Reforms envisaged in higher education sector
Prof. Sarath B.S. Abayakoon
One of the main areas of Government's focus is on the Higher
Education. An important reform with far reaching consequences among the
reforms envisaged in the Higher Education Sector is the setting up of
non-state Universities. It has been also emphasised that the State
universities will have to compete with non-state universities in terms
of the quality of the education they provide for the students. Here is
an excerpt of an interview with the Vice Chancellor of the University of
Peradeniya, Prof. Sarath B.S. Abayakoon.
A: Against this backdrop, how do you, as an academic, perceive the
Government's move to set up non-state universities and the reforms
envisaged in the Higher Education sector?
A: The government's focus is on the higher education sector. The
Government has expressed its willingness to set up non state
universities. As an academic I am happy, that a long awaited discussion
on the higher education sector of the country has, at last, commenced.
A: What are the vital areas that should be focused on envisaging
reforms in the higher education sector?
A: There are several vital areas in the Higher Education Sector that
are to be studied and issues related to them should be analysed before
making policy decisions. They can be loosely listed out as:
1. Is there a need to look into the higher education in Sri Lanka at
this point of time? If so, why?
2. Is there a need to look into the primary and secondary school
education system, especially considering the fact school education
system produces students for higher education?
3. What is exactly meant by expansion of higher education in Sri
A: Can you expand on the areas you mentioned, say on the need?
A: Yes, For instance, we know that out of those students who sit for
the GCE (A/L) examination each year, only about 10% is absorbed into the
national university system. This is despite the fact that about 50% of
them qualify for university entrance. This is why we should expand
higher education sector in Sri Lanka.
At present, only about 3-4 percent of the age cohort between 17 and
23 yrs are in the national university system. Even if we add those
students following degree programmes outside the national university
system or perhaps abroad, it would not be over 8 percent. We should also
recognise the fact that parents of those students who are enrolled
outside the national university system are carrying a heavy, very heavy,
economic burden on their shoulders.
There is a notion that to develop a country, it is required that at
least 25% of this age cohort must be pursuing higher education at a
given time. This may be another reason that we want to expand higher
education in Sri Lanka.
A: Compared with Western education system, Sri Lankan education
system takes a longer time to produce graduates than their counterparts
in the West and developed countries. Isn't it high time to change this
scenario in Sri Lankan education system in general and in the university
system in particular?
A: Let me explain this scenario in relation to my education. I
entered the university at the age of 17 and graduated at the age of 21,
an average of 2 years younger than the normal graduation age at that
time. I received a scholarship for my higher education from Canada and
was already enrolled at the University of British Columbia by 22 years
of age. Almost all my fellow students who were in my class, who have had
their first degrees in other countries, mostly from the west, were
younger to me!!!
Today's reality in Sri Lanka is worse. Sri Lankan children commence
their schooling when they reach the age of 4 and 11 months by January 1
of each year. Those who enter the national school system spend 11 years
to qualify to sit for the GCE (O/L) examination. Those who pass GCE
(O/L) will spend 32 more months as registered students in their
respective school before they are allowed to sit for the GCE (A/L)
examination for the first time.
Hence, an average student will be over 19 years at the time of
sitting for GCE (A/L) examination and will be around 20 years at the
time of registration at a Sri Lankan National University if they are
fortunate enough to beat the cut off Z-score at the first attempt. At
the universities they are supposed to go through an orientation period
where their English and other skills will be improved, and hence, they
will commence their courses proper only when they are about 20 years and
six months. Average age at graduation is therefore is about 24 or 25
depending on the degree programme they follow and the other issues that
will determine their period of stay in the universities.
So what is the solution? The time spent from the enrollment at the
schools to the GCE (A/L) examination and that from the GCE (A/L)
examination to the enrollment at the universities should be reduced.
