Relevance of private universities

“With development of various computer applications and other technologies and systems including transport systems and management and financial systems and incorporation of international trade under a new agenda through what came to be termed as the ‘globalisation’, the attempts at modernising the education system so as to help it reflect the changing global order by restructuring educational curricular and subject syllabuses have been seen as not just desirable but necessary.”

by Prof. J.A. Karunaratne

(August 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) If any, it is only haif-heartedly the media has treated the issue of the private universities in Sri Lanka. Discussions have never penetrated far beneath the veneer.

Yet, however muted and unstructured they may be, discussions have taken place and continue to take place although on ad hoc basis but certainly amongst various functionaries of public universities and other institutions of learning, the students of high schools and universities and their parents, and other concerned citizens.

At the same time as these impromptu discussions have continued to take place, the initiatives taken and supports given by various individuals and authorities for the establishment of private universities have been growing. There are some private universities that have already been established whilst others on the pipe line. As such, it should be timely appropriate and politically sound to discuss this issue thus helping to do away, once and for all, with illusions and misconceptions that shroud it.

Due to a number of reasons this discussion becomes most poignant. First, the emergence of the private universities has impact on the rate recruitment of the students by universities. Then this has bearings on the plans envisaged necessary for restructuring of the university education system through review of the curricular and the upgrade of the syllabuses. Finally this may impinge upon functions and operations of the public universities.

Due to the fact that the total number of university places available in Sri Lanka is far less than the number of students who seek to join them, there are significant numbers of students who lose out in the competition to join them. This is despite the fact that these students have passed the university entrance qualifying examinations. According to official figures, the pupils who qualify for public universities are only about 1% of the total number.

The percentage share of school pupils who have the chance to join university in Asian NICs (newly industrialised countries) and of Europe are significantly larger than that of Sri Lanka. In the case of China, the figure is about 3% whist that of South Korea is 13%. Of course the percentage share of the school pupils who have the chance to join university is far greater in the Western countries. The proudest amongst these are those of northern Europe, in particular those within Scandinavia where almost one-half of the school pupils have the chance to join universities.

The prevailing situation has contributed significantly to dearth in the supply of academically qualified people, particularly those whose knowledge is in demand in the labour market.

Perhaps it is in reaction to this shortage in academically qualified people that Sri Lanka happened to lag behind India, China and other Asian NICs in attracting itself investments in the fields of more profitable high-tech industries. It is mostly for this reason that Sri Lanka has, for the past three decades, been able to attract itself less productive, bottom end, low-tech enterprises such as the textiles and garment manufacturing firms and the firms that produce leather goods and which depend almost entirely on unskilled labour.

However, over the past couple of decades the universities of Sri Lanka have taken some measures towards rectifying this lacuna by expanding the capacities of the existing universities as well as by establishing several new public universities.

Of course it is fine that the number of university places expanded. But this expansion does not seem to be much greater than the demographic expansion of the youth population of the country. At the same time, although the recruitment of student by universities expanded marginally, the core structure of the university education systems continues to remain intact, unchanged, and which constitutes the second set of problems that the issue concerns.

Whilst most universities and other teaching institutions (i.e. university colleges and polytechnics) of the West as well as those within Asian NICs (India, China, Singapore and Malaysia) have over the past two or three decades been able to accomplish so uch by upgrading their study curricular and by reviewing the subject syllabuses, what most faculties at public universities of Sri Lanka have achieved is more of the same and which some people refer to as hamburgarisation of the education system.

It is certainly due to this hamburgarisation of the education system that a significant number of graduates continue to remain been long time unemployed. Despite the fact that Sri Lanka has a comparatively small number of young people who manage to complete their university education, long term unemployment amongst them is large. The percentage share of graduate unemployment of Sri Lanka is much larger than those, for example, of India and China.

Then many of those graduates who manage to secure jobs are found outside their study-focus. According to some data, it is only about 18% of the graduates who manage to secure jobs in fields of their own studies. The remainder has to be satisfied with whatever the jobs that they may be able to find in whichever the industry.

This anomaly is because: ‘education given is not the kind that is in demand’. The labour market requires professionals with different qualifications. This underlies that there is a serious structural problem with the education system of Sri Lanka.

