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Whither higher education in Sri Lanka? - Page 2

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Whither higher education in Sri Lanka?
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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.