Sri Lanka News and Information Portal

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Whither higher education in Sri Lanka?

Article Index
Whither higher education in Sri Lanka?
Page 2
Page 3
All Pages

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.

The ‘quota system’ introduced with good intentions is today exploited by certain influential and affluent parents who register their children in sub-urban schools but send them to private institutes in major cities which provide them the best facilities while retaining the advantage of gaining admission through this facility. Thereby they deprive the genuinely poor, rural students making use of this opportunity.

No political leader in our country had the vision or interest to invest public funds to strengthen the science streams and the teaching of English in sub-urban schools in order to provide opportunities for the rural youth to compete on a level field with their urban brothers. This also made a severe deficiency in the manpower requirements of the country needed for rapid economic development based upon scientific, industrial and technological advancements. These could be recorded as glaring examples of missed opportunities for national development.

Currently our Ministers of Education and Higher Education are introducing schemes and systems spending billions of rupees (with the assistance of international funding agencies) to rectify these deficiencies. Even belatedly these are steps in the right direction. Meanwhile private institutions are cashing in to make money out of these desperate educated youth providing their services at a price. All this money would have been saved and perhaps utilized for the upliftment of educational standards in rural schools had we continued our higher education in English as India and Pakistan did.

Another significant change in higher education took place around the mid-nineties and was adopted by all the universities in Sri Lanka by the beginning of the 21st century. This is to wean the students away from teacher centered rote learning to student centered learning. Such teaching methodologies are expected to enhance self achievement of knowledge and skills by the students and make them competent to do things on their own while teachers provide the necessary guidance. These systems are expected to strengthen personality development and instill self confidence in our graduates to face the challenges of today’s highly competitive society. We have introduced these novel systems, but have we achieved the expected outcomes? If not, why not? These are perhaps some of the objectives of the Improving Relevance and Quality of Undergraduate Education (IRQUE) project supported by the World Bank. It not only monitors the progress but also provide funds and facilities to upgrade the capacities of higher educational institutes to successfully implement these novel systems.


One of the major constraints for such implementation is the dearth of qualified academic staff in our higher educational institutes, particularly in subject areas such as computer science, nanotechnology, industrial management and biotechnology which are avenues for lucrative employment. This shortage is more acute in the sub-urban universities than in the city universities in a way mimicking the situation in high schools.

In this respect I wish to pay a special tribute to Mr. Chandra Embuldeniya, the founder Vice-Chancellor of the Uva-Wellessa University who had the vision to establish this institution under the theme ‘Value Addition to Natural Resources’ and conducting all its programs in the English medium. This is arguably the first university in Sri Lanka which has set its goals within a clearly stated framework. Every student who enters the portals of this university knows where he is heading and the outcome of his higher education. He will be competent to enhance the value of resources and raw materials found in our motherland with the motive of bringing an economic return. Naturally such graduates would be in high demand as they are an asset to local industries. I congratulate the Vice-Chancellor for taking up this challenge of introducing a novel form of tertiary education and wish him and the university all success in this endeavor.

Another aspect that needs our immediate attention is the provision of opportunities for the large number of students who qualify for higher education. Every year around 200,000 students sit the GCE A-level examination on the results of which students are also admitted to universities. Out of this nearly 65% reach the qualifying levels stipulated for admission. However, all the 18 higher educational institutions that come under the purview of the University Grants Commission could accommodate only around 20,000 students leaving behind something like 110,000 students in utter frustration. Also a large number of students do not even apply for admission as they know that with their Z-scores and national and district rankings there is no chance for them to gain admission. For example out of the 130,000 that satisfied the minimum requirements in 2008 only 46,000 applied for admission. This stiff competition for university admission is the main reason for the proliferation of tuition classes to which there is a scramble by high school students at the sacrifice of a healthy secondary school life.

Can the country continue to ignore this problem of access to higher education? Isn’t this a gross wastage of public funds already spent on the students up to the completion of their secondary school education? An enormous responsibility lies with the government as well as the public to provide opportunities for tertiary education leading to gainful employment of this large population of young Sri Lankans. It would be futile to provide all of them with university education but the expansion of non-university tertiary education sector could be considered as a partial solution. It is of course necessary to overcome an unjustifiable social stigma attached to technical and vocational oriented education. In fact today there are more employment opportunities to technically competent persons than to university graduates in many professional fields. A good example is the preferential treatment granted to technically qualified Sri Lankans to gain permanent residence status in Australia and New Zealand over and above university graduates.

In view of this the establishment of the University of Technology (UNIVOTEC) by upgrading the Vocational Training Institute is a laudable step. Even if the capacities of non-university tertiary educational institutions are increased they cannot cater to all the students qualifying for higher education. Therefore there is no alternative but to engage the private sector to participate in this enormous task as is done in all countries including those in the South Asian region. Already we have a plethora of Institutes, some registered as private companies under BOI investment schemes exploiting the desperate needs of these students and making huge profits and this is evident from the numerous ‘Educational Supplements’ published in the newspapers. . These institutes mostly offer employment oriented courses in areas such as Accountancy, Business Management, Computer Technology, Biotechnology etc that ensure attractive employment immediately after graduation. Quite a number of these private institutes have ‘sandwiched courses’ in which a student after spending a year or two in Sri Lanka continues the course in an affiliated Institute overseas. Such arrangements are especially attractive to students with limited financial resources. The large numbers that do not gain admission to universities together with some others who have more confidence in these courses as a means for gainful employment seek these and other avenues often in foreign countries.

