Global higher education system and the knowledge hub in Sri Lanka:

A Way forward


Speech delivered by Prof. Gamini Samaranayake, Chairman, Univeristy Grants Commission, at the AGMof the Sri Lanka Quantity Surveyors Association in Dubai

Your Excellence the Higher Commissioner of Sri Lanka, Mr. Edward Jayatunge, distinguished participants, members of the organizing committee of this event, and Ladies and Gentleman.

It is a privilege and a pleasure to deliver this oration at the 17th Annual General Meeting of the Sri Lanka’s Quantity Survey Association in Dubai. Therefore, I would like to thank the chairman and the organizers of this event for their kind invitation. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the association for 17 years of valued service.

Sri Lanka is a unique developing country in the South Asia. The main characteristic of the demographic structure is that the child population shows a declining trend. According to Professor Indralal de Silva an eminent demographer the decline in the child population by the year 2000 was an economic impetus and the period 2001-2016 is termed as the period with a demographic bonus so vital for economic growth. That is one of the reasons that Sri Lanka was able to sustain economic growth in spite of the civil war for thirty years.

Therefore I thought that it might be opportune to focus on Global Higher Education System and the Knowledge Hub in Sri Lanka: A Way Forward. The main objective of this speech is to examine the nexus between the Global Higher Education System and the changes and challenges of university education in Sri Lanka. More specifically, it examines the viability, potential and trajectory of the knowledge hub as a solution to existing higher education problem in the country. The basic argument of the presentation is that the modernization of higher education lies in implementing structural changes that are concurrent to changes that are taking place at the international level in higher education.

The paper is divided into five major sections. The first part examines the System of global higher education. The second part deals with the origin, development and present status of university education in Sri Lanka. The third part deals with the knowledge hub, advantages, opportunities and challenges, while the fourth part of the paper deals with the observations and suggestions. The fifth and final part is the way forward.

Changes of Global Higher Education System

Universities are both ancient and modern institutions. The origin of universities in keeping with the ancient western model goes back to medieval Europe with the establishment of Bologna (1088), Paris (1150), Oxford (1167), and Cambridge (1209). The University of Nalanda was founded in the 5th century B.C. and was destroyed in 1100 A.D. The oldest universities in the United Kingdom (UK) such as Oxford and Cambridge were founded as Church Universities with a view to training of clergymen and teachers. However, the university in its modern sense started in the later part of the 19th century. They had a more secularized curricula and a teaching and research were their main objectives. The first such university was the University College of London established in 1826. It was referred to as the first godless university in England. The industrial revolution, expansion of universal franchise and the rise of professional societies contributed to the establishment of civic universities such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Bristol in Britain.

Colonialism was a main force in spreading university education in developing countries. The colonial masters particularly the British established universities in their colonies. Other countries that did not have any colonial experience such as Japan, Thailand and Ethiopia established the western model of universities. The medium of language of university education also changed with the expansion of the university system. Initially Latin and later German dominated scholarship and science whereas English is the academic language now.

Higher education is not an isolated phenomenon subject to the vagaries of external and internal pressure. However, there is a strong belief that universities and cemeteries are not willing to change or move but both have to change due to internal and external forces. Let us take the external pressure. They are due to globalization and internationalization and multi-nationalization of university education. Globalization comprises broad economic, political and other trends and it also involves Information Communication Technology (ICT), the use of English, the rise of the private universities, the marketisation of higher education, and related aspects that are more or less inevitable results of the rapidly diversifying and changing global environment.

Internationalization means a package of policies that government or education institutions develop to cope with the global environment such as providing academic programme in foreign languages and sponsoring students to continue their studies abroad. Multinationalization means offering country’s programmes in other countries. It covers the application of another country’s education programmes, IT initiates, and courses and syllabi in a country’s responding to the needs and desire to be part of globalization. Multinationalization functions by means of branch campuses, franchising, joint degree offering called twining, online programme, distance mode of delivery and e-learning. As a result, well established universities are setting up offshore or branch campuses in other countries. Australia is very active in the process of branch campuses and Singapore has been particularly respective for branch campuses. It is referred to as the McDonalization of higher education.

In the case of internal pressure, it is evident that enormous pressure is exerted towards the university education by demographic changes, an idea of knowledge economy, development of primary and secondary education within the world. Besides, the opening up of trade in higher education services by the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the European Union (EU) Bologna process has made a huge impact towards globally as well as locally.

There have been significant effects of Globalization and internationalization. Of them, access quality and relevance are noteworthy. Access to higher tern Education has been rising rapidly all over the world. In the late 1960s there was no country in West Europe where the Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) was higher than 8 percent.

Currently, the GER is more than 35 per cent. As a result, the model of university education has change from elite to mass. At present more than 2.8 million students are studying outside their home countries. This number will increase to eight million by the year 2020.

The second significant impact has been the quality of higher education. Quality of higher education is measured on the basis of the following criteria: modernized classrooms, libraries, laboratories, study halls, syllabi, and method of teaching and evaluation. Currently the strongest British universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, College of London, Imperial College of London, Yale, Harward, Stanford, Berkeley, and M.I.T. receive worldwide admiration and respect for their leadership in research and education. They excel in the advancement of human knowledge of nature and culture, they provide the best training to the next generation of scholarship; and they provide outstanding undergraduate and professional education for those who will emerge from all walks of life. Consequently, they are referred to as World Class universities.

Simultaneously, Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hongkong, Singapore, China and India seek to expand the capacity of their system of university education. The Global changes have made significant impact to improve equity. In order to improve equity universities have to offer scholarships and fellowships to the high achieving students from poor families or disadvantage regions. It is widely believed that poor but talented students get more opportunity to enroll in higher education through scholarship programmes where tuition fees are charged than in countries with free education

Origin and Development

The origin and development of university education in Sri Lanka goes back to the latter part of British rule. The establishment of the University College in 1921 marked the beginning of university education in the country. It prepared students to sit the external degree of the University of London. The University of Ceylon established in 1942 by the amalgamation of the University College and the Medical College in Colombo was the first native university with power to offer degrees. The university followed the model of Oxford and Cambridge popularly known as the ox-bridge model. From the inception up to recent times university education was dominated by state universities. As a result, there are 14 universities with three campuses, one Open University, 09 undergraduate and 7 postgraduate institutes under the purview of the University Grants Commission. Almost 80,000 internal students and 200,000 external students are studying at our followed the pattern of British Universities. It was exactly the model of elite education.

However, university education underwent many changes especially with the granting of universal franchise in 1931, free education in 1945, the political changes in 1956 and the introduction of university education in Sinhala and Tamil Languages in 1959. It marked the beginning of the inclusion of students from a wide ranging socio-economic background. Consequently, the number of universities increased from one in 1942 to three in 1960. Two of these new universities Vidyodaya (Kelaniya) and Vidyalankaraya (Sri Jayewardenepura) were Buddhist pirivenas (monastic institutions) which were elevated to the status of universities1.

To be continued tomorrow

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