Why Sri Lanka needs private universities
The topic of private universities has surfaced again in Sri Lanka
following government recognition of private medical college in Malabe,
South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM). There had been
several arguments presented by the both parties to prove their case.
Opposing parties to Private Medical College primarily are medical
doctors and in general undergraduates, leftist political parties, mainly
JVPires who are opposing to any kind of privatisation in Sri Lanka.
The main reason of them to oppose to the opening for private
investments in university education is that the they think that private
universities would harm the present free education system in Sri Lanka.
I was student fighter in my school and tertiary education time to
against privatisation of education in order to safe guard the free
education that I have enjoyed 30 years before.
The time has now come to explore and analyse, is this slogan still
valid to the present global trend of tertiary education and social
The fact that a significant number of GCE (A/L) students who qualify
for university education fail to secure a place in the universities in
the country has created a major social and economic drawback within the
society. Although, the government has provided free education at primary
and secondary levels since the beginning of the free education policy,
it has failed to make free education available to all those eligible to
receive a university education.
Lack of university education for the majority of Sri Lankans is a
national issue which has an impact on all sectors of society. Compared
to other regional countries, the number of people with a university
education in Sri Lanka is extremely low.
The crisis is being discussed from the 1970s to date. Numerous
proposals have been discussed and attempts made to implement them.
The proposal made by the then government in the form of a White Paper
to expand the education system in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s is an
example of such failed efforts. In the recent past limitations in
university admissions, the quality of university education and
discipline of undergraduates have been discussed in many national fora.
In these fora great emphasis was given to inadequacy of university
admissions. With the expansion of International Schools, and more and
more GCE (A/L) students being left high and dry without further
sustainable directions, and without university education opportunities,
the seriousness of this issue is of very close concern to the general
Unlike a few decades back, contemporary society is very aware about
this issue. Therefore, a policy decision to increase university
education opportunities for Sri Lankans would be a warmly welcomed by
the general public.
The education system in Sri Lanka cannot be discussed without
reviewing or referring to the free education policy in place within the
island for more than 60 years. Free education is part and parcel of the
fabric of Sri Lankan life. Any changes to the current policy would not
be welcome by Marxist political parties, graduates, and undergraduates.
The free education policy has provided 100% primary and secondary
education. However, it has not been able to provide a similar status to
The architects of free education did not envisage the influx of a
massive student population from secondary education to university
education. Further, they did not formulate a sustainable solution for
those students who qualify for tertiary education. Consequently, around
85% of the students who qualify for university education fall by the
wayside. This has created the following social and economic issues
within Sri Lankan society:
(i) Unrest arising from the deprivation of a university education for
the youth was politically exploited by Marxist political parties on
several occasions in 1971 and the late 1980s.
Iii) A shortage of university educated people in Sri Lanka compared
to other regional countries. This is mainly because only 0.001% of the
population of Sri Lanka enters universities each year whereas in other
regional countries it is nearly 5% of the population.
(iii) Increasing unemployment among the youth and growing fears of a
bleak future also cause deep frustration.
(iv) In this unfortunate situation opportunistic institutions will
lure these frustrated and misguided youths to various unorganised and
unaccredited so-called higher educational courses.
(v) Over as many as 10,000 students who were not enrolled for free
university education would go to foreign countries for university
education or follow foreign university degrees within Sri Lanka
(vi) The brain drain from the country is exacerbated as these
students who left the country for foreign university education and
children of Sri Lankan expatriate s who are also studying in foreign
universities do not return to Sri Lanka following their graduation.
(vii) The unnecessary expenditure on GCE (A/L) private tuition and
stiff competition to enter the universities have produced an imbalance
in Sri Lankan society and disturbed the conventional social and family
life of parents and their children.
A close analysis of the reality of the free education policy shows,
in fact, that there is no 100% free education in Sri Lanka today. School
admission charges, private tuition fees in almost all the subjects from
primary to secondary school level, other fees and expenses have to be
incurred by parents under the so-called free education system.
Further, since it is being delivered free, the quality of the
education has declined. Students, especially those preparing to
university, have to rely heavily on paid private tuition.
This is the case in even primary and other secondary levels of
education. Further, to some extent both primary and secondary eduction
systems have been "privatised' through private schools and international
However, no such private institutions have yet been established in a
regulated manner to grant university degrees.
Therefore, students leave the country annually to follow university
education in a foreign country. This drains billion of foreign exchange
from the country.
