SRI LANKA

SRI LANKA: Delayed foreign universities bill imminent

A much-awaited bill to enable private universities, in particular foreign providers, to set up in Sri Lanka is expected to be presented to the cabinet in February.

"The Ministry of Higher Education has finalised all aspects of the bill which will soon be submitted for cabinet approval," Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education, Dr Sunil Nawarathne, told University World News in an exclusive interview.

The government had anticipated presenting the wide-ranging bill to parliament in January, but it has been delayed by the 2011 budget debate.

Providing a preview of the Higher Education Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Quality Framework Bill, as it is officially titled, Nawarathne said: "First and foremost the bill will allow non-state [private] universities to be set up within the country."

This new provision will be crucial for providers from the country's private sector as well as foreign universities interested in venturing into Sri Lanka.

Already some 24 foreign higher education institutions from the United Kingdom's University of Liverpool to Thailand's Asian Institute of Technology have shown an interest in setting up universities here.

However the ministry said it would initially allow 10 to 15 foreign universities, in order to main high standards of quality.

The government has avoided referring to such institutions as private universities as some sectors of the public are fearful private universities could 'commercialise' higher education, which is considered to be a service rather than a commodity that can be 'bought'.

'Education is not a commodity', 'Stop privatisation of universities' and 'Down with degree stores' have been popular slogans among hard-line socialist parties that have opposed educational reforms.

However as these groups have lost ground in parliament, and the government has vowed it will not privatise state universities, parliamentary opposition to the ambitious new reforms is unlikely to derail legislation.

Regulator

"The second salient feature [of the Bill] would be to put in place a mechanism for quality assurance and to grant accreditation to both state and non-state universities," Nawarathne said.

The government hopes to appoint a regulator for the hitherto unregulated higher education sector, which currently lacks an independent authority or proper mechanisms to scrutinise higher education institutions.

The new bill refers to an independent Quality Assurance and Accreditation Council not only for universities but for all higher education bodies. It will be entrusted with regulation and the implementation of a Qualification Framework for Higher Education.

In addition, the bill proposes the unbundling of the functions of the higher education ministry into three divisions - state, professional and non-state.

The State Division will supervise the existing 18 public universities while the Non-State Division will monitor private universities. The former will ensure students who cannot afford to go private have access to higher education in accordance with government policy, while the latter will ensure the profitability and quality of 'non-state' universities.

The Professional Division will rank and grade courses offered by professional bodies such as the institutes for Marketing, for Financial and Management Accountants, and for Incorporated Engineers. Local chapters of foreign professional bodies such as the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, the Charted Institute of Management Accountants and the Charted Institute of Marketing, will come under this division.

Foreign students

However it is the private universities provisions in the bill that have attracted the most attention and sparked unrest in the country last year. Sri Lanka also hopes to attract more foreign students by upgrading state-run universities.

The government's aim to increase the number of foreign students to100,000 by 2020, could generate nearly Rs111 billion (US$1 billion), according to estimates, which would put the higher education sector among the top five foreign exchange earners in the country.

In the short term some 10,000 foreign students will be admitted to universities, Nawarathne said. "If we admit around 200 students more for each course during a four-year programme we will have nearly 800 per course. So I believe within two to three years time we would be able to easily achieve this target."

Minister of Higher Education, SB Dissanayake, has an ambitious goal to beat Singapore and Malaysia as hub for education in Asia.

To attract foreign students the ministry has already earmarked six universities - Colombo, Jayawardenepura, Kelaniya, Peradeniya, Ruhuna and Moratuwa - to be upgraded to world-class international universities during a first phase, expected to begin this year after the enactment of the new bill. Three more universities - Rajarata, Jaffna and Eastern - will be upgraded later.