New vocational degrees to improve HE opportunities

The Sri Lankan government is to launch new vocational degrees – a landmark step for an education system long dominated at the pinnacle by traditional state universities. It is hoped that the move will also help to reduce youth unemployment.

The new degrees, to be launched within a year under the slogan of a National Vocational Qualification, will combine academic and practical elements.

“It is aimed at producing students with high quality skills in science and technology that focus on new industries,” Mohan Lal Grero, a member of parliament who closely monitors Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Education, Youth Affairs and Skills Development, told University World News.

Initial plans have been passed by the government to set up 25 new colleges across the country and initiate public-private partnerships for their campuses, to provide the practical element.

The backdrop

The new vocational degree comes against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s highly competitive university entrance exams.

On average less than 2% of the 25,000 students who take the annual A-level entrance exams to qualify for university admission actually enter the country’s 15 national universities.

The rest are forced to find other means of higher education, often at private institutions or by studying abroad, and face the gruelling task of securing financial support to achieve a degree.

Currently almost half of students at state universities, which do not charge tuition fees, do not graduate due to lack of funds, according to official figures.

Grero said the technical college degree would aim to give students who failed to enter university the opportunity to study new fields and gain stable employment.

“The degree will encourage students to look beyond universities. They will be able to raise their marketability in the competitive job market by acquiring the necessary skills,” he said.

Youth unemployment is over 10% – much higher than the national average of 4.3%

The new degree

Indeed the new degree, which requires a science pass in the A-level exam, is aimed at easing the difficult personal circumstance of low-income students, including free tuition for a planned 14 types of degrees that include irrigation, engineering, construction and tourism.

A key aspect of the courses will be the inclusion of on-the job training, which will permit students to earn an income while studying.

A nationally recognised certificate will be awarded after four years of study. The graduate can then apply for a diploma, which will also pave the way for a final degree on a par with a university qualification.

Kishani Samarawickrema (22) from Matara, a southern town, passed her A-levels three years ago but did not gain the results needed to enter university. He father earns less than US$200 a month.

Given her lack of skills, her option was a low-paid job such as in a supermarket, she told University World News. “I am interested in getting the new college degree because I studied hard for my A-levels with the goal of being financially independent.”

Abeyrathne Bandara, a professor of finance and director general of the National Institute of Education, said there was a dire need to support Sri Lanka’s large pool of youth eager to climb out of poverty.

“Conventional wisdom among Sri Lankan parents is that children must enter university and get stable government jobs. But the reality is starkly different. When graduates cannot get a public [sector] job after studying so hard, there is resentment.

“There is a need to change attitudes through offering viable options,” he said.

Lack of English proficiency or information technology skills among rural graduates are among the major obstacles to getting into the private sector, according to CR Samaraweera, an official in the youth and skills development ministry.

Existing state-supported vocational colleges offer some technical skills: “Up to now our technical colleges produced crafts people. The new certificate will be chance to become a technical expert equivalent to a university graduate,” said Samaraweera.

He added that jobs were available for youth with skills in modern technology areas such as maintaining sophisticated hospital equipment or in the growing cosmetics and beauty industry.