By Lewis Jesudasan
(May 10, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Vice Chancellor of Sri Jayewardenepura University Prof. Bellanwila Wimalaratne Thero told Higher education Minister Hon. S B Dissanayake as he assumed duties as the Minister of Higher Education at the University Grants Commission to have a backbone and go ahead making arrangements to open private Universities soon. If the government goes ahead with what Prof. Bellanwila Wimalaratne Thero suggested it is a very good step in the right direction that will open up new avenues for education and improve the quality and standards of the existing education system at least at the tertiary (university) level especially in this knowledge based economy.
The JVP factor
The previous governments under both SLFP and UNP wanted to establish private universities in Sri Lanka but the so called biggest obstacle was the JVP. The problem is, the JVP is very active in the universities and are very successful in hoodwinking the students and the gullible masses. They are scared because they might lose the grip of the student body if Sri Lanka had private Universities. Most of the young undergraduates get attracted to the speeches made by these JVP backed union/student leaders and some of the academics. They convince the students with their fallacy that by introducing private universities, the government will finally end up in the privatization of the country’s entire free education system, and only those with affluent backgrounds will get the priority and also the non-state universities will further encroach on job opportunities available for graduates from state universities. They do not realize that, by protesting against the setting up of private universities, they are not only depriving one of the basic rights of those students who also deserve higher education and a degree, but also a well educated work force from which the country can benefit.
Unfortunately, the government was unable to counter the false JVP propaganda and educate the masses on the true reality. But however, the JVP is not the only culprit; in fact, as usual the JVP is the scrape goat that takes all the blame. The main culprit is some members of the University Grants Commission itself and some of the senior academics, because all the mistakes or rather blunders of the state universities will come to light and obviously the standard and quality of the private university degrees will be way ahead than the state universities, thereby the value of the state university degrees will gradually see depletion. In other words, the state universities will have competitors and hence will need to strive hard to increase their own standards, to match the foreign universities.
Higher Education deprived
The total number of places in universities available in Sri Lanka is far less than the number of students who seek to join them. Even though most students pass the secondary (GCE Advanced Level) exam, those who qualify for state universities are only a very low percentage from the total number. Due to the limited number of state universities and non availability of private universities, most of the capable and intelligent students from both urban and village areas are deprived of their higher (tertiary) education by denying entry to universities due to the old fashioned obsolete policies of a few ignorant politicians and their supporters, some of the academics in the state universities behave like narrow minded politicians. Due to their bigoted attitude, a large majority of our capable students are forced to terminate their education at secondary level. The students, who could not afford tertiary education in foreign countries, become underutilized resources. They have the talents and willingness but unfortunately they don’t have the opportunity to flourish. While the opportunity provided by the free education system should be acknowledged with gratitude it is now quite obvious that State universities alone cannot guarantee every qualified student`s right to a university education. The solution therefore is to allow the private sector to open additional universities. Setting up private universities will help in providing basic education to one and all making higher education available and also for the highly qualified, under-paid, teaching staff, this will provide better employment opportunities.
Loss of foreign exchange
Let me give a real example of how the above has affected our economy.
One of my close friends who works for a state petroleum company in a mid-east country told me that, once (this happened a decade ago) their company wanted to recruit around 45 very highly paid senior staff from an Asian country. Their first choice was Sri Lanka because the Sri Lankan staffs who already work in that company have proved that they are much more competent than their colleagues from other Asian countries. Unfortunately, the posts required a basic degree from a recognized university as a minimum qualification which 90% of the Sri Lankan applicants did not posses. Finally, the company had to recruit all those 45 staff from one of our neighboring country which produces enough number of graduates. Even though we have enough of highly competent professionals, due to the lack of a degree, our country is losing all these foreign exchange.
The government has allowed private International schools in Sri Lanka and a large percentage of the students in these school come from middle class families whose parents are mostly salary earners managing with difficulty to give their children a better English education/future.
What will happen to these students when they complete their secondary education and opt for higher studies? They have to either go abroad or do some part time foreign courses like CIMA, BCS, EC, etc. Some of these parents spend their lifelong savings, sell or mortgage their properties and sometimes obtain bank loans to send these children overseas for higher education.
If we take the Asian countries, I am sure Sri Lanka is having the highest number of students doing foreign exams on higher studies such as CIMA, Engineering Council, BCS, ACS and so on. Many developed countries earn quite a portion of their national GDP by selling education. Just imagine the amount of foreign exchange our country is spending on all these foreign exams. All these can be reduced if private universities are allowed. In the business sense, it brings in more money into the country. It will also provide more business to the universities as more students get enrolled.
