It’s free and we are proud of it!

Thursday, 30 June 2011 01:02 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

I have stated before that within the general establishment in Sri Lanka, a prevalent view is that if everyone speaks in English and if private universities are started, our education system can take off, the country will prosper and paradise is within reach.

Education and especially tertiary education is too serious an endeavour to simplify like that. Am I daydreaming in penning this title? Currently the public university system is not functioning and has been in this comatose state for more than seven weeks. The situation has worsened with even academic staff getting onto the roads for street demonstrations to highlight their grievances.

I empathise with them, but more pity the environment that had led to this type of situation to evolve.

I am not sure whether the general public views this situation with any seriousness as the public has not been attuned to a healthy university society relationship – unfortunately for Sri Lanka. Reversal of public sentiments is needed.

I write on this at a time when the whole system appears to be readied for a state of planned obsolescence, by the way many address issues raised or choose to ignore them. No industrial or professional association has highlighted or stated any view with respect to the prevailing situation to my understanding. Is that showing professional apathy or displaying non relevance?

We need to ensure that other than those whose sons and daughters are within the system care for it because it has a purpose and these institutions have served with dignity for much of the time, most of the time quite silently. Some writers have addressed the problem from the perspective of university education and I do differ here by addressing the public university system.

Jewel in our crown

Sri Lanka does have a significant public university system. My argument is to make it the jewel in our crown of higher education in Sri Lanka.

The University of Colombo is the oldest institution of modern higher education in Sri Lanka. Founded in 1921 as the University College Colombo affiliated to the University of London and degrees were issued to its students from 1923 onwards and therein lies the beginning of our current university system.

However it was in 1870 that the Ceylon Medical School was established. This actually makes the Medical College of University of Colombo one of the oldest medical schools in the region – the second oldest in South Asia to be precise.

University of Peradeniya has an interesting story, which Ivor Jennings’ biography captures. He has said that this should be the most beautiful university of this size in the world. Not many of us passing Peradeniya may understand the value of this concept.

From Jaffna to Ruhuna and from Oluwil to Colombo we do have a system that we can tune to serve as an iconic establishment supported by the State for the benefit of our nation, leading the process of transforming the country to a knowledge hub.

Alumni scattered across the globe may testify how much they owe for what they gained and the intrinsic value, but it is internally that we have to calculate and understand the contribution.

Unless transferred to some quantifiable value, we may lose out in the economic equation. I am quite sure that over the years the State investments have turned out high quality graduates from archaeology to zoology and in every subject area in between.

Lacklustre communication

As the State is the main financial provider, public universities do not have to aggressively market among the student community for their intake. You hardly see them in our numerous educational fairs held with lots of publicity.

This has led to a higher degree of complacency with lacklustre communication to the outside on what one is doing or past achievements. It is interesting to contemplate why some universities in UK are placing advertisements around the boundary line when the lions are touring the UK.

While some educational institutes make mountains out of molehills, we note that the public university system is not even seeing mountains as mountains! While negative communications fill up the media, there isn’t a mechanism to respond. There is a serious duty on the University Grants Commission to redress this imbalance as it sits as the apex body of our public university system.

Graduate employment

It is usually the case that many say that there are issues with graduate employment. Even the CB Annual Report of 2010 states that the university education suffers from the inability to meet demand and the failure to supply quality education compatible with labour market requirements.

If we lack placements in arts and social sciences, on which I am not the best authority, I would say that it is still the failure of the system to understand and be creative in engaging graduates.

While in Rome you have PhD holders being tour guides for special groups due to their specific knowledge, we by concentrating on low end tourism do not make ways to engage in-depth understanding for better productive engagements of such graduates.

While we are critical, we are not innovative enough to understand and set in place different pathways for growth and engagement. Then we may suddenly decide to give appointments at State expense for graduates to be part of an administrative chain. There are many entrepreneurial opportunities within these fields that are not understood.

However, coming back to science and technology, I say that the graduates finding placements by the dozen overseas should be an indication of our output. It is in this Sri Lankan labour market that we face problems, which is more of an indication of the lack of diversity and poor investments by those who champion growth.

A winning proposition

In the public university system, the State has been supporting students to be graduates from inception. This is free education until you graduate and is an exceptional duty by the State.

Education is considered as a means of delivering the sole for the next generation and we have opted to give it free even through the university. Now most countries do not have this model.

Having endured this model for so many years and in fact from the beginning, we know it is hard to change this as multiple political views dominate. In the absence of consensus, why not transform this into a winning proposition?

Today the failure has been in view of the inability to reap the dividends from graduates from an array of disciplines perhaps in a way that we need. Do we really try? I do not think so.

The way we operate as we are moving on with a system that is not sound and resigned to the fact of poor execution. I am sure that there are ways of converting this public supported system which has a good student intake and a historical track record of reputed alumni plus a strong group of academics into an iconic institution.

Rather than fighting a losing battle, why not turn the tables around and be strong and spirited? The alternative we see at present is putting up posters to attract students with money.

We attract students with abilities via a competitive system and by setting the mindset differently we should allow those who need excellent material to court us with intent on fighting for our graduate talent.

One adjustment we have to do within our system is to make the system research-based and develop a healthy undergraduate and postgraduate interactive culture. Yes, I am not saying we are the best and perfect. For a few reasons it is not right to bring down a system that has served for a long time.

Alternative sources of funding

It is possible to explore alternative sources of funding for higher education for greater quality within the existing public university structure. Taking a serious analytical view of the current regulations can show why and how our public university system is hindered and throttled.

Some excellent prescriptive statements are included in the CB Annual Report and hopefully need not be repeated in next year’s report. It may not be possible to resolve 100% the current capacity constraint, but developments can ensure that the best can find the way into the system.

There is currently the QA process and a number of accreditation schemes being practiced to be globally relevant by the public university system not quite well known to the public and these exercises demonstrate the strong position of study programmes in faculties.

The public university system currently has a strong talent pool and one must not let the system decay by wilful negligence. It is not yet too late and that is why it is important to understand the current grievances. There is no reason why one cannot scale up expectations and I am sure once trust is placed in the system, the results will follow.


Churchill said: “Every day you may make progress… yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”

This is the challenge to be understood by the Public University System perhaps. This is not a dream column to escape reality. Hope we have the tenacity of Mr. Honda, who said that some dream to change reality for ever.

(Professor Ajith de Alwis is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on

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