Graduate (un)employment | Daily News


Graduate (un)employment

There were several noteworthy developments in the education sphere this week. In one incident, Police had to fire tear gas to disperse a gathering of “unemployed university graduates” who were trying to march on to the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo.

This has been going on for some time, with this group of graduates blocking a key road and demanding jobs from the Government from time to time. This issue can be analyzed in two ways. One is that these graduates still cannot find a job after 3-4 years of studies because what they have studied does not match job market requirements. Another factor is that their knowledge of English is rather poor. Otherwise, thousands of jobs advertised in our sister newspaper The Sunday Observer would not go unfilled week after week.

But the graduates alone cannot be blamed for this situation. Most of our university courses are still archaic ones with no relevance to modern society or job requirements. A casual glance at the website of any foreign university will reveal details of the latest cutting edge courses available, none of which is available here. Thus when our graduates emerge from the university, they come back to Earth with thud, having learned the hard way that no jobs are available for them. It is time that the university authorities took note of the redundant courses offered and removed them while starting courses that are more attuned to the times.

In any case, it is clear the Government alone cannot provide employment to all the graduates. With around 25,000 university students graduating each year, that would be a tall order. Employment is assured for doctors only because there is a shortage of medical personnel in Government hospitals. Ditto for graduate teachers and engineers. Once the cadre is reached even in these categories, it may not be possible for the Government to grant employment to the relevant graduates.

In fact, some have suggested that when entering universities, students should be required to sign a sort of indemnity form whereby the Government absolves itself of the responsibility of finding jobs for them. The graduates must remember the fact that the people had essentially paid for their “free” education through their taxes and asking for Government jobs mainly in non-productive sectors places a further burden on the public purse. Moreover, these demonstrations cause a massive inconvenience to the public by way of traffic jams, blocked or closed roads and restriction of movement.

However, to the Government’s credit, it has been striving to provide employment to graduates to the greatest possible extent. Accordingly, it recently launched a programme to provide jobs to 16,000 graduates, with an initial batch of 3,800 getting their appointment letters from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Government hopes to expand this programme, but it will still not be possible to give each and every graduate a job. Graduates will also have to give up their penchant for white collar jobs and diversify into more hands-on technically oriented jobs required by industry.

The other good news was the Supreme Court verdict that essentially recognizes the legality of SAITM. This is the final word on this matter and we hope all parties will abide by the Court decision. But the implications of the ruling go far beyond the SAITM issue. This is a victory for all those who believe that private universities should be a part of the solution for the lacuna in education that we now experience.

The facts are crystal clear – even though around 100,000 students qualify to enter State universities each year, they can only absorb around 25,000. What happens to the rest? Most of them are denied any chance of higher education, which is a real shame. On the other hand, those who can afford to pay millions of rupees enroll in overseas universities, which results in a huge loss of foreign exchange. Even if only 1,000 students attend foreign universities ever year, that is still a substantial loss of foreign exchange.

This loss is compounded when most of these students decide to stay back in their host countries after graduation and obtain permanent residency. This is also a case of public funds spent on free education here going waste. But if we had around 5-6 local private universities, they would have been able to absorb a good number of students who are unable to gain admission to the State universities.

This will, of course, save a huge amount of foreign exchange while possibly retaining these students in Sri Lanka even after graduation. There is another benefit – they will be able to attract students especially from the region, turning them into forex earning institutions. In fact, other countries in the region have overtaken Sri Lanka vis-à-vis private universities during the period we have been embroiled in this controversy and are reaping the dividends in terms of forex earnings and attracting world class talent.

Education is a dynamic sector that does not stand still. If we stagnate, other countries will forge ahead, leaving us behind. Now is the time to take clear-cut policy decisions on this issue.

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