Expanding Tertiary Education Critical to Sri Lanka’s ‘Knowledge Hub’ Aspirations

The topic of private universities has been hotly debated over the last few months following the government’s move to present the “Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Qualification Framework Bill” (more commonly known in the media as the ‘Private University Bill’) to the Parliament, and its subsequent withdrawal. The IPS research staff engaged in an informal in-house debate on ‘Is Encouraging Private Education at the Tertiary Level the Best Way Forward for Sri Lanka?’. In this debate, the proposing and opposing sides raised many issues that are worth highlighting, particularly in the context of Sri Lanka’s goal of becoming a knowledge hub in the region. This article presents the key arguments put forward and opens them out for wider debate.


The capacity of the state university system is limited


Due to the limited number of placements in the state funded universities, only 17% of those who qualify for university education gain admission to state universities. Each year, more than 100,000 qualified students are forced to abandon their ambition to enter a university. Compared to other developing countries, the number of students enrolled in tertiary education is extremely low in Sri Lanka. For example, in 2009 only 3.6% of 20-24 year olds were enrolled in a university while only a further 3.6% of the same age group were enrolled in technical and vocational training (TVET) courses (see Figure 1). Meanwhile, the average tertiary enrolment rates for lower middle income countries and upper middle income countries were around 23% and 43% respectively, in 2009. Clearly, Sri Lanka is leaving out hundreds of thousands of young people from obtaining post-school education and training.


Public investments in education sector are low


Sri Lanka has historically invested around 2.5% of GDP on education. These investments in education have decreased in recent years – for instance, to 1.9% of GDP in 2010, and are low compared to Sri Lanka’s competitor countries. For example, India spent 3.1% of GDP on education in recent years. Sri Lanka’s public investment in education is much less than the average of 4% spent by lower middle income countries. Since the public sector is the main provider of university education in Sri Lanka, the limited public resources for tertiary education is a main constraint for expanding opportunities for university education in the country.


Figure 1: Sri Lanka’s Tertiary Education System Caters only to a very Small Proportion of the Population (click to view full size)

Source: Constructed using Labour Force Survey (2009)


Lack of avenues for higher education hampers the country’s higher education system

Although there is no explicit legal barrier, the political economy of the country makes it difficult to invest in private universities – particularly following the recent shelving of the Bill mentioned earlier. Sri Lanka is one of a very few countries in the world that has discouraged foreign universities functioning in the country. Those who cannot enter public universities have few options for pursuing higher education and only those from highly affluent families are able to obtain university education outside the country. This is not equitable, and it results in a significant outflow of foreign exchange , and indirectly promotes brain drain.

There are around thirty degree awarding private institutions currently functioning in the country, but successive governments have not recognized these institutions as higher education providers. Consequently, there is no proper quality assurance, quality control, and monitoring mechanism to measure the quality of the programmes which are being offered by these institutes. The absence of a robust accreditation system makes it difficult to regulate the quality of the programmes offered. According to the government, the higher education Bill which is now shelved due to protests, was formulated to pave the way for a quality assurance and accreditation framework to be introduced to both state and non-state universities.

Supply of tertiary education has limited scope and relevance to market needs


The state higher education system has not changed to meet the evolving demands of a globalizing world. High unemployment rates among graduates have been a recurring issue in Sri Lanka. There is a mismatch in the courses offered by higher education institutes and competencies needed by the private sector. Major reasons for this mismatch are the outdated curricula and the lack of interaction with the private sector when designing degree programmes. Unless these issues are resolved, increasing youth unemployment and consequent frustration could lead to youth-led social unrest, like the kind seen in 1971 and 1988/89.


The voice of those denied of university education is not heard

Although the Private University Bill is yet to be tabled in the parliament for approval, its provisions have not been made available to the public. While students of several universities were continuing their protest campaigns over the Bill, the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) launched a token strike against the Bill. The FUTA claims that the government should not introduce the proposed Bill before discussing it with all stakeholders in the higher education sector – a fair request for a policy of this nature. What is missing in this debate is the voice of those students who are qualified yet unable to obtain a university education due to lack of capacity in the current system.


