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A way forward

Global higher education system and proposed the knowledge 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 yesterday

Secondly, an Education Hub is necessary for the long-term viability of a country’s economy and to generate employment. Sri Lanka is moving fast from an Agro-economy to a service economy and to a knowledge-based economy. To establish as a knowledge based economy, Sri Lanka has to prepare for intense competition from countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. These countries have not only developed their higher education system but have focused on good ECCD programmes as well as primary and secondary education so that they create a local pool of high quality academics. They have diversified their courses, modernized the curriculum and updated the teaching learning process. The physical infrastructure, the legal framework and the social infrastructure is well developed and they have invested in an efficient and effective bureaucracy and service sector. Therefore, Sri Lanka should be able to groom and attract talent locally, regionally and internationally and the whole country has to gear up for a paradigm shift including the political ideology.

Thirdly, Sri Lanka needs to develop high level skills due to her skewed demographic and labour force. Currently, Sri Lanka has an unusually large pool of labour force. At present, 83 percent of the labour force have educational attainment at GCE (O/L) or below of which19.3 percent have a primary education or below. This problem is compounded by the aging of our population. Currently, for every elderly person aged 65 or over there are almost ten (10) people in the prime working age population (15-64) but this trend would reverse after 2020. Consequently, it is imperative for Sri Lanka to continue to elevate the overall skills of the general population. In order to develop the high end of the skills set, it is necessary to create an Education Hub in the country.

Fourthly, by making Sri Lanka as an Education Hub the country can facilitate a process of integration with the region and at the international level which is the key to our economic future. The presence of regional and international students at our national universities or branch campuses can enhance the quality of teaching and research faculty. It is a recognized fact that the importance of university based scientific research is driving economic growth. It would also increase the exposure of our students and enhance their knowledge on international affairs.

Last but not least, is the unique advantage of university autonomy and academic freedom which is not available in many countries aspiring to establish education hubs. The Magna Charta Observatory has defined university autonomy as follows: The University is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies differently organized because of its geographical and historical heritage; it produces, examines, appraises and hands down culture by means of research and teaching. To meet the needs of the world around it, its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political and economic power".

Academic freedom is associated with the concept of university autonomy. The Dar Es Salam Declaration defines academic freedom as the right of the members of the academic community individually or collectively, to fulfill their functions of teaching, researching, writing, learning and disseminating information and providing services without fear or interference from the state or any other public authority. Academic freedom is important especially for scholars who are used to the kind of open academic environment found in universities in western countries.

Opportunities and Challenges

Interest in Higher Education in Sri Lanka among international universities is growing rapidly. More than 60 cross border institutes are linked to the universities and higher education institutes in Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and United States of America (USA) and are offering certificate, Diploma and Degree programmes in the country. They are offering subjects ranging from Business Management, Information Technology, Bio-medical Sciences, Design and Engineering.

The end of the war against the terrorism has opened new doors for attracting foreign universities to establish collaborations with local institutions or establish branch campuses in Sri Lanka. However, we need the social, academic and physical infrastructure to attract foreign universities and professional organizations to extend their services from Sri Lanka and set Sri Lanka on the path of becoming a knowledge hub.

We also need to change the narrow perspectives of our local academia and students to facilitate such a process as they have to be prepared to compete with such institutions and produce graduates who are on par or exceed those from the cross border or branch campuses.

Student unrest, destabilization and propensity for violence in universities are a major threat to university education in the country.

Step Taken and Needs to be Taken

There is a great potential for converting higher education in Sri Lanka as a regional knowledge hub. As a result foreign universities are able to offer courses/programs in technology, and vocational education and post graduate education. However, the existing University Act of 1978 does not have provision to establish private universities either local or international. Therefore, a separate Higher Education Act for national and international universities and branch Campuses as in Malaysia and Bangladesh has been prepared and is subject to be placed before Parliament.

The need to change the role of the State, the Ministry of Higher Education and the UGC as the main provider of Higher Education to a regulator and protector of higher education is imperative. Therefore, an Accreditation and Quality Assurance Board has to be established to monitor quality in both state and non state sector providers of university education. The said bill is being prepared.

The government has taken steps to raise the standards of six universities in Sri Lanka up to international level. These selected universities are Peradeniya, Colombo, Moratuwa, Sri Jayawardenapura, Kelaniya, and Ruhuna. A survey conducted in October in 2010 showed that the University of Colombo was ranked 2185, the University of Moratuwa 2198, and the University of Peradeniya 3005 in the Web metrics Global ranking. It is a fact that many universities are not wealthy enough to pay for this evaluation on which the global ranking is made. However, Sri Lanka needs to make every effort to get into the exclusive club of world class universities in the world in order to be an education hub in the region.

State universities must be responsive to changes of higher education that flow from changes taking place in the global and regional spheres. Currently, they are concerned with academic and intellectual development but they have to change the teaching and learning process as well as governance and management which calls for a very high level of efficiency and effectiveness.

Way Forward

In this respect what is the way forward. At present we are going through a transitional state in the Sri Lankan political and socio-economic scenario. Currently, the government monopoly of higher education has collapsed due to the involvement of the non state sector as a result of globalization, internationalization and commercialization of higher education. Consequently, a two tier higher education system has emerged. The prospect looks good for the development of Sri Lanka as a regional centre for educational excellence.

The concept of a Knowledge Hub in Sri Lanka is viable in the post conflict macroeconomic environment. It could be an incentive to stimulate the rapid expansion of state and non state university education in the country. It would also complement the other proposed hubs of energy, trade, air and naval. However, we have to recognize that the concept of the knowledge hub is highly dependent on the overall development of the country and good governance. If not it will be confined to rhetoric that will give rise to agitation and turmoil. It is an honour and a privilege to present these thoughts before the Sri Lankan professional on the occasion of the 17 annual general meeting of the Quantity Survey Association. Thank you very much for your kind attention during my speech. I wish you all the success.


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