SRI LANKA: Universities responsible if graduates not 'employable'

Sri Lanka's Ministry of Higher Education has brought in new measures from this year to make public universities responsible for ensuring their graduates can be 'guaranteed' to get jobs anywhere in the world.

Higher education minister SB Dissanayake (pictured) this month convened a meeting of vice-chancellors, deans and heads of departments of all universities to tell them they would be held responsible if their graduates were not employable.

"Under this new scheme the university administration will have to rethink and reengineer how they run campuses and teach undergraduates," Dissanayake said.

Higher education institutions will have to develop the curriculum, set examinations and conduct evaluations based on the new market-oriented policy.

Secretary to the ministry, Sunil Jayantha Navaratne, said that rather than enacting new legislation, the reforms would be brought in at the university level.

The government wanted to ensure universities "make their graduates globally employable and recognised anywhere in the world. If they cannot accomplish this what is the use of having such universities?" he asked.

Navaratne continued: "All vice-chancellors, deans and heads of departments are very positive and readily consented to the new scheme whole heartedly, except for a very few."

But Dinidu Hennayake, convenor of the left-leaning Joint Union of Unemployed Graduates, commented: "Nowhere in the world has a university's academic staff been held responsible for its graduates being unemployed. We see this as a move to palm off the blame to university administration. The government can now say they are no longer responsible."

With university administrations burdened with more and more responsibilities, student groups also suspect that they will be compelled to become self-sufficient, which they allege to be the first step towards the privatisation of state universities.

Market-oriented graduates

Nearly 20,000 students enter Sri Lanka's 18 universities each year. But many graduates from public universities are deemed unemployable by the private sector and the government has had to recruit them in vast numbers to ensure they are employed.

"All this time government usually took the responsibility by providing graduates with state sector jobs. We have recruited nearly 40,000 unemployed graduates. Their salary bill itself amounts to a staggering rupees 24 billion a year [nearly US$216 million]," the ministry's Navaratne said.

"In future all Sri Lankan universities will be market-oriented, which will not only immensely help the economy, but also the individual student."

Navaratne said that along with the vice-chancellors, the governing councils of universities had to ensure students were equipped with communication, leadership and soft skills, before being awarded degrees. Deans would be responsible for graduates from their faculties, while heads of department would have to ensure their students acquired essential skills.

The graduate unemployment problem goes back to the 1950s, when (then) Ceylon changed the medium of instruction from English to the two main languages, Sinhala and Tamil.

Following 30 years of bloody civil war over, among other things, minority Tamil language rights, Sri Lanka wants to re-introduce English purely as a communications tool, without colonial 'cultural baggage'.

Possible move towards privatisation

But students said the measures were a result of a failure of government policy on unemployed graduates.

"The 2005 election manifesto promised that 10,000 unemployed graduates would be given jobs under the Tharuna Aruna (Dawn for Youth) programme while also taking measures to fill 23,000 vacancies in the public sector. As they failed to honour their promises, by 2011 the number of unemployed graduates has increased to 36,000," said JUUG's Hennayake.

"This is a clear move towards privatising state-run universities," charged Hennayake.

A fortnight ago, Sri Lanka's cabinet gave the green light to a Higher Education Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Quality Framework Bill, which will pave way for setting up non-state universities.

The country also hopes to establish five 'knowledge parks' to attract 25 to 30 of the world's best universities.

Not only higher education but the entire system of education became "politicised" soon after the British flag was replaced by the Lion flag.

Universities were being created purely for political purposes though there was a dearth of qualified teachers.

Adding insult to injury, there was no planning in the creation of courses to be taught. No-one ever thought of finding out what was needed and the number of persons required. Getting a degree by any means was a status symbol.

It is all the mistake of the "rulers" and those who "elected" the "rulers".

The present Minister of Higher Education seems to be thinking on the correct lines but then privatisation is not the answer.

Sie Kathieravealu

This is a very appropriate move towards "better prepared and well equipped" graduates for today's competitive job market. University entrants are the prime resource for our country and people contribute for their education. It is a shame for them if they still expect to receive further support from government. They should fill their skills and knowledge gaps during the university period and be ready for the competitive job market when they come out rather than wasting their time going after political parties and organising protest rallies.

People like Hennayake still expect these prime resources of the country should go after government jobs under the Tharuna Aruna (Dawn for Youth) programme which should only be available for other youths. Open your eyes and look at the today's world.

Jayantha Warnakula

Sri Lanka will be the only country to do so. How can it when the universities have no control over employment? Sounds silly in the extreme. In any case it is not their function, which should be production of quality teaching. Nut idea.


Unfortunately, it seems that Dinidu Hennayake is far out of his "international" depth when he makes the claim that "nowhere in the world has a university's academic staff been held responsible for its graduates being unemployed ..."

In Japan, where I live and work, professors meet with potential employers accompanied by their students to ensure that students have jobs lined up upon graduation. Students who do not receive positions upon graduation are perceived as demerits not only upon their professors but upon the entire department.

Schools take great pride, even in these stressful economic times, at being able to "place" as many graduates as possible.

Kurt VanVolkenburgh