State and private universities:

Is there a level playing field?


A university students’ protest against private universities etc (File Photo)

By Prof. Priyan Dias

Although I am an academic in a state university, I will declare at the outset that this is not an article against private universities. In fact, one of the benefits of private universities is that it forces state universities to do better. I am however saying that there is no level playing field between the state and private universities, to the detriment of the former. This is due to deficiencies in the state ‘system’ itself (including higher education planning and student admission); in other words, we are shooting ourselves in our collective foot. I will confine myself to three glaring disadvantages that we have foisted upon ourselves.

Delays in university admission

No doubt much ink has been spilt over this issue, but I would like to frame it afresh. The local GCE (A-level) exam is itself now held 8 months after it used to be 40 years ago, not by design but by default. I must commend the Department of Examinations for releasing results within 4 months after the examination, much quicker than they used to 40 years ago. But the beneficiaries of this early release are precisely the private universities. Applications are called by private universities for courses to commence in the February following the previous August A-level exam. The corresponding start date for state sector universities is typically the following February – a year’s delay!!

The better state universities survive on reputation. My Department alone sends on average one graduate every year to Cambridge University on fully funded PhD scholarships; and many others to top universities around the world. We would like to think that it is our efforts alone that create this statistic. But cold reason tells me that the statistic also depends on our intake quality. We get the best students because of our reputation; those students help us to maintain our reputation. It is a virtuous cycle. If students and parents get impatient at our delays, they may not come to us, but rather choose the private university. The state ‘system’ will have shot itself in the foot.

Many and varied reasons and excuses, including those for failed solutions, have been trotted out as to why the time to admission cannot be shortened. In my opinion, state universities should start courses for freshmen in May, soon after the New Year holidays, for students who have sat exams the previous August. This has to be the overriding goal, with all other considerations being adjusted to achieve it. For example, the entire re-scrutiny process may have to be scrapped, in addition to other time saving measures. Greater investment should be made in the first correction process. One never hears of re-scrutiny in the London A-level exams, no doubt because of public confidence. The public must be spoken to and won over about our own proposals; else there may be lawsuits. But this is something that must be done in the next year or two.

Location of state universities

This is a thorny issue that might earn me the ire of some academic colleagues. Sri Lanka is a small country that does not need a university in every district, leave aside province. In fact the whole idea of a university is that it is a melting pot, inclusive of geographical diversity. Apart from that we have a primate city in Colombo, typical of post colonial countries - a primate city is one whose population is overwhelming greater than every other city in the country. If the Western Province megapolis is established (about which I have my own reservations), then it will be even better resourced relative to the rest of the country than now. The starting of state universities outside the province (or even Colombo District) will be suicidal. Whatever funding is given to start them, finding academics to serve there will be extremely difficult, because the best education and health facilities will be in and around Colombo. It is no surprise therefore that all private universities are in the Colombo District. Providing university education is not like providing transport or health or even primary & secondary school services – clearly here the state has to locate such services in all parts of the country. But universities should be located in the most advantageous locations, with students from all geographical areas having access to them.

Every university in and around Colombo is doing well academically. The others - even Jaffna, Ruhuna and Jennings’ beloved Peradeniya to some extent – are probably struggling because of their location. This is because it is difficult to change the ground reality of Colombo being a primate city. Have we thought about this in our university location planning? Starting an engineering faculty at Sri Jayawardenapura University (on the cards, I understand) is an excellent recognition of this reality. If there are three state medical faculties in and around Colombo, why is there currently only one state engineering faculty (at Moratuwa)? The engineering faculty at South Eastern University in Oluvil is a disaster; the students are on the streets now, pleading not only for themselves as I understand, but also to scrap any further student intake to Oluvil.

How about medical schools? The contentious new private medical college (located close to Colombo once again) may probably be better than those at Rajarata and even Eastern Universities. Is there a plan to start a medical faculty at Kuliyapitiya? Is this wise in the above context? Why didn’t the powers that be persuade Moratuwa University to start one (with Panadura upgraded to a teaching hospital)? So, we start these professional courses in difficult to resource areas, and then subject the graduates to competition from the better resourced private university graduates. Is this a level playing field? Who has created the discrepancy? Will any private engineering or medical school be located in Mihintale’ or Oluvil? I have emphasized professional courses, not because I think any less of others. But such courses have to meet the exacting requirements of accrediting bodies, who will not accredit deficient programmes.

The AR & FR

Bureaucratic regulations (e.g. Administrative Regulations & Financial Regulations) are the bane of state university academics, and have been for some time. The difference now is that we have to compete with academics in private institutions, who do not have such regulations applied in rote fashion. Procurement facilitation is a dire necessity because there are many new processes and activities that require modern financial instruments. Some software and equipment required for teaching and research for example can only be purchased by credit card. Overseas visits need to be made for research collaboration. Postgraduate students need to have overseas placements and exposure. At times, we need to have the input of a foreign collaborator, whose travel and subsistence need to be met. And even though state university academics may have approved research or other budgets within which the above expenditures could fall, the above so called ‘unusual’ procurements are almost impossible to make, and there are very strict guidelines as to what expenditures are allowed or not.

The usual reason given is that state universities are run on public funds, and that these funds must be used with extreme care. It is a mantra that is "penny wise, pound foolish". There is considerable investment that the state already makes on its universities. Allowing these investments to be used in the ways that academics want to - of course within reasonable and modern institutional guidelines, checks and balances - will bring much more return on those investments than at present. When talking to senior university administrators, we sometimes hear arguments like this: "Of course University X or Faculty Y have good reputations and will be able to use the requested freedoms in spending; but there are many faculties and universities who will abuse such freedom; therefore we cannot allow anyone in the state system to enjoy them." This is governance based on the lowest common denominator; a recipe’ for mediocrity; and another case of shooting ourselves in the foot.


Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that private universities are better than state universities. The latter (especially the more established ones) have built enviable reputations, attract the best students, and send graduates to the most prestigious of destinations. The creation of private universities, and the consequent competition, is however a watershed. If we use the challenges they pose to improve the state system, everyone will benefit. If we do not improve, but merely seek a ‘business as usual’ scenario, the state system could become second best or even third rate.

This is a challenge for university administrators. Such administrators (and even academics) are obligated to seek the prosperity of the state system. However, in many cases their kith and kin may be in the private system; they may also be getting paid to lecture at private universities. If we in the state system do not put our house in order and stop shooting ourselves in the foot, independent observers may begin to wonder whether those in charge of the state system are in fact deliberately undermining it, because of the above conflicts of interest.

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