This article is a rejoinder to the article published in the Sunday Times on July 30, 2017 by Professors Amal Kumarage and Nelson Perera. In my view, it is one of the best articles published in Sri Lankan newspapers in recent times relating to the on-going debate on how to develop Sri Lanka as a [...]

Sunday Times 2

Lanka as an education hub: A rejoinder


This article is a rejoinder to the article published in the Sunday Times on July 30, 2017 by Professors Amal Kumarage and Nelson Perera. In my view, it is one of the best articles published in Sri Lankan newspapers in recent times relating to the on-going debate on how to develop Sri Lanka as a higher education hub in the region.

State university students protesting against privatisation of education

The purpose of this rejoinder is to contribute to the debate by adding my views formed while guiding and managing a private university campus in Sri Lanka during the last one and a half years and from taking part in various think-tanks, conferences, and other initiatives related to the higher education sector of Sri Lanka during this period.

It is hard for anyone to disagree with Professors Kumarage and Perera that (a) education as a global industry is bringing immense economic and social benefits to individuals and countries, (b) established education hubs such as Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada are immensely benefitted while providing benefits to the world community, (c) Singapore and Hong Kong have guided and managed their higher education sector with foresight to reach their current status, (d) Sri Lanka, despite its long history of higher education, geographical positioning, etc., is still struggling to establish itself as a higher education hub, (e) state sector universities need to lead and be supported by the government to become centres of excellence in teaching and research, (f) all private sector universities (campuses, as they are called in Sri Lanka) are, at least at present, degree-awarding institutes, (g) the government and state and private universities need to re-evaluate their roles and make bold commitments and make difficult adjustments.

In my opinion, to put Sri Lanka’s higher education sector in the correct path leading to a higher education hub in the region:

State universities should lead the higher education sector by example, by performing better than the private campuses
State universities, despite the rare presence of some excellent departments and academics, are broadly speaking wasting public money and damaging intelligent students who have performed extremely well in university entrance examinations.

Their curricula, teaching methods are mostly outdated. Evidence is abundant to believe that students are neither given rational thinking skills nor useful work skills.

The emphasis is mostly on content and rote-learning instead of self-development through rational thinking and gaining skills.

Most students are not trained to apply their subject knowledge to different contexts and situations.

These shortcomings are rampant in the faculties of humanities and social sciences. An entitlement and dependent culture is propagated where students expect jobs for the degree certificates they have gained, not for the work they can do and contribution they can possibly make to any institution. Securing a government job, at the pleasure of ruling-party politicians, seems to be the only solution available to many students. If I may use manufacturing terminology, how much value is being added in state universities to good raw material (i.e., intelligent, highly-ranked students)?

In my experience, private campuses use low quality raw material (i.e., academically lowly-ranked students) but many of them add more value and convert the low quality raw material into reasonable products preferred by the private sector employers. In some private universities, students are being prepared to successfully complete the skills and outcome-based degree courses offered by reputed foreign universities while adhering to stringent and rigorous quality regimes of those universities. Exams for the courses offered by some universities are held at the embassies of the relevant countries or under the supervision of embassy staff.

On the side of administration, many state universities are poorly run. For example, a prominent state university has not yet released the results of a degree examination held by it for about 500 external students in February 2016, nearly 19 months ago! Any university should be able to release results within a month after an examination. For example, in Australian universities, exam results are released within 20 days.

Some academic heads of state universities are not interested in facilitating research seminars even when the opportunity is offered to them, free of any cost, by reputed overseas scholars visiting Sri Lanka. In contrast, several private campuses actively seek such opportunities and have held effective research forums.

It is also alleged that many overseas scholarships are sadly lost due to uninterested, lethargic bureaucracy in universities and the University Grants Commission. It is a well-known fact that most academics in state universities engage in private tuition, teach in private academic institutions, conduct their own private businesses or engage in other personally gainful activities without fully committing themselves to the role expected of them by the universities and the community. Most academics waste the opportunity given to them at enormous cost (air tickets, paid-leave, etc) without engaging in research and upgrading their skills during their entitled Sabbatical leave.

Given that public funds are spent on state universities, and most eligible students are admitted to these universities, they are particularly duty-bound to offer well-designed courses which are in need; to teach these courses well, giving skills to students, and to propagate a positive culture among students. While a small proportion of committed academics do engage in useful research, publish their findings, engage in national debates impartially, and behave as role models for young generation, the same cannot be said about majority of the academics.
We need to have clearer policies, and courage and well-designed mechanisms to execute such policies.

Sri Lanka is a classic example of ‘policy paralysis’. Making policies carefully and executing selected policies efficiently is obviously lacking in Sr Lanka. Although learned advisors prepare excellent documents and provide advice to politicians and executives who are expected to choose and then implement the policies, all the good work of many experts seems to evaporate quickly into thin air.

Whether relevant politicians and executives read these reports and documents and try to understand what is in there is doubtful. Goal congruence down the line of hierarchy is minimal. In comparison, let me mention what any successful private sector organisation would do: (a) Deciding a vision for the organisation after much debate at the board room; (b) select policies, regulation and rules to guide the organisation towards achieving its vision and goals; (c) appoint new or assign existing capable managers to the implementation of policies and rules; (d) monitor the performance of managers, provide feed-back and make managers accountable; and (e) revisit the vision, policies, rules, regulations based on the evidence gathered and make appropriate changes. I am yet to be convinced that any state sector higher education-related institution (the Ministry of Higher Education, the UGC, state universities) do apply this basic management process, which has been the established practice in well-run western institutions since the turn of the last century.

c) Private universities (campuses) should commit to both good teaching and useful research, the latter is not a key focus at present.
Naturally, the underlying objective of most private universities (campuses) owners is making profits. However, many of these institutions, headed and managed by professional teams, genuinely want to deliver a good product (i.e., offer good courses, good teaching, provide students with the opportunity to gain hard and soft skills which are useful, provide pleasing and comfortable environment with state-of-the-art modern facilities, inculcate right culture for personal development, etc.) just like any other progressive private business.

