As I was waiting for my flight at the Colombo Airport, I saw someone approaching me with a big smile on the face. I felt that he knew me very closely. Being a university professor, such situations are not rare in my life; wherever I go, quite often I meet the students whom I have [...]

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Open exit, but no entry


As I was waiting for my flight at the Colombo Airport, I saw someone approaching me with a big smile on the face. I felt that he knew me very closely. Being a university professor, such situations are not rare in my life; wherever I go, quite often I meet the students whom I have taught. Obviously, I can’t recognise some of them.

I thought he must have been one of my students too. This time, however, I was wrong as he asked me (in Sinhala): “Uncle, you can’t recognise me, can you?” After seeing my surprise look, he said: “I am Indika – remember Tikiri Ayya from Ampitiya? I am his son.”

That was even more surprising to me. He was referring to one of my relatives, who passed away some years ago. So this must be his son!

I said: “My goodness, if you didn’t tell me I would have never recognized you. You have changed a lot!” I continued with a series of questions such as “You must have finished your studies, haven’t you? What are you now? Where are you going here?”

I knew that he was an undergraduate student at Peradeniya University, studying for his Bachelor’s degree in IT field. Although it was few years ago, that is the latest information I had about him whom I hadn’t met for many years.

He sat by me and started clearing all my queries: “Yes uncle, I finished my studies and, then worked about two years in two companies.”

Then, he said: “Now I had enough uncle; I am going!”

I asked: “Going? Where?”

“Australia; I am the only one who is still here. Everyone else in my university class, they are all gone.” He continued: “No use of staying here uncle; everyone who is competent enough to adapt and work abroad is leaving – don’t you see? So am I.”

I felt sad, but I said: “I don’t blame any of them. People make ‘rational’ choices.”

We spent some more time together chatting about many things. When it was the time for our departure, he bid farewell to me kneeling down in the traditional way. Then we departed; he, on his way and, I on my own way.

Many are leaving

This incidence happened a few years ago. Recently I came to know that Indika is still in Australia working and living in Melbourne. The question that Indika left in my heart troubled me to this date:

“Everyone is leaving; don’t you see?”

For the same reason I became even more vigilant about the content of that question, and its implicit disappointment – the best part of our human resources leaving the country – the so-called “brain drain.”

When I talk to our university students, I realise that a substantial portion of them are doing their studies, in fact at their best, anticipating to leave the country. In some of the subject areas this portion seems to be the majority. Even Indika said that all his classmates had already left the country. I came across many similar cases where in some of the subject areas almost everybody has been studying and planning to leave.

File picture of students at a makeshift school in a refugee camp during the conflict years. Sri Lanka is losing the cream of its human resource due to lack of opportunities.

Cream of the human resources

Who is leaving is not the “average” student, but the “cream” of our educated and skilled workforce. This “cream” is, from my own experience, a considerable portion of the top 10 – 20 per cent in our higher education streams. It means that the country is losing annually at least part of the best human resources that the country needs for its own development.

As I told Indika, people make rational choices, as they perceive it. Therefore, from their point of view, I believe it is a rational choice! But the issue is, why should they think that leaving the home country is more rational than continuing to remain there?

Actually my reasoning is supported by our unemployment statistics released by the Department of Census and Statistics; you find the highest unemployment rate is among “educated youth.” Compared with the 4.5 per cent of average unemployment rate of the country in the first quarter of 2018, youth unemployment of the age group 15-24 years is 21.8 per cent and, the educated unemployment 9.5 per cent.

Why do they leave?

I can think of at least three common reasons especially for “educated youth” to leave the home country: Lack of opportunities, less rewards for work, and attitudes. The first two are inter-related and depend on economic performance, while the latter appears to be a result of the first two and other things.

Opportunities should be expanding in an economy that is growing. As we all know, the Sri Lankan economy has been performing well below its potential. If the economy is growing fast with increase in private investment of the “modern type” then, there is expanding demand for educated and skilled labour.

When the economic expansion is limited, then obviously the rewards for working here are also limited. But for how long should a graduate youth with full of aspirations work in order to achieve his or her objectives related to higher social mobility? The disappointment gets worse, when they are exposed to the greater opportunities and higher rewards offered “greener pastures” overseas.

The lack of opportunities and less rewards compared to what is available out there is instrumental in changing attitudes too. Then we always tend to believe that out there is better than here, even if it is not always the case.

No statistics

There are no reliable data to measure how many educated and skilled people leave Sri Lanka annually. That is because there are no records of those who are migrating.
Data on migrating for “foreign employment” do not capture the people who are migrating for permanent resident purpose. However, during the past few years migrating for foreign employment has been in the range of 200,000 – 300,000 people a year, while it is estimated that about 2 million Sri Lankans are currently working outside the country.

Departures for foreign employment too confirm the point I raised; educated and skilled people are leaving the country, as their share has increased over the years.

Smart guys

I feel that the countries which have opened the door for “educated skilled labour” from other countries are smart! Their development is contributed by the people whose home countries have spent for education and training.

When you keep thinking along that line, Sri Lanka presents, perhaps, the worst case because it is the government of Sri Lanka that spends its tax revenue to provide “free” education. However, I don’t deny the right of people to make a “rational” choice. Neither should I contradict the idea of the countries that are smart enough to select and accommodate the best human resources from other countries.

The major problem is not about people’s “rational” choice, but the government’s “irrational” choice; we have opened the exit, but kept the entrance closed!

Closed entrance

Just as educated and skilled people have a tendency to leave the country, there are enough educated and skilled people from other countries who like to enter the Sri Lankan labour market. However, it requires opening the Sri Lankan labour market for educated and skilled labour by reforming the regulatory system, just like many other countries such as Australia.

I am sure it would be welcome news for new investment flows.

Some of the investments do not find Sri Lanka as a suitable location for their businesses because of the shortage of the human resources. If the country has a developed regulatory mechanism established for the recruitment of “educated and skilled” human resources, it will accelerate investment expansion and, thereby economic growth.

This investment expansion will also encourage our departing labour to make a different choice; at least part of them would be happy to stay back and be part of Sri Lanka’s own development process.

(The writer is a Professor of Economics at the University of Colombo. He can be reached at

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