ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 08, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 45
Financial Times  

Tertiary education beyond universities

By Antony Motha

With literacy hovering around the 90% level, Sri Lanka is the most literate country in South Asia. The country has also made admirable strides towards achieving universal primary school completion. With this, the country seems poised to achieve the Millenium Development Goal pertaining to education. All this is admirable.

What happens afterwards? What is the state of tertiary, i.e. post-secondary, education? (Tertiary education includes undergraduate & postgraduate education and vocational training). Some answers to these questions were provided at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s recent public lecture on ‘Tertiary Education Opportunities in Sri Lanka.’

Speaking with authorities on the subject, Prof. Dayantha Wijeyesekera, member of the National Education Commission, said, “The first preference of parents still is to send their children to conventional universities.” Oft-quoted statistics indicate that only about 15% of those who obtain qualifying marks for entry into the university system can actually do so, due to the paucity of seats.

While statistics on the number of students entering universities is meticulously maintained, there is life beyond the universities, Prof. Wijeyesekera points out. Seventeen professional associations conduct tertiary education courses and 21 ministries also do so for their employees.

The need, therefore, is for increased collaboration and for bringing all modes of tertiary education one umbrella. Prof. Wijeyesekera emphasizes that the vocational training sector, especially, has a major role to play in anticipating and rectifying skills mismatches.

This is sought to be done by identifying training needs for the labour market. Other proactive roles would include being conscious of social compulsions, and curbing supply when there is a lack of market demand.

Prof. Wijeyesekera indicates that the country is deficient in middle-level technologists, and can easily absorb four times as many as ‘we’ have. He also points out that “Before the tsunami, Sri Lanka required 40,000 construction workers; after the tsunami, we require 10 times as many.”

The present technical education and vocational training system has developed in an unsystematic manner. Decrying this fact, Prof Wijeyesekera expresses the need for a unified national system. That’s where the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) system comes in. With nationally identified skills standards and competency based assessment, the NVQ system also provides for upward mobility. The NVQ certificate will be of value since quality is being assured through nationally-identified skill standards, quality management systems and accreditation, promises Prof. Wijeyesekera.

It will indicate that the holder has acquired the skills and competencies that he is being certified for. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher, once said: “The true university of these days is a collection of books.” Taking the liberty of amending that, Prof Wijeyesekera said, “The true university of these days is perhaps the world-wide web.”

He was making a case for the use of distance education, which he described as “inevitable, a compulsion of the age we live in.” The purpose of the Distance Education Modernisation Project, funded by the ADB, is to expand post-secondary education enrolment using latest technologies. In the process, the project seeks to develop a modern, high-quality human resource base, Prof. Wijeyesekera indicated.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.