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.