A 10 start

Thursday, 24 April 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Higher Education Ministry Secretary has told media plans to allow 10 large-scale universities into the country within the next six years. These universities also aim to attract 50,000 foreign students in addition to local youth. After much back and forth, the Government has, largely under the table, allowed private universities to enter Sri Lanka. In this complex web of educational opportunity versus shadowy procedures, the battle rages on an ethical platform. In October 2013 the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) received Parliament approval to build a branch in Sri Lanka. The decision raised little criticism from the Opposition. The UCLAN branch campus, which is identified as a Strategic Development Project, will be the first-of-its-kind foreign university to be established in Sri Lanka to attract fresh investments and mitigate local students leaving the island for foreign qualifications. The $ 120 million university is expected to accommodate anywhere between 4,000-6,000 students and it is clear that greenbacks are the main motivation driving the Sri Lankan Government to throw open the doors of the higher education system with scant attention to quality. A large number of foreign universities have sought permission to establish their branches in Sri Lanka, including India’s Manipal University and Singapore’s Raffles University. Apart from these, Sri Lanka Telecom too has sought approval to establish a university. The Ministry also recently came under fire when Minister S.B. Dissanayake attempted to establish a special commission headed by his son to provide approvals to foreign degrees without the nod of professional associations. The number of students who leave Sri Lanka for studies each year is indicative of the massive need for private universities in Sri Lanka. In 2006 as many as 11,042 students have opted for foreign education, a number that increased to 16,150 in 2010. But what is interesting is that in 2010 there was a marginal decline by 45 students from the previous number, perhaps due to more private degree options opening up within Sri Lanka. Providing higher education is big business and investors stand to make tens of millions. However, what is disturbing is that while the Government is 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. A few years ago the Higher Education Minister rolled out an ambitious plan to upgrade local universities and assist them to specialise in one field, thereby being able to climb international rankings and attract foreign students. Yet this ideal is yet to get off the ground in any meaningful sense, putting the vision of universal higher education at risk. How much opportunity does this current step by the Government give to talented children from poor backgrounds? Conversely how does it ensure that parents’ hard-earned money is not frittered away on inflated degree prices? The transparency of this investment needs to be questioned as much as Packer’s infamous casino venture, but few are questioning why it was kept under wraps for so long. Without an independent regulatory system and transparent investment mechanism, higher education in Sri Lanka will be sold to the highest bidder. Parents, fatigued by political wrangling and non-existent policies, will be happy to purchase their children the chance of a better life.