‘Comprehensive Policy Changes Needed to Help Sri Lanka Realise its Youth Potential’ – Q&A with Nisha Arunatilake

In this second special post coinciding with the World Conference on Youth 2014 in Sri Lanka this week, we present an interview with Dr. Nisha Arunatilake, Research Fellow and Head of the Labour, Employment and Human Resources Development Unit of the IPS.

Interviewed by the Talking Economics team (TE), Nisha (NA) discusses the challenges that must be tackled across a spectrum of issues – education quality, skills shortages, retaining talent, and improving the entrepreneurship climate. She says it’s time for comprehensive policy changes, as “selective changes alone will not be able to change the system adequately”, and points to initiatives by China and Singapore from which Sri Lanka can draw useful lessons.

TE: One of the key thematic areas of WCY2014 is ‘Realizing Equal Access to Quality Education’. Sri Lanka seems way ahead of many developing countries on this aspect, don’t you agree?

NA: The Sri Lankan education system explicitly does not discriminate any one from accessing quality education. But, the education sector does indirectly marginalize individuals at all levels. For example, at the entrance to primary level, the best primary schools are situated in urban areas. The selection criteria for these schools (both based on distance and old pupils) favour more affluent children, as richer people tend to live in urban areas and those from good schools tend to be in better jobs. At the entrance to secondary level, children from more affluent families automatically get selected to a good school as most good public schools are integrated schools. As such, they do not need to sit for the grade 5 scholarship exam to get to a good school. Even amongst those who sit for the exam, the children from more affluent families fare better as they have access to better training for the exam.

When one analyses the available secondary data one see that the more affluent have a higher probability of doing well in public exams (such as O-levels and A-levels) and being selected to university.

The quality of education in the country has not kept up with global changes. There is a new trend where very affluent households prefer to by-pass the local education system to get a quality education in private institutions at a high price. This new trend is already creating class differences in the work place. Local graduates have to undergo additional training to acquire skills that are in demand in the job market while those receiving a better quality education are already equipped with those skills.

TE: Another thematic is ‘Full Employment and Entrepreneurship’. What do you think is a key challenge facing countries like Sri Lanka on this thematic area?

NA: I think a main challenge is culture. In Sri Lanka, individuals are more comfortable seeking employment than starting their own businesses. This is partly due to the fact that the employed (especially in the state sector) enjoyed social security and other privileges that were not available for others since 1970s. The playing field will need to be made more even to change this culture of seeking ‘good jobs’. Some initiatives have already started to promote entrepreneurship amongst school children. But, promotions and know-how alone will not be enough to attract sufficient interest in entrepreneurship. On the one hand, to facilitate business ventures, the environment for doing businesses and creativity and technical knowledge needed for entrepreneurship will need to improve. On the other hand, to encourage people to take the risks of doing business, the social protection and insurance for those venturing to start their own businesses will need to be developed.

TE: In your research, what are some of the interesting policy initiatives you are seeing around the world when it comes to ensuring better education to help youth get good jobs?

NA: I think we need comprehensive policy changes. Selective changes alone will not be able to change the system adequately. First, we need more resources to upgrade and modernize the education system. This can be done by spending available funds more efficiently as well as looking for new sources of funds. China managed to expand access to higher education significantly in the last three decades. Part of this was done through an enrolment expansion project, which allowed students not receiving qualifying marks to enter university for a fee. Second, we need greater accountability in the system. China has a very good system in place to ensure accountability – accountability of teachers to students as well as the accountability of schools to teach students. In Singapore, training programmes for teachers are rigorous, and teachers are evaluated periodically to ensure that their training is up to date. Third, the education institutions need better autonomy, so they can develop independently according to the needs of the communities they are serving. And lastly, these institutions need better leaders. For example, in China the best principals are sent to the most challenging schools.

TE: For small, middle-income countries like Sri Lanka, what are some of the critical areas to tackle around these themes, when we talk about the post-2015 era?

NA: Increasingly we see that the lack of skills and talent is an obstacle for growth. According to a recent news item quoting the IT industry body, SLASSCOM, the revenue from IT services has increased over time in the country but, growth is constrained by lack of skilled people. Other industries, such as the hospitality sector and the health sector, are also experiencing such skill shortages.

Part of this skill shortage is due to low supply of qualified and skilled workers. First, we do not produce sufficient numbers of graduates in different required fields. Second, even of those who qualify, not everyone is equipped with the necessary soft skills.

Another part of the skill shortage is due to emigration of skilled workers. Around the globe we see countries competing to attract talent. Advanced countries around the globe have changed their immigration policies to encourage the immigration of skilled people. We constantly see companies advertising to lure professionals to immigrate. All this shows how much the advanced economies value talent. In this global competition for talent, we have been losing talented workers.

So it is critical that the education systems is modernized, expanded and diversified to cater to the growing economic and skill demands in the country. Second, employment prospects and living conditions in the country need to improve so that talented workers choose not to leave the country for employment abroad. Lastly, the business environment in the country needs to improve so that people are encouraged to start their own businesses and to create employment.

Here’s a multimedia recap we posted yesterday (6th May) of IPS knowledge contributions to the youth agenda in Sri Lanka, marking the kick-off of the WCY 2014. To engage with us on Twitter around the WCY, follow @talkeconomicssl and use the hashtag #wcy2014. For tweets around the thematic area of education, use #wcy2014edu