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Private/Foreign Universities Debate in Sri Lanka: Some Observations

There is no easy solution to complex problems in higher education for a country like Sri Lanka. A long over due need in the sector is an independent commission to examine the challenges and opportunities, future directions, and establish some parameters that can be used in planning for the next decade in terms of the public and private/foreign mix.

by Dr. Siri Gamage,
University of New England, Australia

(November 01, Armidale - NSW, Sri Lanka Guardian)
Since the late 70s we witnessed the dawn of neoliberal economic and associated social policies along with the demise of ‘welfare state’ in many developing countries, including Sri Lanka. Privatisation of state owned institutions such as utilities; reductions in the state contributions to fields such as health, education and social welfare, and the introduction of market competition to areas where there was near government monopoly were some of the hallmarks of this trend. Even in the economically developed countries of Europe, North America and Australia, these characteristics impacted on the public sector institutions and welfare in detrimental ways. For example, countries of the English-speaking world, except perhaps less so in the case of Canada, encouraged Universities and other higher education providers to market their courses and programs to international students as a commodity. This meant the extension of neoliberal market logic of ‘profit making’ to the higher education sector also. After 20 odd years of internationalisation of education –both via onshore and off shore provision of courses to fee-paying students- this sector has now become a 25 billion dollar industry in the case of Australia.

Sri Lanka, while using a neoliberal market economic model of development, lagged behind this trend, perhaps due to the extended war with the Tamil Tigers and to some extent the strong opposition from the ‘free education lobby’ including a section of vocal university students whose future interests lie in the continuation of free tertiary education. India, which had closed doors for foreign universities, is now starting to consider inviting foreign universities to its shores on a somewhat regulated manner. Malaysia has its own variety of private sector higher education institutions such as the INTI Colleges with over 25 campuses spread around the region providing higher education to students from the region for a fee-though more competitive compared with the fees charged by Western universities. Nonetheless, they have extensive collaborations with foreign universities in the US, UK, Canada, Europe and Australia. Expanding market opportunities and liberalisation policies of governments in the Asia pacific region have attracted the private sector agencies, governments, and foreign universities to look at the tertiary education and vocational education sectors as a novel field for their operations. Yet, in countries like Australia, which is a net exporter of international education, is reluctant to allow foreign US, European or Asian universities to expand into its own higher education sector as private enterprises. One exception is a university called Bond University. However, various state governments have sanctioned partnerships between local and foreign universities as the preferred model of collaboration. For example, South Australian government even provided about 20 million dollars for such a venture.

In this context of expanding operations of foreign universities in the Asian and Pacific region in the name of ‘international education’ with a primary motive for profit making, it is no wonder a country like Sri Lanka whose economic development model is based on neoliberal market principles is also planning to legally invite foreign universities to set up their campuses and programs to cater to the full fee paying market in the country. In a situation where a considerable number of Sri Lankan students are looking for such education on shore and off shore, the authorities and policy makers are wanting to justify the expansion of this sector so that those who can afford to pay fees are able to achieve their higher education goals on shore rather than going off shore. From the point of view of students who are able to pay fees, this can be an attractive option as they do not have to pay for accommodation, food, health insurance, and travel when they have to go to a foreign country in Europe, the US, or Australia. While there have been some media discussions of the subject, it is surprising to see a general lack of critical examination of the pros and cons of this move as before! The debate seems to be around one group of writers saying this is a good move and others criticising it. No middle ground or compromises or even hybrid solutions suggested to a very complex problem?

Allowing foreign universities to set up campuses in the country raises some important issues that need to be carefully considered by the authorities, educators and policy makers in this sector. These issues are also the ones that the general public need to be conscious of and engaging their minds in various fora. Having worked in the Australian higher education sector for 20 years, and involved in teaching and coordinating some of the programs offered to local and international students via distance education medium, given below are some issues to be conscious of when looking at this policy move:

1. Most foreign universities that offer courses off shore do so with a profit motive. As their own governments do not provide 100% of the expenses required to run their own institutions, and these governments also operate on neoliberal market principles where the private sector and the public sector are encouraged to engage in entrepreneurial activities in their respective fields, universities and other higher education institutions offer ‘selective courses’ to international students where there is a demand as well as profit making capacity e.g. courses in business studies, information technology, health and medical sciences. Nonetheless, a society needs more than doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, insurance and business professionals. Educating artists, musicians, critical thinkers, historians, linguists and other social scientists will still remain in the charge of publicly funded universities in the country while foreign universities compete for the fee-paying student market.
2. Foreign universities which opt for offering profit making courses are unlikely to invest resources-human, financial, library and infra structure- for the advancement of research within the country, ie. Sri Lanka. This will be the main if not sole responsibility of local higher education institutions funded by the government.
3. Curriculum: While there is advocacy for internationalising the curriculum in European, North American, and Australian universities, many of these institutions only pay lip service to these pressures and demands. They continue to offer ‘an Eurocentric curriculum’ including for international students. Changing the curriculum to include a regional and/or global outlook costs money and other resources. It can reduce the budget bottom line-even though it is a good idea when we look at the way economies and societies are changing. If the foreign universities selected for operations in Sri Lanka do not adapt their curriculum to address the needs of the local context, and reflect local history, culture, customs and expectations from the students and industry etc. then there can be a considerable misfit in the subject knowledge and skills learned by students in terms of relevance. (Here, there is a responsibility for publicly funded universities also to expand their curriculum perspectives to include international/global perspectives. Far too long, the course content offered by state funded universities focus on the local context at the expense of regional and international contexts).
4. Product of education: Higher education is not necessarily meant for preparing students for the market-local and global- as a commodity. It is meant for training democratically minded citizens who are able to be critical thinkers not only in their own field of study but also in general within the civil society. On one hand the students and their teachers in universities have to be the pulse of their society. On the other hand, the universities have to be a bridge between the accumulated wisdom in a various fields of study and the needs of broader society (taken as national, regional, and global) by way of educating the emerging generations of youths. How far the teaching and learning by foreign or state funded local universities are willing and able to perform this task through their pedagogies will be open to debate. For example, will they teach the subjects as technical or professional subjects removed from the socio-economic, political, and cultural context within which they are taught- as if the knowledge has no political or power dimensions? Or will their teaching pedagogies empower the students while addressing ‘social justice/disadvantage issues’ encompassing economies run along neo liberal free market doctrine?
5. It is reported that in Sri Lanka about 150,000 students sit for advanced level examinations. Out of this about 50,000 apply to gain entry to universities. Around 20,000 gain admission while another 30,000 cannot obtain places in local universities. This reflects state’s inability and failure to cater to the total demand for higher education. In fact one may argue that the invitation to foreign universities also reflect this failure. (A country like Australia is planning to provide university places to all who qualify within the next few years. To some extent, its capacity to do so is contingent on the expansion of international education by higher education institutions). The critical question is how many of those who do not gain entry to state funded universities in Sri Lanka will be able to pay fees and get entry to foreign universities once they are allowed to come in? It is reported that one condition of allowing foreign universities to operate in Sri Lanka is their agreement to offer 20 per cent of places for scholarships. While this is a good move, what criteria will be used to select students for these scholarships? Is it merit or a combination of socio-economic status of the family and merit? Who will select candidates for these scholarships?
6. Internal brain drain: once foreign universities start operating in the country, they will look to employ local academic and technical staff at a reduced salary level to their counterparts in the home countries. Even then, this can be an attraction to the staff in state funded institutions in Sri Lanka as the salaries offered by foreign universities can be higher. What impact will this have on the quality of teaching, staff profiles and their capacity to attract the best academics in state funded universities?
7. English language as medium of learning and instruction: There is research literature showing that the use of ‘English only’ for teaching can lead to loss of local languages, cultures and knowledges. Some authors recommend multilingual education to counter this (Guo, Y. Beckett, G.H. 2007). ‘Educators must abolish the harmful idea that students’ first languages must be stamped out to ensure educational success. Educators need to recognise that students’ first languages are an important component of their identity and a useful tool for thinking and learning’ (2007: 125). The authors argue for reclaiming local languages and cultures through education while countering the hegemony of English as the medium of teaching. For an internationally oriented education for the 21st century emphasis should be placed on teaching a range of regional and international languages. Given the fact that China and India are emerging as stronger economies in the region, teaching Hindi and Chinese should be promoted.
8. Catering to the needs of political, business, and professional elites and their children: An argument can be made that the invitation to foreign universities is an effort to enhance the status of political, business and professional elites in Sri Lanka by way of providing higher education opportunities for their children at a high expense in order to enhance their status in society and outside. Networks and reputations acquired via following degrees from foreign universities as fee-paying students can be highly useful in their future career prospects of the students. A counter argument is that even the children of middle class parents will be able to afford foreign university education locally with this policy move. It is a fact that some parents sell their land or houses, or take considerable loans to educate their children overseas even today. However, the balance of this argument will be that those who can afford to pay for foreign university education locally will be mainly those who are already better off –even though some exceptions may appear on the scene due to scholarships or those parents who take financial risks to educate children outside public institutions.