This is because the profit-making ability and the very survival of these institutions depend on how good they are in fulfilling the expectations of their clientele, i.e., the students, parents and prospective employers.

Unless one is dogmatically against the incentive of profit making, one would not see any inherent problem in private sector involvement in essential services such as health and education. I personally tend to believe that higher education, ideally, should be provided by the Government or non-profit organisations.

However, if the Government cannot afford to provide free education to all eligible students, and if not-for-profit organisations are not volunteering to provide higher education, if state universities are riddled with problems of apathy, inefficiency and mismanagement, what is the solution available for Sri Lanka as a nation? More than 100,000 students, who successfully complete the GCE Advanced Level Examination every year, are denied of higher education within Sri Lanka. It is estimated that about 10 percent of these students go overseas for higher education and another 10 percent join private campuses in Sri Lanka. What about the remaining 80,000 students? Unfortunately, neither the UGC nor the Ministry of Higher Education routinely compile such data. UGC keeps saying that private sector higher education is not within its purview.

Although the long-term objective of private universities is to make profit and give a reasonable return to investors, in reality, many of the well-equipped private universities are running at a loss mainly because of large investments they have undertaken. It appears that any higher education institute would incur operational losses during the first 6-8 years. Even after this period, the profitability will depend on the quality of courses and education they provide and the reputation they build for good teaching (and research).

As true with any prestigious university in the world, a research culture, research output, and good teaching are essential for the reputation and long-term survival of private universities in Sri Lanka. Private universities will be deceiving themselves if they think that awarding just degrees, without their students and academic staff engaging in research, would assure their survival. Already a niche group of private campuses has emerged, separating them from rest of the campuses, that strategically identifies the importance of providing good teaching, engaging in research, and producing employable graduates who will also be all-round good citizens.

d) Sri Lanka’s wish of becoming an international education hub by 2020- A pipe-dream?
How many overseas students currently study in state universities? How many of them are fee-paying students? I bet the answer is less than 100 in both cases. Can state universities provide the certainty overseas students expect in timely programme delivery and timely completion of their degrees? Can state universities, given the way their administrators operate at present, provide a client-friendly service package to students?

Though not ideal, the quickest way to make Sri Lanka a higher education hub may be to offer quality course-work and research degrees from reputed overseas universities charging reasonable fees. This is quite feasible, given our relatively low-cost operating structure in the higher education sector. For example, Maldivian students who are studying in their country have to pay more than twice what they will have to pay for similar courses being offered by the same overseas universities in Sri Lanka. In addition to the lower fees, Maldivian students currently studying in Sri Lanka get the benefit of better teaching by better-qualified academic staff and receive better results from their assessments and exams. Doing a degree in a private campus in Sri Lanka is still cheaper to Maldivian students even after adding their travelling cost and living expenses in Sri Lanka.

In principle, some state sector universities are also well positioned to educate overseas fee-paying students and earn an income that can be used to cross-subsidise the local students or reduce the dependence on the scarce government funds. This is what universities in the United States, Britain and Australian universities are doing. However, universities in these countries are adaptive, efficient, client-friendly and objective-driven. One of the (complimentary) policy options for Sri Lanka would be to allow state universities to enrol fee-paying overseas students.

The not-so-quick, but more effective, way for the private sector campuses to contribute towards an education hub in Sri Lanka is to deliver their own, quality-assured, high-in-demand degree programmes approved and quality-controlled by the Sri Lankan Government.
While there is an established process to seek course approval from the Higher Education Ministry, the process is extremely slow. Once an application is lodged (after spending at least six months to prepare the application), the Ministry usually takes about one year to appoint a review committee. After the evaluation visits by the review committee, an institution usually has to wait another six months or more to receive the report. In many cases, the review committee evaluation reports are logically inconsistent, recommendations are stringent and impractical.

All members of the committee are invariably academics from state sector universities and they do not seem to have fully recognised or accepted the important role to be played by private campuses as per the declared government policy. The review committees seem to expect to see the proposed programme already in place, academics appointed, labs and other facilities completed, for the approval of the ‘proposed” course.
Instead of reviewing the realistic potential of the institution to begin the programme within a reasonable time after the conditional approval is given, the evaluation teams seem to expect to see an almost established programme to approve the proposal. This becomes a Catch 22 situation for a private campus. How can an already unprofitable institution spend millions of rupees to establish a degree programme, for which the approval is largely uncertain, sometimes not for any valid reason, but just because of the inconsistent thinking of a review panel? The review committees need to appreciate the difference between giving a conditional approval to a potentially successful programme of studies and accrediting an already established programme. Approval of a new programme and an accreditation of an existing programme should be seen as two different things, as they should be.

I sincerely hope that the dream of a higher education hub comes true, but I doubt very much that Sri Lanka will become a higher education hub by 2020. If correct policies are adopted and efficiently executed, funds are provided to the needy state universities based on their commitment and performance, a robust quality regime is installed by the UGC, Sri Lanka could make progress towards achieving this dream by about 2025.

State universities need to take the lead by exemplary behaviour, firstly putting their house in order, then accepting the important role to be played by at least the well-intended, genuine, private sector higher educational institutions. Morale and practical support from the ministry, UGC and state sector universities towards the private sector campuses is needed to accelerate the journey towards the dreamed higher education hub in Sri Lanka.

(Professor Samson Ekanayake is former Head of Finance and Financial Planning Disciplines of Deakin University Australia)Prof. kanayake can be reached by email:

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