SRI LANKA: Squabbling while higher education burns

Sri Lanka's university system is overburdened, outdated, and badly in need of reform. But politicians, academics and students just can't agree on how to do it. So they fight.

The recent wave of student protests has focused on one element of a wider package of proposed reforms: inviting private universities into a country where publicly-funded universities currently dominate.

In Sri Lanka's heavily polarised political culture, the much-needed reforms have become the latest source of bickering. Yes, we need public discussion and debate to make the best policy choices. But what progress can be achieved when rhetoric replaces reason?

As a concerned citizen and anxious parent, I call this reckless squabbling while our children's future burns...

Take, for example, the allegation that higher education is being 'privatised'. Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake, who spearheads the reforms, repeatedly points out that 57 private institutions are already operating in Sri Lanka giving out foreign degrees. According to him, the new laws will bring these under a regulated framework for the first time.

There are no reliable statistics on how much middle-class Sri Lankan parents spend on tuition fees and livings costs. Three years ago Victor Ivan, editor of Ravaya newspaper, estimated it to be at least LKR6 billion (approximately US$54 million) per year.

The higher education ministry also wants new foreign universities to set up campuses in Sri Lanka to absorb many local students now routinely leaving the country for higher education abroad. The government has said private universities will be required to offer scholarships to a fifth of their student intake. That would still enable social mobility for those from poorer backgrounds.

The government assures continued state support for the country's 15 public universities.

Yet Opponents choose an all-or-nothing view, and project the reforms as a blow to free university education.

The University Grants Commission (UGC), which regulates the system, says the government spent 0.31% of the gross domestic product on university education in 2008. This represented 1.42% of all government expenditure that year. Spending on each university student was LKR196,685 (US$1,770).

In an ideal world, the state should substantially increase this investment. But in reality, public universities can never provide higher education for all who desire and qualify for it. The numbers are simply too large.

This is where the entry of private capital, if well regulated, can make a difference. Pragmatic policies have accomplished just this in neighbouring India and Bangladesh.

Demand and supply

While arguments rage, no one can deny a salient fact: Sri Lanka's demand for higher education has always far exceeded supply. In 2009, the 15 public universities had a total of 65,588 students (not counting those enrolled with the Open University) and 4,738 faculty members.

In the same year, the system admitted 20,846 new students, just 16% of those who qualified to enter university. This creates intense competition - and much frustration among the majority who fail to get in.

Those who gain a place soon experience the system's many limitations. For decades, our universities have suffered from a lack of funds, poor quality teaching, sub-optimal research and weak administration.

With many political parties looking to universities to recruit party activists, seats of higher learning have literally been turned into battlegrounds. The past 40 years have seen two armed insurrections that originated, in part, in universities. Amidst such intrigue and violence, the pursuit of knowledge and creativity often takes a backseat.

University teachers are also an unhappy lot. They complain of being grossly underpaid and having far fewer benefits than civil servants and technical professionals in government.

Dr Mahim Mendis of the Open University Teachers Association said recently: "The salaries of Sri Lankan academics are atrociously poor when we compare our scales with professionals serving other sectors such as the Central Bank in Sri Lanka and academics worldwide."

Regulation or reboot?

A key to successful university reforms would be the right level of regulation. Sri Lankans have seen mixed results when deregulation ends state monopolies and allows private investors to come in.

In the telecommunications sector, increased competition has upgraded technology, vastly improved services and reduced consumer costs. In transport, by contrast, private bus operators have been a major disappointment. The difference was in the way these sectors were regulated.

The government, for its part, recognises that all is not well in higher education. Its main policy document Mahinda Chinthana (2010) says universities should not be "factories that create technicians for employment". It also acknowledges the need for an education system that includes "liberal thinking, broad dialogue and opportunities for entertainment" for all undergraduates.

How do we get to that ideal from our messy and contentious state? While the current reforms are significant, some feel they are not radical enough.

"The first step is to accept that we have universities in name only," says Dr Rohan Samarajiva, an economist and former telecom regulator who now heads the regional think tank LIRNEasia.

In a candid appraisal of the Sri Lankan university system today, he holds three groups in higher education responsible for this tragedy: "The faculty who teach, who administer the universities, and who have been responsible through wrong hiring and promotion practices of degrading the quality of their establishments."

Others privately share his observation. A senior academic and one time university vice-chancellor recently told me how mediocre academics were producing even more mediocre students every year. He called it "making photocopies of photocopies".

Clearly, there is something seriously wrong with the country's university system when many politicians, senior officials and even some professors choose to educate their own children overseas - even when admission is secured locally.

Samarajiva doubts that piecemeal solutions could reform the university system. In a recent column, he advocated a more drastic approach. He called it the academic equivalent of 'rebooting' or restarting a computer when all else fails.

His proposal: "Highly qualified, foreign faculty must be recruited for each of the disciplines and given the authority to interview and place the current faculty in positions commensurate with their qualifications, output and productivity (or direct them to gainful employment elsewhere). They would also oversee the reform of university curricula, internal procedures, and of course, incentive structures."

While rebooting does not always fix problems in a faulty computer, it sorts things out most of the time. Will the guardians of Sri Lanka's university system choose or allow this 'reboot option' any time soon?

* Nalaka Gunawardene sometimes calls himself a 'higher education refugee'. He holds journalism qualifications from the University of Colombo and Open University of Sri Lanka and blogs on media, society and development issues at

As a former professor in a university in Sri Lanka, I can say that the current situation is the product of the combined efforts of lazy and politically oriented academics with only self and financial interests and students who are politicised to prevent any developments and new thinking. Both parties prefer to maintain what is there (resulting in degradation) rather than improving or moving forward with new thinking and global needs.

For many, keeping their job designations and moving up to the next level is the only ambition. To this effect promotional schemes were manipulated and curricula never improved. The academics could always hide behind the excuse of low salaries and the students low facilities. Neither is interested in building on what is available or what could be done to improve the national system.

Upali Samarajeewa