The issue of permitting private universities to offer university education in Sri Lanka has come to focus once again with the announcement by the new Minister of Higher Education, S.B Dissanayake, that it is the top priority of his ministry to open up university education to the private sector and reputed foreign universities.
While some have attacked the Minister, many who understand the bitter ground reality, including the erudite Buddhist scholar and respected educationist, Rev Professor Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thero, Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, are reported to have encouraged the Minister in his new venture. Given the enormity of opposition that may naturally spring up when any attempt is made at demonopolising the state university system, it could be said that it is the current Minister who could successfully overcome such opposition with his track record as a national level student leader fighting tooth and nail for the preservation of the state university system several decades ago.
Private universities good with proper regulation
Many Sri Lankans are in favour of allowing private universities here to operate along with state universities but also point out that such a step should be allowed only after proper regulatory measures are in place.
“The private sector should be encouraged to invest in higher education ventures only when an adequate regulatory system to ensure standards is in place. Also the state-run higher education system should be sustained and expanded to serve the larger population that cannot access private education,” said one respondent, in a Business Times (BT) poll this week. (See P1 for results of the poll)
The BT took a vote on whether private universities should be allowed and whether Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake, who made the call recently to ‘open out’, would be able to convince more conservative colleagues in the cabinet.
Another respondent said Sri Lanka’s focus should be on how to align its educational strategy to meet the economic needs of the country and the demands of the competing global market. “Public or Private is only a means to achieving that and is receiving disproportionate attention. The question should be ‘what is the most effective educational strategy for Sri Lanka?” he said.
It was also pointed in another comment that the best talent in the private sector is a product of various international education institutes which are affiliated to the best universities in UK, USA and Australia.
The blockage of a private medical college some decades back, after an initial start, was also referred to. “Those who entered this college when it was mooted some decades ago and were forced to join other overseas universities are now heading medical departments and are medical directors in renowned hospitals in the US for instance.
Our loss is their gain. As a nation, we are very short sighted! If anyone can silence the negative elements and go ahead with the plan, it will be this administration,” a respondent noted.
One parent moaned the fact that she was spending a colossal sum to educate her daughter in the US. “What a waste of foreign exchange. If Sri Lanka can provide support for good universities to be set up here, we can educate our children at a fraction of the cost and have the joy of having our children at home,” she said.
Another respondent pointed out that the JVP, once an opponent of private educational institutes, has become a more practical party today. He said the party has a deep sense of developing the country and is not opposed to many issues which were seen as a globalisation menace once.
A Colombo-based professional said this should have been done a long time ago. “Look at the number of students going abroad to various countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Malaysia, etc. Many of them never return to this country. This is how we send away the intelligent ‘next generation’ to other countries, where they work to uplift other nations,” he said, cynically.
He said successive governments have made a terrible mistake of listening to ‘so-called patriots’ who are opposed to foreign universities setting up here, adding that the curriculum of local universities is not geared to the present day environment particularly the needs of business and the economy.
Responding to the question on whether the Minister will have the courage to push through the proposal in a cabinet which contains anti-private education interests, one commentator said if this government doesn’t do it, no other government can.
“The worst affected would be the Inter University Students’ Federation which is a ‘cat’s paw’ of a disgruntled political party. They will try their best to sabotage the entry of foreign universities. But the Minister should not bow down to them,” he said.
While there is a strong case for permitting the private sector to venture into university education as a supplement to the existing state university system, unless a suitable mechanism is introduced to assure the quality and standards of such institutions, the new system too may be destined to failure.
State universities: Reform or Perish
The decades-long state monopoly in university education in Sri Lanka has today driven the system to the wall, leaving only one choice to make: reform or perish. Every year thousands of youth become eligible to receive a university education, but the state university system can offer them only a handful of places.
With continuous budgetary constraints, universities are under funded and it has led to silent agitation by the staff for better facilities. Research, the important main product of any university system, has been curtailed drastically thereby placing a spanner in the fruitful link that has to be established between the university system and the national economy. The university staff should actually be commended for continuing with the production of their main product, graduates, under these trying conditions.
Central Bank warned of the emerging perilous situation in 2002
The Central Bank, having realised the emerging bitter ground reality, warned the university authorities as far back as 2002 in its Annual Report (page 53) as follows:‘Sri Lanka’s public university system, which has failed to provide opportunities for all those who aspire to receive a university education, is severely constrained by a chronic shortage of funding, an ailment emanating from the wider budgetary difficulties of the country. The consequence has been disastrous: a gradual deterioration in the educational standards compelling prospective employers to suspect whether to hire the throughput of the university system; continuous agitation by both students and staff for better facilities and failure to attract and retain quality staff to maintain the educational standards.
Valuable lessons could be learned by Sri Lanka in this regard from the experiences of the California State Public University System in the 1960s and the British University System in 1980s when there was a general cut in public finding due to similar budgetary constraints. The university system in both cases responded positively to the new problem by competitively restructuring their universities as private companies would do in similar situations by progressively reducing their reliance on public funding. Income sources were diversified, new income sources were identified and exploited, substantive ancillary products such as research output were developed and marketed and a competitive environment within the universities was created using entrepreneurial rather than academic skills. Courses were rated and then rationalised on the basis of demand for same.
It appears that university authorities in Sri Lanka are sitting idly on a vast resource base which could be developed for the betterment of the university system. Both students and staff must appreciate this need and work together towards saving the system as otherwise a critical stage would be reached when the entire system would face the threat of a general collapse. It is of utmost importance to infuse entrepreneurial skills into running the public universities’.
