Job-centric universities: Is SLIIT the answer?

Thursday, 5 September 2019 01:13 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Graduates of SLIIT

By Neluka Jayasinghe

A vast number of employment opportunities for people with different skills will open up with the Port City and Hambantota Port coming into play, to give an economic boost to the country. 

However, it is relevant to ask if we have the resources in terms of skilled manpower to meet the demand or if we will once again have to import. This occurs a lot in the construction industry, with us having to contend with labour from both China and India in our backyards. Nobody complains about it, because the reality of the situation is that we are sadly lacking in skills in this sector.

The job market for the future needs some careful planning. We need our higher education systems to be gearing for the future and courses should be designed after carefully researching what jobs will be on high demand and what will become redundant. 

With the looming 4th Industrial Revolution threatening to wipe out several professions, due to artificial intelligence, the thought process of educators need to change. The need now is for thinking universities who would want to prepare their students for the future; not ones that are on a traditional track, spewing out degrees that would become useless in no time. 

Such a thinking university was born twenty years ago, out of the vision of a few university dons who identified the need for skilled professionals in the country’s then burgeoning IT job market. The fledgling institution was aligning with the projected needs of Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment who was looking at attracting investments in the software sector. 

Within just a short time, the strategy was in place, to produce thousands of IT graduates. They were able to accomplish this fete, because their model gave them the flexibility to plan without being hindered by two vital factors i.e. bureaucratic red tape and a profit motive.  

As a country whose education sector has its roots in State universities doling out free education, we have seen professionals protest about private higher education, all with the idea of protectionism which creates its own elite, whoever they may be. Therefore, it is time to develop policies that are friendly towards openness and transparency. Our system of education should consider all available options, to give students the best experience they could have along with a useful spread of choices

Formed thus in 1999, SLIIT started small, with an initial intake of just 390 students. They housed the institution in a high rise building in Colpetty, which became their first campus. Now, two decades later, it is SLIIT graduates that claim 65% of the IT related jobs in Sri Lanka. 

Although SLIIT has gone through enormous change and expansion both in terms of their campus and study programs the institution’s focus has remained the same. As a not-for-profit non-State university, their primary concentration is the job market, both current and future. They attempt not only to meet the needs of the student but also to align with the larger vision of the nation.  “We are currently discussing at Board level a vision plan which looks into the next 25 years. There would be many new jobs and many redundant ones on the way to 2045, and for this we are also looking for partnerships with foreign universities – universities which would support us in fine-tuning the education processes that will shape the DNA of SLIIT,” says SLIIT CEO Professor Lalith Gamage.

“We believe that we are best suited to handle this trailblazing process which has its own risks but then we cannot take this quantum leap if we do not have this entrepreneurial spirit. SLIIT has the luxury of doing this because we are not governed by political policies and since we are a not-for-profit we have the resources and flexibility to move faster on the ground,” Gamage says. 

Not-for-profits are recognised by governments in western countries as a viable option to a vibrant education system and that is why they are usually promoted with government grants. Likewise, initially the Mahapola Trust Fund was a part of the support system, given to SLIIT, but now has stepped back since the university is well on its feet. 

Although this is a model that would be of great value to Sri Lanka, a reason why it may not have taken off is very likely, due to the lack of entrepreneurial spirit in the education sector. A long term vision and a lot of grit is the recipe to take on a challenge like a not-for-profit educational institute. 

Despite having what it takes to face the challenge and succeed, SLIIT has been unfortunate enough to become embroiled in a controversy that can quite easily impact the image of this institute. It probably boils down to the institution’s detractors not understanding the formula on which it has been founded. 

As a country whose education sector has its roots in State universities doling out free education, we have seen professionals protest about private higher education, all with the idea of protectionism which creates its own elite, whoever they may be. 

Therefore, it is time to develop policies that are friendly towards openness and transparency. Our system of education should consider all available options, to give students the best experience they could have along with a useful spread of choices. 

It is not that State-sponsored education, primary, secondary and tertiary should be made redundant, but in order to optimise our resources, we should be looking for ways to broaden the market scope, thereby, levelling the playing field. 

(The writer can be reached via nelukasinghe@gmail.com) 

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