New technical universities to fill the skills gap

The Sri Lankan government plans to set up 25 technical universities and university colleges across the island, to cater to students who fail to gain entry to state universities.

The ground-breaking move will provide job-oriented courses and create alternative learning pathways up to degree level for thousands of students leaving formal education. The plan is that job-oriented courses will upgrade students’ competencies, leading to degree-level qualifications and professional development.

The proposal, made by Youth Affairs and Skills Development Minister Dullas Alahapperuma, has been approved by the cabinet, which has allocated US$16 million for the project. The 25 colleges will be affiliated to the University of Vocational Technology and will accommodate more than 50,000 students, who will study for degrees and diplomas.

The aim of the project is to provide progressive training to students in the technical education and vocational training system and help them acquire university education, with the intention of preparing them for the modern, high-tech employment market.

Sri Lanka has 15 state universities but only 23,000 students are admitted annually out of the 220,000 who sit the university entrance (A-level) examination every year. The limited capacity of the universities means most students miss the opportunity to obtain a higher education. About 12,000 Sri Lankan students go to foreign countries annually seeking higher education and US$400 million of foreign exchange is also drained from the country.

A memorandum of agreement, or MOU, signed last week for the establishment of the first technical university, Malik Abdullah Technical College, will provide technical education facilities for 1,500 students in the eastern province. After signing the MOU, Alahapperuma said that revolutionary changes were being introduced to effectively address the mismatch between state education and job requirements.

“This will be a turning point in Sri Lanka's free education system. Every year, lots of graduates are passing out and enter the job market. There is a huge mismatch between their qualifications and job market requirements. But these degrees and diplomas have been designed in keeping with present and future needs of economic and social development in the country,” the minister said.

"The proposed university colleges are for those who fail to gain admission to state universities. This will cater to the demands of international markets while creating more employment opportunities.”

Private sector participation would be obtained for the establishment of 15 technical universities, while another five would be established by upgrading existing training centres. In addition, another four are to be constructed close to Colombo and 15 in rural areas.

Parallel to the creation of the technical universities is a new stream for university entrance level (GCE Advanced), introduced by the Sri Lanka Education Ministry. The new ‘technology’ stream will initially be introduced to 250 schools, and later expanded to 1,000 others.

The technology stream is in addition to the current subject streams of arts, science, mathematics and commerce, where 21% of students follow the science stream, 27% the commerce stream, and about 51% the arts stream.

Introducing technology as a subject stream, Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena said that, even though there were job opportunities for students following science, maths and commerce streams, arts students did not have these.

“This is a reason for the lack of jobs for the graduates. We don’t produce graduates with the necessary skills needed for the job market,” Gunawardena said. “Through these developments, we will be able to meet local and foreign job requirements such as motor mechanics, wood science and civil engineering, information technology, electronics, civil and mechanical engineering, agriculture and food sciences.”

A new degree of bachelor of technology (BTec) will be introduced in local universities by 2016, he said. The Education Ministry had received a loan of US$200 million from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to develop technology laboratories and enhance computer literacy in Sri Lankan schools from 2013-17.

Sri Lanka's latest labour force data showed a low unemployment of 4.2% but unemployment is highest among people with the highest level of school qualification and above. The highest unemployment rate of 7.8% was among men and women educated up to university entry level and above.

Higher unemployment among the educated youth is due to a skills mismatch between labour market requirements and the education system. Sri Lankan universities produce large numbers of arts graduates, and the corporate sector believes they are not suitable for employment.

The era of producing professionals of a high standard of excellence in technical and vocational fields has begun with the technical universities project and the new technology stream for school students. With these new developments, the government hopes to bridge the gap between the education system and the job market.