This warning was not heeded to by the university authorities and as a result, today, the community which has lost its patience is pressing the government to break the monopoly of state universities and enhance the opportunities for the youth to pursue university education within the country.
Private universities: Essential Requirements
Though there is an overriding demand for private universities, it does not mean that they should be permitted in a haphazard manner. There are three aspects which the authorities should be concerned about when permitting anyone to set up a university: quality of education, financial viability and long term sustainability.
Quality matters because private universities are permitted in the wake of mounting criticism against the state university system for failing to produce quality graduates. It is the view of employers that the graduates passing out from universities, especially those in the arts stream, need further training before being placed on jobs. They specifically lack, according to employers, correct attitudes, required competency in information and communication technology, social skills and an insatiable interest in continuous learning and upgrading the skills base. If private universities do not pay attention to these essential requirements, then, there is no difference between the now maligned state university system and the much praised private university system.
A private educational institution is not a profitable business unless it compromises with the quality standards and facilities for staff and the students. There have been many occasions where private educational institutions have failed because of the imprudent financial management. The reputed universities in USA are all dependent on continuous endowments which willing benefactors provide to them to supplement their financial resource base. If private universities are started by people without sufficient experience or financial standing, the result will be to face bankruptcy pretty soon paving the way for eventual state intervention. Since university courses run beyond one year to complete, at any point of time, there is a large number of students who are in the midway in their university career. If a university is to close its doors abruptly like a bankrupt soap manufacturing plant, such midway students are left in the lurch. This will create a new type of a problem for the state.
The long term sustainability of a private university depends on both the quality of education and its financial viability. If proper quality standards are maintained continuously, then, there is demand for its courses filling its coffers making it possible for the private university to sustain itself in the long run. To ensure this, universities should have impeccable track records with respect to governance and quality assurance. This does not come automatically, but by placing people of integrity, probity and accountability in high positions in universities. Hence, the introduction of private universities to Sri Lanka’s higher education system requires careful planning by authorities.
BT Poll comments
The long term sustainability of a private university depends on both the quality of education and its financial viability. If proper quality standards are maintained continuously, then, there is demand for its courses filling its coffers making it possible for the private university to sustain itself in the long run.
To ensure this, universities should have impeccable track records with respect to governance and quality assurance.
In the past, the private university education was introduced to Sri Lanka in a very ad hoc manner. While the government was bent on expanding the state owned university system, the University Grants Commission or UGC had been empowered to approve the requests for degree awarding status by private institutions at its own discretion on a case by case basis.
In the absence of a clearly spelt out policy in this regard, private organisations were groping in the dark; with many state sponsored requests being approved with no difficulty, private institutions too were compelled to seek state assistance for getting recognised.
The inevitable result was that these approved institutions failing to maintain the required quality or standards on the one hand and failing to be financially viable on the other. It in fact gave a bad name for the privately managed universities in the country.
There was one occasion where such a privately managed medical school being absorbed by the state sector and attaching it to a state university which did not have experience in running a medical school.
Hence, quality assurance, financial viability and continuous surveillance are essential prerequisites of opening up of the country’s university education to the private sector.
UGC needs capacity enhancement
UGC as the name denotes, is a body that has been set up to allocate state resources among the state universities. Though it has come of age with more than 30 years of existence, it has not been able to assure the quality of the state university system over which it has direct controlling power. There is no system of rating of universities in place and students apply for admission to various universities on hearsay and not by informed knowledge. This has made the matter for the employers more difficult. They go by some ‘rule of thumb criteria’ for evaluating the prospective graduates who seek employment with their institutions.
It is therefore necessary to enhance the capacity of the UGC if it is charged with the task of assuring quality, overseeing financial viability and continuous surveillance of the private universities to be set up under the new system.
Continuous financial viability is important because if a private university is mismanaged and becomes bankrupt, the students who go through the system and have not yet completed their degrees cannot be left in the lurch. Then, it will become a liability of the state to take over such institutions and rehabilitate them as has happened in a number of cases in the past.
In such a scenario, a private university will become a liability of the society rather than a value adding asset.
The United Kingdom, when it started to open up its higher education system to the private sector, set up a Quality Assurance Agency or QAA to advise the Privy Council which has the power to grant degree awarding status to any private educational institution. QAA is owned and financially supported by its members who are universities, but in order to maintain independence, quality assurance and rating are done by an independent executive board, similar to arrangements found in rating companies with separate rating boards independent from the governing boards.
Unlike Sri Lanka’s UGC, QAA has clearly spelt out its policy, requirements which the prospective candidates have to fulfil and the process of evaluating applications etc. The writer is aware of a case in which he had an interest, it took more than three years for the applicant to satisfy all the requirements which QAA had laid down.
The importance of having a QAA type arrangement is that it makes the entire approval and continuous surveillance process free from politics.
Quality the ultimate barometer
It is therefore of utmost importance that the private university system should maintain quality in all its activities in order to justify its existence to the society. Since the government is planning to set up a knowledge hub in Sri Lanka as a part of its current development strategy, quality matters the most. This could be attained by permitting the interested private institutions to get into academic partnerships with reputed foreign universities in USA, Canada, UK and Australia in the first instance and put themselves on a learning path during the initial period of their operations.
(The writer can be reached on email@example.com)