While these issues, questions and arguments can be raised about the proposed move by the government, we should not lose sight of the fact that Sri Lankan society comprises of various classes of people, ie. Upper, middle, working class and the poor. People look at this issue from the perspective of their class position and the opportunity offered or not offered by this policy initiative for their individual cases and contexts. Student protests in existing universities have to be viewed in this light. Those who feel that the initiative can be a threat to free education provided by the state seem to express their feelings via protests. Those who seem to believe in the benefits seem to be keeping a considered silence waiting to access the opportunity to be provided.

Irrespective of one’s class position, all deserve an opportunity for higher education. In this era of interconnected world, all deserve an education that is useful not only within the boundaries of a given country but also globally. However, the higher education provided should be relevant to the local context, i.e. economic, political, and cultural. Any education that is provided as if the context does not matter can be stale, irrelevant, and repetitively useless. How far the foreign universities will go to change their curricula, pedagogies, content, and vision in education to address the contextual issues will be a crucial issue to focus on. In the publicly funded universities, when the transition from English medium to Sinhala and Tamil medium instruction took place several decades ago, translation of western knowledge in various subjects took an artificial character. Glossaries of technical words were produced, and lecturers started using these words in the lectures, tutorials, and assessments. Students –even today-have a great difficulty with such teaching and learning. Therefore, the translation of acquired knowledge and skills, ways of thinking from the foreign universities for the local context requires considerable discussion, debate and reflection to avoid old mistakes.

There is also no reason to look at this policy move from a binary perspective only, i.e. foreign vs. local universities. There are plenty of examples around the world, including in Sri Lanka, where partnerships have been established between local and foreign universities to promote selected areas of study and research. Thus it should be possible for the policy makers in the government to visualise hybrid or partnership arrangements between foreign and local universities to enhance selected areas of study –whether they belong to professional and technical fields or humanities and social sciences. Many Australian and other universities in the developed world prefer this model rather than setting up fully pledged campuses involving heavy infrastructure spending. Ultimately, in this networked world society, education and learning do not necessarily need bricks and mortar. Quality and reputation of the degree programs, teaching pedagogies and delivery modes including the access to global knowledge is the key.

Local publicly funded universities and other higher education institutions have a long way to go on the quality front. Establishing internal and external mechanisms for quality assurance of degree programs is paramount in securing reputations from the students, parents, and employers. In Australia and elsewhere governments have established national agencies for this purpose. Often external professional bodies also provide accreditation to selected programs. Enhancing teaching and learning via student assessment of courses and units within universities is widely practiced. Outcomes of such evaluations are used in the determination of staff promotions and course improvements.

Whereas there is very little competition among publicly funded universities in Sri Lanka, the establishment of foreign university campuses and programs in Sri Lanka can lead to some competition with the local public university sector in terms of migration of staff and even students from the latter to the former. Some of those students who gain a place in local public universities may choose to study in a foreign university campus. Such an internal brain drain if occurred in significant extents will not be good for the public university sector. One way to counter such an exodus would be to pressure local public universities to internationalise their own curriculum, enhance the teaching and learning process, install student evaluations and other measures as a mechanism for quality improvement, and provide staff training in better pedagogy. Allowing public universities more flexibility to offer selected courses in remote locations or in city contexts by using modern technology and less bricks and mortar would be another option to consider. In Australia for example, publicly funded universities are offering selected courses in different locations depending on the demand and need. Regional universities have established campuses in major cities, as are learning centres in rural and regional areas such as the eastern coastal belt. These are for local students from whom fees are not charged except the fees under the compulsory Higher Education Contributory Scheme (HECS), which are much lower, compared to international student fees. If this example is followed, the University of Peradeniya can decide to offer several courses with demand in Colombo, Galle, Matara and Jaffna. Likewise University of Colombo may decide to offer a course in law or business in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. This will not only enhance competition but also the access. In the same manner, public universities on their own or in combination with the private sector ought to be able to set up campuses in nearby countries to cater to students who are able to pay fees. Given the fact that Sri Lanka has been a leader and beneficiary of an export culture in other products, opening of the higher education sector to such external provision could be a highly exciting venture to consider. Those in the Sri Lankan diaspora should be invited to invest in such ventures and professionals and academics in the diaspora should be encouraged to apply for teaching and research positions. Charging fees from those who can afford to pay is not a crime even in the higher education sector so long as there are social justice policies to cater to the needs and aspirations of those who cannot pay due to their socio-economic, and personal misadventures.

