Lessons from the Azerbaijan student tragedy | Daily News


Lessons from the Azerbaijan student tragedy

The tragic deaths of three Sri Lankan students in Baku, Azerbaijan, last week, have raised several important questions. Malsha Sandeepani, Tharuki Amaya and Amodya Jayakody had died of smoke inhalation after the lower section of their apartment complex caught fire last Thursday.

They were following an apparel design course at a higher educational institution in Baku, having gone there in July last year. The Sri Lankan authorities are working with our mission in Tehran and Azerbaijan’s mission in New Delhi to work out the logistical and other arrangements to bring the students’ remains home.

The accidental deaths of people of all ages who are caught in such urban fires is a common occurrence, not so much in this country as in some other, more under-developed, parts of South Asia. Time and again, the deaths are due to the tragic failure in maintenance of urban fire prevention standards or, failure in the safety standards of buildings or, both.

In the light of this tragedy and, a few previous incidents of this nature, it is time for the education authorities to issue strict guidelines for students who wish to study abroad. The education authorities can take a cue from the Foreign Employment Bureau, which has a very strict system for monitoring local and foreign employment agencies and also host employers abroad, via welfare officers in our diplomatic missions. Registration at the SLBFE is compulsory for all those who go abroad for employment, in order to prevent employees from falling prey to unscrupulous employers and various scams. This has largely prevented the abuse of Sri Lankan workers abroad.

Given the veritable explosion of numbers of Sri Lankan high school leavers now studying overseas, it is time to establish a similar system to monitor overseas educational destinations in order to ensure the welfare of our students. We see a large number of advertisements in the newspapers offering higher education in remote, often quite under-developed, countries and often unheard-of institutions. There is no idea at all about the educational, health and safety standards in these institutions and countries and, whether the courses/degrees offered are recognized elsewhere in the world.

Moreover, the middlemen and agencies in Sri Lanka are known to charge hefty sums from unsuspecting parents and students to facilitate the students’ entry to these virtually unknown institutions. The blaze in Baku shows the need to assess the state of infrastructure, including accommodation facilities, in these higher education institutions.

It will perhaps be a wise move to publish a list of institutions that are approved for higher education abroad after scrutiny by our educational authorities. Parents and students should also be advised about the ramifications of applying to educational institutions in countries which do not have a Sri Lankan Embassy or Consulate. Consular assistance and logistical arrangements can be rendered much faster in countries that have a Sri Lankan diplomatic presence, which is a great advantage at a time of crisis.

This brings us back to the fundamental question – why go abroad at all for higher studies? The problem here seems to be the lack of higher educational opportunities for students who fail to gain admission to State universities, which can only enroll around 30,000 students per year. This still leaves more than 150,000 students who cannot be offered places in the State universities in spite of being qualified for same.

Thus parents who are desperate to see their children gain more educational qualifications scramble to send them abroad. While the rich parents can afford to send their children to top-notch global universities in countries such as USA, UK, Australia and Canada, middle class parents have no option but to send their children off to institutions in developing countries which charge lower fees but which may not have the same level of global recognition.

One possible solution is to open more universities here, but the State can only establish a limited number of new universities given the budgetary and logistical constraints. Nevertheless, Higher Education Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena has already pledged to convert to university level two existing institutions offering courses in Surveying and Forestry. In fact, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dwelt at length on this issue in his Policy Statement delivered in Parliament.

Immediately, however, parents who can afford will send their children abroad, spending large amounts of foreign exchange. On the other hand, if we had more private universities, more students will opt to remain here and study rather than go abroad. This will not only save foreign exchange, but also attract it, through foreign students who wish to study here.

It is also important to grade and register all private institutions that offer degrees locally, so that students will be assured of their investment.

Education has become a major business globally, with some countries deriving around 5-10 percent of their total income from foreign students. It is time to shed outdated notions with regard to private education and embrace the fact that education is a global experience that produces globally-oriented citizens.

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