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Why Sri Lanka needs private universities?

Sri Lanka needs more universities and the annual intake of students to the universities be increased. Considering the number of people per universities in other countries, Sri Lanka needs to establish a minimum of new 40 universities. This is not an easy task for the government, with other priorities in health, transport, and infrastructure development sector, etc. to invest in 40 more new universities and increase the current intake. The government has to think innovatively to cope with this massive demand for university education

By Ajantha Premarathna MBA (Sri J.), FIQS-SL, FRICS, ACIArb. Chartered Quantity Surveyor
The topic of private universities has surfaced again in Sri Lanka following government recognition of private medical college in Malabe, South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM). There had been several arguments presented by the both parties to prove their case. Opposing parties to Private Medical College primarily are medical doctors and in general undergraduates, leftist political parties, mainly JVPers who are opposing to any kind of privatisation in Sri Lanka.
The main reason of them to oppose to the opening for private investments in university education is that they think that private universities would harm the present free education system in Sri Lanka. I was a student fighter in my school and tertiary education time against privatisation of education in order to safeguard the free education that I have enjoyed 30 years before. The time has now come to explore and analyze, whether this slogan still valid to the present global trend of tertiary education and social culture.

Free education
The fact that a significant number of GCE (A/L) students, who qualify for university education, fail to secure a place in the universities in the country has created a major social and economic drawback within the society. Although, the government has provided free education at primary and secondary levels since the beginning of the free education policy, it has failed to make free education available to all those eligible to receive a university education.

Lack of university education for the majority of Sri Lankans is a national issue which has an impact on all sectors of society. Compared to other regional countries, the number of people with a university education in Sri Lanka is extremely low. The crisis is being discussed from the 1970s to date. Numerous proposals have been discussed and attempts made to implement them. The proposal made by the then government in the form of a White Paper to expand the education system in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s is an example of such failed efforts. In the recent past limitations in university admissions, the quality of university education and discipline of undergraduates have been discussed in many national forums. In these forums great emphasis was given to inadequacy of university admissions. With the expansion of International Schools, and more and more GCE (A/L) students being left high and dry without further sustainable directions, and without university education opportunities, the seriousness of this issue is of very close concern to the general public. Unlike a few decades back, contemporary society is well aware about this issue. Therefore, a policy decision to increase university education opportunities for Sri Lankans would be a warmly welcomed by the general public.

Current policy
The education system in Sri Lanka cannot be discussed without reviewing or referring to the free education policy in place within the island for more than 60 years. Free education is part and parcel of the fabric of Sri Lankan life. Any changes to the current policy would not be welcome by Marxist political parties, graduates, and undergraduates. The free education policy has provided 100% primary and secondary education. However, it has not been able to provide a similar status to university education. The architects of free education did not envisage the influx of a massive student population from secondary education to university education. Further, they did not formulate a sustainable solution for those students who qualify for tertiary education. Consequently, around 85% of the students who qualify for university education fall by the wayside. This has created the following social and economic issues within Sri Lankan society:
(i) Unrest arising from the deprivation of a university education for the youth was politically exploited by Marxist political parties on several occasions in 1971 and the late 1980s.
(ii) A shortage of university educated people in Sri Lanka compared to other regional countries. This is mainly because only 0.001% of the population of Sri Lanka enters universities each year whereas in other regional countries it is nearly 5% of the population.
(iii) Increasing unemployment among the youth and growing fears of a bleak future also cause deep frustration.

(iv) In this unfortunate situation, opportunistic institutions will lure these frustrated and misguided youths to various unorganised and unaccredited so-called higher educational courses.
(v) Over as many as 10,000 students who were not enrolled for free university education would go to foreign countries for university education or follow foreign university degrees within Sri Lanka annually.
(vi) The brain drain from the country is exacerbated as these students who left the country for foreign university education and children of Sri Lankan expatriates who are also studying in foreign universities do not return to Sri Lanka following their graduation.
(xi) The unnecessary expenditure on GCE (AL) private tuition and stiff competition to enter the universities have produced an imbalance in Sri Lankan society and disturbed the conventional social and family life of parents and their children.