Look at the time wasted in the process. At the schools, there are so
many distractions and delays due to many reasons. The classes conducted
on Saturdays to cover days lost due to elections, other unplanned
closures etc. are not at all effective. After sitting the O/L
examination, in most of the national schools, A/L classes would not
start for eight months, citing lack of classrooms space for two years
till senior students complete their A/L examinations. Tuition masters,
however, start their classes early and students lose their interest in
studying at school. This, in turn, forces students to neglect classes in
I strongly believe that this 13 year and 8 month's stay at school, of
which about 14 months of absolutely NO WORK, can be reduced to 12 years
and nine months of full time study by holding GCE (O/L) at the end of
Grade 10 and by making full use of 32 months at the GCE(A/L) classes.
Ministry of Higher Education, University Grants Commission and Minister
of Education are now trying to reduce the gap between Advanced Level
examination and university entrance. I sincerely hope that this gap can
be reduced to eight months (A/L in August and university entrance in the
following March). Minister of Higher Education's efforts to start
teaching English, IT and soft skills before the university entrance is
commendable. Government plans to introduce a three month training
programme once the list of students, who will enter the universities is
finalised. I believe that, following the training, the Universities can
start their academic programmes proper at the end of August each year as
it is done in North America.
A: What other changes are necessary, say in the curriculums, at
schools and at the Universities?
A: Universities are constantly updating their curriculums. Some
programmes are accredited via the respective organisations locally and
abroad. The vital issue may be lack of interest and lack of discipline
at the Universities. If the products that enter university system are
better focused, the task of changing a boy/girl to a man/woman within
the university period would be less difficult task for universities.
Then the question arises whether we should focus only on higher
education or on the entire system of education. It is a misconception if
one believes that a 21 year old student who has gone through the present
day environment and the education mill can change into the most perfect
human being in three to four years in the university. If we are serious
about producing graduates who are model citizens, it is necessary to
review the entire system of education. I strongly believe that
throughout this period, it is necessary to educate our children in
culture, values, patriotism, religion, history etc. This is an immediate
need that must be addressed very seriously.
So, we need to focus on entire education, from pre-school to
university graduation. Education should also provide a vision for the
students. In the west, students have a goal in life.
They discover their abilities and skills at a very young age and know
exactly whom they are going to be, say by the time they reach 20, 30, 40
years of age. They plan their lives to achieve their goals. Recently
Minister of Higher Education very correctly pointed out that our
education system has failed to instill a vision in students. Students
have no vision for themselves. We should encourage children to have
their own vision and also should provide opportunities for them to
fulfill their aspirations.
I am totally against the tuition system but I must admit that I also
send my children to tuition classes. I am also a prisoner of the system.
One of the biggest cultural issues relating tuition classes is that
children tend to lose their respect for teachers. Teacher is respected
if he/she provides education and not if he/she sells education.
Ragging at educational institutes must be completely eliminated. It
is designed to kill positive and independent thinking.
It completely destroys self motivation. It produces a generation who
always ask others for everything, especially the state. We must be able
to transform the system so that senior students are viewed as role
models by the juniors. The system should produce leaders of quality and
A: What efforts are to be taken about delays in academic programmes
within the Universities?
A: I believe the delays are mainly due to the fact that there is no
strict programme at our universities. If you take a calendar of a
western university, it gives the academic programme in full detail. This
needs careful planning and more importantly, implementation of the plan
to the perfection. At the beginning of the academic year, students,
academic staff and non academic staff should be given the time table for
the full year and it should not be changed during the year.
The time table must be very detailed and it should include dates of
examinations, dates of release of results, dates of all meetings etc.
etc. I have introduced this at the Faculty of Engineering, University of
Peradeniya, and was able to implement it.
Now we are trying to replicate it for the whole University. Faculties
should make sure that an academic year is completed within 52 weeks. We
have noted that once all are aware that there is a system, they think
twice before disrupting it.
A well-planned calendar can also absorb unforeseen developments, to a
reasonable extent. These include sudden outbreaks of diseases, short
disruptions of one kind or another and sudden declaration of holidays
A: There is a notion that Universities should focus on producing
employable graduates. What are your views?
A: When I was young my father used to say that people must get their
education. Higher percentage of educated in a society, it will be good
for the nation, world and the universe. Properly educated people are
less likely to get engaged in unlawful acts and hence, if all are
properly educated, the world will be a much better place for all of us
to live in.
