Lankan University Graduates: Late Birds, No Worms?

The university system is in chaos again. Following the disruption of a month of academic activity due to an island-wide strike by university non-academic staff in June this year, the academic staff also took trade union action in early-July. The two strike actions have cumulatively taken two months off the undergraduate calendar and a suitable resolution has not been made to date.

While this article excludes itself from commenting on the politics of such action, it rather serves to highlight how it impacts youth in Sri Lanka and the economy as a whole.


The movement of youth from being just students to workers has great economic and social associations, which in turn contributes towards productive human capital and healthy citizenship. Therefore, it is important that young people move from one chapter of life to another in a healthy socioeconomic and political setting.

“A successful transition to work for today’s many young people can accelerate poverty reduction through better allocation of their labor, and boost economic growth. Difficulties in entering the labor market can persist and be very costly to mitigate”- World Development Report (2007)


In 2007, the World Bank dedicated the World Development Report to the subject of enabling smooth youth transition to adulthood. It pointed out how economically and socially important it is to enable a smooth transition from school to work and stated that youth often face problems such as ‘starting too early, failing to enter the labour market, and difficulties in moving across jobs.’


From Education to Work


The problem of failing to enter into the labour market has many facets. The most common one in Sri Lanka being the lack of skills or the mismatch of already acquired skills with employer expectations[1]. However, there are other reasons such as administrative inefficiencies and disruption in the university system – similar to what the system is currently going through – delaying students from entering into the labour market.


Ensuring smooth movement from education to work will not make a significant impact on the youth entering the labour market if the transition cannot be done fast. A quick transition from school to work ensures that new labour market entrants remain young when they start working. This is essential because educated young people are innovative, barely risk averse, positive in their thinking, and open to change.


A majority of students in the OECD graduated from university by 25 years of age, although mature students (30+) were prominent in Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Israel. Mature graduation in these countries is a result of a very flexible education system where going away and coming back to school or university is relatively easy[2]. In the UK, students graduated younger (at age 24) than the average European graduate of age 26+. This was mainly the result of younger students entering into universities and also relatively shorter study courses[3]. In the USA, the median age of graduation has risen mainly because undergraduates tend to stay longer in college to avoid being unemployed. They continue to be on parental support and live as students[4]. Although statistics for India and China and other Asian countries are not available, a report published by the Indian University Grants Commission indicated that Indian students in university education are usually between the ages of 18-24[5]. Similarly, Chinese undergraduates too graduated at an average of 24 years[6].


In comparison, Sri Lanka doesn’t seem to be placed particularly lower in terms of its median age of graduation, which is 24+. However, what is important to note is that Sri Lankan students could graduate at a much younger age, ideally 22+ or 23 years at most, if not for long time lags taken by the authorities to put out results and make selections for universities.


In Sri Lanka, a child born in 1988 who pursued education up to university would be idling for approximately two years until administrative and examination procedures were carried out. Similarly, in Finland and Ireland students usually stay more than one year to attend university after qualifying examinations. However, staying between qualifying certificates and university admission in these countries is often a voluntary decision by the students[7].


This years’ final year graduates in Sri Lankan state universities will not be graduating until they are 25+, as a result of the ongoing trade union action by the university academics and the forthcoming third trade union action to be taken by the university non-academic staff. These trade union actions have prevented the final year students from completing their degree requirements, which otherwise would have been completed by September this year.


As a result, students who are applying to foreign universities for their Master’s Degree will have to stay back a year in Sri Lanka because deadlines for financial aid applications and admissions are almost passed. This also delays job market entrants who would be on, or above, the industry norms of entry-level age requirements. Although there are no hard statistics, more time taken to graduate means that students will be less desirable to the private sector. This leads to the waiting line for state employment longer. Further, being students for longer than necessary inadvertently puts their personal life on hold. Marriage will have to wait until students graduate and stabilize their finances before embarking on starting a family.


One could argue that Sri Lankan students do not miss much because median age of graduation for both local and foreign students is almost the same. However, evidence suggests otherwise. Students in Europe and the OECD voluntarily choose to enter into education later than the typical age.


Late Graduation: We Are Missing More


The cost of education in most OECD countries has been the main driver of the recent rise in the median age of graduation there. At the same time, soaring job opportunities for graduates and young people seemed to have encouraged more students to stay in education. This dilemma is not faced by Sri Lankan undergraduates as tertiary education is provided free-of-charge. Therefore, the cost of education is an unlikely factor affecting later graduation of university students in Sri Lanka.


In most European countries tertiary education is provided free or at subsidized rates. Students are encouraged to choose university education at leisure. The European education system is also relatively flexible and allows students to leave and re-enter education free of hassle. This relative flexibility has further encouraged European students to opt for several years of employment exposure before re-entering into education. As a result, 30% of Finnish students enrolled in university and 52% of Italian undergraduates had paid employment experience.


This is not an option for university students in Sri Lanka as social norms suggest that students should complete education before entering into the labour market. Further, rigidities in the education system and tight competition to enter into state universities make it almost impossible for a student to choose when to start higher education. The times are changing. But for many students awaiting university admission, the private sector has nothing to offer because students are unlikely to stay in employment after being selected. Even if they wanted to, the academic programme is designed in a way that makes part-time employment unviable. Therefore, the period between the Advanced Level qualification and university admission is almost entirely spent idling.


This highlights another disadvantage Sri Lankan graduates face when entering into the labour market after late graduation – their lack of labour market experience. Part-time work and research opportunities within university are often available for students in other countries but are not so in Sri Lankan universities. Even formal internship opportunities and part-time employment while studying are not viable options for students if lecture times are greatly spread out.

Evidence suggests administrative drawbacks as being the major cause for the late graduation of Sri Lankan students. Therefore, it is quite clear that cutting down on the time taken to enter students into universities would significantly improve the job market experience of young undergraduates as they have more time to shape themselves for the private sector. It would also facilitate entrepreneurship by encouraging young people to take calculated risks before they reach the typical age of marriage.


Administrative Delays: Biggest Constraint


Sri Lankans born in the late 1950’s graduated at the age of 21 or 22. With no drastically different changes taking place in the education system, the increased time taken for today’s undergraduates to graduate is a modern phenomenon. The graduates on the verge of graduating this year are forced to idle in the indefinite “nowhere” between studentship and employment. A quick graduate output for a country is a catalyst for development and has a lasting positive imprint on the individual. Overall, with low levels of tertiary education quality [8] and low enrolment rates, undergraduates in Sri Lanka are more disadvantaged than their peers in other developing countries.


With all that has been said, it is clear that authorities should seriously look into reducing the time taken to graduate students from education to work. Given the development aspirations of the island, a young workforce can contribute towards economic growth. Administrative delays should not get in the way of this. The country’s innovative capacity and entrepreneurship potential must not lie idle in transition between education and employment.


*The author acknowledges the valuable input and guidance provided by Dr. Nisha Arunatilake, Research Fellow – IPS, and Head of the Human Resource Development Policy Unit.

[1] School-to-work transition of Youth in Sri Lanka(2004)

[2] Highlights from Education at a Glance (2010) OECD

[3] The Flexible Professional in the Knowledge Society – new demands on higher education in Europe (Report 5) (2008)

[4] The jobless young: left behind (2011) The Economist

[5] HIGHER EDUCATION IN INDIA: Issues related to Expansion, Inclusiveness, Quality and Finance (2008)

[6] Starting your career in China country guide for international students

[7] Eurostudent IV database. (database)

[8] The Global Talent Index. Heidrick & Struggles (2012)