A close analysis of the reality of the free education policy shows, in fact, that there is no 100% free education in Sri Lanka today. School admission charges, private tuition fees in almost all the subjects from primary to secondary school level, other fees and expenses have to be incurred by parents under the so-called free education system. Further, since it is being delivered free, the quality of the education has declined. Students, especially those preparing to university, have to rely heavily on paid private tuition. This is the case in even primary and other secondary levels of education. Further, to some extent both primary and secondary education systems have been “privatised” through private schools and international schools. However, no such private institutions have yet been established in a regulated manner to grant university degrees Therefore, students leave the country annually to follow university education in a foreign country. This drains billion of foreign exchange from the country.

In view of the above, Sri Lanka needs more universities and the annual intake of students to the universities be increased. Considering the number of people per universities in other countries, Sri Lanka needs to establish a minimum of new 40 universities. This is not an easy task for the government, with other priorities in health, transport, and infrastructure development sector, etc. to invest in 40 more new universities and increase the current intake. The government has to think innovatively to cope with this massive demand for university education. It has to formulate a new radical policy objectively to increase opportunities for university education. The effective use of existing limited resources, Public Private Partnership (PPP), private sector investments, and allowing recognised foreign universities to establish in Sri Lanka are a few such policy decisions that need to be taken immediately.

Private universities
As the government permitted the private sector to embark into hospitals, transportation (private buses), primary and secondary schools (private and international schools) it should open the door for the private sector to set up universities as well. This is the trend followed by other countries. In India private higher education institutes and colleges are over 10 times as many as government universities (337:3616), in Pakistan it is almost twice (547:957) and in Bangladesh, it is 21:199 is nearly 10 times. Interestingly, in these countries the per capita of Gross National Product is well below that of Sri Lanka and yet they manage to promote the private sector in university education. Innovative and forward thinking visionary leaders are pouring billions of dollars into higher education, particularly for science and technology. Partnerships are being established between the universities of those countries and reputed institutions like INSEAD (the famous Business School in France), the Sorbonne, Monash, and MIT. According to the London-based ”Observatory on Borderless Higher Education’’, China is leading the race in international higher education with increasing numbers of foreign campuses attracting star-class researchers and academics.

There are many factors which dictate the necessity for private sector investment in university education in Sri Lanka:
(i) The limited number of seats in the public universities.
(ii) It will attract qualified high school students who are unable to gain admission to public universities.
(iii) Many students are not admitted to their preferred programmes and to their preferred university. They will opt for private university over the free public university as they can choose their preferred degree programme in line with their talent.
(iv) Private universities would have selection of more practical and job-oriented programmes.
(v) Private universities turn out graduates with a better command of language and better developed soft skills which are important to employers.
(vi) Student unrest, strikes, and violence are forcing regular closure of public universities, resulting in lengthening the time to complete the course compared to private institutions.
(vii) Influence of political parties, particularly parties like the JVP, disrupt the normal functioning of the government universities would not effect to education of private universities.
(viii) Practice of violence and brutal “ragging” would not be in the private universities.
Compared with other middle income countries such as those in East Asia or Latin America, the private sector in Sri Lanka still has plenty of room to improve. This new trend has been adopted in those countries and many other developed and developing countries. While the public sector education remains as the norm in many countries, the private sector plays a significant and growing role.

Similarly, there are a number of advantages in establishing private universities in Sri Lanka. These advantages range from social to economic benefits: (i) Private universities when established in Sri Lanka, it will compel public universities to maintain high standards, thereby gradually they reaching top world ranking, (ii) Due to inter-university competition and in order to survive in a competitive market by private universities, it will have to increase their quality and standards; thereby the students and the country will derive the benefits of quality outputs from the universities, (iii) Sri Lankan students who could not enter public universities would be able to graduate locally rather than going out of the country, (iv) It will attract more private sector investment, (v) The government would be able to provide more funds for the expansion of the present public universities, (vi) More job opportunities will be created in academic and non-academic fields in the private universities, (vii). Students would get high quality university education as the private universities have to maintain commercial sustainability and compete with other universities locally as well as internationally, (viii) The brain drain will be minimised as most of the students who have not received public university education will be able to enroll with private universities within the country, (viii) Those students who have not received an opportunity to enter government universities would have an alternative route to obtain a university degree locally, (ix) As the students are studying locally, it will retain a considerable amount of foreign exchange within the country.

By arranging student bank loans at very minimal interest, scholarships by the private university itself or organisations, scholarships based on merit, etc. would safeguard the free education concept to an extent within the private university culture. Furthermore, measures to expand private sector universities and colleges could include establishing a sound quality assurance and accreditation system, and introducing voucher, stipend and loan schemes for students enrolled in private universities.

