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Making Sri Lanka a knowledge and services hub


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Education attainment in Sri Lanka, which in the early ’50s and ’60s, maybe up to the mid-70s, was better than that of countries like Malaysia, Singapore or South Korea, has now fallen behind, undermining the country’s growth prospects. 

Human capital needs to be a strategic driver for inclusive economic growth to help Sri Lanka to become competitive. Sri Lanka certainly has the potential to become a knowledge hub in South Asia if we address our skills issues, before countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh get their act together. dfjh

A knowledge hub is generally a location where you can source skills and capabilities for the creation of products, services, and knowledge and also for the creation of wealth. Some countries have targeted industries so that the country and the economy will be known for a particularly industry. For example:

Ireland and China – Manufacturing

Dubai – Tourism 

India – Knowledge processing

Singapore – Financial services 

Switzerland – Pharmaceutical

Therefore, the above examples reveal that when a country targets an industry, investments may flow into the country to nurture and grow that industry.

 



Creating a knowledge hub  

Becoming a knowledge hub would require the following building blocks:

A) A focus on that knowledge – e.g., R&D in a particular industry sector.

B) A pool of experts and thought leaders. Especially, experts in a particular area (e.g., management or leadership for a region). For an example, Singapore’s vision is to become a human capital knowledge hub building a centre (Human Capital Institute) and also publishing books to create and sell knowledge. Singapore is striving to be recognised as the knowledge hub for South East Asia. The Government and the private sector would however need to provide financial support; provide the cases and experiences, and academia (and/or consulting) provides ideas. This combination of players would enable new ideas to be generated and distributed. 

Sri Lanka could work towards becoming the centre for transaction processing’ considering the large pool of world-class accountants the country has and is turning out annually. Other services can be structured around that industry creating new opportunities for Sri Lankan workers. Another potential opportunity could be high-end garment manufacturing.

 



Sri Lanka strategy

However, to create a strong knowledge hub the country needs to build its strategy and investments around:

nSkills and capabilities that the markets/investors require. Therefore our higher education needs to be more effective and focused on targeted industries. Higher education success is often tied to investments in both physical facilities (campus, technology, infrastructure) and faculty resources. In many ways physical education investments are easier, requiring money and space. Acquiring faculty resources becomes more difficult, but better qualified faculty is key to better-qualified students. Increasing faculty quality may come from alliances with top universities in other countries and/or from sponsoring faculty to gain credibility and reputation through world-class research. 

nInfrastructure (universities, the VTCs, facilities, networks, research labs, housing, social infrastructure, etc.)

nCreating the right policy framework to attract knowledge hunters, creators, manufacturers and developers.

Generally, investment dollars flow to economies where there is growth so that the country will grow and the investment will have a return. This means that emerging economies would get foreign investment to put together the infrastructure. Moreover, most of the investment goes to infrastructure since these are the pathways for economic growth.

 



Key challenge

Finally, the biggest challenge would be to get all agencies and the private sector to work towards a common goal i.e. to create the skills and capabilities that the hubs demand. 

Today many young people coming out of secondary education: only 25% attend higher education, where access is very low and inequitable. Of which too large a share of students are in humanities and arts relative to sciences/engineering (50% vs. 17%); great variation in quality and abysmal quality of External Degree Programs (40% of total enrolment) another 30% enrol in TVET with low quality and relevance to market needs the remaining 45% will have limited opportunity to acquire further job-specific skills (except on the job market).

On the other hand employers see skills shortage as a major constraint; and question the quality and relevance of general education, TVET and higher education. Therefore, the national education strategy needs to take into account that skill building is a continuous process starting from early childhood: “Skills beget skills” along the life-cycle. Focusing only on the end of the education cycle may be too late and not address the core issues. 

To address these issues we would need to have one powerful body/person with a clear mind to take control of education from primary to higher education and then ensure the entire system works together. Singapore did this very well in the ’80s and continues reinvent their policies to attract over 40,000 skilled people in to their country annually. 

In summary, Sri Lanka does not have enough of the right skills, and not enough skilled people; we need to address this challenge without delay if are to realise our vision. 



(The writer is a thought leader in HR.)


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