- The cruel irony of the higher education system is that it has contributed to the degradation of the vast majority of its children.
Last week, police fired tear gas to disperse a group of university students protesting against the government’s effort to ‘destroy’ free education. Apart from the footage of the Police hosing the hapless students with water cannons, which is the money shot for the prime-time news bulletins, public opinion on these protests is increasingly adverse.
Social media is livid at the hypocrisy of the protesters. Others lament the future of next-generation intellectuals. An industrious government should bring that vast silent majority to the open, amplify their voice, and ride on the growing public acceptance of private universities to build a higher education system accessible for all Sri Lankan children, not just a selected minority.
‘Free education’ of a few at the expense of the vast majority
The cruel irony of protests to save ‘free education’ is that they indeed aim to maintain an exploitative status quo that favours less than 10 to 15 per cent of students at the expense of the rest of the members of their cohort.
Consider these statistics: In 2021, 311,359 students sat for the GCE Advanced Level. Of the 194, 366 students qualified for university admission. 102, 788 applied to State universities. Only 43,927 were selected.
That would mean 140,000 deserving students (Or nearly four-fifths of qualified students) were left out. Of them, 12,400 students enrolled in non-state university programs. Another 8,000 registered in affiliated foreign universities recognized by the Ministry of Education.
Still, 120,000 students, minus a few thousand well-to-do ones who went overseas, are left without access to higher education.
The picture would appear exceedingly grim if you were to account for the fate of students who did not pass the Advanced levels (i.e. 117,000 out of 311,000).
Vocational training opportunities for this group are scarce. The majority of members of this group are condemned to a menial existence.
There is another group of students who fail to proceed from O/Ls, though that number is fast declining thanks to commonsense education reforms undertaken recently.
Still, their prospects are even grimmer than their peers in the absence of any government initiative to direct them to vocational training opportunities.
All in all, myopic higher education policies have laid waste to the vast majority of our children. This is what Rohan Wijeweera and Velupillai Prabakaran did by other means.
Producing three-wheel drivers, not coders
The failure to reform the higher education sector has given to a dastardly reality in the labour force. The second largest contingent of the labour force, after the 1.4 million public servants, is the 500,000-strong army of three-wheeler drivers.
The vast majority of 1.7 million strong Sri Lankan migrant workers are semi-skilled or unskilled. Of the 330,000 Sri Lankans who migrated for work in 2022, 59% are low-skilled or unskilled, and of them, 25% are domestic helpers.
The cruel irony of the higher education system is that it has contributed to the degradation of the vast majority of its children.
It is designed to enforce caps on the supply to maintain the privileged status of a few. Remember the comical cosplaying by the doctors, engineers and university dons as if they were the worst affected by the economic crisis?
Sri Lanka needs private universities, vocational centres and other institutes of excellence built through private-public partnerships to create opportunities for the vast majority of its children – and to bring an end to a feudal status quo perpetuated by the quasi-state monopoly on higher education.
The government says all the right things about this. But, it lacks a coherent strategy. The President was on record saying the government would approve three new private medical universities. While they are welcomed, they only provide patchwork for an acute crisis. If it is to end a system that has long cannibalized its children, Sri Lanka should think big!
First, Sri Lanka needs a regulatory framework for private higher education, one that is not designed to discourage investment or create manifold red tape, as is the case with many policy decisions.
Second, no matter how progressive the framework is, one should not expect local and international stakeholders to queue up to build institutions in this country. That could have been possible had those measures been implemented in the 1980s. That train left the station long ago.
Sri Lanka needs a dedicated agency, similar to the Board of Investment (BOI), to promote the country as a destination for education services, lobby for investment, and provide incentives and infrastructure facilities. Such an agency should be backed by a substantial financial endowment, probably financed through a World Bank or ADB loan.
That should be used to provide part of start-up capital for selected local and foreign stakeholders to build overseas campuses or affiliated universities of any of the top 500 global universities, with an agreed number of minimal student intake per year.
It would be tempting to ask why the government would not set up and run new universities.
However, as the sorry state of the state universities reveals, any new universities would add to quantity but with abysmal quality. Rather than trying to recreate the wheel, for which we seem to have neither organizational nor managerial skills, aspiring Sri Lankan students would be better served by letting someone who has already accomplished run the show on the government’s behalf.
Also, it gives the best bang for the buck. Considering that the non-state sector already takes in 20,000 students, with no government incentive, with the right policies, the government should be able to increase that number by fivefold in a couple of years, effectively providing higher education opportunities for the vast majority of deserving children.
To make higher education more accessible, the government can set up education zones and mini-cities in each province, which would also contribute to local economies. Incentivizing research, industrial clusters, and incubators nearby could further enhance such measures.
Third, any education policy should be based on quality, equity and accessibility. Yet, the latter two cannot be achieved if the education opportunities are beyond the reach of most youth. To that end, the government should provide tuition fee loans to all students; a practice that is a pillar in higher education in most advanced economies.
Fourth, Sri Lanka should understand its deficiencies and advantages; compared to emerging economies such as Vietnam or Bangladesh, it offers nothing regarding the economics of scale. However, there are ingrained advantages that it could ride on. One is the centrality of some Sri Lankan projects, such as Hambantota Port, the Port City, to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
China has the second largest number of top 500 universities in the world. Why not invite Beijing to set up an education city in Hambantota and provide incentives for the leading Chinese universities to set up overseas campuses here? That could be truly transforming, transcending the immediate objective itself. The supply of skilled graduates would bring in
India is another option, but the best of India’s education system, such as its IITs, though create world-class graduates, are inward-looking in their organizational structures. Some European or American universities may be far more receptive, especially if the Chinese are already there.
Fifth, Sri Lanka has long fantasized about becoming an education hub.
The low cost of living advantage should lure many international students who seek quality education at a fraction of the cost. Even a fraction of South Asia’s education market is large enough for Sri Lanka to establish itself as a destination for quality education.
Finally, if Sri Lanka is to take off economically, as much as integrating itself with global supply chains, it needs to update its human capital. For that, it should promote and build private universities, not one, probably hundreds.
Follow @Ranga Jayasuriya on X