In view of the above, Sri Lanka needs more universities and the
annual intake of students to the universities be increased. Considering
the number of people per universities in other countries, Sri Lanka
needs to establish a minimum of new 40 universities.
This is not an easy task for the government, with other priorities in
health, transport, and infrastructure development sector etc., to invest
in 40 more new universities and increase the current intake.
The government has to think innovatively to cope with this massive
demand for university education. It has to formulate a new radical
policy objectively to increase opportunities for university education.
The effective use of existing limited resources, Public Private
Partnership (PPP), private sector investments and allowing recognised
foreign universities to establish in Sri Lanka are a few such policy
decisions that need to be taken immediately.
Private sector investment in university education (Private
As the government permitted the private sector to embark into
hospitals, transportation (private buses), primary and secondary schools
(private and international schools) it should open the door for the
private sector to set up universities as well.
This is the trend followed by other countries. In India private
higher education institutes and colleges are over 10 times as many as
government universities (337:3616), in Pakistan it is almost twice
(547:957) and in Bangladesh, it is 21:199 is nearly 10 times.
Interestingly, in these countries the per capita of Gross National
Product is well below that of Sri Lanka and yet they manage to promote
the private sector in university education. Innovative and forward
thinking visionary leaders are pouring billions of dollars into higher
education, particularly for science and technology. Partnerships are
being established between the universities of those countries and
reputed institutions like INSEAD (the famous Business School in France),
the Sorbonne, Monash and MIT. According to the London-based "Observatory
on Borderless Higher Education", China is leading the race in
international higher education with increasing numbers of foreign
campuses attracting star class researchers and academics.
There are many factors which dictate the necessity for private sector
investment in university eduction in Sri Lanka:
(i) The limited number of seats in the public universities
ii) It will attract qualified high school students who are unable to
gain admission to public universities
(iii) Many students are not admitted to their preferred programs and
to their preferred university. They will opt for private university over
the free public university as they can choose their preferred degree
program in lien with their talent.
(iv) Private universities would have selection of more practical and
job oriented programs
(v) Private universities turn out graduates with a better command of
language and better developed soft skills which are important to
(vi) Student unrest, strikes, and violence are forcing regular
closure of public universities, resulting in lengthening the time to
complete the course compared to private institutions.
(vii) Influence of political parties, particularly parties like the
JVP, disrupt the normal functioning of the government universities would
not effect to education of private universities
(viii) Practice of violence and brutal "ragging" would not be in the
Compared with other middle income countries such as those in East
Asia or Latin America, the private sector in Sri Lanka still has plenty
of room to improve.
This new trend has been adopted in those countries and many other
developed and developing countries. While the public sector education
remains as the norm in many countries, the private sector plays a
significant and growing role.
Similarly, there are a number of advantages in establishing private
universities in Sri Lanka.
These advantages range from social to economic benefits; (i) private
universities when established in Sri Lanka, it will compel public
universities to maintain high standards, thereby gradually they reaching
top world ranking, (ii) Due to inter-university competition and in order
to survive in a competitive in the market by private universities, it
will have to increase their quality and standards; thereby the students
and the country will derive the benefits of quality outputs from the
universities, (iii) Sri Lankan students who could not enter public
universities would be able to graduate locally rather than going out of
the country, (iv) It will attract more private sector investment, (v)
The government would be able to provide more funds for the expansion of
the present public universities, (vi) More job opportunities will be
created in academic and non-academic fields in the private Universities,
(vii) Students would get high quality university education as the
private universities have to maintain commercial sustainability and
compete with other universities locally as well as internationally,
(viii) The brian drain will be minimised as most of the students who
have not received public university education will be able to enrol with
private universities within the country, (ix) Those students how have
not received an opportunity to enter government universities would have
an alternative route to obtain a university degree locally, (x) As the
students are studying locally, it will retain a considerable amount of
foreign exchange within the country.
By arranging student bank loans at very minimal interest,
scholarships by the private university itself or organisations,
scholarships based on merit, etc. would be safeguard the free education
concept to an extent within the private university culture.
Furthermore, measures to expand private sector universities and
colleges could include establishing a sound quality assurance and
accreditation systems, and introducing voucher, stipend and loan schemes
for students enrolled in private universities.
The government shall set up a policy for establishing the private
universities and should dictate in which places those universities
should be established. At present, most of the private education
institutions are c entered in Colombo.
Therefore, private universities need to be located in other districts
such as Hambantota, Ratnapura, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Jaffna and
Private sector investment in university education (Foreign
Another proposal to meet this uphill task is to allow foreign
universities to establish their branches in Sri Lanka.
