The vision of the Ministry of Highways and Higher Education is for ‘Sri Lanka to be an international hub of excellence for higher education by 2020’. Sri Lanka which seeks to build a knowledge-based economy should pursue this vision with all its vigour. The spin offs in technological innovation and industry collaboration have knock-on effects [...]

Sunday Times 2

Whither Lanka’s strategy to become an ed. hub


The vision of the Ministry of Highways and Higher Education is for ‘Sri Lanka to be an international hub of excellence for higher education by 2020’. Sri Lanka which seeks to build a knowledge-based economy should pursue this vision with all its vigour. The spin offs in technological innovation and industry collaboration have knock-on effects on the economy as a complementary industry such as in Dubai and Qatar which in fact refer to them as ‘knowledge or innovation hubs’.

Sri Lanka does not have any private universities only degree awarding institutes.

Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Qatar as well as Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates have succeeded in creating education hubs over the last two decades. Many others aspirants such as Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Taiwan, South Korea, Bhutan and Bahrain are yet to succeed. The distinction between success and failure depends on how vision is aligned to government policy, regulation and the strategic plan.

Education as a global industry
There are globally over four million international students with UK, USA and Australia being the three leading destinations. All these countries have well-established universities, some dating back to the 19th century, attracting high performing students from around the world. Most such universities were state sponsored or were set up under charitable trusts as non-profit seeking institutions.

In Asia, modern universities began replacing traditional academic institutions mostly in the early 20th century. As countries like Sri Lanka with extremely competitive education sectors and socioeconomic inequity issues started introducing quotas and restrictions for state university placements, parents with financial means began to consider sending their children to private or foreign universities. Many such students however have continued to work and live in those countries such as Australia, Canada and the UK enriching their talent base and contributing to education sector earnings exceeding five percent of the GDP. However this has also turned education from a public service to a profit-making business thus challenging the deep-rooted and sacred image of education in society.

Potential for Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s potential to become an international education hub arises from opportunities and attributes it possess, the most important of which are: a) Geographic location, market size and accessibility
Singapore used its location between India and China to attract students from both countries. The hubs in the middle-east are strategically located between Asia, Europe and Africa while Hong Kong, Singapore, and the middle-eastern countries have shown that even a geographically and demographically small country can develop hubs provided they have the market. Similarly, Sri Lanka has a splendid opportunity to position itself within the South Asian market. b) Cultural compatibility

The host country should offer some degree of commonality and compatibility with the source countries. For example, Malaysia attracts many students from the Middle-East, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Maldives while UAE, attracts students from surrounding countries. The traditional educational destinations such as USA, Canada, UK and Australia attracted students from other English speaking countries, while France did the same for French speaking countries. It is important for Sri Lanka to position itself to offer a multicultural compatibility if it intends to attract foreign students from South Asia or any other region. c) Reputation for scholarship and research

Opportunity is enhanced when there are reputed and high ranked universities to provide the nucleus of the scholarship. In a small country, this is likely to come from improving local universities as opposed to attracting foreign universities. Most education hubs including Singapore, Hong Kong and China have used local universities in building this reputation in terms of world university rankings. Dubai and Qatar attained success without a lead local university, but invested in rebuilding universities pursuing internal and external accreditation. However in their case, there was a captive market of expatriates as a starting point. Sri Lanka in order to achieve its vision by 2020 has no option but to propel a few selected leading State universities to build this reputation such as the IITs have done in India.

A strong research culture enhances the reputation of a hub, necessary to attract high quality academics and students from other countries. Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong invests 1-2% of the GDP on research. In Sri Lanka there is little motivation or compulsion for the private degree awarding institutions to engage in research. The current level of state and industry partnership in research in Sri Lanka is minimal, flagging this as a major disadvantage. d) Prospect of work and migration

The ability to provide internships, post qualifying work experiences, work visas and potential immigration prospects is a key opportunity. This may be possible in countries which have a declining birth rate. While almost all the well-established education hubs have made it a well-used immigration gateway, of the newly established hubs, Singapore follows suit while Malaysia is also cautiously opening doors. Sri Lanka needs to debate and decide if it will allow such visas as it will increase the potential several-fold.

Does Sri Lanka need an education hub?
The decision for Sri Lanka to become an education hub should be made with a clear policy and set of objectives. Comparative study of other countries show that (a)developing the higher education sector to improve local talent, (b)developing the higher education sector to attract foreign earnings and (c)to attract talent to develop a knowledge rich economy have all been valid reasons. Countries that have successfully created education hubs have adopted a combination of strategies to achieve their objectives, chief among which is to develop the already established local universities.

The case for developing local universities
Most countries have State universities, with others having private institutions operating with or without government sponsorship. A fundamental strategic decision faced by any government desiring to develop an education hub is what it intends to do with the existing higher education institutes. State owned or sponsored universities in addition to funding constraints may also face other institutional problems such as student unrest and misalignment of programs to market conditions. Governments may also not possess the required political will or strength to systematically resolve such issues or be willing to make large public investments in education in the face of other important or urgent needs.

