The role of state universities in the knowledge hub in Sri Lanka


by Professor Gamini Samaranayake,

Senior Professor/Chair,

Department of Political Science,

University of Peradeniya

(Convocation speech delivered at the convocation of the Eastern university of Sri Lanka on the 20th of April 2013)

The Hon, Deputy Minister for Higher Education, the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University, Deans of Faculties, Heads of Departments, members of the academic staff, The Registrar and Bursar, the members of the non academic staff, other invited guests, the graduands, parents and well wishers, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to thank the Vice Chancellor for inviting me here today to deliver the convocation address.

I would like to depart from the traditional convocation speech and would like to focus on the role and trajectory of the Sri Lankan Universities in the envisaged Knowledge Hub in Sri Lanka which gives me an opportunity to focus on the changing role of the academic staff, the undergraduates and all of the stakeholders of the universities. The speech therefore looks at the contribution universities should make in Sri Lanka’s bid of becoming a knowledge hub. The specific analytical considerations are:

- the viability, potential and trajectory of the universities

- and how the knowledge hub will address some of the problems and challenges currently facing the higher education sector.

The basic argument therefore is that the way forward in addressing the multi-faceted issues in higher education is by implementing structural changes that are aligned to the changes that are taking place at the international level in higher education. However, it does not mean that we depend on external forces to determine how we address some of the salient issues but it is more about how we think strategically in aligning and forging our own solutions.

The speech is logically structured into five major sections of analysis. The first examines the factors which have contributed to the current nature and scope of university education at the global and local level. The second part deals with the origin, development and present issues of university education in the country. The third part deals with the changing landscape in higher education providers including foreign campuses or transnational higher educational institutes which has a bearing on state universities, the fourth part deals with the knowledge hub, advantages, opportunities and challenges, The fifth part of the deals with the observations and suggestions and draws on generic conclusions.

Changes in the Global Higher Education System

University education is not an isolated phenomenon but is subject to the vagaries of external and internal factors. Let us consider the external factors first. The external factors stem from the processes of globalization, internationalization and multi-nationalization of university education. Globalization comprises of broad economic and political changes that are supported by the rapid advancement in communication and technology or ICT, the use of the English language as the language of learning followed by French and Spanish, the rise of 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 a government or education institutions develop to cope with the global environment such as providing academic programmes in foreign languages and sponsoring students to continue their studies abroad. Multinationalization means offering a country’s programmes in other countries. It covers the application of another country’s education programmes, and adapts courses and syllabi in a country’s context responding to the needs and the desire to be part of globalization. Multi-nationalization functions by means of branch campuses, franchising, joint degree offering institutions called twining, establishing partnership, and university centers, online programmes, distance mode of delivery and e-learning. As a result, well established universities are setting up offshore or branch campuses in other countries. It is referred to as the McDonalization of higher education.

In the case of internal factors, it is undoubtedly tied to the post independence trajectory of the country. The demographic structure of the country underwent significant changes with the expansion of health and education services. The maternal, child and infant mortality rates declined, the primary health care system expanded and delivered services to all parts of the country, life expectancy increased and the mortality rate declined. The concomitant expansion of education as a right with free education from primary to tertiary level facilitated human development to such an extent that we are now on par with developed countries in terms of the Human Development and Gender Parity Indexes.

What are the implications of such a development on higher education? Undoubtedly there was a bulge in the youth and child population in the demographic structure. This young population made maximum use of the education and health services and Sri Lanka is left with a youth cohort that aspires for higher education and white collar employment. Education is the only means of upward social mobility for the educated rural youth and it continues to be so in the future.

This demand for education has reached another stage today. We have near universal coverage in primary and secondary education and the issue at hand is no longer the provision of services but the quality and governance of services. In higher education we have a different problem. We have not expanded higher education at the same pace as the demand and today only about 16% access education as a right free of charge provided by the state.

