The usual headlines of Advanced Level (A/L) students who scored at the top of their streams have been printed. Education officials have said, despite disruptions, about 200,000 students have gained the minimum requirements needed to enter university. Unfortunately, very few of them will actually do so.
Only about 17% of students who qualify for university entrance actually gain admission to a State university in Sri Lanka, leaving hundreds of thousands of promising youth behind. State universities’ inability to absorb all deserving students has resulted in an inequitable situation where students are forced to either re-sit the Advanced Level examination or seek alternate means of tertiary education or find employment via some form of vocational training.
Successive Governments have attempted to find a balance between public and private universities but have found little success. Analysts have pointed out that this is perhaps because piecemeal fixing of the higher education system is pointless unless the entire system is revamped. Given limited resources this would be an unrealistic expectation but it would be possible to reform the present system at key points such as providing career counselling to students after their Ordinary Levels so there is a clearer demarcation of university and vocational training aspirations with the latter given the same recognition.
Another point is that organisations, such as the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA), should also work to increase the transparency of their faculties and departments, ensure education professionals meet standards, and provide better oversight of external degree programs that are often given the step-motherly treatment even though they bring in much-needed funding. Providing higher education is big business and investors stand to make tens of millions. However, what is disturbing is that while the Government could be enthusiastic about accepting FDI from foreign universities, they are paying scant attention to regulating these same institutions and making sure that they maintain international standards.
There is also little attention to making these new universities inclusive so that it does not become a situation where poor children are relegated to badly funded public universities, while richer kids end up at private institutions purely because their parents have more money. Sri Lanka has plenty of highly intelligent children from poor backgrounds but what is their fate if all education becomes monetised?
Sri Lanka should seriously consider following a system such as that found in Australia where universities are graded for transparency and local students are given prominence, but the system is so effective and efficient there are plenty of foreign applicants as well and the universities attract highly qualified teachers and administrators.
Without such a transparent and independent regulatory system and investment mechanism, higher education in Sri Lanka is at risk of being sold to the highest bidder. This is especially problematic as education will be a key decider of the living standards of future generations and the growth trajectory of the entire country. Saddled with an aging population, Sri Lanka needs to make the most of its human resources.
Parents, fatigued by political wrangling and non-existent policies, will be happy to purchase their children the chance for a better life. Hopefully, the Government can find a way to negotiate a better return for everyone, keeping in focus the capacity to achieve universal social mobility as the ultimate indicator of the success of a university education.