Education and skills attainment in Sri Lanka, which in the early 60s was better than that of countries like Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, has in the last 20 years fallen behind, undermining the country’s growth prospects. Undoubtedly, talent needs to be a strategic driver for inclusive economic growth to help Sri Lanka become competitive as a middle-income country. Sri Lanka, however, faces two big challenges that we need to solve if we are to achieve a growth rate of over 8%. The two issues that need to be addressed are:
Today out of most of our young people coming out of secondary education:
Only 20%-25% attend higher education, of which a large share of students are in humanities and arts relative to sciences/engineering (50% vs. 17%); where there is variation in quality, in addition, very poor-quality External Degree Programs (40% of total enrollment)
Another 20%-30% enroll in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sector with low quality and relevance to market needs
The remaining 45% have limited opportunity to acquire further job-specific skills other than joining a company to acquire skills. That too is limited and centered in the three to four main cities.
Most employers see skills shortage as a major constraint and question the quality and relevance of general education, vocational and skills attainment as well as higher education.
In the past five years, the country has made great strides on many fronts, especially in education. However, Sri Lankan universities, due to limited intake capacity, by default, only open their doors to the top 5% that sit for the Advance Level exams. The majority joins the work force. Also around 10% pursue their higher education in foreign universities or their satellite branches in Sri Lanka and enroll into professional qualifications in accounting, finance, management and marketing. These are mainly professional British qualifications like Chartered Institute of Management Accounting, Chartered Institute of Marketing and Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. Therefore, as a country we need a strategy to successfully move our young people from education to employment and we need to scale up our interventions for maximum impact because there are many different views among the stakeholders on how our young people should be made ready to succeed in entry level positions. As a result of this mismatch, the education to employment highway has become very messy. Therefore, education reforms must find ways to prevent our youth from becoming mere certificate collectors and refocus them to acquire skills and competencies that are needed to deliver on the current job and also acquire skills that can be built on for the future.
In most successful export economies, the training provided by Vocational Training Institutes (VTIs) jointly with the companies to upgrade the skills of their workforce has been crucial, since high-level skills are essential for manufacturing-related activities. But while vocational training is widely recognised as important, such training is rarely cost efficient when provided by the state systems. Most firms, therefore, prefer to do their own training, partly because many skills are company specific. There is ample research to show that the return on the training investment is higher in industries that engage well-educated workers and also in environments where there is rapid technological change.
Singapore’s use of training to promote the information technology sector through a concerted program that involved educational institutions, providing training subsidies to schools and office workers, and the digitising of the civil service, helped the country to achieve leadership in technology-related services. This success illustrates the importance of a government’s ability to foresee a major opportunity and then promote public-private partnership to invest in human capital formation.
However, to make it a success, businesses must also stand ready to take advantages of the support the government is willing to provide to promote human capital formation. In addition, the state must ensure that they maintain the per student share, in real terms, of government funding education. Since the country’s university education is only limited to the brightest students in the country, the universities need to work very closely with industry to improve syllabi and the facilities to ensure that the country’s brightest students are instilled with the skills and knowledge the country needs, not what the universities want, so that they can make a meaningful contribution.
In the final analysis, Sri Lanka has the potential to become a high-income economy through a strategic focus on improving its talent pool. A package of financial investments, policy and governance reforms will make the existing system more efficient, equitable and effective. However, before we pour more and more money into education and skills training, Sri Lanka needs a vision, a clear strategy backed by solid funding, realistic targets and effective implementation and monitoring to ensure we realise that vision of having a future ready workforce.
(The writer is a leading HR thought leader)