Home  »  » A Way forward

A Way forward

Global higher education system and the proposed knowledge hub for Sri Lanka:


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

Continued from Midweek Review

on 21. 12. 2012

To accommodate an increased demand of university education ad hoc measures such as creating another Faculty of Arts in Colombo and a Faculty of Science in Peradeniya was taken by the government. By 1970 the number of universities increased to five and by 1978 there were seven universities in the country. The rest were established after 1994.

The number of students entering higher education thus increased form 1612 in 1948, to 5000 in 1959, to about 14,000 in 1970 and 17, 449 student enrolments in 1978. By 1988/89 there were 29,781 students internally in university education. At present, 80, 000 students are in universities. Annually about 13,000 internal graduates pass out from universities and more than 50 percent of them are from the Arts and management streams. The output of external graduates is around 6,500 and the Open University too has an output of about 500 per year. Thirty years ago 70 percent of the student population was admitted to the faculties of Social Sciences and Humanities. In addition, since 1962, there has been a system of external examinations in university education and almost 200,000 students are registered with the eleven universities in the country.

Currently, there are 14 conventional universities, three campuses, one open university, 9 undergraduate and 7 post-graduate institutes, 9 degree awarding institutes under the purview of the University Grants Commission. Besides, there are two religious universities under the Ministry of Higher Education. There is one university under the Ministry of Defense, and one under the Ministry of Vocational Training. Thus, there are 19, universities have been engaged providing higher education under the principle of Free Education since 1945. Almost, 80,000 students are studying at our universities. Another, more than 150, 000 students are there as external students. The exact statistics are not available regarding the number of students in universities overseas. According to estimates of the UGC nearly 8000-10000 students leave the country for higher education annually.

Issues and Challenges

The biggest challenge facing our university education is offering equity in access and quality of education. In 2010, 54,000 have applied for 22,000 placements at our universities. The Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) the ratio of students enrolled in higher education to the size of the age cohort between 18 to 24 is close upon 16 per cent. The UGC is planning to increase the GER up to 20 per cent in 2016 and 30 per cent in 2020. It is essential to have the GER to level of 20 per cent to move to a knowledge economy.

The challenge before us is to increase access to higher education while improving the quality of education to suit the demands of the new millennium. The answer lies in changing the traditional model of teaching and learning measured by where we study and what we learned. New pressures such as alignment of industry and the demand of the workforce, the move to mass education, a geographically fluid workforce and mass communication have exacerbated the need to move away from rote learning to competency based education. Therefore, we need to redefine our programs to provide competencies for a new generation of learners.

The state monopoly in higher education has come under increasing pressure as the state has not been able to keep pace with the demand for higher education and diversify and increase access and quality at the same time. We at the UGC are grappling with issues of expanding access and quality and it is well known fact that the state cannot allocate the financial resources required to meet these challenges and neither can the country find the human resources required to increase quality.

Given the rapidly changing context globally as well as within Sri Lanka the Ministry of Higher Education and the UGC are compelled to rethink its policies and strategies and as I said before forecast change and plan for change. If not we are left behind and the forces of change will continue in an unplanned and unregulated environment which is not conducive for the development of the country. Establishing Sri Lanka as a knowledge hub in South Asia is one such that is being explored.

Knowledge Hub

A Knowledge Hub is broadly defined as a designated region intended to attract foreign investment, retain local students, build a regional reputation by providing access to high-quality education and training for both international and domestic students, and create a knowledge-based economy. A knowledge hub is concerned with the process of building up a country’s capacity to better integrate it with the world’s increasing knowledge based economy, while simultaneously exploring policy options that have the potential to enhance economic growth. An education hub can include different combinations of domestic/international institutions, branch campuses, and foreign partnership, within the region. The main functions of hubs are to generate, apply, transfer, and disseminate knowledge.

The concept of a knowledge hub for Sri Lanka was proposed by HE the President Mahinda Rajapaksa through his policy document during the presidential election in 2009. It is stated that Sri Lanka will "develop youth who can see the world over the horizon". "We have the opportunity to make this country a knowledge hub within the South Asia region. I will develop and implement an operational plan to make this country a local and international training centre for knowledge".

The Ministry of Higher Education is grappling with the empirical implications of translating this promise into reality. The Ministry has invited foreign universities to set up campuses to provide a more diversified higher Education programme to increase access for local students and to attract students from overseas to study in Sri Lanka. Just as in Singapore Sri Lanka’s strategy is to piggy- back on internationally renowned universities so that the process is cost effective and mutually beneficial. Furthermore, it is planned that 10 branch campuses of "world class" universities would be established by 2013. The Knowledge Hub Agenda has given greater prominence especially to the fields of Science and Technology, Information and Communication Technology, Skills Development, and Research and Development in Applied Sciences.

Malaysia is the first country in Asia that has strategically established itself as a knowledge hub admitting 100,000 overseas students, although the university education in Malaysia was introduced far later than Sri Lanka. It has a clear strategy to consolidate as an international hub for post graduate studies. Another successful hub is Hong Kong although its catchment area is more Southeast Asia than South Asia. Other countries such as India, Singapore, Viet Nam and Thailand are aspiring to establish a knowledge hub in their respective regions. India, attracts a 100,000 students annually while Hong Kong, attracts 5,823, China 162,895, and Singapore 72,000 overseas students annually. Sri Lanka has a projected target of attracting 10,000 foreign students by 2014 which would increase to 100,000 by 2020.


Sri Lanka enjoys several advantages to develop into an education hub. First, of all the ever increasing demand for higher education in the country is an impetus for growth and advancement. Annually, well over 250,000 students sit for the Advanced Level Examination and half of them are qualified for university education. However, only 22,000 are able to enter university education in the country. Of them, 9000 enroll in vocational training through 12 Advanced Technological Institutes, 20,000 enroll at the Open University, 8000, access overseas education, 20,000 register as external candidates while 9000 are studying for a foreign degree via cross border institutes. Nearly, 60,000 students are looking for alternative higher education locally.

To be Continued on Saturday

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...