Are private universities the answer?


Private sector universities may provide enhanced opportunities for tertiary education. But there are doubts on the state’s capacity to effectively regulate these private universities. Some argue that education will be turned into a ‘commodity’, and the benefits of the free education system will be lost. In a developing country like Sri Lanka, without a proper financial assistance mechanism, it may not be easy to ensure equity in access for private education. Further, it may be difficult to ensure a proper mechanism to regulate quality, admission procedures and reasonable fees. For instance, public and private universities may compete for resources – lecturers. Private universities would probably be able to pay more to obtain the services of good lecturers, and may leave vacuums in public universities. As a result, students who could afford to pay will choose private universities while those from poorer families would have to rely on public universities as they do not have another option. However, the current system in operation is also not necessarily just. Research shows that, even at the collegiate level, the access to education is highly inequitable – indicating that the rich benefit more from publicly funded education.


Way Forward

The need for expanding the tertiary education system in the country is obvious. It is important to explore ways of funding for higher education with better quality. Also, it is essential to properly understand the concerns of different stakeholders who are resisting change and make them understand that changes are necessary.


One option is increasing public investments in higher education. Can this be done? Budgetary constraints have limited the government investment in the education sector. Of the investment in education, around 80% is devoted to recurrent expenditure. The limited availability of capital expenditure for developing the sector has held back modernization plans. As such, it is unlikely that more public funding for the sector is a solution in the short run.

The second option is mobilizing private funds for higher education. This can be done in two ways — either by promoting private universities and/or by mobilizing private funds for public universities.

Private universities – operating under state regulations and standards – could improve the quality of education through competition, enhanced access to university education, and resource mobilization. The government needs to provide solutions to unanswered questions such as – will fee structures be affordable? Can the government introduce voucher, stipend and loan schemes for needy students enrolled in private universities? Can the quality of the private universities be assured? What new incentives structures for lecturers will be needed to ensure public universities don’t face a brain drain? There are enough examples of countries which have a combination of effectively run private and public universities. Some of the best universities in the USA, for example, are public universities.


At present, the ability of the public universities to raise funds for improving standards is severely limited. Rethinking the governance structure of public universities and allowing them more autonomy to manage their affairs and raised funds could also increase the resources available for them. This will need to be allowed in such way that the students and their education programmes are not affected. For example, universities can be allowed to rent out their facilities (lecture halls and playgrounds) for private sector use so that universities can generate funds for improving degree programmes.


As Sri Lanka aims to accelerate growth, it is critically important that the human capital needed to compete globally is developed. Hence, it is essential for the government to do careful planning and critically examine the present needs of the higher education sector and find effective means of catering to these needs by improving mobilizing of resources and maintaining quality and relevance to correct the present anomalies in the system.

  • KA

    Very good article Priyanka.

    I was very pro private universities for a long time but now having being a undergraduate at the university of colombo for more than 3 years, and having met people from all walks of life that I would generally not get to meet if not for university, I must admit that I’m a little on the fence. I’m skeptical not because I don’t think privatization would work but simply because I don’t know how well it would work in Sri Lanka. I think, and even the article suggests this, privatization of higher education could work brilliantly if it works in such away that state universities improve alongside private universities. But given the history of this country I’m not quite sure if that would happen. If the government does proceed with the bill at some point I hope it’s well thought out and carefully planned (taking all parties concerned into consideration) unlike the many ad-hoc bills that are generally passed.

  • Nipuni

    Thank You Priyanka for providing an insight into one of the most heated debates.
    Sri Lanka is very much in need of private universities given the inability of the State Education system to cater to a majority of students who aspire to obtain tertiary education. But it remains a concern if the government effort to promote the private sector as a key provider of tertiary education will lead to a further degradation of state universities. This is by and large the largest gray area in the matter for most university students. Sri Lanka needs more private universities but it should not be at the expense of state universities. An effort must be taken to promote private universities alongside state universities. The government needs to provide an assurance that the private education bill is not an excuse to take Free State education to its grave.

  • Jude Gregory

    As a person who have benefited from the free education system, I’m in total agreement to the points raised by you.

