New national plan to modernise crisis-hit public universities

A plan to modernise Sri Lanka’s entire public university system has been presented to a parliamentary committee. This comes after parliament formally requested the University of Sri Jayewardenepura to draft a National Strategic Plan for the system.

The initiative’s stated objectives are to transform state universities into financially self-sustaining institutions with a strong focus on research and innovation, to improve their performance in global university rankings and produce graduates who are internationally competitive.

Internationalisation and the attraction of a greater number of international students was one of the key proposals in the draft report presented on 24 August.

This initiative arises at a critical juncture, given that the country’s education sector is severely impacted by an economic crisis and the political turmoil following the ousting last year of then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The state university system is facing collapse due to a significant brain drain among university teachers and limited state funding for development projects. Presently about 50% of university lecturer positions remain vacant, according to the Sri Lanka University Grants Commission, but the economic crisis has delayed recruitment efforts.

In a meeting held in March this year, the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), set up to ensure financial discipline in public corporations and other semi-governmental bodies including state universities, directed the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in the capital Colombo to devise a national strategy.

COPE praised the university for its “remarkable progress” and for being financially self-sustaining. Sri Jayewardenepura is Sri Lanka’s largest university by student enrolment, with approximately 13,000 students, and the country’s second oldest university. It is widely regarded as the best in Sri Lanka for management education.

National Task Force

A team of 50 experts from the university presented the plan to COPE on 24 August. Presenter Dissa Bandara, a senior professor in the university’s department of finance, requested that a National Task Force be set up, including foreign experts, to plan and implement the strategy.

“The initial draft report includes a comprehensive roadmap featuring broad policies and recommendations. However, the final report will be developed through consultations with all universities in Sri Lanka,” said Bandara.

He added: “To ensure its effectiveness, a national team with international input will be appointed to contribute to the final report’s preparation, and they will be provided with the necessary authority and resources.”

In drafting the report the university committee extensively examined both local and global university plans, referred to country-specific reports and analysed economic policy documents. They conducted numerous brainstorming sessions and engaged in internal consultations. The committee also conducted an in-depth study on the future of higher education over the next two decades.

While parliamentarians have yet to scrutinise and comment on the report, some analysts predict that implementation of the ambitious National Strategic Plan could face delays due to the unstable political environment, shifts in policies and bureaucratic red tape.

It is likely that university student unions will question the proposals on financial autonomy for universities, which is often regarded as code for ‘privatisation’, experts said.

Sustainable and equitable funding model

Crucially, the draft report supports the continuation of a free education system for local students.

Sri Lanka has only 17 state universities admitting about 45,000 students annually out of the 350,000 who sit A-level examinations every year. Limited university capacity means many young people miss out on the opportunity for higher education.

However, universities are urged to implement a financially sustainable and self-sufficient funding model. In order to achieve this they are encouraged to draw in international students as a key source of revenue.

A decade ago Sri Lanka increased the quota of international students admitted to universities and offered additional scholarships to foreign students. However, the moves met with resistance from various groups including student unions amid fears that the number of places for local students would be reduced.

Sri Lankan universities needed to establish a proper academic calendar for degree programmes if they plan to admit foreign students, according to the draft report. Currently, universities follow varying academic calendars with different start and end dates for degree programmes, which can create challenges for international students.

Experts said some proposals on attracting foreign students are likely to be opposed by student unions, if this means fewer resources for expanding places for local students.

The report emphasises the importance of government investment in enhancing the infrastructure and overall surroundings of universities and building sufficient student accommodation, hostels and dining facilities.

Internationalising higher education

Internationalisation is a crucial indicator in university rankings published by organisations such as Times Higher Education and Webometrics.

On the whole, Sri Lankan universities have struggled to perform well in global university rankings, with only a few achieving noteworthy milestones. Part of the problem is that many concentrate on teaching rather than research. The latter is the main component of international rankings.

Sri Lankan universities currently fall far behind in the Webometrics Ranking of Global Universities, with none ranking within the top 1,000 universities worldwide. Only two universities managed to secure a place within the top 2,000.

In the short term the government has set a goal for Sri Lankan universities to make it into the top 1,000 globally. During the August meeting COPE Chairman Professor Ranjith Bandara said about 50% of universities in the country should become research universities.

Research, innovation and commercialisation

The report suggests establishing a specialised University-Business Link Cell aimed at strengthening ties between universities and the business and industrial sectors. This unit will play a pivotal role in managing collaborations, particularly in the commercialisation of patents and other intellectual property rights that emerge from university-driven research and innovation efforts.

The report points to the importance of a research-oriented culture within state universities. Graduates should have opportunities to gain industry experience while pursuing their studies, and employees in industries should be encouraged to pursue higher education at universities.

The report calls for streamlining the technology transfer and licensing processes. This will enable more research projects to reach the commercialisation stage, benefiting the broader economy.

The primary focus of research should be commercialisation and to align with the country's economic landscape. Research endeavours must have a direct connection to the national vision and economic policies.

For innovation the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) allocated to education, research and development would need to be increased. The draft report recommends a minimum 3% to 4% increase to stimulate innovation.

Sri Lanka’s government expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP currently lags significantly behind neighbouring countries. In 2018, Sri Lanka allocated 2.12% of its GDP to education, whereas countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan allocated 5.1%, 6.85% and 2.9%, respectively.

Transforming curricula for the job market

In the past it has taken five years to update syllabuses. The report noted that this needed to be faster and more flexible. Universities needed to change courses to stay aligned with the fast-changing job market. Subjects like artificial intelligence, emotional intelligence and financial technology should be swiftly included.

The report proposes establishing startup incubators in universities. The thriving startup culture has been a catalyst for the development of many countries. State universities have the potential to be hubs for fostering this culture, offering valuable support to entrepreneurs, particularly during the early stages of their businesses, the report said.

The role of the National Task Force suggested by the Jayewardenepura University committee will be to draft a final report to present to Sri Lanka’s University Grants Commission and responsible ministries before it is tabled in parliament.