In the context of the higher education revolution that is taking
place around the globe countries such as Egypt, UAE, Qatar, China,
India, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore have opened their doors to
foreign higher education institutions like never before.
International icons such as Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Monash, and
LSE are invited and actively solicited by these governments to set up
campuses in those countries.
The Sri Lankan government shall also allow those renowned
universities to be established in Sri Lanka. Further, the government
should not worry about the quality and standard of such universities as
they have been ranked top in the world.
There are many advantages in inviting those world class universities
to Sri Lanka: (i) At present none of the public universities have been
ranked within the first 2000 top universities in the world.
Having established such world top ranking universities in Sri Lanka,
public universities will be compelled to maintain high standards,
thereby gradually reaching world standards, (ii) Sri Lankan students
would be able to graduate from such top universities locally rather than
going out of the country, (iii) No government financing is required to
set up those foreign universities; rather the government could charge
some fees from them.
This will ease the budget constraints of the government, (iv) It will
attract foreign investments to Sri Lanka, (v) The government would be
able to provide more funds for the expansion of public universities,
(vi) More job opportunities will be created in the academic and
non-academic fields, (vii) Students would get world class, high quality
education from the world's renowned lecturers, (viii) As most of the
students will be retained in Sri Lanka, the brain drain will be
minimized, (ix) Students who have not received an opportunity to enter
government universities would have an alternative route to obtain a
foreign university degree locally, (x) As the students are studying
locally, it will retain a considerable amount of foreign exchange within
the country, (xi) These foreign universities would be able to attract
foreign students which will be an additional foreign exchange earner for
The government shall formulate a policy for establishing the foreign
universities and should decide in which place those universities are to
Presently, most of the core activities of the economy are c entered
in Colombo. Therefore, new foreign universities need to be located in
other districts such as Galle, Hambantota, Ratnapura, Anuradhapura and
There are number of private institutions operating in Sri Lanka,
mainly in Colombo, to train students for foreign university degrees.
Students may follow the full course in Sri Lanka and in some cases
follow the final years of the courses in the country where the
university is located.
Further, the quality of training received in these institutions is
not regulated and there is no proper quality assurance.
Therefore, by establishing foreign universities formally in Sri Lanka
these deficiencies could be eliminated and it will provide university
education to more Sri Lankans locally.
Private sector investment in university education (Private Colleges)
To establish a full-fledged private university or foreign university
needs considerable capital investment, resources, and management and
operation expertise. It will take some time to finalize the formalities
before operations. In view of this long-term investment time lag, it
will be more convenient to establish private colleges to grant
These colleges could be affiliated either to local or international
universities or both.
The colleges can specialize in their respective academic streams such
as College of Estate Management, College of Business Management, College
of Science and Technology, Law Colleges, Medical Colleges, etc. The
quality and standards shall be on par with the universities to which
they are affiliated.
Establishing private colleges to grant university degrees has a
number of advantages; (I) It will assist the government to increase
university education to the majority of Sri Lankans, (ii) Since the
respective colleges have expertise or specializations, their standards
in the specific sectors would be very high compared to the traditional
universities, (iii) The unit cost of a subject or unit cost of the
course would be comparatively lower than that of private and foreign
universities mainly due to relatively low investment of capital.
Further to foregoing proposals and analysis, the authorities shall
take each proposal for further detailed evaluation and shall prepare
blueprint for the implementation within a specific time frame. Further,
they should be wary about the social unrest that may follow private
sector investment in university education. Prior to implementing any of
these proposals, a public awareness campaign shall be launched in order
to educate the general public.
Emphasis shall be given to the lack of government funds or limited
funds and resources to expand the current public universities and to
establish new universities.
Therefore, the mindset of the general public must be taken into
account in considering new innovative proposals like establishing
private universities and colleges, and conducting dual sessions (day and
evening and night in the government universities).
If the decision makers make a serious attempt to resolve the chronic
crisis in university education and its concomitant social and economic
impact, they should have a clear action plan.
The action plan shall be measurable in terms of the intakes
increases, and within which period of time it is to be implemented.
Compared with the present annual intake of approximately 20,000
students, the target should be to increase the intake by more than
double the present intake through various specific means. In order to
achieve this challenging target within a specific time frame the
specific means that would pave the path to achieve the target number
should be carefully worked out.
The writer is a Chartered Quantity Surveyor and is a holder of MBA
(Sri J.), FIQS-SL, FRICS, ACIArb)