Prof. Nalaka Jayakody, DSc
With Sri Lanka being commended for its highly successful measures in containing the novel coronavirus which led to a global pandemic whilst many developed nations failed to do so, it’s an ideal moment for the country to be positive and turn this crisis into an opportunity especially when it comes to higher education. Sri Lanka has been trying to achieve the knowledge hub status for a decade now; it’s about time to start acting upon it and make a real transformation in both the state and non-state sectors to attract and encourage foreign students’ at least from neighboring countries thereby earning foreign exchange and significantly contribute to the national economy. Here are some of my thought-provoking advice and solution to achieve this.
Overview of the higher education sector in Sri Lanka
The overall higher education system in the country is expanding rapidly. There are two scenarios here; state and non-state. When it comes to the state sector, there are presently fifteen universities that come under the purview of the University Grants Commission (UGC). These universities accommodated places for 31,000 new entrants last year, including in the subject areas of medicine, engineering and law. In addition to four other state universities, there are 38 technical colleges and 8 university colleges that provide over 185,000 placements, totaling to over 216,000 placements, including universities, provided completely free of charge annually; well surpassing the 150,000- 160,000 students who pass the GCE A/L examination every year. With the government genuinely interested in uplifting the standards of these institutions, the higher education sector has recently exhibited a progressive growth with the delay in policy planning and implementation now being taken care of. Timely planning and implementation of policies is of paramount importance for a speedy and responsive process to achieve its success.
The non-state higher education sector has contributed immensely in the past years however there are no sufficient formal regulatory and standardizations in place to regularly and periodically monitor and maintain compliance and quality in all their teaching and training programmes. When Sri Lanka opened its doors to a free-market economy, many private institutions mushroomed in every nook and cranny of the island. With appropriate mechanisms, the higher education standards and excellence of the country can be significantly elevated and improved to that of an international level.
How has the global pandemic affected Sri Lanka’s higher education sector
It’s no doubt that the entire country has taken a hit with the recent outbreak of the coronavirus which has evolved into a global pandemic forcing many nations to go under lockdown. The higher education sector in Sri Lanka hasn’t been heavily affected in comparison to other industry sectors in the country. However, we most definitely see a delay in many of the planned activities and initiatives with the country imposing curfew and travel restrictions and if such measures continue to take place, the sector will certainly linger like many others. Various study programmes and examinations are being halted presently but we hope the country will resume and catch up everything that was missed.
With many activities and schedules of international schools being delayed due to the pandemic, for instance the May/June sessions of their GCE A/L (both Cambridge and Pearson Edexcel) examinations, there could be an effect on those engaged in the non-state higher education sector. However with other alternative measures taking place, for example Cambridge International has decided to award grades to candidates using their own evidence combined with evidence from schools, the sector can probably expect a smooth and quick revival. With Sri Lanka being well equipped when it comes to information technology and digital infrastructure, we see many higher education providers successfully implementing e-learning, blended learning and distance learning methods which I believe are the future in education.
How has this crisis turned into an opportunity for Sri Lanka
Well with every crisis situation comes various opportunities and positive avenues that can be explored. Sri Lanka has been trying to be a knowledge hub for almost a decade however due to a numerous reasons the nation has seen a delay in achieving this. Many of the developed countries have failed to timely act upon and contain the novel coronavirus and this has resulted in most of the parents to think twice whether to send their child overseas. Though the country has promoted the sector among many neighboring countries in the past, the chances were low due to students choosing developed countries as their preferred choice of study destination. This certainly opens up an opportunity for the country to not only create and sustain a truly international learning environment where parents would be more than willing to enroll at a local higher education provider, but also go onto attract and welcome prospective students on a regional level with a vision of reaching globally later on.
This is an ideal moment for Sri Lanka to attract prospective students especially from countries such as Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and China for example, and market its range of local study programmes approved by the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) and recognized by the UGC, as well as various transnational education (TNE) programmes where foreign degrees are offered here at home, enabling international students to physically study in Sri Lanka and obtain their preferred foreign degree rather than having to visit the particular country.