Singapore took the first steps of developing the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technology University (NTU) by increasing state funding and attracting top academics which resulted in them becoming world class universities within a few decades. Hong Kong also followed the same path, competing with Singapore for academic achievement, and has now produced several top tier universities. Singapore’s universities are now actively collaborating with other leading universities across the world thus benchmarking their universities with those outside Asia, to ensure sustainability as a leading international education hub. Malaysia on the other hand looked towards the private sector to develop such institutions by attracting foreign institutions.

Sri Lanka: Vision without policy?
Sri Lanka does not actually have any private universities – only degree awarding institutes. SAITM which is in the news is one such institute. But there are several others offering degrees mostly in the sciences and management. Thus if Sri Lanka is to pursue a vision of becoming an international education hub by 2020 (or even later), it needs to make a policy decision if it should like Singapore lay the foundation by improving the State universities or like Malaysia look chiefly to the private sector to provide the pull. The SAITM debate brings in to focus the lack of political consensus on this issue and the reluctance to make a firm decision. While this state of uncertainty in recognising private universities continues, so does the absence of a strategy to enable State universities to provide the lead in forming the education hub, a state of confusion that is unlikely to produce tangible results – making Sri Lanka lose yet another global economic and social opportunity.

Some essential policy initiatives
Strong public endorsement
The SAITM debate represents the diverse views in a nation on the merits of education as a public good or it being a private good. A policy or political initiative on creating an education hub should be accepted and actively supported by society at large and not merely by those who are positively or negatively affected. While it should primarily seek to provide greater access to local students especially for courses for which there is a demand such as medicine and engineering, finding overseas students for courses in faculties that have unfilled places may be a socially acceptable compromise position. Promoting post graduate courses is another intervention.

Internationalise learning  environments
Many developing countries have regulations that curtail provision of private and fee levying higher education and admission of foreign students to state universities. Malaysia changed its legal framework in 1996 and Singapore also decided to strategically invite “world-class” and “reputable” universities from abroad to set up campuses. Hong Kong adopted a different approach where private institutions could easily enter or exit the market. However in both cases, these countries have allowed large foreign student populations in universities which in turn have improved the quality of education for local students.

Achieve low program delivery costs
The education provision should be made economically efficient and competitive with other education hubs. Malaysia, developing its education hub in the shadow of both Singapore and Hong Kong, by exploiting its relatively lower delivery costs to carve out a niche in the market. Sri Lankan universities have a low cost of delivery which is a key advantage yet to be exploited to develop a knowledge hub especially in attracting students from South Asia.

Develop specialisation
A hub may also gather reputation for specialisations. Some countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Russia have developed specialisation in medicine. Malaysia plans to specialise in niche disciplines such as Islamic finance and halal supply chain catering mostly to the students from Islamic countries. It has been found that most Asian countries pursue developing science and technology programs and that less attention has been given to humanities and social sciences disciplines without which sustained development would be difficult. Sri Lanka has a strong reputation for analytical skills, aesthetic and cultural studies which can be developed into unique programs.

Achieve quality student services and environment
The US, Canada, Europe and Australia have well developed services for student application processing, visa applications and for finding accommodation. Attractive and safe living environments are contributory to a student’s choice of destination for foreign study. The quality of student accommodation facilities, transport, campus facilities including learning support systems also get included in the decision making process. Many countries are creating special purpose facilities such as the ‘EduCity Iskandar’ in Malaysia, while Singapore is clustering universities and other educational institutes in an area called Nepal Hill, with the purpose of fulfilling these service and environmental needs.

Create strong  regulatory environment
The US, Canada, Europe and Australia have well developed internal accreditation bodies for approval of degree awarding institutions and universities. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Qatar and UAE have independent quality assurance bodies to accredit degree offering institutions. These bodies evaluate the governance structures, key personnel, qualifications of teaching staff and quality of the programs and student facilities before granting licences to operate in those countries for a specified period. Therefore in Sri Lanka, it is necessary for the proposed legislation to create strong regulatory institution for accreditation of universities and institutions.

The vision of creating an education hub is far too important an opportunity for Sri Lanka to lose. It should target creating more opportunities for developing local talent while attracting high performing international students with affordable program and living costs. However managing the public perceptions of creating a successful hub will be challenging. In the first instance the benefits to society and the economy should be well articulated to get whole-hearted public endorsement. This should be followed by a strategic development process that identifies the most appropriate institutional building blocks which given the Sri Lankan context, is to select a few State Universities to offer niche programs having an international demand and/or programs for which local demand is waning. The mandate for creating private universities needs a firm social acceptance and legislative underpinning. Moreover, the path to a knowledge hub should extend well beyond an education hub and needs to be supported by a reliable quality assurance regime, increased research funding, support services and compatible visa schemes for international students and marketing in countries that are likely to patronise Sri Lanka considering proximity and cultural compatibility, which invariably leads to the already highly competitive markets in South Asia.

(Amal Kumarage is a professor at the University of Moratuwa and Nelson Perera is a professor at the University of Wollongong, Australia)

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