Government pledges 30% rise in universities budget

Hopes for a better education system are rising as Sri Lanka’s new government has promised to quadruple spending on education in its budget for 2016, with a near 30% increase in spending on universities compared to 2015.

The estimated allocation for the education sector for 2016 is RS185.9 billion (US$1.3 billion), compared to the Rajapaksa government’s allocation of RS47.6 billion (US$333 million) in the previous year's budget.

The government has also given a green light to the establishment of private universities and promised to provide all students with hostel facilities for the tenure of their university education by 2018.

Sri Lanka’s new government Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, presenting his 2016 budget speech in parliament on 20 November, said that private universities – by which he implied foreign private universities in particular – should be allowed to operate in Sri Lanka.

“Much foreign exchange has been flowing out to finance the foreign education of our students for a long time. The flow of foreign exchange must be reversed,” he said. “In fact given our capacities in the sector we should now encourage foreign students to study in Sri Lanka and thereby attract foreign exchange. Sri Lanka has the potential to become an educational hub.”

He said the decision to allow private universities to operate and offer all courses except medicine was consistent with that aim. At least one in 10 places would be awarded free of charge to local students with A-levels. Local counterparts in such ventures will be provided with tax incentives.

Every year more than 12,000 Sri Lankan students go to foreign countries seeking higher education, and drain more than US$400 million in foreign exchange out of the country.

The government has pledged to gradually raise education spending to nearly 6% of gross domestic product, or GDP, which would represent a historic shift if it is implemented.

This has apparently been calculated from the budget for a number of education-related areas, including innovation, rather than education alone. It is not supported by the estimate for 2016 education spending of US$1.3 billion alone, which would amount to just over 1.6% of the World Bank forecast of US$80 billion GDP in 2016, based on a 6.6% rise in GDP compared with 2015.

According to UNESCO, Sri Lanka's investment in education as percentage of GDP was one of the lowest in the South Asian region. In Sri Lanka the education budget was between 1.7% and 2.1% of the GDP during past 10 years.

Several years ago university teachers staged a 100-day strike, which was considered as Sri Lanka’s longest lecturer strike, demanding that the government allocate 6% of GDP to education. The strike was called off after the then Rajapaksa government agreed to the allocation, but the government did not fulfil its promise.

In last year’s presidential election, parents, students and lecturers hoping for a change in the education system voted against Rajapaksa’s decade-long regime during which students’ rights were largely suppressed and university teachers’ demands neglected.

The new government, before and after last year’s election had promised students, teachers and parents a completely restructured higher education system but frustration soon set in at the lack of progress in making reforms.

Surprise resignations and appointments in the education system and a recent brutal police assault during a Higher National Diploma students protest have sparked protests across the country and a public outcry against the new government.

This decision to significantly raise budget allocations for education was taken during a period when the popularity of the new government was rapidly diminishing.


The scale of the planned increase in education spending was met with scepticism by political opponents.

Following the 2016 budget statement, the joint opposition in parliament said that it would bring a no-confidence motion against Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake for “misleading” parliament and the people by “manipulating” figures to show that nearly 6% of GDP had been allocated for education.

Sri Lanka’s education sector unions and academics, though, have expressed support for the new government's proposals. State Minister of University Education Mohan Lal Grero said that funds for education would be increased gradually.

From time to time, every government in Sri Lanka and every higher education minister vows to bring in foreign universities but none of them has been able to make this a reality due to heavy resistance from student unions.

Sri Lanka has a free education policy allowing low-cost higher education to poor students. Opponents say this will be undermined if private and foreign universities are established.

The Inter University Students’ Federation, or IUSF, on 23 November launched a five-day protest march from Kandy, in the centre of the country, to Colombo in the south (100 km), demanding an end to privatisation of universities and the abolition of the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine in Malabe Private Medical College.

“Let me assure this house that our government will at no point compromise the free education that is prevailing at present. Our government also is of the view that private universities should be allowed to operate and offer courses except in medicine,” Karunanayake said.

Private universities will be monitored by the University Grants Commission to ensure quality and at least 10% of places will be awarded free of charge to local students with A-levels.

In the current globalised world, education needs are constantly evolving. To address these needs, other countries in the region are spending a comparatively higher proportion on education. Public spending on education averages 2.9% of GDP in Asia compared to 5.3% in advanced economies. However, the government of Sri Lanka was spending around 2% of GDP on education.

Hostel facilities

Lack of hostel facilities have been a key issue for students. All university students will be provided with hostel facilities for the entire tenure of their university education by 2018. Faculty members will also be provided with accommodation facilities “so that universities could attract and retain academic staff”.

In a bid to attract foreign students, especially for postgraduate courses offered by the local universities, institutions are encouraged to seek accreditation with professional bodies of international repute with a view to granting professional qualifications; and the government has proposed to extend financial assistance to such initiatives, Karunanayake said.

The government is planning to spend US$20 million on establishing a new state university named Mahapola University to honour late minister Lalith Athulathmudali who initiated the Mahapola Scholarship scheme. This new university will focus on teaching subjects such as ICT, business studies, English, management and other new market-oriented subjects.

Presenting the budget speech, the minister said the government proposed to provide laptops for university students on an interest-free three-year loan, and free Wi-Fi zones will be provided for all universities as promised during the election campaign.

The minister further said that the government will give extra points to students who have invented a new product or service, created a start-up or participated in international competitions when considered for university admission.

To strengthen technical and vocational education further, government is to introduce new degree courses in marine biology, marine recreation and sea port, boat or ship building and integrated coastal resource management with the help of Ocean University and the University of Vocational Technology, or UNIVOTEC.

With the aim of increasing the skilled labour force in the country, government will set up several university colleges and establish techno-based campuses and vocational training institutions alongside current universities, with special focus on establishing universities in lagging regions.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the 2016 budget announcement, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said the new government has allocated the largest ever amount to education, unmatched by previous governments.