Reforms fundamental for accelerating higher educationView(s):
Higher education has an important role in Sri Lanka’s economic and social development. The development of quality university and tertiary education that is at the pinnacle of the education pyramid is vital for the country to leap forward into a developed nation.
The importance of education in the development process is widely recognized. It is impossible to conceive of a country attaining a high level of development without the support of a good educational system at the primary, secondary, tertiary and technical levels. University and higher education is particularly significant for economic development. The development of university education is especially significant for Sri Lanka’s economic development at the present stage of development.
The role of learning and education has been well recognised by economists. In the 1960s Dennison pointed out that education explained the differences between economic investments and growth in the US. Joseph Schumpeter stressed the significance of entrepreneurship that is indirectly linked to education. Gary Becker and others stressed the importance of human capital of which education was an important component. In Becker’s classic study of the consequences of investing in a person’s knowledge and skills, investment in education and training is similar to business investments in equipment.
Gamani Corea Memorial Lecture
The second Gamani Corea Memorial lecture by Dr. Harsha Aturupane, Lead Education Specialist of The World Bank titled “Enriching and Accelerating Higher Education Development in Sri Lanka” was of special significance in this connection. Dr. Aturupane’s comprehensive and wide ranging lecture was indeed a blue print for university and higher education in Sri Lanka.
His lecture encompassed the landscape of university education; the relationship between higher education and economic development; access to higher education; the need for expansion and diversification of higher education; innovative teaching-learning in higher education; information communication technology; research, innovation and development; private higher education quality assurance and accreditation; the social benefits of higher education; the internationalization of higher education and Sri Lanka as a higher education hub for international students.
The focus here is on three aspects of his exposition: the relationship of higher education and economic development; access to higher education and the need for expansion and diversification of higher education and the need for innovative teaching-learning in higher education.
Dr. Aturupane pointed out that higher education is important for development in the knowledge-intensive global economy of modern times, while at the same time higher education enables individuals to enhance human capital and increase life-cycle earnings and generates inter-generational economic benefits as increased education achievement in one generation results in better education and economic outcomes in the next. Higher education also facilitates social mobility by enabling individuals from disadvantaged households to improve their economic and social status over time. Highly educated women have greater ability to control their fertility and family health, resulting in lower child and infant mortality, reduced morbidity and disease burden, and longer life expectancy.
Furthermore, a sound higher education system can contribute to social cohesion by presenting cultural, ethnic, religious and gender diversity in a favourable light in society and in creating enlightened citizens needed for a vibrant, modern liberal democracy. The quality of governance is better in countries with more educated representatives in the executive, legislature and judiciary.
Expansion and diversification
There is a need for increased participation in higher education. Since there is considerable pent-up demand for higher education, increasing the supply of higher education spaces in existing public sector institutions, or setting up new institutions, can increase participation. Since the scope for such expansion, is limited for a resource-constrained government, an important option is to create a favourable climate for private sector investment in higher education. This requires a suitable regulatory framework for the registration, quality assurance and accreditation of private higher education institutions. Enhanced enrolment in higher education should be strategically oriented towards economic and human development and economic relevance.
Aturupane pointed out a variety of initiatives to increase the relevance of higher education that included enrolment increases prioritized for directly labour-market relevant degree programs mainly in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. In-take capacity in existing degree programs in these areas can be expanded. In addition, new industry relevant degree programs can be introduced and curriculum reforms undertaken to increase economic relevance by introducing new skills and new technology into degree programs.
Alternative higher education or short-cycle vocational higher education can be expanded by institutions meant to be labour-market oriented. Graduates from these could be employed in industries and high-end service organizations.
Private higher education
On the promotion of private higher education institutions Aturupane said these should be relevant for the economy. Private higher education institutions, which are mainly for-profit entities, need their graduates to be employable if they are to thrive and prosper. In consequence, the study programs offered by such institutions are usually directly job-oriented.
Dr. Aturupane said that the main mandate of teaching universities and higher education institutions that was for the production of high quality graduates for the economic and social needs of a country is of vital importance for Sri Lanka. This is especially necessary in the context of the world-wide massification of higher education and the increasingly sophisticated demands of the global knowledge economy.
The quality of graduates is multi-dimensional and includes knowledge of their subjects; the skills and capabilities required for the labour market; and the values and behaviour needed to be a good citizen in society. The output of high quality graduates from universities depends on a variety of factors, including the socio-emotional skills and knowledge of the entering students; the quality of curricula, teaching and assessment in higher education institutions; teaching-learning resources such as ICT centres, science and engineering laboratories, libraries and reading material; and the physical facilities of the university.
What Dr. Aturupane presented was a wide ranging menu for educational reform. The implications of his exposition are that considerable investments are required in higher education that must be coupled with substantive reforms in curriculum and teaching methods and there is a need to expand educational facilities in fields that are significant for economic development.
Even to accomplish a fraction of this programme there is a need for significant financial resources, technical inputs and a strong political resolve as reforms attract severe protests and opposition. Notwithstanding this, there is no doubt that the country cannot become a developed nation without fundamental reforms in higher education.