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Continuing with our disjointed TVET sector will not solve our skills problem

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 19 February 2016 00:00

Education, skills development and technical training providers are central to create productive employment opportunities for our young people. They prepare mostly young people for work in the formal and informal sector and thus play an important role in helping to build a top quality talent pool. The better the training and the more refined the skills are in terms of human capital, the higher the income and returns and the better the quality of livelihoods. 2

Education and skills attainment in Sri Lanka, which in the early ’60s was far better than that of countries like Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, has in the last 20 years fallen far behind, undermining the country’s growth prospects. 

Undoubtedly, the Government has recognised that human capital has to be the strategic driver for inclusive economic growth to help Sri Lanka become and remain competitive as a middle-income country. Sri Lanka however faces two big challenges that we need to solve if we are to achieve and sustain a growth rate of over 8%. The three issues that needs to be addressed in relation to most of our young people coming out of secondary education are:

1.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 enrolment).

2.Another 20%-30% enrol in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector very often, however the courses are of poor quality and have little relevance to market needs.

3.The remaining 45% have limited opportunity to acquire further job-specific skills other than joining a company to develop skills. That too is limited and is centerd around three to four main cities.  



Current situation 

Most employers still see the skills shortage as a major constraint for expansion; and continue to question the quality and relevance of general education, vocational and skills training and 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 the limited intake capacity, by default only open their doors to the top 5% that sit for the Advanced Level exams. Also around 10% pursue higher education in foreign universities or their satellite branches in Sri Lanka and also enrol to do a professional qualification in accounting, finance, management and marketing. Another 10% join the TVET sector. The majority joins the work force with no skills.



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 limited interventions for maximum impact, because there are many different views among our stakeholders on how our young people should be made ready to succeed at entry level. As a result of this mismatch many young people are unlikely to find productive work. Therefore education reform must find way to focus our youth from becoming mere certificate collectors and refocus them to acquire knowledge and develop skills and competencies that are needed to secure productive work and also grow skills that are useful for the future.


Vocational training

One sector that can be restructured in the short term is the TVET sector. In most successful export economies, Vocational Training Institutes (VTIs) both public and private work jointly with the export companies to upgrade the skills of their work force, since high-level skills are essential for manufacturing related activities. However, while vocational training is widely recognised as important, such training is rarely cost-efficient for the private sector when provided by the state. Most firms therefore prefer to do their own training, partly because many skills are company specific.

Singapore’s use of the TVET sector to promote the information technology sector through a concerted program that involved educational institutions, providing training subsidies to schools and office workers, and 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 to the economy. 



For Sri Lanka to become a high income economy, a strategic focus on improving its talent pool must become a top priority. A package of financial investments, policy and governance reforms is required to make the existing TVET sector more efficient, equitable and effective. However, if progress is to be made, there is definitely a need for greater coordination between the various relevant ministries and institutions providing TVET and higher education, ideally through an Inter-Ministerial Skill Coordination Committee.

The current disjointed system is only leading to a misallocation of our taxpayers’ money. Therefore we urgently need a mechanism to ensure there is better private sector participation in designing and updating of standards, course contents, training of instructors, funds being allocated based on performance and finally strong political leadership to ensure that all government agencies in the TVET and higher education sectors work together to deliver the skills the employers of human capital need and not what the education providers want.

(The writer is a HR Thought Leader.)

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