An integrated society is like a fabric. A fabric is made up of yarns woven longitudinally and laterally to create beautiful designs using colours. Yarns that make fabrics are not strong individually but all the woven yarns make the fabric very strong. Yarn is made by spinning raw fibres to produce long threads. A strand [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Challenges in education and employment


An integrated society is like a fabric. A fabric is made up of yarns woven longitudinally and laterally to create beautiful designs using colours. Yarns that make fabrics are not strong individually but all the woven yarns make the fabric very strong.

Yarn is made by spinning raw fibres to produce long threads. A strand of small fibre can break so easily and is weak. It gains strength by spinning with other similar fibres to make the yarn. Now here is a good example we can emulate. The spinning of fibres into yarn and weaving yarn into a fabric are processes of integration to produce a strong fabric from lesser material.

My argument here is that people are like the fibres. Someone might think that people gain strength by spinning yarns! What I am about to say is that people gain strength when they are spun into a yarn. As we know education is the biggest investment an individual can make for the future that is virtually risk proof. As a society education is the best investment for human development. Individuals’ level of education and skills integrated together contribute in production and give rise to growth in a company or organization. This is like the fibres integrated into yarn.

Then we weave these yarns into a fabric by sgiving it an attractive appearance of a design. The design gives the fabric an aesthetic value. So while weaving is integration of yarn, it has to be done with discipline to retain the aesthetics determined by the design.
So my argument takes a further step here, while the spinning is like trained people integrating to serve on value chains weaving is like the value chains adding to the economic wealth to the fabric of society. The design is like the culture. Each yarn has to share some part of the final appearance with other yarns but a single yarn cannot hold the inclusive design so when they are woven it gives a look of a beautifully knit fabric.The society we live in Sri Lanka is made of people belonging to different ethnicities and their strength come from education and skills with the diverse cultures. In an integrated society they work together held by the mission like the yarn in the fabric. When they are woven into the fabric of society, they generate economic growth. Their ethos, values, principles and beliefs contribute to the cultural outlook as a country. The beauty of the fabric of society is the integration of diverse cultures and the economic strength is in the integrated value chains contributing in the production processes.

Bridging the gap

Having made the point about social integration let me now explore avenues of bridging the gap between education and employment opportunities and its’ prospects and challenges. I need to mention that education is of no use, in the context of our mission, if it is delivered or gained in areas that have not found applications in society and development. Simply we need market orientation in education to speed up the realisation of the ‘Miracle of Asia’.

When we talk about markets there are many areas we can effectively deliver value through training.

Need for an international credit currency

I would now draw your attention to the UK Qualification Credit Framework (QCF) that replaced the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) system recently. The QCF, like the NVQ, is a system for recognising skills and qualifications in vocational areas. It does this by awarding credit for qualifications and units, with each unit holding a credit value. This value specifies the number of credits gained by learners who complete that unit. There are eight levels of skills moving from level 1 to level 8. Level 1 being the starting point at the bottom of the craft levels and level 5 represents the higher national diploma level or a foundation degree level. Level 6 represents a graduate level qualification with high level of skill. Level 7 represents a postgraduate degree such as an MSc or MPhil and Level 8 is the highest achievement at PhD level.

I brought out the QCF to explain that there are systems to bridge the gap in education by following established progression ladders. Since only about 5 per cent of the O level qualifiers and about 14 per cent of the A level qualifiers enter the state university system the remaining student population has to find solace in particularly the technical and vocational education institutions. QCF is ideally suited for building up advanced knowledge levels starting from the lower levels. Moreover it would serve as a feasible credit currency for training and skilling gained in Sri Lanka for the international job market.

