Two schools of thought: Sri Lanka needs them. Sri Lanka doesn't need them because they are a threat to "free education".
The bone of contention, pulled this way and that, bitten and chewed up is whether or not to set up private universities including private medical faculties. Emotion, hyperbole, vituperation and protests apart, what is the ground reality in Sri Lanka?
The facts are crystal clear.
- In 2009/10, more than 200,000 students sat the Advanced Level and about half the number achieved the minimum qualifications. From them 47,000 sought admission to state universities but only fewer than half -- 21,500 got seats.
- Nearly 10,000 students go abroad to foreign universities annually to pursue their higher education at a huge cost to their parents.
The natural follow-up to such a situation, the Sunday Times understands after wide-ranging discussions with various groups, is a needs analysis.
What is the need of the country?
"Yes," there is a need for non-state universities seems to be the answer with the strong clause that standards have to be maintained and the sector strictly regulated by the relevant authorities. And the answer comes from most quarters, humble mothers and fathers across the country, office workers, professionals, academics, the youth themselves et al except for a few pockets of hardliners.
The world has become a global village and South East Asian countries are a hive of educational activity, establishing good private universities, but Sri Lanka is like the frog in the well, said a parent who has been compelled to send her son who fared well at the Advanced Level to a western university, spending millions of rupees. Will he come back after his education? Probably not.
Brain drain in a different form where a section of the young and bright will leave for higher education abroad and find themselves jobs and homes in those countries, depriving Sri Lanka of fresh talent and intelligence.
Taking countries like Malaysia, Singapore, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, an academic pointed out how private higher education is thriving, benefiting not only local students but also earning the much-needed dollars through foreign students.
Malaysia which attracts hundreds of students has not seen a decline in its free education system, explained a parent whose daughter is studying medicine in Kuala Lumpur. Why can't we do the same and provide an opportunity to students who have done well at the local ALs but are unable to enter the local universities, the chance to go into a private university in Sri Lanka itself. We will not only save valuable foreign exchange but also be able to keep the brains in the country.
While a majority urged that Sri Lanka should open its doors to private education, the view echoed and re-echoed was that strict regulation and standards should be maintained without allowing any institutions intent on setting up private universities to have the freedom of the wild ass.
Conceding that in addition to state universities there is a need for non-state universities, Higher Education Ministry Secretary Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawaratne held out hope for all those who qualify but get no seats in the local universities.
Changes will come early this year, he assured, explaining that opening private universities and privatization of universities are two completely different things.
Nearly 10 universities from countries such as India (including Manipal University), Russia, Cuba, China and Japan have expressed an interest, he said, adding that the new Universities Act will be passed shortly to ensure standards by establishing a Quality Assurance and Accreditation Council and a Qualification Framework.
Reiterating that there are no moves whatsoever by the government to privatize state universities, he explained that privatization means selling or giving ownership to the private sector or general public by selling equity shares.
The state universities will not only function as they are but the government also hopes to expand them while allowing the opening up of non-state universities, said Dr. Nawaratne, stressing that it will not be done in a haphazard manner.
Proposals to set up non-state universities will be screened, said the Secretary and also closely monitored thereafter.
The government spends nearly Rs. 20 billion per year on state universities and other higher education institutions, while this year the amount allocated has been increased to Rs. 23 billion, according to Dr. Nawaratne. However, some capable youth still don't have access to state universities.
The government has to expand the higher education sector or open up this segment to the non-state sector, he stresses, explaining that to expand an extra Rs. 10-20 billion is needed which the government cannot afford. Therefore, the other option is to open up to the non-state sector and at the same time convert higher education to be a "major export" rather than an "import", making the country the most cost-effective hub in the region.
Higher education should be linked strongly to socio-economic development and investing in it will build up the human capital essential for development, said University Grants Commission Chairman Prof. Gamini Samaranayake, assuring that they are trying to increase access to such opportunities.
The UGC has 15 universities, three campuses and 16 higher educational institutions under its purview.
With a growing demand for university education, access has to be increased and quality improved while maintaining equity, said Prof. Samaranayake. Merely constructing a university building is not enough. The facilities should be there, as well as qualified and experienced staff and undergraduate syllabi that cater to the job market. "This cannot be done overnight."
Quoting both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake who have promised to make Sri Lanka the "hub of higher education" , he said an educated population is an asset to the country and setting up private universities in no way would impinge on free education provided in state universities.
To make Lanka the hub, the need is to open up higher education to protect education freedom, Prof. Samaranayake emphasized.
He points out that currently Sri Lanka's Gross Enrolment Ratio is 16% while in India it is 12.4% and some other lower-income countries in the region 6%. Although we seem better than the countries in the region, as we move from a low-income country to a middle-income country the GER should be 20%. (GER is defined as a nation's enrolment in a specific level of education, in this case university level, expressed as a percentage of the population in the official age-group corresponding to this level of education.)
Referring to non-state universities, he too echoed the views of many that quality assurance and accreditation are very important. Responsibility and accountability will be interlinked. The UGC alone does not have the power to grant permission for the establishment of private universities. "We can only advise the ministry on starting degree-awarding institutes."
Going back to the original question: Is there a need for private universities, the answer seems resoundingly clear.
Across the board the view is that well-regulated private higher education is the need of the hour and Sri Lanka should face this challenge head-on in 2011. Otherwise, becoming the "hub of higher education" will remain a distant dream with thousands of the country's youth in the lurch.
Next, focus on medical education