    For a discussion point, I would like to see this topic discussed / broken down in to 03 stages.

    1) Students who fail to qualify for A/L, but who has either sat for the O/L’s or unable to pursue AL’s, due to various reasons.

    2) Students who have sat for the A/L’s, passed but unable to pursue higher studies due all reason’s mentioned in your esteemed article.

    3) Students who are selected to the universities, way forward & there career goals / aspirations.

    In my opinion, the knowledge hub concept or producing quality human resource should not be looked at from A/L’s onwards.

    The largest number of students who come through to the 1st hurdle is the GCE OL. where as per my understanding consists around 350,000 to 400,000 students at any given year.

    The number that is qualified to pursue A/L’s are about 200,000 to 250,000 students. If this is the case, what are the options available to the innocent children who drop out from O/L ?

    Our education structure should cover this entire scope & not just be limited from A/L’s onwards.

    Remember, we have enough & more individual’s in many foreign countries who has gone on to become world beaters without college degrees. Why there where system developed / put in place in those countries to cater to all these person’s.

  • Priyanka Jayawardena

    Dear Jude

    Nice to hear your interest and views on above, especially from a product of our free education system like myself

    I totally agree with points you raised. Many students discontinue school education due to poor performance at the O/Ls

    There are around 400,000 (O/L) candidates and only 45%-60% of them qualify to sit (A/L). Each year more than 150,000 students leave the school system without even succeeding in the first national level examination. There is no systematic link TEVT and secondary education. So most of these school leavers enter the labour force without following any skill development programme.

  • Ashani

    Thanks Priyanka, for this very insightful piece on an issue that seems to lack a straightforward answer. As you point out, increasing access to higher education, be it through more public education or private universities, is vital. Out of the options propsed by you, and given the current situation in the country, I think the best way forward would be to make changes in the governance structure of public universities to enalble more fexibility, which could also ensure that a proper mechanism is in place to regulate quality, if private universities were to be introduced.

  • Jude Gregory

    Priyanka, thanks for your reply.

    As you rightly pointed out the mismatch of skills starts not from the University passed outs, but from the O/L drop outs.

    The difference I see here is that this children has no alternative but start from the scratch now.

    Thankfully the children who are willing to go through the mill, do learn the trade through trial & error. With time, they become more competent in application & in practise that there counterparts who come out armed with a degree.

    Unfortunately this system prevailed in the country for the pass 30+ year’s due to various reasons. But we need to ask our self’s can it sustain & going forward in modern information age.

    My simple answer to this is a big NO. For this system to prevail ( trail & error learning) was survived mainly due to the 30+ war. So school drop out from the late 80′ & early 90′ was some what lucky to learn there vocation through this means. (trail & error learning)

    No the war is over. Sri Lanka is like woken-up society from a deep sleep. So now is the time we start to amend our education policies to cater to this hugely competitive information age.

    • Nisha

      You are right Jude. What is important to remember is that business as usual is not a solution. Expanding and improving options for tertiary education is a must! The big questions are how to do it and from where to raise funds?

  • Onlooker

    The lack of reform in the tertiary education sector is a result of the welfare state going too far in Sri Lanka. Most people consider the welfare state as an inalienable right and any adjustments to the welfare state to keep up with modern trends is viewed with suspicion and negaively.

    Many countries have successfully introduced private universities taking into account successful models and international best practices. They did not get bogged down in a debate on regulatory issues, private sector poaching on government professors, etc’, but took the bold step of inviting the private sector to invest in tertiary eductaion within a defined regulatory framework.

    Today, Sri Lankan students go to Medical colleges in Least Developed Countries; e.g., Chittagon Medical School in Bangladesh and the Manipal Medical School in Nepal, both privately owned. Clearly there is something wrong in our system for people to tolerate such a situation.

    I think the Minister of Higher Education has put his neck out and supported the establishment of private universities but he is waiting for the political leadership to fully back him to move ahead. If not he himself will get isloated as those who oppose the setting up of private universities are better organized than those who support them. I think a letter to the Editor of the Island newspaper today (9 May 2012) captures the point I am trying to illustrate very well: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=51425

    I hope the IPS Blog article will be read by many people.

