities have almost nowhere to go. This is the reason for their desire and expectation for government jobs.
It is clear that the failure of successive governments to revamp the education system in keeping with the changes in the economy has been a major factor contributing to the above malaise. Highly unequal distribution of human and material resources across the public education system coupled with grossly inadequate public investments in the sector did not help either to improve the quality of education in most parts of the country or raise the skill levels of school-leavers.
It is also important to recognise the symbiotic relationship between the education system and the economy, a connection that is widely recognised in many countries across the world, both developed as well as developing. While there is an urgent need to bring about a structural transformation of the economy, the education system also needs to be revamped to equip school leavers and university graduates with new skills needed in a changing economic environment. What we observe in the universities today is that many undergraduates do not come to the university with the aptitudes and skills necessary to pursue higher studies, largely reflecting the poor quality of school education.
" This is certainly a grave situation given the fact that only less than 5% of the country’s youth succeeds in reaching the university level and many young men do no longer want to pursue higher education, particularly in non-professionally oriented areas like Liberal Arts. Over 75% of the students in the Faculties of Arts today are female. "
Bleak employment prospects make the situation worse as many undergraduates are not sufficiently motivated any more to take a keen interest in their studies due to this fact alone.
University education for many of them is a mere instrumental activity primarily aimed at securing a paper qualification. Worse still, those who secure external degrees without ever stepping into any of the universities are treated equally when they are recruited to government jobs! So, what we often find is a vicious circle that prospective university graduates do not break away from. Nevertheless, when they pass out, they cannot remain unemployed and the state sector naturally becomes their refuge. This is certainly a grave situation given the fact that only less than 5% of the country’s youth succeeds in reaching the university level and many young men do no longer want to pursue higher education, particularly in non-professionally oriented areas like Liberal Arts. Over 75% of the students in the Faculties of Arts today are female.
Sri Lanka’s economic future depends on many factors and one of them is obviously the shape of its education system. Sri Lanka’s social and political stability also depends on many factors and the nature of the country’s education system is obviously one of them. So, the need to pay greater attention to education cannot be over-emphasised. Yet, what is happening in the education sector indicates that we are not ready to learn either from our own past experience or from other countries and adopt a more technocratic approach to addressing critical issues in education.