Mirror Magazine

Education with focus
Sri Lanka offers ‘free’ education to all citizens. Though it appears to be free at face value, a deeper study is required to assess the national cost as well as the hidden costs associated with it.

Compared with her regional neighbours, Sri Lanka spent a lower 2.2% of its GDP on education in 2003, whereas the region spent 3.5%. The Sri Lankan government is under continuous pressure from stakeholders to increase the budgetary allocations on education to 3.5% levels.

In financial terms even at 2.2% it works out to a massive 40 billion rupees. Has Sri Lanka been able to harness the full potential of this colossal annual investment of taxpayers’ money? The following core issues and challenges observed among many positive results, need to be addressed.

Only 137,057 (42.8%) of 320,164 candidates who appeared for the GCE O/Level examination in 2003 in five subjects or more, qualified for A/Level education. Fifty eight percent failed in mathematics and 70% in English. Out of 213,201 students who appeared for the GCE A/Level examination in 2003 only 13,040 (6%) entered national universities. Eighty thousand students who qualified to meet the minimum university entry criteria could not be admitted due to limited places. Thus, undecided career aspirants without the right connections grope in the dark without a clear focus.

Those with affluent parents spend millions of rupees worth of foreign exchange in seeking foreign university education as an alternative. Sri Lanka’s annual national expenditure bill on overseas education is estimated to be several billion rupees.

Vocational training centres in the state sector can cater to only 50% of the applications received due to limited facilities. As a result, local skilled labour demand cannot be met in several job categories. Complaining employers blame the education system and spend chunks of money, wasting a lot of time to recruit sub-standard new employees. Furthermore, the university sector has failed to offer degree courses compatible with their more reputed counterparts in the region.

All this explains the extensive confusion that exists among the Sri Lankan youth who approach the employable age. A recent survey reveals nearly 70% of unemployed youth exceeding 650,000 are below 25 years of age. Despite claims made of the highest literacy rates in the region, Sri Lanka loses billions of rupees by way of returns deprived, due to unemployable youth including several thousands of local graduates.

Taking limited resources and the existing turbulent environment caused by student disputes into consideration, the prospects of improving the standards and the quality of university education in Sri Lanka project a gloomy picture unless a revolutionary change in attitude takes place sooner.

Despite several waves of attempted modernisation, the private sector employers are yet to be satisfied with the quality, knowledge, skills and attitudes of the products of the present education system. They find it difficult to find suitable candidates matching their expectations. As a result, a large number of vacancies in the skilled category remain vacant. Their complaints are understandable considering the multifarious challenges they confront in meeting stiff competition in business from their regional and international counterparts. Sadly, what we lack is a policy in education, which focuses on meeting the needs of local and international labour markets.

Time is ripe for the authorities to take necessary steps to develop and train our human resources as a tradable export in the international labour market. This will help the country optimise the receipt of much needed foreign exchange from expatriate Sri Lankan workers.

In the meantime, a look at the globally sensitive career paths reveals that once popular careers have been overtaken by more lucrative ones. With changing world trends, life styles and the advent of IT, various new career opportunities have emerged.

Today, it is possible for a young student between the age of 15-16 years (after his O/Level examination while awaiting results) to take up a professional course of study leading to an internationally recognised professional qualification and be employed in an executive capacity before he reaches the age of 20.

Such a person could continue his further studies without burdening his parents and achieve great heights in life. Conversely a much brighter student, who achieves better A/Level results entering a local university, may end up graduating only by the age of 26 and still be incapable of finding suitable employment immediately.

It is an irony that only a few Sri Lankans have access to credible information leading them to the right opportunities in careers and higher education. Even when opportunities are afforded, students and their parents do not show much interest in career and higher education guidance. Career guidance should not be looked at as an 'overnight' decision. It is a process where one is exposed to different options over a period of time before making the right decision at the right time to suit one's interests and abilities.

EDEX 2005 will showcase the widest possible range of opportunities available in higher education in universities and university-affiliated colleges, vocational training centres both locally and overseas. The Ministry of Vocational Training and Skills Development has endorsed EDEX 2005.

This exhibition will build upon the success of EDEX 2004 and will have an expanded scope with the participation of corporate sector employers, who are gradually realising the need to offer career counselling and guidance to career aspirants.

With several concurrent seminars and lectures planned, they will be exposed to various lucrative careers as well as generic topics such as 'Interview Facing Skills,’ 'Building Personal Confidence,’ the latest techniques of employee selection, etc. EDEX 2005 has chosen ‘direction’ which is lacking among career aspirants as its theme this year.

A special invitation is extended to all leading companies to make use of this event to educate the large numbers of unemployed youth on what they expect from their new recruits. Visiting career aspirants to the exhibition will have the rare opportunity of registering their bio data with a number of prospective employers who have come forward to make use of this novel method of recruitment.

A large number of foreign universities and affiliated colleges in the US, UK, Australia, Malaysia, India, Singapore and the European Union will have their promotional booths at EDEX 2005. In addition to providing details of degree courses conducted by them they will process walk-in placements and even offer scholarships.

Realising this nationally important need, the Royal College Union has embarked on EDEX 2005 Careers and Education Fair to be held from March 4-6, at the BMICH International Convention Centre. All details pertaining to EDEX 2005 are available at www.edex2005.com.

Kamal Abeysinghe (Royal College Union)


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