  • Anushka Wijesinha

    Priyanka, thanks for a timely and comprehensive look at this critical issue. Sri Lanka should look at innovative Public-Private Partnership (PPP) models for education delivery, particularly in tertiary education/skills training, etc. The state could contract out the provision of the higher education/training to certified private parties, who are paid for by the state entirely (so no cost burden on the students), or under a cost-share (where student pays a nominal fee and the state tops up the rest). This way the state can maintain more control over quality as well as affordability of higher education and training, but still be relieved of the fiscal burden of building new universities or expanding existing ones. The onus will be on the private sector to take advantage of such a PPP offer, and set up institutes which are under state franchise. This isn’t unheard of or too revolutionary – China already has these models in place, even for secondary schools!!

    The higher education sector has been neglected for too long – it WILL throw a spanner in the works of our knowledge economy thrust. It’s time to think of innovative solutions.

  • sumathy

    This article is merely propaganda material pushing for privaization. It has not taken into account many of the articles written by a whole heap of people, both academics and people from outside, who have called the bluff of a purportedly disinterested analysis of higher education that is only thinly disguised propaganda for privatization. The privatization-higher education debate is very complex one. When the writer says that only 17% of eligible candidates actually get into the state university system, s/he is merely regurgitating a statistic, which like all statistical material have to be interpreted and understood in all their complexity, the socio-political circumstance of the statistical detail. For instance, s/he does not say anything about the many students who do receive some form of tertiary education, through state and private channels.
    Empty utterances such as the curriculum is not suitable for current needs is merely a parrotting of what some segments of society have been saying for some time, without carrying out research, any conceptualization, any understanding of socio-political processes etc. Many of us from the university system and outside, have tried to engage different audiences seriously; we do this because we are concerned and have debated this issue, from a studied perspective. It is not the kind of talking shop-seminar that seems to pass for research in places like IPS, Pathfinder Foundation etc. I’d ask the writer to engage with this debate in an informed manner.

    • Priyanka

      As I have clearly show in Figure 1 using nationally representative LFS conducted in 2009, only 3.6% of 20-24 year olds were enrolled in a university while only a further 3.6% of the same age group were enrolled in TVET courses. Further, as of 2008, there were about 20,000 students out of about 330,000 in the 20-24 age cohort who have entered state universities for higher education.(National Education Commission, 2009). So, Sri Lanka is leaving out hundreds of thousands of young people from getting post-school education and training due to limited avenues for higher education.

      To be successful in the global arena, Sri Lanka has to urgently find means of improving opportunities to tertiary education in the country. Possible ways of expanding higher education has been discussed this article with discussing all the pros and cons of each option–first option increasing public funds, second option mobilizing private funds for higher education— either by promoting private universities and/or by mobilizing private funds for public universities.
      As you have mentioned some students receive some form of tertiary education, through state and private channels. Various private sector degree-awarding institutions have sprung up across the country to cater to the increased demand for higher education, but the Government has not recognized these institutions as higher education providers. The absence of an accreditation system for private sector higher education providers makes it difficult to regulate the quality of programmes offered by these institutions. Therefore there is no proper monitoring mechanism to ensure quality of the programmes offered by these institutes. The absence of a robust accreditation system makes it difficult to regulate the quality of the programmes offered. Also, I would like to bring your attention on recognition of TEVT institutes, as mentioned in National Policy Framework on Higher Education and Technical and Vocational Education, 2009 “The public acceptance of TEVT institute is comparatively low due to poor image, low recognition of the vocation and relatively low recognition of the qualifications” (National Education Commission, 2009, pg 77).

      The lack of organization and voice for those who are deprived of higher education is also a reason for the delays in finding a solution for this problem. It is essential to properly understand the concerns of different stakeholders who are resisting change to make changes more acceptable.

