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Setting frameworks

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Sri Lanka is still awaiting the introduction of minimum standards for medical education, which was promised by the Health Minister many moons ago but is yet to materialise. Surely it is high time it should be expanded to building a framework that covers all higher education.  

At a time when the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) dominates public discourse, it is important for stakeholders to keep a keen eye on proposed legalisation to set up a Higher Education Quality Assurance Authority to monitor and maintain standards in all private universities. 

It is vitally important that policymakers are trying to go back to the drawing board and establish a progressive framework including legal and other systems to enable top-class universities to enter Sri Lanka. This is where the movement to liberalise Sri Lanka’s higher education sector should have begun and it should have happened many years ago. At least now it is imperative that this legislation is kept transparent and progressive so it can provide essential structure and recognition to a struggling sector. 

Ideally a discourse needs to be started on how a quality private education system can be evolved to allow the public university system to grow parallel to it, creating a symbiotic relationship that would give Sri Lanka a workforce with a high level of skills to power a knowledge economy. 

The SAITM issue has become larger than life, eclipsing previous efforts to establish an equitable and systematic liberalisation of the higher education system. Earlier efforts to emulate the Australian system have fallen by the wayside, but the standards that they follow are worth looking at.

For example in 2000, Australia introduced the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act. Under ESOS, institutions are obliged to meet certain requirements in order to enrol international students. Every Australian institution that meets these requirements is listed on the publicly available Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (CRICOS). 

The requirements covered under ESOS include stringent standards for marketing activities, education delivery, facilities and students support services. If an institution does not meet the standards for any one of these requirements, it isn’t registered and cannot enrol international students. For this reason, potential employers know that students who have studied in Australia have received some of the highest quality education available. It is important to note, however, that people who enter Australia on a non-students visa do not have the assurance provided to most international students under ESOS. 

Australian education institutions are required to ensure that the marketing materials they provide to international students (such as brochures and handbooks) are accurate and not misleading. Institutions must provide international students with current and accurate information before issuing proof of enrolment. International students in Australia can be secure in the knowledge that their school has their best interests at heart.

Establishing such frameworks for international students means that local students also benefit from them. Quality is the fundamental reason for hundreds of Sri Lankan students to seek an Australian education every year and for Australia higher education has become their third most lucrative export, generating $ 12.5 billion in 2015. Unless Sri Lanka’s policymakers return their attention to formulating and implementing progressive frameworks for higher education, they are leaving the door open for a repeat of SAITM.

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