We have all of the other conducive factors in place for the knowledge hub such as a bulge in the youth population though declining will remain relatively static till about 2020, a primary and secondary education that has reached near universal coverage though it requires significant modernization and a human development and gender parity index that ensures equal opportunity for all. According to the current assessment of our Human Development Index Sri Lanka is placed with the developed countries. The end of the civil strife in 2009 has made it possible for me to stand here and address you today and your university is now connected to a wider network rather than being isolated. I think your current Vice Chancellor has returned to the country as part of this peace dividend.

The area where the peace dividend is most evident is in the economic development of the country which has also given rise to an expansion in the use of technology in communication and mobility. The economic stability has fostered an environment for enterprise development which has influenced the higher education sector where the supply does not meet the demand. The rapid development in transport infrastructure, the increased internal mobility and emigration and immigration have widened the horizons of the youth population.

The formation of trade alliances and 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), and the Bologna process has further revolutionized the understanding and practice in higher education globally as well as locally.

There have been various efforts to meet the demand for Higher Education in the country and all over the world. In the late 1960s there was no country in Western Europe that had a Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) that was higher than 8 percent. Currently, the GER is more than 50 per cent. As a result, the model of university education has changed from elite to mass and to international. 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.

What is noteworthy in this context is that the quest for higher education is accompanied by a demand for quality, recognition and employability. The quality of higher education is measured by the following criteria: modernized classrooms, libraries, laboratories, study halls, syllabi, and methods of teaching and evaluation.

Currently the strongest British and American universities 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 undergraduates, postgraduates and professional education for those who will emerge from all walks of life. Consequently, many universities in both countries are referred to as World Class universities. Simultaneously, Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, China and India seek to expand the capacity of their system of university education.

The Global changes have also made a significant impact to improve equity in higher education but in the case of Sri Lanka the advantages are mostly confined to those who can afford higher education. Maintaining equity in Sri Lanka is more complex as higher education is provided as a right and is a politicized processed. Therefore to improve equity Sri Lanka will have to continue to invest in state universities to align the courses and the skills set that students acquire to the labour force demands, the private higher education institutions will have to offer scholarships and fellowships to the high achieving students from poor families or disadvantaged regions and the state universities will have to focus on increasing efficiency, effectiveness and accountability. 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

Thus, the main challenge before university education is to increase access and quality while maintaining equity. The initiative of the member countries of the European Union (EU) is referred as the "bologna process" which proposed a restructuring of under-graduate and post-graduate programmes and a credit transfer system, among the EU countries. The World Trade Organization (WTO) through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) has encouraged private higher educational among its member countries. It has already contributed to a world-wide debate on whether higher education is for public good or private good. If it is provided as a private good higher education should be up for sale as a service like any other product.

Sri Lanka cannot remain insulated from these changes and global debates and they do reach us in many forms and means and we are compelled to seek solutions within this framework of change while being mindful of the many social and political implications.

Origin and Development

In this context it seems relevant to have an overview of the system in Sri Lanka. 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.

Currently, there are 14 conventional universities, three campuses, one Open University, 9 undergraduate and 8 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. The 19, universities provide higher education under the principle of Free Education but the right to education defines free education as equity in access and quality which we find questionable. 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.

The biggest challenge facing our university education is ensuring equal opportunity in access and quality. In 2010 54,000 applied for 22,000 placements at our universities. The Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) which means the ratio of students enrolled in higher education in the age cohort of 18 to 24 yeas is close to 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 maintain the GER to the 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. The curriculum and courses we offer should contribute to the production of a skilled labour force that meets 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 to 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. The UGC has been grappling with issues of expanding access and quality and it is a 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. Defense, countering adverse propaganda by a well organized international network and post conflict recovery continue to monopolize a large part of our resources and the state cannot maintain an extensive welfare package while stimulating economic growth.