  • sumathy


    I will repond to you globally, because to do otherwise, would be to reproduce some of my own and other people’s articles and writings here. Please read my articles in the Island and in other places on education. Also, Harini Amarasuriya, Dileepa Witharana, Shamala Kumar, V. Kumar, Savithiri Goonesekere, H. Sriyananda, Camena Guneratne, Andi Schubert and a whole host of other people have written on the subject from various perspectives. what is interesting about this group’s writings, including mine is, that there is an inherent recognition of our social and ideological location within the debate. Where as I do not find that positionality in your writing and or in those of the people who are promoting privatisation. A few questions I could ask you: Why not increase state expenditure on education? Why spend an exorbitant amount on Defence? Quality of education needs to be reassessed, no doubt, but not with a view to arriving at a remedy, ironically apriori, that privatisation of universities is the answer to improving quality. Look at current state policy in Britain and the white paper drawn up by the university community. The academic community has raised questions about the conservative government’s policy on education and then there were the student protests. A book
    I have taught in the University system both in Sri Lanka, and in the USA. I taught in a state school. Despite the multiple problems our university system is faced with, we are trying to maintain standards. Many of my own students have taken up postgraduate studies in the US, done very well and come back to teach here. They have done extremely well there.. This is to show how we try, despite odds, maintain international standards in our teaching. We also try to impart an education that is locally relevant. It is my experience that the moment that you bring in profitability into the equation, standards drop. Private universities, particularly in Sri Lanka, (The USA is a different story), and many other third world countries have devalued education. Even in India, where there is a thriving private sector in education, JNU continues to hold sway in social sciences as the leading postgraduate institute.

    I was in India a few months ago, visiting a few universities, and saw that management courses, money spinning courses, are at an ebb and losing ground. A newspaper said that there was an over load of management schools and courses which do not lead to any real production, even if one is to approach production from the capitalist point of view.
    The new thinking on education talks about it as skills, as something instrumentalist and short term. Time and again, we have said that education is not about ‘skills’ in the way ‘skills’ is conceptualised, in vaguest of terms as a shopping list.

    Look at Chile. A student leader in Chile described privatization of education as purportedly the best planned for capitalist experiment on education and that has failed miserably. You may also read, Melissa Benn and her book which I think is titled, The Attack on Education, and Henry Giroux, one of the foremost educationists in the USA.
    There is a lot of half baked truths flying about. At a small meeting recently, a well known proponent of privatisation said, that the early universities were private! . I was completely taken aback when I heard this. It was such a horribly funny pronouncement that he thought he would get away with because he took the audience to swallow whatever one said in support of privatisation. An Advanced level understanding of the rise of the nation state, reformation, of the early modern period is enough to show how ludicrous his utterance was.Debates on higher education today in Sri Lanka are generally of this vein. Without basis, without information, without a socio-political and historical analysis. It is at the level of anecdote. I too draw upon anecdotes sometimes, but that is largely to ask for greater research. Harsha Athurupane cites Levy and Murnau extensively, not knowing or caring to know that their thesis has faced a massive set back along with the financial crisis in the west. What is deplorable is not the ignorance, not the right wing ideological postitions that are touted in teh garb of populism but the intellectual dishonesty in these postions. Bad research.

    Sivamohan Sumathy

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  • Aravin

    Extremely a timely topic at the moment.
    As a person, benefited from free education system in the country, I feel we have to maintain quality outputs of state universities while allowing the opportunities to droppers of AL’s due to competitiveness.
    I would like to propose a method that if we can integrate private universities with state universities as following way, if feel it will be a great achievement to resolve the problem of the ” rights of higher education for all”

    1. Say state university intake for a particular faculty is 600 students.

    2. Can be selected certain percentage ( say 60-70%) based on AL results.

    3. Balance 40-30% can be filled from the students who need/can pay for their uni. education.

    4. Without showing any difference or changing anything for their academics, allow all students to do their studies at Uni.

    5. Income received from the student entered by paying, can be used to expand facilities and infrastructure development of university.

    6. Entire uni. System should be under gov. control as present and according to the success of students at exams, they can be awarded degree certificate as present systems.

    By this systems all the expected outcomes can be accomplished if we can implement this properly after establishing proper governing/ controlling bodies.

    • Anushka Wijesinha

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, Aravin. You have given very interesting viewpoints to consider.

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