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Whither higher education in Sri Lanka? - Page 3

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Whither higher education in Sri Lanka?
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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.