Transnational National Higher Education

The transnational Higher Education in Sri Lanka is a result of the above-mentioned changes in university education and the needs of the country. The 86% of students who fail to gain admission to universities have to seek an alternative to continue their higher studies. The majority of these students generally opt for accessing overseas universities and transnational higher educational institutes or undertake professional courses such as CIMA, SLIT, and CIM etc. It has to be noted that most of these students are high achieving students who are excluded from state universities due to the District quota system. In addition we also have a large number of students who study at so called international schools which are registered under the Board of Investment. Most of the large scale schools provide quality education that equips the students to compete at an international level. Therefore the young population is increasingly compelled to seek international and transnational university education.

In the recent past, it is estimated that 4,000 to 6,000 Sri Lankans have sought education in the UK. Another noteworthy feature is that it is no longer those form the upper middle classes and the rich who are sending their children to study abroad. There is an emerging middle class, which is striving to give their children and educational advantage over the others. While parents and students value higher education, they are far from happy with what is offered by the Sri Lankan universities. They seek private higher education and overseas educational opportunities with a growing sense of urgency.

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 will be 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 strategy that is being explored as an option to address the pervasive issues affecting higher education in Sri Lanka.

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 and 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 His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his Election Manifesto of 2009 that later became the national plan of action for development. It is stated that Sri Lanka will "develop youth who can see the world over the horizon" and the commitment is stated as "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. 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. Sri Lanka has a projected target of attracting 10,000 foreign students by 2014 which would increase to 100,000 by 2020.

The edge in the demand side

The 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 Early Childhood Care and Development 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.

Sri Lanka also 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 and consider the re-skilling of the labour force as well.

Furthermore, 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 foreign branch campuses can enhance the quality of teaching and research faculty. It is a recognized fact that the importance of university based scientific research drives economic growth. It would also increase the exposure of our students and enhance their knowledge on international affairs.

Opportunities and Challenges

In this situation, it is imperative to examine opportunities and challenges ahead before the foreign campuses in the country. Given the unique context of Sri Lanka international universities have shown interest in expanding their education. More than 60 transnational higher education institutes in the country are linked to the universities and higher education institutes in Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), Malaysia, India and United States of America (USA) offer 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 terrorism has opened new doors for attracting foreign universities to establish collaboration 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.


However, we have to be mindful of the limitations. We do have examples where private higher education with state patronage has been met with stiff opposition. Student unrest, destabilization and propensity for violence in universities are a major threat to university education in the country.

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 may 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.

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 call for a very high level of efficiency and effectiveness.

As discussed above, the state universities will continue to play a vital role in providing the human resources the country needs but not in its current form. Our courses need to be diversified and reorganized and the skills set that our students graduate with are equally diversified so that they have the edge to compete in a global market. The universities can no longer play the traditional role of delivering lectures but need to build partnerships with a range of stakeholders so that they can make this transition. If not the foreign campuses will become the pivot of the knowledge hub in Sri Lanka. After working for nearly 7 years at the UGC I feel that the more recently established universities such as yours can make this transition much faster than the long established universities that have to shed a lot of myths and unproductive traditional forms of thinking to make a meaningful contribution to the knowledge hub and gain from it at the same time. The Eastern Province is ear marked as one of the provinces with a high growth potential and the university has to re charter its course to make sure that it is well aligned with the regional developments and provides the opportunity for the students to benefit from it. One such step is to re-think about the courses you offer. The fishing and marine industry as well as the tourist industry is some of the industries that will be ear marked for development and your graduates need to be prepared to find their niche in these industries. Apart from the local market you should think about how you will attract researchers and students from other countries for such new courses. Of course I know that the main problem is finding the human and financial resources but we cannot be held down by these factors due to our own limitations in being innovative.

At present we are going through a transitional state in the Sri Lankan higher education particularly university education. Currently, the government monopoly of higher education is relaxed due to the presence of the cross border or transnational sector which accommodates processes 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 but we cannot be fully complacent because we need to recognize the risks of opposition arising from the politicization of higher education. Therefore our universities will continue to be the pivot on which the knowledge hub will emerge or not emerge.

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