We have to remember however, the teaching of local languages, religions, literature, art, music, history and similar subjects will not be the focus of foreign universities, which will set up campuses or programs in countries like Sri Lanka. They will continue to be the domain of public universities and other higher education institutions. Thus the mission of publicly funded universities will be more broader compared with the foreign university campuses.

Another area of concern on this topic is whether the universities-foreign and publicly funded- are going to be imparting knowledge and understandings, skills and tools that can liberate the mind of students or allow them to be coopted to the existing and emerging hierarchies of power, wealth, and status e.g. private sector, Transnational corporations, the state. Unless egalitarian norms, frames of thought, world views and critical analysis and thinking abilities are inculcated in the minds of emerging generations, the country can lose a lot by way of its innovative capacity and the growth of collective intellectual energies. Countries like India and China have become emerging economic powerhouses partly by utilising its own citizens who have gone abroad to obtain higher education. Currently each of these countries have sent 350,000 students to the US for higher studies. What this shows is in this era of globalisation, migration, and diasporic formation, countries need to access global knowlwdge in various fields via higher education in order to construct synergies with the global players in the private and public sector. Inviting foreign universities to set up campuses and programs within Sri Lanka is part of this broader trend. Therefore outright objection to this idea is not the correct response.

Sri Lankan youths should be provided with opportunities to acquire knowledge and training in various fields inside and outside Sri Lanka so that they can become critical innovators rather than imitators of age-old knowledge circulating within the higher education system with some roots in the colonial and neo-colonial ideologies, agendas, and projects. Emerging scholars and professionals need to break free from these colonial and neo colonial mindsets and become critical thinkers and innovators who are able to adapt knowledge and understandings acquired from international higher education institutions to the local needs and national aspirations. An education suited to foreign contexts –historical, cultural, socio-economic- may not necessarily provide the answers to local problems. There is a lot of work to be done within the existing higher education system in Sri Lanka by way of curriculum reform in many fields including in key disciplines. Introduction of interdisciplinary fields to address specific problems should be encouraged, e.g. climate change, sustainable development.

If the government’s plan for inviting foreign universities to the country succeeds, it should make a distinction between degree mills scattered around the world and reputed universities carrying higher rankings by students. Those universities, which are, reputed research universities should be given priority as well as those, which are reputed for various professions. With the exponential growth of international education industry in the developed west and North America, many players with no proper credentials have come into the scene. If all of these players gain an entry, local students and their parents will not be able to differentiate between the reputed and not so reputed programs and/or universities. Perhaps the government has a duty to advise potential students about these differences on ‘international standing’ and complications arising from the global competition for fee-paying market, when they choose a course or a university for their degree.

On the question of equal opportunity, one can question the entry of foreign universities if only they provide quality degree programs, because then the argument will be that those who can afford to pay only get a better product. The situation in Sri Lanka is that some publicly funded universities also have reputed programs in various fields. Therefore, if there is a will and they are prepared to do hard work, students attending them can also aspire to a reputable degree in selected fields. However, in the long term, there is a possibility that those who gain qualifications from foreign universities or their campuses in Sri Lanka can get a better chance in the job market due to their qualifications, acceptance of degrees internationally, and language skills in English- as English has become the corporate language globally. The way to counter this is for the public universities to up improve their own standing in the world. This requires having a long and hard look at the system of higher education in the country.

There is no easy solution to complex problems in higher education for a country like Sri Lanka. A long over due need in the sector is an independent commission to examine the challenges and opportunities, future directions, and establish some parameters that can be used in planning for the next decade in terms of the public and private/foreign mix. Views of educators, policy makers, administrators, politicians, parents and students need to be obtained and a blue print for the future of higher education formulated in a systematic way so that the higher education sector can be guided to contribute to national development –economic, social and cultural. Compromises and hybrid solutions will emerge from such a critical review that can only be good for the country.

Guo, Y Beckett, G.H. 2007. The Hegemony of English as a Global Language: Reclaiming Local Knowledge and Culture in China, Convergence, Volume XL, Number 1-2.

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