Creating a knowledge economy for nation-building

Tuesday, 12 November 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

University Grants Commission Chairman Prof. Mohan De Silva

 From left: Dr. Chandra Embuldeniya, Prof. Lakshman R. Watawala, Prof. Mohan De Silva and Prof. Nisar Ahmed Siddiqui 



CMA-Sri Lanka International Higher Education Conference


Institute of Certified Management Accountants of Sri Lanka (CMA), together with The Institute of Chartered Professional Managers of Sri Lanka (CPM), and Association of Management Development Institutions in South Asia (AMDISA), hosted the International Higher Education Conference on the theme ‘Strategies to Bridge the Gap in Higher Education Intake – South and South East Asian Experiences’ on 31 October at the BMICH from 8.30am to 5.30pm. Following is the keynote address on ‘A professional vision to create a knowledge Economy’, delivered by University Grants Commission Chairman Prof. Mohan De Silva:

Quality higher education is the magnet for nation building. Universities and higher education institutes have a vital role to play to produce valued human resources for this purpose.

Since 1947, Sri Lankans have been blessed with a policy of free education including higher education and later free health care.

These visionary reforms have brought many firsts in South Asia to Sri Lanka. Excellent male and female literacy rates, life expectancy rates and health care indices to name a few.

In the context of higher education, whilst many countries in the region have evolved in line with global trends, Sri Lanka lagged behind with necessary reforms in the higher education sector; the sector that is responsible for creating human resources to accelerate the country ‘s knowledge economy.

In this presentation therefore, I wish to touch upon briefly, some reasons why we lagged behind when compared with our neighbours, and also what higher educational policy formulators have already proposed to the policymakers in this county for the progress of higher education. 

First, why we lagged behind our neighbours. On 16 October 2019, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of C.W.W. Kannangara, considered by many as the ‘Father of Free Education’. This legendary personality was fighting with our colonial masters 72 years ago, to obtain opportunities for voiceless rural youngsters’ entry into education. The nation is ever so grateful to him. This was Sri Lanka 72 years ago.

The world has changed. Change of course is inevitable but it is the rate of change that matters. The cry for free education and higher education that emanated 72 years ago that has continued up to this date has ‘environmentalised’ as a right of the people and as a secondary outcome may have inhibited the progress of non-State higher education compared to other countries in the region. 

Therefore, the rate of change that was witnessed in the Asian subcontinent responding to ever increasing demand for higher education was not witnessed in Sri Lanka. We clearly lagged behind.

Progress of State-sponsored free higher education

Let’s now look at the progress of State-sponsored free higher education. 

The University Grants Commission was established by an Act in 1978 that has been amended 6 times. Let’s first look at the good side.

Successive Governments spent money for free higher education. Contrary to popular belief, student enrolments have increased. For example, the total number of seats available in mid 1970s was 3500. Today in 2019, it is over 31,000 in 15 State universities. In addition, there are 4 other State universities that comes under Ministry of Higher Education, Ministry of Defence, and Ministry of Technology and Skills Development. There are also 38 technical colleges and 8 university colleges offering certificate courses, diplomas, Higher Diplomas and degrees. All in all, once a student completes GCE O/L or A/L, excluding the university sector, there are at least 185,731 placements in all these places. If you add 31,000 degree placements from UGC-controlled State universities, it comes to a grand total of 216,231 placements; all free. Approximately, 250,000 sit for GCE A/L.

It is also important to reiterate that although 150,000-160,000 pass the GCE A/L, the Sri Lankan system considers three simple passes in 3 subjects the qualifying level for universities. This level of achievement may be considered by some as insufficient, although whether the AL result alone should be the only yardstick for selection has been questioned. However, this question must be answered when developing a selection process for use universally within the free higher education system, where the selection process must be transparent and fair to all students. Therefore, the Z score system is the one presently in use. 

As you can see, free education opportunities are available for students at all levels in the country. These are free. Whether optimal use of these placement had been made use of is questionable. Of course, the quality need to be looked at, but the key point is to recognise the presence of an excellent structure in Sri Lanka. It is worth comparing with the availability of such all free educational opportunities in the regional and developed countries.  

Let’s look at the infrastructure facilities, including hostel facilities, in State universities. This has been increased progressively, contrary to what you hear during student protests.