Knowledge and expertise among local academic professionals
Sri Lanka has conventionally been on the lookout for foreign expertise preferring over the many local intellects that are readily available. We have very solid professionals in various fields of study. For instance when we take the current global pandemic, many Sri Lankans abroad are front-runners. There are so many Sri Lankan researchers, thought-leaders and scientists in countries such as Australia, UK and US giving brilliant advice and solutions. My personal view on this is that we have sufficient expertise locally and there is no real need to look for those from abroad unless it’s for something that’s very new to us. Many countries send professionals for advanced education and training and they return to their home country to give back and contribute in their respective fields; some countries even go onto sponsor them. Unfortunately, a few who go overseas from Sri Lanka are reluctant to return because they feel they’ve wider opportunities back there or no favorable environment or relevant positions available back home. When a country sends academic professionals overseas for such activities, there needs to be right measures to track them and a stimulating environment need to exist with suitable positions made available to recruit their expertise upon their return.
Regulations to monitor the quality of education in both state and non-state sector
The non-state sector has heavily contributed to Sri Lanka’s higher education sphere in the last decade, with a higher capacity to accommodate the growing demands of students. There is a regulatory body for the state sector as we’re all aware, the UGC whereas the private sector comes under the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) Non-State Division. There have been initiatives in the recent years with the country introducing the Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework (SLQF) which is a nationally consistent framework for all higher education qualifications offered in the country, requiring both state and non-state to comply with it. However there is no authority to regularly measure or monitor whether they really comply with the quality assurance system. Therefore the government should have an Independent Quality Assurance Commission with immediate effect, reporting directly to the highest authority or even the President. This commission needs to physically visit and conduct audits and quality checks periodically preferably at least once a year. There needs to be minimum standards introduced to all higher education institutions including resource personnel, infrastructure facilities, leisure, and so on, requiring them to adhere to norms and standards of quality in all their teaching and training programmes.
The present non-state higher educational sector needs to be strengthened
The non-state higher education sector is performing at its best presently with its current resources, capabilities and the minimum manpower it possesses. The sector can be really strengthened by establishing appropriate monitoring and auditing mechanisms, and should give priority to highly qualified academic professionals to be appointed to the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) Non-State Division.
The transnational education (TNE) providers in the country for example needs to be monitored because we have no idea whether the affiliated universities are reputed or the quality of education is up to an adequate and acceptable level. For Sri Lanka to attain the ‘knowledge hub’ status, the quality of higher education should be regulated and standardized. For example, when it comes to pursue an MBA, the options offered here are plenty and these programmes can be completed within 6 months, 8 months, or 1 year. This shouldn’t be the case; it has to have a certain level of quality and consistency, with minimum standards being maintained. Only then will we be able to truly achieve the knowledge hub status that we desire.
The non-state definitely needs adequate support from the government as their investments and operations are colossal. The government can provide them various loan facilities, subsidies, quick approvals for requests, among many others. There most certainly need to be a support structure in place and more engagement and involvement from the government towards the non-state sector, and make processes easier and convenient by prioritizing and responding to their requirements.
All education sectors should come under one or two Ministries
I believe there should only be two ministries; one for education and the other for higher education. Any study programme beyond year 13 is termed higher education. For instance, study programmes offering qualifications such as Diplomas and Higher Diplomas and related come under various ministries at present and this can be very confusing, causing limitations to really implement the policy standard. I’d suggest that there needs to be just one Ministry overlooking the country’s overall higher education sector and this Ministry can have divisions or different secretariats handling relevant sub-areas of the sector.
The transnational education (TNE) sector for instance comes under no authority which means that any institution with the approval from a foreign based university for example can freely conduct their study programmes locally with no regulations. Therefore I believe the TNE sector should also come under the Ministry to monitor their eligibility, performance and deliverability.
How Sri Lanka can be more recognized as a knowledge hub both regionally and globally
Sri Lanka is a really beautiful and neutral destination, ideally positioned with its strategic geographic location on the world map. The local culture is very distinctive and interesting with a tropical culture that’s loved by all visitors. The country is blessed immensely with various resources readily available. All of this and more makes Sri Lanka the ideal choice among prospective students for higher education. Conventionally, the higher education providers promote Sri Lanka individually within their own capacities. The time has now come for the government to take an initiative and promote Sri Lanka as an ideal higher education destination. I am an advisor to the higher education pillar under the Export development Board (EDB) and we have recently developed a five minutes education promotional video titled ‘Study in Sri Lanka’. This is a great start to many things that are yet to be followed.
