The real problem of Higher education in Sri Lanka (SLHE) has always been the incapacity of the existing system to meet the ever-increasing demand for higher education. While acknowledging that the current education system itself built on poor policies is inherently defective, clarity on what caused and continue to cause more harm should be understood. [...]


Way forward for Sri Lanka Higher Education


Dr KMGP Premadasa Director, International Relations General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University

The real problem of Higher education in Sri Lanka (SLHE) has always been the incapacity of the existing system to meet the ever-increasing demand for higher education.

While acknowledging that the current education system itself built on poor policies is inherently defective, clarity on what caused and continue to cause more harm should be understood. It is a no brainer that SLHE is inherently restrictive and discriminative with no equity and equal opportunity.

The free education we have today in the country is a misnomer, which the father of Sri Lanka’s free education Mr CWW Kannangara has never even dreamt of. Therefore, in this article an attempt is made to identify key factors that impede the growth and evolution of SLHE and to propose possible mitigative measures.

This proposal for HE reforms is centred around three key policy issues identified. Incapacity of SLHE, Quality of the education and Disciplinary compartmentalisation.

Any other issues in the existing system are secondary to those identified above. Issues such as ragging and students from low-income families, needs to be separately addressed elsewhere. Some of the proposals given here may require lengthy elaboration which is unwarranted here.

Incapacity of SLHE: What is immediately visible may be the issues which are inherent to the system being practiced. Yet the problem lies at the point where an invaluable resource which could have been used to contribute to the development of this country was wasted. The problem is at the point where a minority is given an opportunity for HE while the larger majority is neglected.

Hence the main aim of this whole effort should be to find ways to increase access to HE. There is no argument that the HE should be opened to private sector investment as the tertiary education centred around state funded HEIs has miserably failed to make an impact. Hence a completely new approach to restructure the entire HE sectors with far reaching reforms is necessary. It is no doubt that such reforms will automatically eliminate secondary issues associated with the existing system.

If the aim is to find a lasting solution for the lack of opportunities for the large majority in HE, identification of HEIs based on the funding source should be stopped.

Classification of HEIs as state/ public and non-state or private is fundamentally wrong and appear to discriminate already marginalised majority student population. It moreover creates unwarranted elitist state for so called state HEIs while non-state or private HEIs are considered either inferior or modest; which is unhealthy for SLHE as a whole. What is important is to bring everyone; every HEI under one umbrella, the unification of all HE providers.

Hence, proposals should be formulated to eliminate disparity if there is any in the state and non-state sector, rather than branding them inferior by virtue of being privately funded. In fact, such branding will run the risk of undermining social goal of equity in education.

Outlined below is the systematic approach to find a solution to the bigger problem associated with SLHE. In doing so I attempted to include relevant and progressive proposals obtained from the ‘National policy proposals for Higher education’ prepared by the National Education Commission. In the order of their implementation, firstly

n An independent Quality Assurance and Accreditation Authority (QAAA) should be established. Immediately after the establishment of the QAAA, the development of new QAA guidelines or the review of existing QAAC guidelines should be carried out.

n A framework with a set of national assessment criteria to rank the state and non-state HEIs should be developed. The categorisation of HEI as state or non-state should be eliminated. Categorising HEI based on the funding source is not necessary and unacceptable.

n QAAA should introduce a mandatory requirement for HEIs to obtain institutional accreditation and programme approval in order to maintain the minimum standards. Though the registration may not be mandatory, any HEI intending to offer qualification leading to a degree should be made to obtain recognition, Provisional accreditation and Accreditation from QAAA within three to five years.

n QAA process of all voluntarily registered HEIs should be carried out within 2 years. QAA guidelines for a given degree programme should be prepared initially by taking the facilities (infrastructure, human resource etc.) available at the least resourceful state university conducting a similar degree programme as the reference.

n Only at the completion of QAA cycle and the grace period given for HEIs, the ranking process should commence. This should strictly be done after the step 6 above as it might otherwise reflect only the lack of QAA compliance. In fact, compliance to QA standards alone should assure minimum quality expected of an institution for the programs conducted. Hence it should be self-explanatory that the ranking should only be done among HE institutions which fulfilled minimum quality compliance.

With the ranking process of all HEIs completed, the District quota system (DQS) should be scrapped and a new University admission criterion should be introduced as outlined below.

DQS was introduced as a manipulative political tool to fulfil the whims of so-called political minority, DQS even at its inception was discriminatory. It is doubtful that even those in the helm of higher education is confident enough explaining the baselines upon which the DQS was developed.

If the inaccessibility for quality education was a major factor, how could we describe the misfortune of children in shanty communities in Colombo, often living adjacent to countries’ few of the most affluent schools. Would they have the same level of accessibility, haven’t they been marginalised due to DQS.  It was a very attractive voter pleasing slogan for law makers from the population majority.

The damage DQS has done to the people of this country is immeasurable and could even be considered a crime against the people. Nowadays, no reason could justify the existence of DQS, it should be scrapped at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent it harming further the aspirations of talented.

New methodology proposed in place of current DQS requires that policy proposals described above are also implemented. Hence, this new university admission criterion assumes that once the QAA process is complete; All HEIs can provide education to the standards the QAAA expects and are on equal footing and discriminated only by the ranking they achieved. All HEIs in a consortium share limited resources such as laboratory facilities and the human resource and contribute to the national pool of student vacancies for free University education (percentages should be determined during the framework development process in consultation with stakeholders).

