A private lesson

Friday, 11 October 2013 03:53 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Private universities have long been a thorn of contention between the Government and student unions, which has resulted in allegations of repressive actions by the former. 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. The project to establish a branch campus of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) in the Mirigama Export Processing Zone received Parliament approval on Wednesday without attracting much 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, forcing Sri Lanka to lose foreign currency reserves as remittances. According to Gazette Extraordinary No.1821/39, UCLAN will comply with the provisions of the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978 in conducting its activities, which will be in the national interest and of economic and social benefit to Sri Lanka. Anywhere between 4,000-6,000 students will find degree opportunities at the campus while the Government gets a sizeable investment of US$ 120 million. An estimated 750 jobs will also be furnished by the new university but it is unclear whether these will include academics. 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.