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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 107

Sri Lanka: More and more Private and Government Universities but increasingly unemployed and underemployed grads

By Manoj Lanka Hettige

This is in response to the article "Sri Lanka: Free higher education is total mess" written by Mr. Janaka Perera on 26th May 2007 to the Asian tribune with thanks for initiating a timely important theme.

On 22nd November 2006, Mr. Joseph Michel Pereira MP has raised his voice in Parliament over the limited higher education opportunities and the Convener of the Inter University Students Federation has reportedly said that they would hold an island-wide protest campaign against establishing of private universities ("The Island" on 26th November 2006).

I am yet to hear of any campaign by parents or student-unions of International Schools demanding expansion of university entrance or establishing private universities.

The aim of this brief discussion is to seek a better solution to satisfy demands of all these sectors.

Private Schools

Establishing private schools islandwide is the first step for towards the private universities. Instead of upgrades required in the country's public schools, the Government permitted private schools to operated island wide while leaving some government schools to be closed in the remote areas. Having declared war on School Development Committee proposal, put forward by then Education Minister Lalith Ethulathmudali, those radical communist parties are now silently enjoying the facilities provided by the private schools.

Government has no monitoring or authority over the private schools that are run just like business cafés. No nationally recognized qualifications, assessment institutions are available in Sri Lanka and therefore, the suitability of the teachers who conduct the courses in these private schools and subsequently the quality of education are questionable. Similarly, many private universities in past have been approved by the Board Of Investment of Sri Lanka just to freely operate like commercial business cafes without any collaboration with the university Grant Commission or Education Ministry. This shows the standard of higher education we are proposing to grant for our younger generation by setting up the private universities in the country.

Private Universities

Introducing the "open economy" abruptly to Sri Lanka without any systematic economic plan to the country in 1977 was undoubtedly a mistake and has already devastated many public institutions and corporations. In the present context, only the higher education has escaped from the exploitation of "open economy'' though the process of deterioration has already begun now from permitting the privately owned schools to be established island wide.

Establishing private universities in Sri Lanka appear to be a good idea as it empowers the middle-income society to gain the higher education for an affordable amount of money. But the system does not provide any satisfactory solution for lower income students, who have completed the basic qualifications for university entrance. Then they inevitably need to resort to the Government Technical Colleges and those technical students will be helpless in the job market where large numbers of graduates are available from the paid universities.

Before taking a decision on privately run universities, it is important to ask whether our economy can maintain such a large number of graduates at a desirable level. Though there are private universities in many less developed countries in the region such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, many graduates in these countries are seen doing odd jobs deviating from their qualified field. One Sri Lankan minister sometimes ago said that those who hold the degrees should not be shameful to accept even a driving job without only waiting for government jobs. What is the point of taking a degree spending huge amounts of money if the economy of the country is not strong enough to sustain those intellectuals in their respective fields in which they qualified?

The competitive free education system in Sri Lanka have been become a ladder for decades for the most under privileged families to get a good living standard once their children became a Doctor, Engineer, Lawyer, executive etc. But when the privately paid universities have started to run producing more and more graduates, it will be an unbearable blow to such underprivileged families as those should then need to struggle for a job and good pay. In today's context, even an Engineering graduate hardly earns a satisfactory salary from which he has to maintain his parent's family while building his own family.

One remedy proposed by those who support private universities is that the Government can financially help those qualified poor students to afford private university entrance. It is the question before us now whether those who are taking a higher amount of money as loans for education will be capable enough to repay from their earnings in Sri Lanka while achieving other personnel goals.

Therefore, permitting the private universities in Sri Lanka with loan facilities for poor students will lead many middle & low-income families' life to misery by encouraging some of them for finding money for paid universities and disappointing others in finding the jobs in the huge competition. On the other hand, if the government can provide financial assistance to each economically challenged student, what is the point of wasting government funds for privately owned universities without using the same money for expanding or upgrading the government university system?