It is this structural difference that some allude to by hamburgarisation of education: graduates are mass produced without a key concern for their employability which in final run has denigrated the academic standards of the graduates.

Primarily it is in light of these issues that one must seek to evaluate relevance and significance of private universities in Sri Lanka. First, despite that it concerns only a small number of students, the private universities have the capability to absorb some of those students who have passed their qualifying examinations and thus helping to ease to pressure on intake of the university students. At the same time it is relatively easier for new private universities to structure (and restructure) their education programmes through frequent curriculum review and syllabuses review and make them responsive to ongoing shifts and turns in the labour market. This is particularly true as those new private universities are not been bogged down by customs and traditions and by rules and regulations as those traditional universities are. Then, due to rapid technical and technological changes and shifts in global order when professional milieu changes as rapidly as it does, agility with educational programmes is of utmost necessity. There are those who argue that the need for agility with education system is as profound as that with any entrepreneurial activity. It is in this sense that new private universities can be more sensible in the modern world than some of those traditional universities laden with rigid customs and traditions and rules and regulations. With flexibility with curricular programmes and syllabus plans one is able to address more readily and suitably the structural problems that prevail in the education system and in the graduate labour market.

Second, there are those who maintain that, whilst public universities will continue to secure the best students of the country, the fee charging private universities will be able to secure only the second best students. Despite that one is doubtful about the intent and purpose of such comments one may agree that there may be some truth some instances. But this statement is valid universally. One should note that good (and reputed) private universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Colombia and Yale manage to recruit the best students whilst the remainder of the students are been recruited by other educational institutions. Thus there is no general rule that the state run universities are better for education than private universities.

Then there are those who maintain that as the state run universities will recruit the best students (those with best grades) whilst the private universities have to satisfy themselves with the second best, the output of the private universities will be poor. However, one must note too that there is no any automatic connection between the recruitment of “second best students” and output of “second best scholars”. A good university may be able to recruit average (second best) students and yet though good education that it is able to provide it may be able to produce best calibre scholars (hence best employable scholars). As a matter of fact, in most cases the best calibre scholars do not come from traditional universities with age-old curricular and outmoded syllabuses but from those that are run efficiently and which operate under utility maximisation principles.

By definition, the private universities operate under utility maximisation principle. Those that operate under utility maximisation principle will seek for best customer satisfaction which the private universities will realise by endeavouring to provide best education to an optimum number of students. Then by definition the best education refers to education in subjects that are in demand and hence the people with such educational qualifications are best employable. Thus, in their quest to become most attractive institutions of advance learning by producing well educated and most employable scholars, the private universities will seek to work by following most up- to-date subject curricular and syllabus programmes and by engaging most dynamic and widely experienced teachers.

When some faculties of state funded universities of Sri Lanka are making only half-hearted attempts at modernising their education programs, the faculties of universities of some of the NICs of Asia have attempted this by restructuring their curricular programmes and subject syllabuses over the years since about a decade back. In this attempt they have also been able to recruit and employ, perhaps in visiting capacity, the reputed scholars who are able to help these universities implement university restructuring programmes. The universities of China are best examples to this. The same is true when concerning the universities in countries of northern Europe including Scandinavia which started their restructuring programmes sometime in the early 1980s.

With development of various computer applications and other technologies and systems including transport systems and management and financial systems and incorporation of international trade under a new agenda through what came to be termed as the ‘globalisation’, the attempts at modernising the education system so as to help it reflect the changing global order by restructuring educational curricular and subject syllabuses have been seen as not just desirable but necessary.

Thus private universities which have been able to secure affiliations with reputed universities of the West (or wherever) have the potential to emerge not only as good local universities which are capable of providing good (hence desirable from labour market point of view) education for the youth of Sri Lanka and for those who wish to come to Sri Lanka for their further studies but also as beacons of light for those traditional (state funded) universities that seek to modernise and upgrade their education programmes and curricular and syllabuses.

(J.A. Karunaratne, Professor of Regional Studies, University of Vaasa, Finland and Visiting Professor of Economics, HUST, China ,Visiting Scholar, Karlstad University, Sweden )
- Sri Lanka Guardian