Equal opportunities for all graduates | Daily News


 

Equal opportunities for all graduates

Higher Education, Technology and Innovation Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena
Higher Education, Technology and Innovation Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena

The groundwork has begun to implement a national programme to provide higher education opportunities for all students who passed the G.C.E. Advanced Level examination, Higher Education, Technology and Innovation Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena said.

In an interview with the Daily News, the minister said the Government has focused its attention on restructuring the state universities and state-owned higher educational institutes in order to deliver President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pre-election pledges related to the higher education sphere.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: It was said that the Government plans to revise the Z-score system and introduce a school based method for university admissions. Can you elaborate on this plan? How is the feedback received to this proposal?

A: This is not something we intend to implement in a hurry. A broad discussion has been facilitated on it. We came up with this proposal because wide inequalities exist among different schools in the same district. For example, the resources in a not so known ‘Thummodara school’ cannot be compared with those of a popular school in Colombo. Therefore, applying the same z-score value to all schools in the district is not reasonable. Education Minister Dullas Allahapperuma has presented a Cabinet paper proposing to introduce a school-based method instead. An in-depth discussion with the university academia on the pros and cons of the proposed method is necessary.

If we decide to change the system, that will be informed to the students in advance. The new system will not apply to the students currently in the Advanced Level class. Any change will only be effective after another two years. For the moment, this is not our priority. All ministries have concentrated their energies on making ‘Surakshitha Ratak’ programme given in the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election manifesto a success.

Q: The University students’ protests, which block the main roads, are quite common nowadays. What is your approach to them? Can you also elaborate on the idea behind allocating a separate space known as ‘Agitation Site’ in close proximity to the Presidential Secretariat for demonstrations?

A: We made it clear at the beginning that we don’t intend to suppress students’ movements. During the previous administration, university students and students in other higher education institutes, who came to streets, were treated with tear gas, water cannon and baton assaults. This happened every week and students ran for their lives. Our Government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has put an end to this, and is taking a genuine effort to understand and solve their problems.

Despite that, some elements try to use students for provocation, hoping that we will retaliate. Therefore, we decided that allocating a separate space for public demonstrations is a good idea to minimize the inconveniences to the public. Now for the first time in Sri Lankan history, we have allocated an open space near Galle Face Greens for demonstrations. We have informed the students and other protestors to first discuss their problems with the relevant institution, and if there was no agreeable solution, come and meet the relevant higher officials of the Ministry after getting a formal appointment. If that was also fruitless, then make an appointment to meet the Minister, so that we can negotiate.

Q: The Government has already announced that the university intake would be increased by 25 percent this year. How do you intend to manage the hostel, lecture hall, toilet and other required facilities to all of them?

A: We intend to take the maximum use of the available human and physical resources in a very efficient manner. The plans have been made to increase the state universities’ intake of students by 25 percent this year. We have received a great support from the Vice Chancellors, Deans of Faculties, academic and non-academic staff in this regard. This has been done thinking of the future of our children.

In addition to improving the state universities, we hope to make quantitative, qualitative and structural changes in the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technological Education, University of Vocational Technology (UNIVOTEC), National Colleges of Education (“Vidyapeeta”) and Open University. Doing so, we expect to enroll about another 100,000 students for degree courses. A road map to achieve this target is being prepared.

Moreover, we intend to broaden distant and online education platforms. In other countries, students can do their degrees, postgraduate courses and the PhD through the Internet. The universities in other countries have given online access to books available in their libraries to students who are engaged in distant learning.

Q: How does the Government propose to generate employment opportunities for them?

A: These degree courses are job market oriented. About 50,000 IT related job opportunities are created every year in Sri Lanka. We expect that the demand will further grow with the development of service sector and also Colombo Port City. We want to produce degree holders who will cater to the demands in the job market or can initiate their own start up or self-employment. That is why I stressed the need to make quantitative, qualitative and structural changes in the higher educational institutes. Otherwise, it is not fair by the graduates.

Because of the mismatch between the graduates we produce and the job market, there are no jobs for our graduates, and at the same time, no eligible candidates for the existing jobs. This imbalance between the kinds of workers wanted by employers and the kinds of workers looking for jobs is called “structural unemployment”. No previous President or Government in this country had dealt with this problem successfully. There had also been hardly any intellectual dialogue in our country on structural unemployment.

It is in this context that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his election manifesto, undertook to make sure that all students, who pass the Advanced Level Examination, continue their higher education up to degree level. This would be made a reality within the period of office of the incumbent President, and the necessary groundwork to deliver this promise has already begun.

Q: The Government has decided to recruit about 50,000 unemployed graduates to the public service. How does the Government intend to manage the additional burden on public funds?

A: After 2012, the Government has not given jobs for graduates for eight years. The Government cannot shirk this responsibility, and it cannot get away from the blame of producing graduates who do not have jobs. What we have planned is not a wholesale recruitment, but we offer them one year leadership and field-specific vocational training starting from March 1. Transfers are not allowed for the first five years when they are placed to fill the vacancies in the cadre in rural areas. Likewise, we will manage the additional cadre productively.

The progressive feature here is that we give equal opportunities for all graduates to contribute to the country irrespective of their political, ethnic, religious, and gender differences. There are no special perks when you enter the public service, because the previous administration suspended the pension for new recruits with two thirds majority in Parliament. We require two thirds majority in Parliament, if we are to undo that.