For example, during the last 5 years, in those that come under the preview of UGC, an extra 100 hostels have opened up, each with facilities to house 400 students. In general, universities charge a very nominal fee, ranging from 700 to 1200 rupees per year, as hostel fees. Today, most of the peripherally-located universities provide hostel facilities for the entire 4 years, and all universities provide hostel facilities for first years and final years.

Let’s analyse student financial welfare system: the Mahapola Scholarship scheme, brought in due to the vision of another great personality, Lalith Athulathmudali. Today 50% of students benefit from 5000 rupees a month during their entire university period. In addition, another 16% of students get student bursaries, which is 4000 rupees per month. This means that, around 66% of admissions every year gets financial support. These are not loans. They need not pay back. 

Opportunities for STEM education have substantially increased. During last 5 years, a total of 29 Technology degree programs including 12 Technology faculties have opened up, and for the first time in the history of post-colonial Sri Lanka, two medical faculties were opened in one year, increasing the available medical seats by 160. University of Moratuwa will have another Medical Faculty ready to accept students, and an extra 60 to 75 medical seats will be made available for the 2020 intake.

Of course, more opportunities obviously need to be created to respond to the ever-increasing demand, the thirst for quality higher education. All I have presented is what is available. Sounds good.

The other side of the coin

Let me now present the other side of the coin. 

How much of these facilities have been used to address the needs of the country to contribute to knowledge economy, a subject I am entrusted to address. Let me be objective now.

UGC conducted a tracer study on graduate employability in 2017. The objective was to find out the employability status of our graduates 2 years after graduation. 

The objective evidence is that what we produce does not tally with the skills the employers seek. As you see, 50% of graduates in humanities and social sciences are unemployed at 2 years from graduation. Another interesting fact that came to light in this tracer study in 2017 was the link between English proficiency and employability. It was found that if a student has obtained an A grade for General English in A/L, irrespective of the discipline they entered into in the university and the degree they obtained, 88.3 % of them were found to be employed, 2 years after graduation. If a student has obtained A grade for General English in GCE O/L then 82.24% were found to be employed irrespective of the degree they have obtained.

UGC has tried hard to address this issue, the skills mismatch; to have a major curricular revision in humanities and social sciences to suit the present day needs. I am happy to mention that under the World Bank project called Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development (AHEAD) project, we offered a competitive block grant to humanities and social sciences faculties, to the tune of Rs. 100 million per proposal for this purpose. I am happy to report that eight humanities and social faculties have won this grant. They will commence major revisions, including introduction of socio-emotional skills and internships, and commencement of bilingual education, to commence this long-awaited major curricular revision.

Also during the last five years, almost all English Language Teaching Units (ELTUs) in the State universities were gazetted as English Language Teaching Departments (ELTDs), to empower the staff who are employed for this important task, and they have started working with a new vigour to improve English language proficiency in university students.

Do we have a safe and conducive learning environments in our State universities like in other countries?  

Well. We have all heard about an organised from of physical emotional and sexual abuse that goes on in State universities under the disguise of “ragging”. What have we done to address this menace? 

First we wanted to understand the magnitude of the problem, for which we conducted a scientific study, by the UGC and MOHE together, supported by UNICEF. The title was ‘Study on ragging and SGBV in the university system and implementing interventions and mechanisms to combat ragging and SGBV in the Sri Lankan university system’. 

This study involved a cohort of nearly 15000 students, 1500 staff, Vice Chancellors, other university staff, council members, and included 94 focus group discussions with stakeholders to understand the magnitude and the impact, root causes, and to plan combat strategies. Of many combative strategies UGC and Ministry of Higher Education has conducted together with university authorities, a parallel major media campaign by the UGC and Higher Education Ministry, ably supported by some VCs, the society has now understood the magnitude and the scale of this physical, psychological, and sexual violence in universities, which has been in existence for over two decades but hidden from all. Now it is on the surface, and everyone is against it. Many have joined this fight; the staff, the students’ parents, the media, and now latest, Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) who has written to all presidential aspirants to respond. 

What measures have we taken to ensure quality of education in institutions under the purview of UGC?

A new QA process was introduced in 2015 to all State universities with a score card for the first time to assess the quality of institutions and programs and classify the universities and degree programs as Very Good/Good/Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory. Results are being published in the web for parents and students to see. This has not gone well with some but it was a necessity of the times. 

