ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 43
Financial Times  

Govt. should take serious look at contribution of private universities –educationist

By Natasha Gunaratne

With local universities short of capacity and students lacking cash to join private universities to obtain a degree, some institutes are now asking the private sector to sponsor students they recruit. Dr. Thilak Weerakoon, Chief Executive Officer at the Imperial Institute of Tertiary Education (IIHE) says the government should take a close look at the role of the private sector and the contributions it can make. The role of private universities is a hotly debated topic ever since the operations of private medical college based at Ragama with state consent in the 1980s failed due to opposition from groups like the JVP.

In an interview with The Sunday Times FT the IIHE chief says he has drafted a proposal where companies can come into collaboration with the IIHE and sponsor students, who have joined the company, to earn higher education degrees. The IIHE provides students accredited and recognized degrees from the prestigious University of Wales in the United Kingdom. Dr. Weerakoon spoke on the progress that has been made in the tertiary education industry in the country and the long and challenging road ahead to increase the quality of education and the portfolio of degrees offered.

Established in 1996, the IIHE is the only validated centre of the University of Wales in Sri Lanka to offer both University of Wales BSc (Hons) in Business Management and Computing (Software Engineering or Management) and the Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees and is amongst the oldest institutions offering foreign internal degrees in Sri Lanka.

IIHE's programmes have been designed to ensure employability and are continuously reviewed to ensure that the teaching reflects the current market trends and the employers' requirement. "Some companies have already agreed to sponsor people who don't have the financial resources so they will be guaranteed a good job by getting a marketable degree and can make a difference to their whole family background," Dr Weerakoon said explaining his proposal. He said from the first day, prospective students will be working in the company, putting in about 18 hours of work per week, while also following the programme.

Weerakoon said there is a lot of potential in Sri Lanka for the tertiary education industry to be developed. "If Sri Lanka can establish three or four large private sector universities, we can cater not only to the locals but also to the large number of students coming from foreign countries.

The same system that is going on in the UK can be done here where we get money from foreign students and we can then subsidize the local students and provide scholarships to people from rural areas." Looking at the South Asian region and even Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China, people look towards the United States, the UK, Australia and Canada when it comes to tertiary education and the costs are enormous. "This is when a place like Sri Lanka can really grab that opportunity in terms of getting foreign exchange because there are students who would like to come and study here and get a degree like what we are offering at one twentieth of the cost," said Weerakoon. "We need to have hostel facilities so that they can be comfortable."

Students from Sri Lanka are going to India because India can offer cheap education compared to the UK or Canada. However, Weerakoon warns that unless students attend a select few universities in India, even though their education is good, it still won't be marketable. "It's still not like getting a degree from the UK or US. But at IIHE, we are not offering a degree from Sri Lanka but from the UK at a very low cost." Currently, IIHE only has a few products but there are so many other programmes that need to be introduced. "What we would like to do is start programmes in nursing. There is huge demand overseas and we can export them rather than export maids to the Middle East or other countries and create social problems.” Based on Weerakoon's experience in tertiary education in Sri Lanka, having been attached to the University of Moratuwa and thereafter in Hong Kong and having participated in programs in Australia and other countries, there is a lot of potential for the tertiary education in Sri Lanka to grow in the next decade or so in terms of quality and the portfolio of product.

"What we have in Sri Lanka at the moment is an education system that is not adequately financed to maintain the quality that should be maintained. Working in Hong Kong, 25% of their budget was for higher education. Another 15 – 20% would have gone for secondary education. With that kind of nurturing of the education system, I have seen the education system grow from the time I went there in 1981 to 2002."

During that period of time, Weerakoon said the quality of education in Hong Kong grew so much that it became like one of the reputed universities in the UK or Australia. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, that has not yet happened. Besides the financing, the portfolio of products being offered is not keeping with the demand of the industry. "We are mass producing graduates who are not employable. Only a certain proportion of graduates based in the local universities are really employable by the private sector." He further stated that when it comes to recruitment for positions within the private sector, people who most frequently get chosen are those with foreign degrees. "That shows that there is something missing in the local tertiary education system."

Weerakoon also had some sound advice for potential students. The first thing any prospective student should do is evaluate their goals and objectives in order to invest their money in qualifications that can be marketed worldwide. This requires a lot of market research. "Go on the Internet and do some research," he said. "Find out about the University of Wales and go to British High Commission to get proper information."

There are several institutions that have mushroomed in the last four to five years and have been taken people for a ride he warned. It is of utmost importance that parents and students verify that the institute they are getting involved in is a credible institution and that the degrees they are offering are also recognized. Weerakoon also said the quality of institutions will come from the quality of the people who are managing it.


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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.