Higher Education and Poverty Alleviation

by Prof. H. P. M. Gunasena

(December 16, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Higher Education and Poverty Alleviation directly involves the universities and the community. This topic is more relevant to the people of Rajarata, which is a major agricultural area of the country, where a majority of the rural people whose livelihood is agriculture.

My focus will be on the SAARC countries which include Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The recently concluded SAARC Summit (2008), hosted by Sri Lanka, has set an ambitious goal on poverty alleviation and ensuring food security, besides others, such as tackling energy issues and fighting terrorism. These countries are at different stages of development: some, like India, has made tremendous strides in food production accompanied by dramatic reduction in poverty due to trade and investment reforms, which have generated growth; India presently records a growth of 8%.

The other countries of Asia have not made such spectacular achievements as India. The overall situation is that South Asia is the poorest, most illiterate, most malnourished, least gender sensitive and most deprived region in the world. It generates only 2% of the world’s income, yet supports 22% of the world’s population and 44% of the world’s poor. According to World Bank estimates, more than three quarter of South Asia’s 1.5 billion people earn less than 2 dollars a day.

All these countries are facing similar problems like poverty, illiteracy, disease, unemployment, income disparity, low productivity and dependency on agriculture. Over 75% of the people in these countries depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihoods. Therefore, agriculture will play a major role in the future and massive productivity increases and product diversification is required to reduce poverty and ensure food security. The problems confronting these countries are highly complex and enormous.

The major issues are: declining agricultural population, marginal producers with small holdings, decreasing per capita land availability, conflicting demands for limited resources mainly water, urbanisation and youth moving out of agriculture. The poverty situation has been further aggravated by globalization and trade imbalances.

The unprecedented population increase has been a major issue for the South Asian countries. The population figure for South Asia is presently is 1.5 billion, with India holding more than a billion people (1,130 million) out of a world population of 6 billion, Pakistan 169.27 million, Bangladesh 153.546 million, Nepal 28.901 million, Sri Lanka 20.926 million, Bhutan 2.376 million and Maldives 369,031 thousand.

With such large numbers of people living in this region, it could lead to mass migration to cities, unprecedented in history. It is estimated that in the next two decades, half of the regions population will be urban. The cities will become over crowded; they will be converted into mega cities, slum living will prevail with people living under poor sanitary conditions and consequently, the quality of life will deteriorate.

Sri Lanka is facing this problem and it is estimated that about one third of the population will be urban by the year 2015. Therefore, poverty will spread from the rural areas to the cities. Urban poverty is an emerging problem in this region. The worse situation in the urban sector is unbalanced nutrition due to changes in food habits, the time-less urbanites moving for fast foods. The consequence of this change has been the increase in obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The managing of urban poverty will be another major threat to the region.

Millennium Development Goals adopted by 189 countries including Sri Lanka in 2000, serves as a benchmark on strategic efforts pursued by different countries for reduction in poverty. There are seven MDGs and it is necessary to examine the level of achievements of these goals to assess the extent of poverty in the region. MDG No. 1 is "Eradicating extreme poverty halving the proportion of the population earning one dollars a day by 2015. Unfortunately, due to complex reasons, little progress has been made by all the South Asian countries.

Among the countries in the region, Sri Lanka is fortunate that it has a very high living standard. Due to the welfare policies of successive governments, access to health and education has been impressive. Sri Lanka’s Human Development Index (HDI), an index of adult literacy, life expectancy at birth and per capita income is very high, in comparison to the other countries in the region, India (0.590). Bangladesh (0.502), Nepal (0.449) and Pakistan (0.449).

Sri Lanka’s HDI stands at 0.734 and ranks 99 among 177, developing countries (Central Bank Report, 2007). The life expectancy at birth is 77 years for females and 71.7 years for males. Sri Lanka has an exceptionally high literacy rate compared to other regional countries. The adult literacy rate for males is 94.5%, it is 92.5% for females (Central Bank report, 2007), with an overall average of 93.5%. Per capita income is US $ 1350, but in rural areas, per capita income is much less, below US $ 800. This is the crux of the matter that development has been pro-urban, with little spill over to the rural areas. According to the Central Bank report (2007), the population earning below one dollar a day is 5.6%, while those earning less than two dollars a day is 41.6%. Due to unequal income distribution, and investment patterns, poverty has been reduced in the Colombo district to 8% and it has increased in the Moneragala, Ratnapura and Kegalle districts to about 30%. Overall figures for poverty maybe higher, if the war torn areas of the East and North are considered.