Any parent or student prefers to get their qualification from a university and not from an institution which is the case with Sri Lanka in non-state sector. To resolve this, I suggest that the government needs to step in and classify the non-state sector into Institutes, University College, and University, like in Malaysia and India. Failure to do so will result in foreign students being reluctant to choose Sri Lanka for their higher education. I also suggest that local degrees as well as transnational education (TNE) degrees should be freely available.
Sri Lanka’s capacity and capability to welcome foreign students
To succeed in the knowledge hub concept and welcome students from overseas, Sri Lanka needs to relax its entry and visa restrictions. This has to be carefully studied and amended to enable easy access and reach to these eligible students. The visas need to be issued for at least a minimum number of years during their study in the country rather than short-term ones, and also allow them to carry out and engage in various research activities. They should be given the opportunity to obtain a work permit, allowing them to work legally for a certain number of hours per week; this will drastically help the heavy shortage of manpower we face in the country today. This will certainly encourage them, making them feel more comfortable and welcomed. There are ongoing discussions at present with the relevant higher authorities on this matter. Both the state and non-state sector has to improve on physical infrastructure especially when it comes to student accommodation, and invest heavily on latest equipment and technology.
With parents and prospective students giving utmost importance to the rankings of the higher education providers as well as the image and reputation of the country, it’s also critical for both the state and non-state higher education sector in Sri Lanka to invest in a wide range of research capabilities and improve their respective rankings. Having a well-thought collaborative action plan with regard to this will help Sri Lanka to truly achieve excellence in research and overall ranking in a regional and global scale.
Sri Lanka should focus on new study streams
We live in a highly-paced environment today where digital and innovation dominates our day-to-day activities, demanding a shift from traditional courses and qualifications. Rather than offering the traditional pillars, Sri Lanka has to develop and embrace new study programmes in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) streams. I also believe that the country must develop more and more public- private partnerships to share their experiences to develop suitable curriculum which is acceptable to international requirements. Both the state and non-state higher education sector should adapt the sharing economy concept, by working towards sharing their resources for maximum capacity utilization than merely competing with one another.
The way forward in realizing this vision
The main objective is to create a conducive and stimulating environment in the higher education sphere of Sri Lanka to attract and encourage foreign students at least from the neighboring countries, resulting in earning significant foreign exchange and contribute to the national economy’s growth and development. To achieve this, further to all what was discussed here previously, the following sums up the way going forward.
Quality standards and monitoring need to be strengthened- Sri Lanka should enhance and strengthen its present quality assurance mechanisms such as periodic programme reviews and adherence to SLQF for both the state and non-state higher education sectors. The government should have an Independent Quality Assurance Commission with immediate effect, reporting directly to the highest authority or even the President.
Change existing policies- Sri Lanka needs to adapt new policies such as classifying the non-state higher education sector into Institutes, University College, and University, depending on certain criteria like in the case of Malaysia and India. This will allow the sector to have increased transparency, consistency and governance.
Collaborations and public-private partnerships should increase- Higher education providers in both state and non-state sectors have to collaborate with one another, and share their existing resources and capacities to create greater synergy. This can be referred to as ‘sharing economy’ which simply means collaborative consumption.
Invite high-caliber academics or the top leaderships alike- Sri Lanka should always prioritize in appointing sound academic professionals as decision makers for the higher education sector. Further, necessary steps need to be taken to encourage Sri Lankan intellects who are currently abroad to return and have a promising, progressive career path here at home, including research contribution and collaboration.
Roadshows and promotion of the sector- Sri Lanka needs to appoint a dynamic committee from both the state and non-state sector with a sole purpose of promoting the country as a knowledge hub. They can initiate roadshows, among other initiatives, through the embassies overseas in potential countries identified such as Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, China, Maldives, Middle East and Bangladesh.