Need for Permanent Solution

However, there is an urgent need for permanent solution for the higher education problem in Sri Lanka being pending now for so long time. It is the fact that due to lack of enough higher education opportunities in Sri Lanka, many people are sending their children abroad for graduation spending more than 4 million rupees. On the other hand, is it fair that some students who dropped from the university entrance by several marks below cut off level are denied the graduation due to lack of education facilities in Sri Lanka while wealthy students with much low passes get graduated in a foreign university for money?

Apart from the terrorist problem in Sri Lanka, main reason for those who are leaving the country should be the lack of education facilities for their children in Sri Lanka. Migration of many Sri Lankan intellectuals/skilled workers inside and outside of the country (specially working in middle east countries on temporary work permit basis) are on the rise in order to afford a quality education for their children.

This shows clearly that how Sri Lanka is losing its foreign remittances, as well as skilled workers/intellectuals from both inside & outside of the country leading the country to deteriorate.

On the other hand, if the education is still kept with limited entrance for higher education due to the pressure of undergraduates who took the chance through rigorous competition, what is the future of these thousands of children who are attending the private schools? Does not the present system still discriminate our own children in one corner?

Deficiency of the present education system

Most people appreciating the present education system say that it provides equal opportunities to the society. 'The Concept of Equal Opportunities'' is practical when the income of the people are almost equal. But how many students who have been determined as eligible for university entrance by Examination Department are denied by a cut-off mark level declared by a second authority, the University Grant Commission due to unavailability of sufficient resources in the universities? Both instances where the individual's failure to afford for paid universities and the Government's failure to provide sufficient resources to grant eligible students entry permits to the universities are two sides of the same coin of the poor economy of the country. Therefore, the present education system where the large numbers of eligible students are denied the university entrance undoubtedly is not the best system we have to maintain anymore in the Country.

If a certain section of the students is denied free university entrance by the country's economic deficiency, higher marks above the cut off level declared by a second authority (University Grant Commission) should not privilege another section of the students which are economically strong for free university entrance. Because both the individual's and country's economic status are interrelated.

Therefore, higher education should be allowed for free to those only who have been economically deprived while becoming eligible from the GCE Advanced Level examination. Economic status of the families can be categorized in the grade levels like A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 and should be reliably verified from provincial government authorities. Economic status as well as the marks status of the GCE A/L examination should be considered in selection for the free university entrance. Those who are financially capable enough should be charged annually for the universities and the same income should be used to expand the capacity of universities thereby increasing the intake annually.

If necessary, the Government can consider partnership of private sector to collaborate in this university expanding process with a suitable mechanism, which should be under the tight surveillance of the University Grant Commission (UGC). If it is an expansion with a system of affiliated institutions, all those affiliated universities too should follow the same curriculum, fee structure and standard of the government universities. The University Grant Commission (UGC) should select the students for all universities based on the AL Marks and students' economic status. This kind of system will not attract any objections from the interested parties as the system is completely monitored and controlled by the government. This will ensure a proper higher education for the economically challenged as well as economically strong students according to their capabilities.

Otherwise, permitting the private universities as attempted before by the previous governments, as a BOI approved commercial project would definitely bring the defeat again to the long awaited education reforms. As president Mahinda Rajapaksha is always-experimenting home grown solutions to the problems of the country, I hope that he will not go again in the same failed path but search a fresh and a better alternative to the higher education problems in Sri Lanka. It is better if he can appoint a parliamentary select committee to deeply consider pros and cons of various alternatives and design a viable solution.

Under this process, the private schools started district-wide also should be taken into the control of Ministry of Education and run as affiliated schools of the same Government school network without leaving any more time to deteriorate the primary education system. What happened to the public transport system of Sri Lanka by permitting the privately owned busses to operate freely should not be allowed to happen in our education system.

- Asian Tribune –

Also Read: Sri Lanka: Free higher education in total mess

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