Technology stream boon to the economy

I quote from the acceptance speech of an honorary degree from Uva Wellassa – “Recently, a technology stream was introduced at the A levels. This is a landmark turning point in the modern education system and hence it is a turning point in the economic development ladder as well. Indeed, the technology stream could lead us into the next level of economic development by the higher levels of technology application in producing economic value. I wish to commend this outstanding initiative of the government. This move would be of no consequence to the nation unless the higher education system can adopt the change in the selection process to various programs within the university system. The Higher Education Minister responded by facilitating the adoption. The universities have been instructed to adopt this change via a significant transformation fundamental to the intended outcome. The ‘Faculty of Science’ will be required to change outlook to ‘Faculty of Science and Technology’, literally and metaphorically.” Uva Wellassa is the first to initiate technology education at a national university in 2005. It established the first Faculty of Science and Technology and 12 technology labelled degree programs essentially for value addition technologies.”

The technology stream becomes a great attraction for market oriented education based on vocations and technological skills for a majority of our students. The students become more employable when the qualifications are recognized internationally and thus QCF has a bigger role to play here. I recommend QCF as a way forward to align with similar frameworks for vocational education in Sri Lanka. Our vocational system still works outside the traditional university system in terms of credit recognition and there seems to be no common framework. When we try social integration this is a big gap and a challenge to overcome.

Education and skilling for O levels

A recent study showed some interesting information on the avenues for tertiary level education for Sri Lankans. From a total base of around 150,000 A level qualified students in 2010 (140,000 taking the Sri Lankan examination; 10,000 taking the UK examination), only 111,700 entered tertiary education streams shown in Table 2. There were nearly 250,000 O level qualified who came into A level stream.


Therefore it leaves the fate of nearly 138,300 each year in unknown hands. These are the students who pass O levels but do not step into a vocational ladder or higher learning ladder, and end up as domestics and unskilled workers. Social integration demands that we look into the education of these underprivileged students to gain better qualifications and skills. The size of the problem is indicated clearly from the numbers. To elevate Sri Lanka from mid-income to prosperity, wanting to be recognized as the ‘miracle’, we require a solution for the skilling of these people. It is unlikely that the government can handle this alone but possibly in partnership with the private sector.

Vocational University Colleges a boon to the economy

I also see the proposed establishment of 20 vocational university colleges by the Government of Sri Lanka a boon to the economy and enhance the efforts at social integration. The private sector involvement from the outset would be useful to develop these colleges in a market oriented manner. The aim of these university colleges should be to deliver market oriented programmes where future jobs would appear. As a general rule these tertiary education institutions have a responsibility to ensure the employability of their alumni.

Soft skills for all

Developing soft skills for students to perform better at interviews and in life in general is an important aspect for curriculum developers. Pedagogy of skills development was developed at the Uva Wellassa University by a team of lecturers and is effectively put in practice. The country can benefit from the methods and the curriculum.

At the outset I mentioned the importance of culture in social integration and recently came across the efforts by the University of Visual and Performing Arts led by Prof. Jayasena Kottegoda to create an emotional bond among diverse cultures using mixed cultural themes in visual and performing arts. This is a commendable effort and I hope this initiative is supported by similar initiatives from diverse ethnicities.

Backward districts need more investments in education

Analysing the A level old syllabus Z score data published in 2011-2012 we can bring out the worst performing districts on the most popular degree programs in the university system.

There are 17 Science, 7 Management, 01 Law and 01 Commerce programmes in this group. It needs no genius to read the bottom line here. The more popular ones are the Science and Management. Arts programmes do not come within the top 26.
Districts disadvantaged to produce entries into the most popular programmes

1. Mullaitivu
2. Kilinochchi
3. Mannar
4. Vavuniya
5. Nuwara Eliya
6. Trincomalee
7. Batticaloa
8. Polonnaruwa
9. Puttalam

This result is not surprising. The merit system serves entry into the universities for a few. Yet, the quality and extent of science education need vast strides forward. Therefore, we need action in these district schools to transform education facilities and resources for Science and Technology education.

(This was a presentation made by the writer at a recent seminar in Colombo).

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