Many professionals engaged in private practice justify their charging exorbitant fees from their clients on the grounds that they need extra money to educate their children. Even the parents who are not professionally qualified ‘beg, borrow or steal’ to raise funds to send their children abroad for tertiary education. It has to be borne in mind that any student who leaves the shores of Sri Lanka has to bear up his living expenses in a foreign land over and above that is required for education. All these funds are lost to the country in foreign exchange. It has been estimated that the colossal amount of money lost to the country in this manner is even higher than the total budgetary allocation for higher education in Sri Lanka.

A number of students follow tertiary education in Colleges in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal because the cost of such education is relatively lower than those in other countries. Unfortunately however the quality of education obtained from some little known Colleges in these countries is below that of our local universities. Of course these students return with stronger personalities and higher competencies in English as otherwise they could not have survived in a foreign land all on their own. Except for a few Universities the subject knowledge and skills development of these graduates often with 1st Class honors passes is much lower than our own graduates with equivalent achievements.

From the foregoing it is evident that the Government has to look into the integration of private higher educational institutes within the purview of state sponsored systems of higher education. In doing so it becomes possible to have some control on the quality of the courses offered as well as the level of fees charged. A few incentives like offering need based scholarships to exceptionally capable students could be introduced to private institutes in lieu of tax concessions. In any case higher educational opportunities leading to gainful employment when offered in Sri Lanka in collaboration with the private sector would minimize the colossal amount of foreign exchange that is going out of the country today. However, an enormous responsibility lies with the Government to make sure that the quality and standards of the state universities offering non-fee levying education are maintained at a higher or equal level to those offered by fee levying private institutes. Otherwise all good intentions, motives and predictions of a healthy competition between state and private sector education leading to an overall improvement could end up in the deterioration of both as we experience today with our transport sector. It is ludicrous to protest against such moves as the death knell of free education. Such protests are largely politically motivated and not necessarily based upon social justice.

I wish to spend the last few minutes of this address to dwell upon another controversial issue and submit my personal views for your critical evaluation. This is on Free Education. It is my humble opinion that we have adopted a wrong term ‘free education’(Nidahas Adyapanaya) to refer to state supported education that was introduced in Sri Lanka by the revered Minister of Education, Honorable late Mr. C. W. W. Kannangara. Education cannot be provided free! Somebody has to pay for it and it is borne by everyone in this country including the wayside beggar who has to pay for his cup of tea and piece of bread. This education should have been correctly called ‘people’s education’ (Janatha Adyapanaya) or state education emphasizing the fact it is the public who contributes to it. Then we would have had a vast majority of citizens (including myself) who have had people’s education and a small number who had private education. Such terminology would have perhaps instilled a sense of obligation at least among some of our educated professionals a few of whom tend to exploit the very public who had supported their education.

Is there ‘free education’ today in most of our higher educational institutes, including the universities? To me free education means the opportunity to choose your own education particularly at the tertiary level. Here I would use the term education in its broadest sense and this includes the freedom to develop and strengthen extra-curricular activities such as sports, literary capabilities, aesthetic interests etc, besides gathering subject knowledge. Such attributes contribute immensely to develop team spirit, leadership qualities, resource management and personality development that are sometimes more useful than subject knowledge in pursuing a successful career. Does the average student in our universities have the freedom to obtain such an education? Inot sure. The regimentation imposed upon most university students in the name of the ‘rag’ at the very commencement of their tertiary education results in the complete negation of free education. This so called inhuman orientation program tends to stultify all hopes and ambitions of the new entrants who come to the portals of higher education with a variety of dreams and aspirations.

Gone are the days where senior students encouraged and assisted in the development of inherent capabilities of young colleagues who enter universities with diverse talents. No, they must all fall into a common program where everyone is equal and subservient to the few who manipulate their future. These innocent students are forbidden even to interact with their teachers and are molded to depend upon the advice of their senior peers sometimes even to select the subject combinations they follow for their degree programs. No wonder we have a large population of graduates with a herd mentality who cannot find employment on their own and still follow their peers gathering on public streets demanding employment. In this respect too I am happy to note that the Uwa Wellessa University is free from this scourge of student intimidation and coercion imposed with ulterior political motives.

The day higher educational institutes in Sri Lanka are devoid of ‘pre-determined, uniform norms and standards of behaviour’ imposed through intimidation by a few politically motivated students, that day we can celebrate as the Day of Free Education!

~ ~ by S. A. Kulasooriya - Emeritus Professor of Botany, University of Peradeniya and Visiting Professor, Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hantane Road, Kandy. *Keynote address delivered at the Research Symposium, Uva Wellessa University on 17th September, 2010.