The motto "education is for wisdom" is based on this way of thinking.
Although the times are changed, we should not deviate too much from this
motto. At present we need to think not only about "wisdom" that
education would impart but also of life skills or training for
employment. Employment should be guaranteed, especially today, as
economic stability is a must for everyone. However, education should
develop personality and produce a professional who could appreciate, for
instance, classical music, literature, art and culture. He or she should
be a person with positive values. We must ask ourselves whether the fact
that a person is employed, does actually mean that he or she is
productive or he or she is a better citizen. Isn't it true that if all
government employees put in a full 8 hour work a day, this country will
be far better off than now? Isn't it true that if all our educated men
and women are more compassionate about others and their feelings, this
country will be a much nicer place to live in? So, whatever changes we
do to make the graduates more employable should be done without losing
the spirit of the original motto "education is for wisdom".
There is a danger in the thinking "education is for employment". This
has already translated into "education is for a certificate". If we
offer our newcomers a degree certificate on their first day at the
University, before they start their academic programmes, I wonder how
many will be happy to take it and go out!
We know that the certificates will be of no use if the country is
totally run by private enterprises, as they can fire those who are non-
productive, immediately. But the present government's thinking of
strengthening the state sector more, will suffer very badly if more and
more people with certificates and not with values enter the workforce.
Look at the large number of students who presently enrolled to read
Master's level degree programmes. Most of the programmes are paid for by
the employers and there will be a pay hike or a promotion attached to
Whether they actually use what they have studied to improve their
output is to be studied.
The money motivated thinking has changed the whole outlook on
education. It changed from 'wisdom' to 'certificate' to 'employment'. I
am not sure whether what matters is even the employment or just the
'paycheck' at the end of the month. Look at those who stage various
protests at the Lipton Circle, Fort railway station and elsewhere
demanding employment. Do they actually need 'employment' or a
We need to change this attitude. This can be done only by inculcating
A: Let us talk about your third point, expansion of higher education.
A: Introduction of Non-state universities is being discussed now.
This is one way of expanding higher education of this country and I
believe that this is a positive move by the government. The other way,
of course, is increasing the intake into the national university system.
If we are to have both state and non-state universities in parallel,
we need to be very careful in administering the two systems. The new
Higher Education Act must be prepared with extreme care, taking all
factors into account.
A: Can you elaborate more on that?
A: If we take the state universities, there is the Universities Act
and several Amendments to it, the Establishment Code, and over 900
circulars that are in effect. We should abide by them and the circulars
and Acts would tell us 'how we should not do' rather than 'how should
do'. The administrative staff is also trained over nearly seventy years
to say 'it cannot be done' according to this rule or that rule. The
system is so rigid and it takes a long time to make a decision. The
system needs a complete overhaul and without such a revision, State
universities will find it impossible to compete with non-state
As for non-state universities, the admission policy must be very
clearly thought out.
It is my belief that a system of university admission should be
installed which would not overlook a poor student with more intelligence
to enroll a rich student with less intelligence. We know that as of
present, about 22000 students are admitted every year, to the national
university system. I propose to award 22000 scholarships to those who
obtain the highest Z-score, selected in the same way as of now.
All other students must also be selected to all the universities
based on the Z-score and Z-score only, and they should be offered a loan
from the government or any other organisation which they will have to
pay back. This is the system in the West. All students, those who
receive a scholarship or a loan, can then enter the University of
his/her choice, state or non-state, by paying a fee.
The fees thus recovered at the State universities can be used to
develop those universities to achieve their objectives of reaching
However, the issue will be the ability of those students who receive
the loan, to pay back their loans. So the responsibility falls on the
government and the private sector to come out with a long term plan, may
be for next fifty years, to supply steady employment for the graduates,
either here or abroad.
Then, of course, is the issue of salaries of academic staff. We have
the lowest academic staff salaries in the SAARC region. I do not see any
need to have comparisons with the developed world.
How are we going to keep higher quality academic staff if non-state
universities start to function in parallel with the state universities?.
It is a serious issue that needed to be addressed properly.