Sri Lanka’s answer to the Entrepreneurial University
Education in Sri Lanka has, in the past, always been the holy ground of the academia. Employability however has not always followed, leading to a plethora of problems among the highly educated but unemployed youth of the country. The latest global concept is the ‘entrepreneurial university” that instills market values in students along with their higher education.
Uva-Wellassa University, situated in scenic Badulla amidst the mists and hilltops of the hill country has digressed from the norm and is Sri Lanka’s first technology-based state university.
Headed by Vice Chancellor Chandra Embuldeniya, a former business leader and chamber personality, the university has embodied some of the best practices of the corporate world to ensure that its graduates will be fully employable at the end of their tenure there.
Speaking to The Sunday Times FT about the ‘venture’, Embuldeniya explained how the single aim of the university is pure value addition.
The eight degree programmes that are in the curriculum-Animal science, Computer Science and Technology, Entrepreneurship and Management, Tea Technology and Value Addition, Export Agriculture, Science and Technology, Mineral Resources and Industrial Information and technology- are all technical and updated versions that are in tune with current needs of the economy. “We update the curriculum every semester, and right now the faculty is in the process of the latest modifying session,” he said.
The specialty of the degree programmes is that they are all demand driven and market-oriented. If one course becomes obsolete, it is most likely that it will be axed from the curriculum.
In the same way, if there is a growing need for a particular course in the world job market, they will look in to obtaining it for the students.
For example, the Actuarial Science is one of the hottest subjects being studies by Insurance and Financial/Investment Research firms. A post-graduate course in Actuarial science will be started at the Colombo office of the UWU with visiting faculty from the field coming in. The VC says that gradually the subject will enter the undergraduate course stream as well.
UWU was built between 2004 and 2006 at an accelerated time line as part of the government’s plan to increase the capacity of university education as well as to increase the employability of graduates. Its first batch of students was taken in July 2006.
Assembling the faculty was more difficult, says Embuldeniya. “One thing I believe in as a strategy is to take in and develop young teachers,” he says, adding that it is easier to make them understand the ‘special’ needs of the university .i.e. value addition, as opposed to lecturers who have been part of the system.
“It’s all a case of mindset,” he goes on to say. Some senior lecturers would and have found it difficult to approach education in such a business-like manner, while others have accepted and adapted. “I don’t recruit Deans”, he has often been known to say. Instead, the faculty is taken in on many levels and depending on performance and reviews are promoted. Some 51 faculty members are currently teaching at UWU. In the same way, students too have been converted to the mentality that their goal should be amassing skills for the market.
Embuldeniya is emphatic about the open approach of UWU towards broad-based education. “The silo-based system has been broken through,” he says. He refers to the educational “silos” which entail certain subjects to be taught only in certain steams or departments. Here, there are subjects that are taught across the board, in various courses, since the courses are run by course directors under whom the subject coordinators work. The subject coordinators are flexible. Also there are no separate Arts, Sciences, Management faculties, etc.
“Today a scientist is to me useless, if he doesn’t appreciate the economics of what he does,” says Embuldeniya. UWU’s Broad General Education programme is a foundation course that strives to avoid this.
A series of one and two credit subjects ranging from communication to English skills are included in the “Broad Gen” as it is commonly known. The students who have come from their Advanced Levels have to do a series of modules on the streams they did not choose for their exam. “That way they get a breadth of knowledge,” he says, “We open the window and show them what’s out there”.
Working with the private sector
The private sector has, in recent years, been making its appearance in the educational sphere. At UWU, they are a fully involved partner. Private researchers and officials are brought in to lecture the students and they are actively involved in the curriculum updating, etc.
Embuldeniya attributes much of his practices in the university to his time in various branches of the corporate sector, including stints at Informatics and the National Chamber of Commerce.
Against the norm
The UWU employs a number of practices that go against the accepted norms of higher education in Sri Lanka. For instance, Embuldeniya is extremely skeptical of the concept of “academic freedom”, deeming it a waste of time and energy. Instead, he is of the belief that academic research should be done towards more productive causes, and has commissioned his lecturers to contrive a ‘paper’ to reduce the gargantuan energy bill of Sri Lanka. “The future is in research,” he says. UWU is taking up the practice of getting not only the postgraduate but also the undergraduate students to research into their given technological fields.
While the investment in obtaining the materials needed for serious technical research is a large one, the VC is convinced of its need in the present context of global issues such food and water shortages and climate change. He is also adamant on the proper protection of the results of this research.
“Education is not sacred anymore,” says Embuldeniya, “It is one of the biggest industries in the world now. Today people are not studying only for knowledge.” The oldest students at the UWU are second years and their resilience in the open market is yet to be tested. However, ambitions are high and the first steps have been taken toward creating wholly employable graduates.