At policy level, a national QA and Accreditation Bill has been gazetted to cover and to accredit all academic distinctions to be awarded within the shores of Sri Lanka. Such a label from a National QA and Accreditation by an independent third party, will provide a seal of approval for all academic programs of any State, non-State or foreign institute offered in Sri Lanka, acceptable and respected by all, locally, regionally and globally. It will also enhance the quality and transparency of the process and therefore the respect for such accreditation. This is the global view regarding QA and Accreditation today. Many countries in our region are actively engaged in the competition and as we are all aware, the Accreditation is often used to project an institution to those who may wish to gain a degree from that organisation with confidence. 

Professional degree programs 

Issues arise when it comes to professional degree programs. 

The specific issue, to put it precisely is that, professional organisations that are empowered by acts or ordinances feel threatened that another authority is transgressing their power and authority. 

Some professional bodies are empowered to accredit degrees in their disciplines. The basis behind such approach has been that professional organisations are run by professionals of the discipline and that they have the expertise of the profession. This is understandable and justifiable. There are many such professional organisations, including your esteemed organisation.

As the higher education evolved globally, and transparency, accountability and good governance became norms, the need to display the transparency, accountability and principles of good governance was extended to all bodies, including professional bodies. It is expected that all such organisations are run with openness, transparency and accountability based on principles of good governance. A National Quality Assurance and Accreditation System that oversees all Accreditation processes in higher education will not interfere with the integrity, power and respect of such professional organisations, but instead would enhance the credibility of the professional degree or diploma locally and globally. This is the view of the INQUAAHE International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, one of the largest global networks of Quality Assurance in Higher Education and APQN Asia Pacific Quality Network. 

The basis behind the concept is to provide the legal framework to solidify the expectation that all Professional Accreditation Agencies shall display the transparency and principles of good governance and refrain themselves from ownership and protectionism issues. 

It is therefore important that such National Quality Assurance and Accreditation System when established is independent, and represented by experts with unblemished professional records from different disciplines and devoid of political and any other influences. 

Such a commission will not interfere with integrity and the power of professional organisations established under any other acts but would act as a watchdog like the National Audit Act of 2018.

The political interference of such positions must be removed which in fact had got it to this Bill at the time of submission. This must be removed at the Parliament and the committee level. UGC has made the strongest representations to this effect to the high level policymakers. Once such issues are removed, we hope that this will be a historic Bill for progress.

Funding system unsustainable

Finally, the UGC feel that the present funding system to State universities is clearly not sustainable. Universities continually request more funds for buildings and other infrastructure facilities, and produce products who may not fit to the society and to market needs. Universities argue that they are not employment factories, and portray themselves as knowledge creators and knowledge givers. This justification may be philosophically right in 19th and 20th century, when Oxford and Cambridge were developed away from London because of the belief then that the noise from a busy town may disturb the intelligent high academics. In the present day context, society expects universities to produce able graduates, and of course able graduates must be employable. In a competitive society in which we live, universities too must be ready for competition for progress, and with the present University Act and UGC regulations, universities are hampered from entering such competition. 

Therefore, universities must be provided with more autonomy. The academic and non-academic staff should be given Special Category Status with a performance-based pay structure and performance appraisal system, and they must be made accountable for what they do. Funding from the Government should be based on student numbers and performance of the universities. The performance must be assessed on a set of performance indicators. Student satisfaction surveys regarding quality of teaching and learning activities, external quality assurance reviews, research, IP activities and presence of safe and conducive learning environments for students must be linked to funding. The faculties should be given greater autonomy to initiate supplementary academic activities, including income-generating projects and allowed to function as strategic business units. Universities should be empowered to recruit international students on a fee-levying basis. 

A concept paper to this effect have already been submitted to the Government by the UGC with necessary details. And unless we more away from the conventional funding system, Sri Lankan higher education system in our opinion is doomed to fail, if we continue to hang on to popular jargons such as 6% of GDP without specific reforms. 

In conclusion ladies and gentlemen, I have tried to be honest with you and told you where we were, where we are now, what we have done and what needs to be done to create a knowledge economy for nation-building.

Pix by Ruwan Walpola