April 12, 2021
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    New vistas in higher education

    January 23, 2020

    Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. So said the visionary South African leader, the late Nelson Mandela. Education is indeed a life-changing experience, where the ultimate aim is to produce good citizens who can make a positive contribution to society.

    But the education sector in Sri Lanka is riddled with many problems, some of which have been persisting for decades. One silver lining is that Sri Lanka is one of the few developing countries with universal free education virtually from the cradle to the grave. Yet the biggest problems are found in the field of higher education, since our state university system is unable to absorb all the 180,000 students who qualify for university admission every year. Only around 30,000 can enter the State universities every year and even if more universities are established, we are looking at only around 40,000. This has led to the biggest question facing our higher education system – what exactly should we do with the rest of the students?

    President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, just two months into his Presidency, has addressed this issue several times already. He focused heavily on both primary and higher education in his wide-ranging Policy Statement delivered in Parliament on January 3. “Our most valuable resource as a nation is our future generation. As such, we have identified the development of our human capital as one of the primary responsibilities of the government. The opportunities young people have to pursue higher education and technical education should be broadened. The infrastructure facilities needed for this must be developed within a short time frame. The number of students entering tertiary education can be increased through more effective utilization of the capacities of state universities and other higher educational institutions,” President Rajapaksa said.

    Modern job market

    Then, pointing out the mismatch between the job market requirements and university courses, he said “Some of the courses taught in universities today are not in consonance with market requirements. In the near future, we intend to introduce short-term courses to equip our university students to meet the needs of the modern job market, which they can opt to attend whilst pursuing their current courses of study.” He added: “The education sector can be a significant foreign exchange earner. A large number of Sri Lankan students presently study at higher educational institutes in Asia. Instead of sending our students abroad for higher education at a high cost, we should introduce a programme to attract foreign students to Sri Lanka. We must prepare short term and long term programmes to improve the global ranking of our universities.”

    The President has since then referred to the issue of unemployed graduates. As a medium term measure to remedy this situation, the Government has announced plans to employ up to 50,000 unemployed graduates in various sectors. This is a step in the right direction. In fact, the President instructed his officials to let in several student leaders from the university students who had held a protest outside his office last week, making six demands including an increase in Mahapola scholarship grants and early payment of arrears. The President addressed these issues too and there was not a canister of tear gas in sight, a departure from the usual scenario where the protesting students are tear gassed and chased away.

    The President has however noted that it would be virtually impossible for any Government to give employment for all graduates who pass out. Hence, he pointed out the need for graduates to venture out with their own schemes for self-employment, SME and other such steps, which the Government can support with expert advice and loans.

    The major problem is that a large number of students who fail to gain admission to local universities for no fault of their own go to foreign universities, sometimes to unheard of countries and institutions. This can sometimes have tragic consequences, as the country mourned the deaths of three young people who had gone to Azerbaijan to pursue their dream of higher education. It is no secret that parents sometimes sell all their assets to send children abroad.

    In the light of this tragedy in Azerbaijan and, a few previous incidents of this nature, it is time for the education authorities to issue strict guidelines for students who wish to study abroad. The education authorities can take a cue from the Foreign Employment Bureau, which has a very strict system for monitoring local and foreign employment agencies and also host employers abroad, via welfare officers in our diplomatic missions. Registration at the SLBFE is compulsory for all those who go abroad for employment, in order to prevent employees from falling prey to unscrupulous employers and various scams. This has largely prevented the abuse of Sri Lankan workers abroad.

    Overseas educational destinations

    Given the veritable explosion of numbers of Sri Lankan high school leavers now studying overseas, it is time to establish a similar system to monitor overseas educational destinations in order to ensure the welfare of our students. We see a large number of advertisements in the newspapers offering higher education in remote, often quite under-developed, countries and often unheard-of institutions. There is no idea at all about the educational, health and safety standards in these institutions and countries and, whether the courses/degrees offered are recognized elsewhere in the world. It will perhaps be a wise move to publish a list of institutions that are approved for higher education abroad after scrutiny by our educational authorities. Parents and students should also be advised about the ramifications of applying to educational institutions in countries which do not have a Sri Lankan Embassy or Consulate. Consular assistance and logistical arrangements can be rendered much faster in countries that have a Sri Lankan diplomatic presence, which is a great advantage at a time of crisis.

    It was revealed last week that around 20,000 students leave overseas for higher studies annually, which costs the country foreign exchange equivalent to Rs.50 billion. This is a huge sum that can otherwise be diverted for development and social welfare. The Government, which is formulating guidelines for studies abroad after the tragic deaths of three Sri Lankans students in Azerbaijan, is keen to ensure more educational opportunities locally for students with GCE A/L qualifications. Indeed, Sri Lanka should have more private institutions that offer degree pathways.

    “If the Government as well as the private sector can ensure that a high standard of education is provided by local universities and other higher educational institutions, it may even be possible for us to start attracting international students to study in Sri Lanka and convert the higher education sector into a foreign exchange earner for the country,” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, addressing the Convocation of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University held at the BMICH recently.

    One possible solution is to open more universities here, but the State can only establish a limited number of new universities given the budgetary and logistical constraints. Nevertheless, Higher Education Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena has already pledged to convert to university level two existing institutions offering courses in Surveying and Forestry. Parents who can afford will send their children abroad, spending large amounts of foreign exchange. On the other hand, if we had more private universities, more students will opt to remain here and study rather than go abroad. This will not only save foreign exchange, but also attract it, through foreign students who wish to study here. It is also important to grade and register all private institutions that offer degrees locally, so that students will be assured of their investment. Education has become a major business globally, with some countries deriving around 5-10 percent of their total income from foreign students. It is time to shed outdated notions with regard to private education and embrace the fact that education is a global experience that produces globally-oriented citizens.

    President Rajapaksa has pointed out the importance of Universities offering degree programmes that will help the graduates to be gainfully employed. The 21st Century is widely acknowledged as the Knowledge Century and our universities should be able to match the job market requirements thus created. They should also be able to attract more research opportunities. In an encouraging sign, a team of academics of the Faculties of Science and Medicine from the University of Colombo recently received the first US patent for their discovery of a compound that shows significant anti-cancer activities. The team from UOC has discovered a compound extracted from the mushroom Fulviformes fastuosus showing significant anticancer activity against Rhabdomyosarcoma, which is an aggressive and highly malignant form of childhood cancer.

    Many new technologies ranging from Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Robotics, the Internet of Things, Biotechnology, 3-D Printing, and Automation, will reshape our world over the coming decades. Our universities risk being left out of the global education scene if they do not embrace these trends from now onwards. A radical new approach to education grounded on reality and future challenges will serve Sri Lanka’s future interests well


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