Dr. Mohan De Silva, the Chairman of the UGC, elaborated on this point. He said, “The bottom line is that there are two groups of students who have got affected: those who have fought very hard and entered the university external programme with all island merit and those who have entered under tuition masters. Unfortunately this is the reality, but this is the only chance that they have to get the external degree. However, the degree should not be confined to a piece of paper; the programme should be more planned and progressive as in countries such as Hong Kong. The Open University of Sri Lanka should also be commended for its progressive approach. We are trying to propagate the open distance learning mode. This concept has been misunderstood by many students.
“The key point is that we have not reduced the number in intake. When looking at the previous years, the Kelaniya and J’pura Universities have got abnormally large. There has been an estimate of 90,000 external students in the Kelaniya University itself. In the new circular it is stated that every university in the country has the right to do the external degree, where each university can have an equal number of internal and external students. Therefore, there would not be abnormal numbers in each university and as a result we have redistributed this opportunity to all the areas of the country. There is no number reduction in any case, but the external students would not get collected in one or two places. The large number of students affects the learning experience of both the internal and external students. We are simply redistributing this opportunity, nothing else.
Sarath Wanninayaka, lecturer of Mass Communication at the Kelaniya University, opposed a few facts of this view and said, “We should not reduce the intake of external students. This is not the solution; we are putting the medicine in the wrong place. Lakshman Kiriella made a statement in Parliament where he said that in 2014 there were 90,000 external students in the Kelaniya University. But, there have been only around 14,000 students who put applications for the programme that year. Even from the 14,000 all the students do not do the degree. Most of the students opt for a job instead. We only see 7,000-8,000 full time students. In the Kelaniya University from 1993 onwards there were only 2,000-3,000 degree holders produced each year. Therefore, if we take only 1,500 students per year then only 50-100 students will actually become degree holders.”
Dr. Mohan, however, shows that though students pay for their education, a large sum of their fees is borne by the government. He said, “The external degree programme is a huge expense for the government. Further, the external students come on an erratic basis, and since the numbers are so high, it is difficult to monitor them. Sri Lanka is famous for its tuition culture. This culture is not exclusive to the external degree programmes. Many students believe that they are registering with the university; however the reality is they are actually registering under the tuition masters. This could have been easily monitored if all the students were not congested in one university.”
The expense is not the only reason for this change. The lack of jobs in the market available for degree holders is another factor determining this change.
Sarath Wanninayaka shows how the government’s reasoning is invalid and that there are other solutions to the problems shown by the government. He said, “The government believes that there are too many external degree holders and that there is no validity in the degree. They also believe that there are not enough jobs available for all the external degree holders. But reducing intake is not the way to solve this predicament. They should instead introduce more subjects that match the job requirements of this country. Since the world is entering a digital age, the government should introduce technologically based subjects.
“If we take the Kelaniya University for instance, there are two departments: the department of humanities and the social sciences department. In these departments there are many subjects. However, not all the subjects are offered to the external students. Hence, as the subjects are readily available, the external degree should simply introduce these subjects. We want to create students who will be suitable for the jobs they apply for. We want to eradicate the job mismatch in our country.
“Another factor that must be considered is the fact that more than 50% of students at the university already have jobs. In most instances working students need the degree to have some form of mobility in the work place. Hence, job creation is not a huge problem as most students already have jobs. The scarcity in jobs can also be solved by having competitive exams, where the best would receive the job. This would also upgrade the job environment of the country.”
