By Prof. Gamini Samaranayake Chairman University Grants Commission Contd from last week Issues and Challenges
The biggest challenge facing our university education is ensuring equal opportunity in access and equity in the quality of education. In 2010 54,000 applied for 22,000 placements at our universities. The Gross Enrollment Rate (GER), in other words, the ratio of students enrolled in higher education to the size of the age cohort between 18 to 24 years is close upon 16 per cent. The UGC is planning to increase the GER up to 20 per cent in 2016 and 30 per cent in 2020. It is essential to maintain the GER to the level of 20 per cent to move to a knowledge economy.
The curriculum and courses we offer should contribute to the production of a skilled labour force that meets the demands of the new millennium. The answer lies in changing the traditional model of teaching and learning measured by where we studied and what we learned. New pressures such as alignment to industry and the demand of the workforce, the move to mass education and a geographically fluid workforce have exacerbated the need to move away from rote learning to competency based education. Therefore, we need to redefine our programmes to provide competencies for a new generation of learners.
A Knowledge Hub is broadly defined as a designated region intended to attract foreign investment, retain local students, build a regional reputation by providing access to high-quality education and training for both international and domestic students, and create a knowledge-based economy. A knowledge hub is concerned with the process of building up a country’s capacity to better integrate it with the world’s increasing knowledge based economy, while simultaneously exploring policy options that have the potential to enhance economic growth. An education hub can include different combinations of domestic/international institutions, branch campuses, and foreign partnership, within the region. The main functions of hubs are to generate, apply, transfer, and disseminate knowledge.
The Ministry of Higher Education is grappling with the empirical implications of translating this promise into reality. The Ministry has invited foreign universities to set up campuses to provide more diversified higher Education programmes to increase access for local students and to attract students from overseas to study in Sri Lanka. Just as in Singapore Sri Lanka’s strategy is to piggy- back on internationally renowned universities so that the process is cost effective and mutually beneficial. Furthermore, it is planned that 10 branch campuses of “world class” universities would be established by 2013. The Knowledge Hub Agenda has given greater prominence especially to the fields of Science and Technology, Information and Communication Technology, Skills Development, and Research and Development in Applied Sciences.
Malaysia is the first country in Asia that has strategically established itself as a knowledge hub admitting 100,000 overseas students, although the university education in Malaysia was introduced far later than Sri Lanka. It has a clear strategy to consolidate as an international hub for post graduate studies. Sri Lanka has a projected target of attracting 10,000 foreign students by 2014 which would increase to 100,000 by 2020.
Sri Lanka enjoys several advantages to develop into an education hub. First, of all the ever increasing demand for higher education in the country is an impetus for growth and advancement. Annually, well over 250,000 students sit for the Advanced Level Examination and half of them are qualified for university education. However, only 22,000 are able to enter university education in the country. Of them, 9000 enroll in vocational training through 12 Advanced Technological Institutes, 20,000 enroll at the Open University, 8000, access overseas education, 20,000 register as external candidates while 9000 are studying for a foreign degree via cross border institutes. Nearly, 60,000 students are looking for alternative higher education locally.
Secondly, an Education Hub is necessary for the long-term viability of a country’s economy and to generate employment. Sri Lanka is moving fast from an Agro-economy to a service economy and to a knowledge-based economy. To establish as knowledge based economy, Sri Lanka has to prepare for intense competition from countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. Therefore, Sri Lanka should be able to groom and attract talent locally, regionally and internationally and the whole country has to gear up for a paradigm shift including the political ideology.
Thirdly, Sri Lanka needs to develop high level skills due to her skewed demographic and labour force. Currently, Sri Lanka has an unusually large pool of labour force. At present, 83 percent of the labour force have educational attainment at GCE (O/L) or below of which 19.3 percent have a primary education or below. This problem is compounded by the aging of our population. Currently, for every elderly person aged 65 or over there are almost ten (10) people in the prime working age population (15-64) but this trend would reverse after 2020. Consequently, it is imperative for Sri Lanka to continue to elevate the overall skills of the general population. In order to develop the high end of the skills set, it is necessary to create an Education Hub in the country and consider the re-skilling of the labour force as well.
Academic freedom is associated with the concept of university autonomy. The Dar Es Salam Declaration defines academic freedom as the right of the members of the academic community individually or collectively, to fulfill their functions of teaching, researching, writing, learning and disseminating information and providing services without fear or interference from the state or any other public authority. Academic freedom is important especially for scholars who are used to the kind of open academic environment found in universities in western countries.
Opportunities and Challenges
The end of the war against terrorism has opened new doors for attracting foreign universities to establish collaboration with local institutions or establish branch campuses in Sri Lanka. We also need to change the narrow perspectives of our local academia and students to facilitate such a process as they have to be prepared to compete with such institutions and produce graduates who are on par or exceed those from the cross border or branch campuses.
Student unrest, destabilization and propensity for violence in universities are a major threat to university education in the country.
Step Taken and Needs to be Taken
The existing University Act of 1978 does not have provision to establish private universities either local or international. Therefore, a separate Higher Education Act for national and international universities and branch Campuses as in Malaysia and Bangladesh has been prepared and is subject to be placed before Parliament.
The need to change the role of the State, the Ministry of Higher Education and the UGC as the main provider of higher education to a regulator and protector of higher education is imperative. Therefore, an Accreditation and Quality Assurance Board has to be established to monitor quality in both state and non-state sector providers of university education. The said bill is being prepared.
The government has taken steps to raise the standards of six universities in Sri Lanka up to international level. These selected universities are Peradeniya, Colombo, Moratuwa, Sri Jayawardenapura, Kelaniya, and Ruhuna. A survey conducted in October in 2010 showed that the University of Colombo was ranked 2185, the University of Moratuwa 2198, and the University of Peradeniya 3005 in the Web metrics Global ranking. It is a fact that many universities are not wealthy enough to pay for this evaluation on which the global ranking is made. However, Sri Lanka needs to make every effort to get into the exclusive club of world class universities in the world in order to be an education hub in the region.
State universities must be responsive to changes of higher education that flow from changes taking place in the global and regional spheres. Currently, they are concerned with academic and intellectual development but they have to change the teaching and learning process as well as governance and management which call for a very high level of efficiency and effectiveness.
At present we are going through a transitional state in the Sri Lankan political and socio-economic scenario. Currently, the government monopoly of higher education is relaxed due to the presence of the non-state sector attributed to the processes of globalization, internationalization and commercialization of higher education. Consequently, a two tier higher education system has emerged.
The concept of Sri Lanka as a knowledge hub is viable in the post conflict macro-economic environment. It could be an incentive to stimulate the rapid expansion of state and non-state university education in the country. It would also complement the other proposed hubs of energy, trade, air and naval. However, we have to recognize that the concept of the knowledge hub is highly dependent on the overall development of the country and good governance. If not it will be confined to rhetoric that will give rise to agitation and turmoil.