Q: There is a shortage of lecturers in some Faculties. The University authorities complain that it is hard to find lecturers for subjects such as Engineering, Medicine etc. How do you propose to fill these vacancies and retain them in the long run?

A: That problem has been solved to a great extent. Now, there is lack of space in state universities for those wanting to be lecturers. There is shortage of lecturers for some subjects because of the same reason I mentioned above. Eleven new Technology Faculties will come up in the next few years for engineering technology, bio-science technology and information technology. That was result of my perseverance when I was the Education Minister to introduce a new technology stream to the Advanced Level class. We have to find lecturers to the new technology faculties.

Q: What is the Government policy with regard to private universities?

A: Regulating them is a must. Some have fairly good standards whereas some don’t. The Government has to step in to regulate them as otherwise students who enroll in them spending a large sum of money will be met with injustice.

The more pressing problem we have is that 21,000 students go to foreign universities every year, whereas we can only absorb 30,000 students to state universities.

The students in large numbers go to foreign universities, and as a result about Rs. 50 billion flow out of the country every year. Some parents send their children abroad by mortgaging their property. When these children complete their higher education, they have acquired the required language proficiency and advanced technological skills, so that they opt to settle in those foreign lands by obtaining the permanent residency. After marriage, their children will never come back to this country. It is a situation that we must give serious attention to as we not only lose foreign exchange but also our future assets.

As an alternative solution, we can follow the footsteps of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who formed ‘Putrajaya’ city which now has leading universities. We have to invite world-class universities to come to Sri Lanka and give them necessary facilities to form their branches here. Then we can save both the foreign exchange and human resources we now lose.

Q: What is your stance with regard to Higher Education (Quality Assurance and Accreditation) Bill that aims to establish a Quality Assurance and Accreditation Commission for Higher Education?

A: Since our attention has been fully given to restructuring the state universities and state-owned higher educational institutes these days, the topic of this bill is not given prime focus at the moment. But the Bill has to be given serious attention after the General Elections, as we urgently need a mechanism to regulate the private universities. Otherwise, those universities may cause serious trouble to the students.

Q: What is the Government’s stance on the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT)?

A: The Cabinet has appointed a ministerial committee headed by Nimal Siripala de Silva in this regard. Ministers Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa and I are members of this committee. The committee will present a report to the Cabinet after studying the changes at SLIIT and their impact. The future course of action will be decided by the Cabinet after that.

Q: What is the Government’s position with regard to controversial Batticaloa higher educational institute?

A: There are objections against this institute. The student movements have requested to take it over to the Government. Accordingly, the Government will investigate on such private higher educational institutes and take them over where necessary.

Q: What new proposals have been made to stop ragging in universities?

A: Last year, about 2,000 students had given up university education due to ragging according to Police reports. They had been subjected to mental, physical and sexual harassment.

We appointed an erudite committee headed by a former Supreme Court judge to look into these complaints and to assess whether they can be re-admitted to the universities.

The committee will make public announcements to receive complaints in the coming days. The students’ confidentiality will be safeguarded.

The President, even in his Independent Day speech, underlined that people should have their freedom within the institutions they belong to, may it be school, university or workplace. They must be able to work without fear or doubt. We have requested the authorities to ensure that freedom in universities and higher educational institutes. For that, we will strictly implement the provisions under the Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act and other existing legal provisions. We have also requested to set up a special unit at Police for students to make confidential complaints on ragging incidents. We are bound to protect the students and their freedom of education.

Q: The Student Unions demand to increase ‘Mahapola’ allowance upto Rs 10,000. Does the Government agree with this demand, and if ‘yes’ when it will be done and how the funds will be found?

A: ‘Mahapola’ is not Aladdin’s Magic Lamp. If ‘Mahapola’ allowance to be increased, the funds at Mahapola Higher Education Scholarship Trust Fund must be increased. For that, we will have a programme like in the Lalith Athulathmudali days with the participation of students, parents and all others who love children. Then we can increase the Treasury allocation to it also. In that way, we make an effort to increase ‘Mahapola’ scholarship payment.

Q: Can we expect increasing ‘Mahapola’ allowance as a proposal in the next Budget to be presented after the General Elections? What new proposals related to the Higher Education sphere can be expected in the next Budget?

A: Yes, you can, but remember all such monies will have to be spent from the public purse. The Government’s revenue comes from the people. Whatever expenditure we increase, the burden will ultimately be on the shoulders of the people. That is the reality.

Even though the previous Government pledged to allocate 6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to education, only 1.9 percent of the GDP had been spent for education. Therefore, the former Government had deceived the university students and lecturers. We will not do that. We will make the maximum possible investment for education also using the foreign loans and grants.

Q: Does the Government intend to expand the IT courses using Mahindodaya Labs? Can you elaborate on this proposal?

A: One thousand Mahindodaya labs are scattered all over the country including in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. In each of them, there are 40 computers in the computer lab and another 20 computers in the Language lab. We intend to increase the number of computers in each of the school to 80 by utilizing a foreign grant or loan. We have proposed the Open University to offer IT certificate courses and higher diploma courses to village level students using these resources. The authorities at Open University and higher officials in the field of the Higher Education sector have been given necessary instructions in this regard.


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