Sarath Wanninayaka shows how difficult it is to be selected to a State university. He said, “If 300,000 students sit for their A/Ls, only half will pass the A/L Exam. But, though there are many qualified students for university, only 20,000 will actually receive university entrance. The problem with this is, in another country if you have passed your A/Ls you can gain entrance to university. If we take India for example, they grant university entrance for all the students who have qualified for university. The problem in Sri Lanka is that since our economy is unstable, there is not enough room to accommodate all students. However, the students did have another chance, that being the external degree, but this opportunity is also now taken away. If there is a student with three Ss who can spend over 50 lakhs, then that child would be eligible for a private university. But there are students with 3 As who cannot spend millions on education, but also cannot enter a local university. The message of the government is therefore that, education is only for the rich or those who are extremely intelligent and lucky to get selected for a State university. This is the only country that I have seen that wants to diminish the opportunities to learn and study. For true development of a nation, the intelligence of the people of the country should develop too. How great would it be for every public officer, farmer or fisherman to have a degree? ”
“In Kelaniya in 1993 the external degree system was introduced. In the circular that was published it is shown that only a few students will be admitted to the external degree programme. For example if there are 1,200 internal students at the Kelaniya university, then for the Kelaniya external programme an equal number will be admitted. But, this is extremely unfair, because this was the only opportunity for children especially in the poor and rural areas. The people who do this degree are mainly children of farmers. There are many private universities in the country, but a child of a farmer would never be able to afford Rs. 5 to 7 million for their degree.
“The government’s solution is absurd, the duty of the government is to increase admissions to universities, not reduce it. Tertiary education should get better every year. They are not even giving university admission to those who have 3As and now they are grabbing the only opportunity that the students have: which is the external degree. We need to all bear in mind that these students are paying for the external degree.”
Sarath Wanninayaka said, “We have sent so many letters to the ministry in regard to this problem. We have even written to the president. There are also many programmes that we have conducted, where we are creating awareness about this issue. At the moment there are 30,000 students who joined us from various universities. We have over 500,000 people who are interested in helping us. This government came into power because of the vote of the youth and no one else. But, the government is now turning a blind eye to the youth. If the government does not help us with this problem, it will be extremely hard for them to remain in power. We have no political agenda. Our only aim is to give an opportunity to those who have missed the internal intake. There are even some students who work in garment factories who suffer in harsh conditions to pay for this degree. I don’t think anyone will understand the hardships some of these students undergo.
Convener of the external degree union R.M.C.K. Rathnayake said, “We are not against private universities, but we need to bear in mind that this is the only chance that a poor child has for tertiary education. If this problem is not solved, votes of more than 50,000 will be against this regime in the following election.”
Convener of the external degree union R.M.C.K. Rathnayake, speaking on behalf of the students of the programme said, around two decades ago, the government found out that post A/L students are more prone to be reckless and involved in rebellious activities like insurrections, drinking and drugs. Therefore, to mitigate such activities the external degree programme was introduced. This is not the first time that the government has proposed that we should reduce the number of students in the external degree programme. The former regime also introduced criteria, where students needed passes in English and IT to proceed to the degree. The degree is at present of a high standard, we teach both soft skills and hard skills to the students, so they will be an asset to the work place. However, limiting the number of students who can do this degree would be a huge disadvantage not only for the student, but for the country as well.”
“We want the government to give this opportunity to the poor of our country, and give us more solutions to increase the value of this degree by having more strict and standard examinations and making our degree more relevant to match the work place. We also want the government to have competitive exams, so that the cream of the degree holders will get absorbed into high ranking government jobs.
“Though more than 10,000 students are registered for the degree, only around 10% receive the degree, because of the exams being conducted in a disorganized manner and the fact that the degree keeps dragging. Lakshman Kiriella stated that the students feel like the external degree is a mirage. But, limiting the intake is not a solution for this predicament. We need real solutions for our problems, and we hope the government will work towards this.
Priyantha Pathirathne, Co-Convener of the external degree union said: “History shows us that normally to reform the government, the most effective mechanism is not protesting, but through elections. But, in this case we needed to protest to seek immediate answers. When the government creates problems in the system of education, it is inevitable for students to rise against them. This is a huge problem for the students who have already sent the application for the programme, because of the new system of intake; it creates anxiety and uncertainty amongst students. Due to the propagation of capitalism and privatization, the free education system is affected, and could be a reason for the reduction in intake. When we asked the responsible parties for the reason for the circular, they said it was the decision of the former regime. No one is taking responsibility for this issue, and no one is giving us a feasible solution. State university is a dream to many, because it gives the route to financial stability. We need the government to be pro-active and give us a solution, because this new method creates many unfavourable consequences for potential students.”
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