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Whither higher education in Sri Lanka?

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Whither higher education in Sri Lanka?
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In Sri Lanka the term higher education refers to the education received after a secondary school career often in a university or a tertiary educational institution.

Modern university education in Sri Lanka goes back to 1942 when the University of Ceylon was established by the amalgamation of two reputed institutions the Ceylon Medical College and the University College (functioning under the University of London). In this presentation an attempt would be made to take stock of what has happened during this period of 68 years and briefly examine where we are heading today in higher our education.

During the first couple of decades of post-independent Sri Lanka higher education was largely confined to a small group of elite students mostly from urban families belonging to the upper middle classes and above. These students found suitable employment almost immediately after graduation and occupied positions of influence and prestige. Learning from lecture notes supplemented with library work was common at that time but most of these students came from family and school backgrounds that had provided them with adequate soft skills and personality development including fluency in English.

Things started to change significantly during the 1970s perhaps influenced by the 1st unsuccessful insurrection spear headed by the frustrated rural youth of Sri Lanka. By this time nearly 100% of university admissions came from the Swabhasa streams which enabled a large proportion of intelligent and capable rural youth to gain admission to universities. In terms of intelligence and motivation to do well in life these were perhaps the best students. Unfortunately most of them entered the faculties of Arts and Humanities in the universities because the rural schools to which they had to go for their secondary education did not have staff and other facilities to offer them an education in the science streams. The result was the production of a large population of graduates grossly disproportionate to available employment opportunities. Nonetheless for political expediency governments continued to increase higher educational opportunities in these faculties paying scant regard to their employability. Instead of improving science education in rural schools what the government at that time did was to remove the practical evaluation test in science subjects from the General Certificate of Education (Advance Level) examination which was also the admission test for university entrance. This decision was based upon the argument that most sub-urban schools did not have facilities to conduct proper practical classes and as a result these students are handicapped compared to students from urban schools. This action though justifiable socio-politically, nullified a basic step in the learning of science. Simply defined, science consists of five steps (i) observations or gathering of background knowledge (ii) development of a hypothesis, (iii) experimentation to verify the hypothesis (iv) analysis of results and (v) derivation of inferences and conclusions. Practical classes in science subjects provide hands on experience and skills development for experimentation.

Once this was removed teaching of science was degraded to teacher guided book learning just like subjects in the arts and humanities streams. This imposed an enormous burden on university teachers to impart basic laboratory skills to these students and severely affected the standards and quality of science graduates. I still remember an incident where a senior teacher in the Faculty of Engineering at Peradeniya had to forbid certain students who could not distinguish between the positive and negative poles of a battery from entering the laboratory for Electrical Engineering. Making connections without such basic knowledge posed a threat to the lives of everyone in that laboratory.

Other politically expedient decisions of that era detrimental to higher education were (i) the continuation of university education in the Swabhasha streams of Sinhala and Tamil and (ii) the introduction of the ‘quota system’ for university admission to students sitting the A-level examination from so called less privileged areas. These were justifiable and introduced as temporary measures until such time that at least some selected schools from rural areas were provided with funds and facilities to make them comparable to urban schools. That never happened and every government conveniently continues with this ‘temporary measure’ which has now become permanent.

With the introduction of teaching Science subjects in the universities in Swabhasa a lot of state funds was spent on preparation of glossaries, publishing text books, translation of books for recommended reading, enrolling and training of university teachers etc. At the end of all these efforts we produced loads of graduates who could find employment mostly as science teachers in schools. All others including those that followed professional courses had to gain competence in English to go forward in their chosen careers. Today lack of knowledge and competency in the use of English is a severe handicap for our graduates to secure worthwhile employment. Nearly everyone including our outspoken Honorable Minister of Higher Education, laments on this limitation and draws valid comparisons with India which gained independence from Britain after a bloody struggle but retained English as its national medium for higher education. In other words despite the explosive nationalistic freedom movements in India and Pakistan their political leaders did not lose sight of the advantage of having competence in this world language for its future generations.