Developing Sri Lanka as a knowledge hub in Asia is a key development strategy of the government. Among the many questions to be raised about achieving progress in designing a strategy and implementing it, is the role of public-private partnership (PPP) in that process.
Knowledge hubs are about integrative institutional configurations around new knowledge, education, intellectual capital development, innovation and investment. Obviously, in order to supply new knowledge, there must be a demand for it. What use of knowledge is made and therefore, what knowledge is demanded by business enterprises in Sri Lanka? This is a weak side of the equation. On the side of the government, is there a will; political, professional and bureaucratic? When is this will likely to become positive? First, let’s look at what knowledge hubs are and what they can do to business and economy.
The term knowledge hub/education hub is being used by countries who are trying to build a critical mass of local and foreign players such as including students, education institutions, companies, science and technology centres who, thorough interaction engage in education, training, knowledge creation, and innovation.
Some countries who have declared as knowledge hubs such as Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, are trying to position themselves as centres for student recruitment, education and training, and in some cases research and innovation.
The term hub is being used by many sectors; transportation, finance, communication and fashion. Similarly, the concept of cluster is becoming more popular in the world of business, science, health, and manufacturing.
The first generation cross-border higher education was the movement of students and scholars around the world is nothing new; it has been happening for centuries and can be labelled the first generation of academic mobility.
For instance, the number of international students in foreign countries expanded from 238,000 in the 1960s to 3.3 million in 2008 and expected to rise to 8 million in ten years from now, according to OECD.
While this trend in higher education continues, a second generation of global activity arose with the movement of programs and providers across borders began to increase since the 1990s.
In Sri Lanka, there are over 70 such providers from various parts of the globe. The mechanisms vary from direct branch campuses to franchises and satellite program offers. Only about 15% of those who qualify at high school exams a year may find placements in the state university system in Sri Lanka and thus, driving the large majority (about 100,000 students) to seek cross-border options. In addition to these students, there are working adults who seek entry in to higher education opportunities.
Education hubs are in the third generation development and constitute the third wave of cross-border education initiatives. Education hub represents a wider and more strategic configuration of actors and activities with efforts to exert more influence in the new marketplace of education.
For instance, Malaysia already acts as a magnet for cross-border education activities. There are over 100,000 foreign students and ten branch campuses of high ranking foreign universities. However, several new initiatives indicate the seriousness with which Malaysia is working toward establishing itself as an education hub. The first is the development of an education city of Malaysia, a major new multidimensional development next to Singapore. The second is Kuala Lumpur Education City, another strategic education initiative incorporated into a new commercial and residential project in the Klang Valley south of Kuala Lumpur, and the third is a renewed international student recruitment plan to attract students from the region as well as from Islamic countries.
If Sri Lanka were to formulate a strategy, PPP becomes number one factor. The experience of successful knowledge hubs elsewhere shows that the desire to partner revolves around the key drivers of collaboration, namely research and development (R&D), science and technology (S&T) promotion, business research, building of intellectual human capital, and public funding.
Sri Lanka has many advantages of strategic success: broad-based educational standards, low cost advantage, location advantage, favourable political and economic climate, and Sri Lanka as a destination of natural attractions. These advantages must be crystallised through deliberate government and private initiatives to mobilise collaborative forces.
A beginning step is to amend the Universities Act 1978 to provide for setting up private universities, at least as public-private partnerships. Leading universities/faculties may come forward and work with local and foreign investors. On the one hand, if private sector business does not demand new knowledge in their competitive strategic development, they will not have the desire to contribute to R&D and S&T which is the key to strategising the relationships among key players in a knowledge hub. On the other hand, the government must come forward with a political will to break the deadlock and beat the bureaucracy.
Sri Lanka’s first initiative to internalise higher education was deliberately quashed by the education bureaucracy. In 2007, this writer ventured into setting up the PIM International Education Center in the UAE to grant higher degrees of a Sri Lankan University and it became a success story in one year. Being typical of Sri Lankan bureaucracy, negative forces of power-hungry, jealous, and incompetent people holding positions of power in higher seats of higher education used illegal and immoral methods to discredit the centre. This took place despite the political will at the highest level of government. Thus, we Sri Lankans have a long way to develop our own professional standards.
In Sri Lanka’s development agenda, there is a pressing need to invest more into developing the human capital necessary for its future knowledge economy on the one hand, and on the other, it must aim to showcase Sri Lanka as an environment-friendly, energy-efficient, and networked knowledge-based centre in South Asia.
Our aim must be to gain greater access to the regional education market especially from the three supply markets; India, China, and the Middle East. Our strategy should focus on research infrastructure to position Sri Lanka as an attractive centre of an international network of academic institutions, companies, and services.
On the positive side, we have a Minister of Higher Education and a Secretary of Higher Education, among others, who can give leadership to the needed initiatives in PPP on the government side. They require wider support.
(The writer is a Senior Professor of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, and Academic Adviser, Graduate School of Management)