If the Sri Lankan students who can afford are allowed to go abroad spending thousands of dollars (to countries ranging from USA, UK, Australia, Russia to China, India, Bangladesh and Nepal) to do their higher studies, why cannot they do it in their home country which will at least reduce the foreign exchange spent and will provide a secure atmosphere for the students (especially female students)? They will no longer need to travel out of the country and stay away from home and loved ones. If an opportunity is given, it will not only save valuable foreign exchange but also will bring children of expatriates back to the country for higher education which will again not only bring foreign exchange but also create many jobs to local people.
Quality and standards of private universities
If the government and the University Grants Commission give approval to private institutions or any other higher education establishments in the country, charging a tuition fee and allowing them to grant degrees, they should make sure that there is a quality control mechanism and degrees are not simply sold. The government should allow private universities which of course should be affiliated to the local existing mainstream state-run universities or well recognized international universities that can provide world-class international standard education in the country. All the admissions, curriculums, examinations, awarding of degrees etc. should be supervised accordingly, since education should be geared to meet national goals. They should discourage poor standard affiliate institutes. Sub-standard universities from other countries should not be allowed to get in here. There should be certain guidelines on which universities can enter our country. The degrees, diplomas they offer here should be the same as they offer back home and should be internationally recognized.
Another alternative is for the government to either increase the number of universities or expand the established universities of Sri Lanka to accommodate students for a fee, whilst continuing the free education system, somewhat similar to those government hospitals with paying wards. It will not only allow many to obtain higher education paying tuition fees but also help the universities to offer more seats for free education to the under privileged.
Higher education not Free
In most of the developed and developing countries higher (university) education is not free. Education is free only up to high school (secondary) level. People do not value anything they get free and a good example is the universities in Sri Lanka which have become hotbeds of political violence and intimidation. In other countries even the state universities have financial and administrative control and of course, academic independence. To do this, the students should be asked to pay nominal fees. Interest-free student loans should be freely available (especially for the under privileged students from low-income families) to cover the fees and living expenses like in many developed countries where the re-payments begin only after they obtain employment. This way, the government can overcome many unmanageable problems including abuse of state universities by the students and ensure sound education, good staff and value for money. In such seats of higher learning no political meddling, student clashes, threats to the staff, brutal ragging and boycotting of classes will be tolerated. A socio-economic environment leading to such disturbances will not be there in these establishments. There will be no opportunities for using university students as political tools. New Universities established on the same lines will provide the competition to make the entire system a vibrant one. At present, the free higher education in Sri Lanka is catering professionals for the needs of well developed countries at the cost of the taxpaying people of Sri Lanka. The students get a free secondary and sometimes tertiary education in Sri Lanka and then spend the Sri Lankan foreign exchange in going to developed countries for further higher education. After spending all that Sri Lankan money for their total education in Sri Lanka and abroad, some of them end up serving and paying tax to those countries with no benefit what so ever to Sri Lanka. On the other hand, when they return home, they find it difficult for adapting to the Sri Lankan work ethics and corporate culture.
Developed countries exploiting us
The developed countries are today faced with the major problem of an aging population and a low population growth. Lack of opportunities for higher education in Sri Lanka has given some of the rich nations the opportunity to take advantage of this unfortunate situation. They have adopted a new practice where the developed countries encourage potential migrants to first come as students paying huge sums of dollars as tuition fees, accommodation fees and living expenses before they are considered to be accepted as permanent residents of those countries. Using higher education as a carrot to woo students to come to the developed world has become a very clever and profitable means of meeting problems arising from low birth rate. In addition to dangling the carrot these countries also provide other incentives such as allowing students to work for 20 hours a week (full time during holidays). Permission for students to work part-time is granted mainly to overcome shortages in casual and seasonal labor market and shortages in labor for work during unsociable hours and is falsely portrayed as another aspect of western generosity towards students from the poor countries.
It is high time that the government should totally ignore any kind of protests and seriously think about this matter on a very urgent basis. Will the new minister of higher education, Hon. S B Dissanayake have a backbone to make Sri Lanka the hub of education in the region by not only attracting private (foreign) universities but also foreign students by offering quality education at an affordable rate or as usual, are we running behind a mirage like we did in the past?
By Lewis Jesudasan