Why we need more private universities | Daily News


Why we need more private universities

Sri Lanka is facing an education crisis. A rising and young population is stretching the higher education facilities, while rapidly changing demands of the domestic job market are outpacing university reforms.

Currently, about 125,000 students pass the GCE A-Level examination, out of which around 25,000 enter State Universities annually leaving the balance with three choices: (1) get admission to a foreign university at a huge cost, (2) get admission to a Sri Lankan private university or Institute at a moderate cost, or (3) join the unskilled workforce. According to the estimates, about 15,000 take the first and second options and the remaining 85,000, due to financial constraints, seek employment.

We have 15 national universities. That is a reasonable number for a small developing country like Sri Lanka. We also do have a considerable number of private universities and institutes offering degree programmes. Some surveys indicate this number to be around 80. We do not know whether the Ministry of Higher Education has done a reliable survey grading them on the quality of education and facilities they offer to their students. However, we do know that proper monitoring mechanisms are not in operation. The students who get enrolled to universities or institutes which are sub-standard or have no affiliation to any reputed university are in risk.


Few months ago, this writer met an education consultant who had a good experience in higher education systems in many Asian and Western countries. According to his observation, Sri Lanka has one of the most stressed university education systems in the world.

Those stresses include increasing numbers of qualified students and a limited capacity for university admission, a lack of international competition owing to outdated curricula and teaching standards and a lack of connection between the curricula and the labour market requirements.

The present Government is making ongoing efforts to reform the curricula, implement controls on quality, improve linkages with the market, introduce modified admission systems and improve planning.

But making changes to the large and resistant public system will be difficult. It will take time. Meanwhile we need both a short-term and long-term solutions.

Are private universities the main solution?

Strangely, we have become all too familiar with this question. It has been asked many times by many people and debated in many forums, but could not so far reach a consensus of opinion.

Access to education

The issue of permitting private universities to offer university education in Sri Lanka is not a new concept. In 2010, the then Minister of Higher Education, S.B Dissanayake, said that it was the top priority of his ministry to open up university education to the private sector and reputed foreign universities.

There was an opposition, particularly from the student organisations. Yet, there were many who understood the bitter ground reality, including the Buddhist scholar and respected educationist, Ven Professor Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera, Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura at that time. He was reported to have encouraged the Minister in his new venture.

The main reason of some student organisations’ agitation against 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.

Experiences of other countries show us that it doesn’t. The State and private universities exist complementing each other, not competing. The competition will be amongst the private universities themselves for the rankings. The final beneficiary would be the student, with better academic experience.

Quality drop

It is an open secret that since late 70s, the overall quality of State university graduates has declined sharply as a result of wrong education planning. For a large number of students, the dawning realisation that their degree qualifications are not much valued in the workplace, particularly in the thriving private sector, has come as a rude awakening.

The suggested solutions for the crisis take several forms. The most common of these is to find ways to free the education from State influence, at least partially, so as to be able to promote a more selective admissions policy and a more challenging and adventurous curriculum. State control, it was realised, sets up active impediments towards experimentation in education when it allows its academic elites to promote an agenda of conservatism and general stasis.


Most foreign countries have a tradition of private universities. Even among our neighbouring SAARC countries, the concept was adapted and found sound and practical.

For example, after the Private University Act of 1992 over 90 approved private universities have been established in Bangladesh. All private universities must be approved by UGC and a permit obtained before operation. In India, privately funded institutions have existed since independence. Many of these universities offer multidisciplinary professional courses similar to state funded universities; however institutions offering single stream specialization programmes are also in existence. In India there are 246 approved private universities. Pakistan has over 59 approved private degree granting universities. All are supervised by the Higher Education Commission (HEC).

There are many reasons why more private universities should be established in Sri Lanka.

Private university education is important because, first and foremost, they offer time-demanded study courses for the aspiring students. They are far ahead of the state universities in terms of using modern technology in education. Their curricula are updated using western methods and are revised regularly and promptly, while public universities lag behind in this respect. Private universities give students the skills required by the job markets which sharpens their fighting edge in the competition of employment.

Most of the private universities have University student assistance schemes to provide financial assistance to eligible students who are experiencing financial hardship which is adversely affecting their education. The State and private banks too, could move in with soft long-term loans with minimum interest rates. Repayment can start two years after the student obtains employment and period of payment can stretch up to 10-15 years.


Private universities can save a considerable amount of foreign currency for the country. Good private universities attract students who, having economic solvency would otherwise fly to foreign lands. Private universities will give them the option of studying the desired subjects with the advantage of living with their families and acquaintances in a familiar environment.

Studying outside the country is not only expensive but also carries a element of risk - the culture shock. The second factor, particularly, causes dilution of the indigenous values, which ultimately affects national life and widens the generation gap. The choice of a local university, on the other hand, reduces the risk of disintegration of traditional social codes.

Most private universities have created a culture of close teacher-student contact, unlike state universities. They have the provision of mandatory class attendance and mandatory counselling for students by the tutors. Students are awarded marks for attendance, just like they are for assignment, quiz, presentation, project and examination. It ensures frequent interaction between tutors and students, which has a positive impact on the learning process. Teachers’ sanction of extra time obviously strengthens student-teacher relationship.


While there is a strong case for permitting the private sector to venture into university education in Sri Lanka, as a supplement to the existing state university system, unless a suitable mechanism is introduced to assure the quality and standards of such institutions, the new system too may be destined to failure.

If the Government allows only recognised foreign universities to have branches here and also set up a special council to regulate the universities, this sort of malady could be minimised.

Generally, private universities are committed to quality education despite having business concerns. They try to produce competent graduates with their efforts by employing scholarly tutors with high qualifications. They offer salaries very much above the industry standards. They strive to create a congenial atmosphere and use their own developed systems for sharpening their students’ skills. The ultimate beneficiaries are the students.

The survival of the private universities will depend on the image they create, the results they generate and the acceptance they inculcate in the minds of the students, tutors, parents, the regulators and the general public.

Through necessary legislation and monitoring actions, the regulatory body can create an environment in which all private universities will come into healthy competition with one another and improve their quality. This way the State universities and private universities can deliver the results for the best interest of the country. 

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