It is also assumed that all HEIs have equal access to earned state assistance and those with substantial private investment (at least 51% private investment) contribute to the national pool of student vacancies proportionate to the assistance received from the govt. If resources owned by HEI with substantial state investment are used by a HEI with substantial private investment, such a use is also considered state assistance and such HEIs contribute to the national pool of student vacancies accordingly. If a HEI with substantial private investment owns a resource which is shared with other HEIs, waiver of contribution to the national pool of students could be considered for a pre-determined period based on the size of investment.

Proposed system of university admission for students based entirely on their merit and their choice for a given course at a given HEI. A national merit list should be prepared to select students for free positions in HEIs. Any student is eligible to apply for higher education provided that they fulfil minimum requirements stipulated by the UGC for university entrance for a given course. Students applying for HE indicates their choice for a given course and a given institution.

Up to three programmes of their choice could be mentioned in the order of their preference and up to 10 HEIs per programmes could be indicated for each of the course they have selected in the order of their preference. Only the HEIs with ranking from 1 to 10 are listed in the student application. Any other HEI has an equal opportunity to earn a position in this list by improving their ranking in the next cycle of QAAA HEI ranking. All the other free positions from all the other HEIs are pooled.

A difficulty factor (K) is calculated, and extra marks are added accordingly to what was earned by a student from a so called less developed district before the preparation of national merit list for free positions. However, the calculation of the difficulty factor (K) is done by comparing the data available for the past decade for A/L results from a given district for a given stream with those of the Colombo district.

This factor K is calculated either annually or every 5 years. In the new system the UGC does not determine cut off marks for any given programme. Only the top 10 HEIs can determine cut off marks for free positions available in their institution for a given programme. Cut off marks for institutions are determined by the number of available vacancies for free education in a HEI and the merit of the students who has selected that HEI as their first choice for a given course.

All those who were not eligible for their first choice of HEI for a given programme are considered for their 2nd choice of HEI. If in case a student was not able to secure a free position in any of the top 10 HEIs, he/ she is listed in the merit order for the pooled free positions from other HEIs. Selecting a candidate for a free position in the other HEI pool is done only on their merit.

If in the pool only 100 positions are available, top 100 from the merit list of the pooled students will be given opportunity. If a candidate was not successful in securing any of the free positions for his/ her first choice of programme, he/ she is included in the top 10 merit list for the next course requested, or given an opportunity to undertake the first choice programme as a fee levying student.

This process is continued until a free program is found for at least one of the programmes requested by the student.

All the analysis results are communicated to the student to take an informed decision and if a given student was not able to secure any free position for any programme, they are still allowed to follow a programme of their choice as a fee levying student. Provided that they meet minimum individual requirements of the HEI of their choice.

This system could be made even equitable if the government with the assistance of state and private banks could implement a student loan scheme with concessionary interest rates to all students requesting, HE. Most importantly, loans thus obtained should be made payable only when the individual is formally employed.

Disciplinary compartmentalisation: Current system of SLHE is rigid. Disciplinary compartmentalisation introduced by the colonialists has taken roots in the current system, while the rest of the world including colonialists has abandoned it decades ago. This compartmentalisation and unidisciplinary nature of study programmes offered by universities has created discriminatory divide among learnered.

There is currently a perception in the society that certain disciplines are elite while others are mediocre. Hence, large majority wanting to become one of the elitist professionals has created an abnormal vacuum for professionals in so called non-elite disciplines despite with better working conditions and better pay. On the other hand, this inflexibility of study programmes produces professionals with skills that are incompatible with changing demands of the labour market. Moreover, this situation has badly affected the R&D output of the country because there is lack of cross-disciplinary corporation both among professionals and institutions.

Therefore, it is the need of the hour for SLHE to get rid of this compartmentalisation.  This has to be done without delay, if we are to make use of the graduates produced every year by the universities for national development.

What benefits are there for the country, if the output of universities could not be utilised for its betterment. Hence, outlined below are policy proposals to eliminate the disciplinary compartmentalisation and knowledge gap among the graduates coming out form the current system.

Most simple and easy strategies would be to introduce multi-disciplinary/ cross-disciplinary programmes or cross-faculty programmes. It is also important to recognise the ability of people to change and grow. it is not only unethical to prevent someone switching their field of study at a time and stage of their life provided that they fulfil minimum eligibility requirements. Rigidity of the current education system creates no avenues for career change. Whereas in developed countries, opportunities are given to any, regardless of their prior earned qualifications or their age, to switch their filed of studies, often through bridging programmes and cross discipline credit recognition programmes. It is therefore high time that Sri Lanka also implements a credit transfer scheme, where students can carry their earned credits across different institutions.

This will allow student mobility by opening up more opportunities for everyone to undertake their studied in an institution of their liking. It is however important that deep rooted professional jealousy observed in majority of so-called elite professionals is gotten rid of beforehand.

Therefore, the way forward for Sri Lanka Higher education would be to address key policy issues identified above. Firstly, by enacting Quality Assuarance and Accreditation Commission bill of June 2019. Then by repealing the current DQS and implementing a system which is fair for all. Then by doing away with disciplinary compartmentalisation.

It is no doubt that a new education system thus created will be attractive internationally for Sri Lanka to fulfil its aspirations of becoming an international educational hub.


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