Taking our University system to the next level | Daily News


Taking our University system to the next level

With the release of the GCE Advanced Level results last week, the focus has again shifted to the 150,000 (approx.) aspiring students who cannot gain entry to State universities despite passing the examination. This is because the State universities can only take in around 30,000 students annually. The fate of the rest has become the subject of a debate that has been raging for years in the media, political circles and in the wider society. In fact, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa set aside around 10 minutes of his 35 minute address to the Nation from Parliament for the subject of education, having realised its crucial importance to the country’s development.

One possible answer to this problem of highly limited university intake is the opening of new universities in areas where the need for higher educational institutions is felt heavily. Regions such as Uva have suffered for years as Colombo-centric ministers and bureaucrats turned their attention to opening universities in the more developed provinces. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has pledged to remedy this imbalance.

As a first step in this endeavour, the Institute of Surveying and Mapping, located at Diyatalawa in the Badulla district will be made an accredited university, Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Higher Education, Technology and Innovations Dr. Bandula Gunawardena said. This is part of the Government’s drive to develop human resources and educational facilities. While noting that the government’s intention was to provide quality university education opportunities to a maximum number of students, he said it was imperative that institutions like the Institute of Surveying and Mapping should be upgraded to university status. This is indeed good news for students hoping to enter the State universities. The Government should look at other such accredited institutions and explore the possibility of upgrading them too to university status.

There are two approaches to the question of students unable to gain entry to the traditional universities. The authorities clearly have to revisit the subject of private universities. There are plenty of educational institutions in Sri Lanka that offer degree courses, with the caveat that the final year has to be completed in a foreign university. One can understand the opposition to private medical colleges, given the need to ensure entry standards and patient safety, but the field should be open to all other disciplines. If we have more formal privately-run universities, we can not only save foreign exchange by offering the entire degree course locally but also attract foreign students and hence, foreign exchange. There will be a big market from South Asia itself for education in Sri Lanka. In fact, this was alluded to by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his speech.

The other factor to consider is the availability of jobs for those who wish to stop higher learning at either OL or AL. There are two issues that complicate this. It is generally believed that a school leaver with good English skills can easily find a job in the mercantile sector, whereas a rural student with very limited skills will be left in the lurch. This is mostly true. But the lack of any job-oriented subjects in the OL and AL dims their prospects further. It is time that such subjects (motor mechanism, electronics etc.) are introduced to the school curricula. The removal of these subjects some time back was a monumental mistake.

The same problem persists at the graduate level. Most university courses, which are strictly academic in nature, are not in consonance with the job market requirements. Thus when these graduates pass out of university, they are usually unable to find employment in spite of the availability of thousands of jobs advertised weekly in newspapers and the Web. This has led to the establishment of a so-called “Unemployed Graduates Union” which should not exist in reality. The Government cannot be expected to grant every graduate a job, after spending millions on their education too.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa referred to this state of affairs in his Parliamentary address, stressing that urgent action should be taken to put things right. Again, most graduates have a very poor knowledge of the “Kaduwa” (local parlance for English) which puts them at a severe disadvantage in the job market. Practically no job is available to those with poor English skills. The President mentioned this too, saying that action will be taken to give the graduates suitable English skills. Some time back, there was a private sector initiative that imparted English language skills to graduates before offering them employment in various companies. Such a programme should be started again.

The President also lamented that Sri Lankan universities have slipped off the world rankings of late and that action must be taken to improve their rankings. University education has become fiercely competitive around the world and a good ranking helps to attract more students and research opportunities from global tech companies. A major revamp has to be effected in our education and university system for us to regain the lost rankings. Universities must once again be thought of as seats of learning that produce global citizens who are in tune with the latest trends in business, politics, technology and education itself.

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