A recent survey also highlighted the increase of malnutrition; 13.5% of children below 5 years are stunted, while 14% are wasted and 29.4% are underweight. One in every three women is stunted and 36% are anaemic. These figures are frightening and should be taken note of by the concerned ministries.It is paradoxical that high poverty prevails in countries where abundant food is available. The other factors play a greater role in poverty prevalence, primarily low incomes, trade policies and political instability. Income poverty is the basis for many ills among the rural populations. Although food is available through local production and imports, poverty prevails due to lack of access due to poor household incomes. This then is the core of human misery, deprived of the most fundamental human right, the right to have sufficient food. How can poverty in rural areas be overcome?

SAARC countries have consistently stressed on reduction of poverty, the SAARC Decade on Poverty Alleviation (2006-2015) has underscored the need for policy prioritization for utilization of budgetary resources, with particular reference to (a) deepen pro-poor orientation of the growth process (b) enhance investment on human capital, (c) increase investment on infrastructure and (d) improve service delivery mechanisms.

At the recent SAARC summit (2008), a SAARC University was proposed to be established in New Delhi, India, which further emphasises the need for enhancing the social capital in these countries.

Education and training are two powerful tools that can be used to fight against both rural and urban poverty. However, it is strange that the governments as well as the donors neglect these two important aspects. If we accept education as the key factor for change of society, more appropriately to a knowledge based society, it is the one that will make the difference between wealth and poverty,, health and misery, conservation and destruction, national unity and divisions. There should be sufficient life-long learning as sufficient initial learning will be inadequate in a competitive modern society. This can be easily achieved, due to the availability of modern communication and information technology. There is a massive digital gap between the developed and the developing world and this has to be narrowed. There are several examples, which illustrate the benefits of education to reduce poverty and achieve prosperity. Vietnam and Korea are glaring recent examples of NICs; so are countries like Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In the 19th century, recent NICs were in an economic boom sustaining growth rates as high as 7-8% with per capita incomes, exceeding 5000-6000 US dollars. These countries have succeeded in changing the scenario from ‘poor house’ to ‘power house’ by investing more and more on education. All these countries have invested 6-20% of their national budgets on education.

Sri Lanka has attained very impressive educational achievements as reflected by high literacy rates (93.5%) on par with developed countries, but it has to be noted that the ability to read and write alone is no indicator of the productive capacity of a person. The university education in Sri Lanka is a state owned monopoly. The universities hold the elite of society, highly educated and skilled academics who impart knowledge and skills and groom the younger generation to manage the affairs of our country. The University Grants Commission, with the universities are responsible for planning and coordinating university education, selecting students for academic degrees, allocating funds for state universities and from recent times recognized the importance of moving towards quality assurance of their degrees.

The total university admission annually is only 14.34%, on average 17,000 per year of about 120,000 those who qualify for university education (UGC 2007). The annual output is around 11,235 (UGC, 2007) of which 41% are graduates in arts and humanities.

The tertiary education system is supply driven, which has little relevance to the labour market. A large proportion of the graduates remain unemployed, due to mismatch between the supply and demand and they are clamoring for the state to supply them with jobs.

In the meantime, a large number of private higher educational institutions affiliated to foreign universities of both developed and developing countries have been established recent in years.

This is a desirable trend as the access to university education could be increased, with increased resource mobilization and creating a degree of competitiveness. The fees for education in affiliated foreign universities are exorbitant. However, the courses offered by these universities have been made after a careful analysis of the labour market. They offer courses, which are demand driven, such as Business Management, Management Studies, Information Technology, Electronics etc; those which have a future job market.

The students who are unable to enter the local universities or finance education in foreign universities abroad enrol (about 85% eligible students), in these fee levying universities. The fact of the matter is that graduates with foreign degrees get picked up by the private sector employers, due to specific qualities such as communication skills, leadership qualities and attitudes. This leaves a large proportion of the local graduates underemployed or unemployed; mainly those who enrol for social sciences and humanities remain unemployed for long periods, which forces the government to provide employment.

The aspects which deserve the attention of the universities are: 1. The need to produce graduates with relevance to the needs of the economy; 2. To assure that the degrees are of the highest quality to be on par with those offered by international universities, 3. To develop necessary knowledge, skills, attitudes and confidence to work in real world situations and 4. To invest adequately on higher education. Being aware of the current strength of the university system, all these are possible, provided that policies and strategies are developed and implemented by the concerned ministry and the University Grants Commission. The state funds university education, up to about 92%, which amounts to Rs. 12,606 (about 17.9% of the total education budget) million annually.

I was made to understand that the budget allocation for 2009 has been increased to Rs. 20 million. However, the funding for universities has remained static for some time at 0.5% of the GDP, hence the universities will have to undertake fund raising exercises to enhance their budgets for effective reforms.

Finally, I like to wish the new graduates the best in life when you leave the university today and enter the world at large. You have gone through a tedious process of education, during the four years in the university. The future of this country will depend on you and I sincerely hope that you will be prepared to make that contribution to develop our nation.
- Sri Lanka Guardian