The government shall set up a policy for establishing the private universities and should dictate in which places those universities should be established. At present, most of the private education institutions are centered in Colombo. Therefore, private universities need to be located in other districts such as Hambantota, Ratnapura, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Jaffna and Ampara, etc.

Foreign universities
Another proposal to meet this uphill task is to allow foreign universities to establish their branches in Sri Lanka. In the context of the higher education revolution that is taking place around the globe, countries such as Egypt, UAE, Qatar, China, India, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore have opened their doors to foreign higher education institutions like never before. International icons such as Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Monash, and LSE are invited and actively solicited by these governments to set up campuses in those countries. The Sri Lankan government shall also allow those renowned universities to be established in Sri Lanka. Further, the government should not worry about the quality and standard of such universities as they have been ranked top in the world.

There are many advantages in inviting those world class universities to Sri Lanka: (i) At present none of the public universities have been ranked within the first 2,000 top universities in the world. Having established such world top ranking universities in Sri Lanka, public universities will be compelled to maintain high standards, thereby gradually reaching world standards, (ii) Sri Lankan students would be able to graduate from such top universities locally rather than going out of the country, (iii) No government financing is required to set up those foreign universities; rather the government could charge some fees from them. This will ease the budget constraints of the government, (iv) It will attract foreign investments to Sri Lanka, (v) The government would be able to provide more funds for the expansion of public universities, (vi) More job opportunities will be created in the academic and non-academic fields, (vii) Students would get world class, high quality education from the world’s renowned lecturers, (viii) As most of the students will be retained in Sri Lanka, the brain drain will be minimised, (ix) Students who have not received an opportunity to enter government universities would have an alternative route to obtain a foreign university degree locally, (x) As the students are studying locally, it will retain a considerable amount of foreign exchange within the country, (xi) These foreign universities would be able to attract foreign students which will be an additional foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka.
The government shall formulate a policy for establishing the foreign universities and should decide in which place those universities are to be established. Presently, most of the core activities of the economy are centered in Colombo. Therefore, new foreign universities need to be located in other districts such as Galle,Hambantota, Ratnapura, Anuradhapura and Trincomalee, etc.

There are number of private institutions operating in Sri Lanka, mainly in Colombo, to train students for foreign university degrees. Students may follow the full course in Sri Lanka and in some cases follow the final years of the courses in the country where the university is located. Further, the quality of training received in these institutions is not regulated and there is no proper quality assurance. Therefore, by establishing foreign universities formally in Sri Lanka these deficiencies could be eliminated and it will provide university education to more Sri Lankans locally.

Private colleges
To establish a full-fledged private university or foreign university needs considerable capital investment, resources, and management and operation expertise. It will take some time to finalise the formalities before operations. In view of this long-term investment time lag, it will be more convenient to establish private colleges to grant university degrees. These colleges could be affiliated either to local or international universities or both. The colleges can specialise in their respective academic streams such as College of Estate Management, College of Business Management, College of Science and Technology, Law Colleges, Medical Colleges, etc. The quality and standards shall be on par with the universities to which they are affiliated.
Establishing private colleges to grant university degrees has a number of advantages: (i) It will assist the government to increase university education to the majority of Sri Lankans, (ii) Since the respective colleges have expertise or specialisations, their standards in the specific sectors would be very high compared to the traditional universities (iii) The unit cost of a subject or unit cost of the course would be comparatively lower than that of private and foreign universities mainly due to relatively low investment of capital.

Further to foregoing proposals and analysis, the authorities shall take each proposal for further detailed evaluation and shall prepare blueprints for the implementation within a specific timeframe. Further, they should be wary about the social unrest that may follow private sector investment in university education. Prior to implementing any of these proposals, a public awareness campaign shall be launched in order to educate the general public. Emphasis shall be given to the lack of government funds or limited funds and resources to expand the current public universities and to establish new universities. Therefore, the mindset of the general public must be taken into account in considering new innovative proposals like establishing private universities and colleges, and conducting dual sessions (day and evening and night in the government universities.

If the decision makers make a serious attempt to resolve the chronic crisis in university education and its concomitant social and economic impact, they should have a clear action plan. The action plan shall be measurable in terms of the intakes increases, and within which period of time it is to be implemented. Compared with the present annual intake of approximately 20,000 students, the target should be to increase the intake by more than double the present intake through various specific means. In order to achieve this challenging target within a specific timeframe the specific means that would pave the path to achieve the target number should be carefully worked out.