HIGHER Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella has reopened a dicey can of worms by announcing the Government is considering allowing private universities to open shop in Sri Lanka but to make this plan a reality, they will have to sidestep a lot of controversial policies that the previous Government attempted to implement in its time.
Sri Lanka already produces the world’s oldest graduates. When youth in most other countries are busy entering the job market in their early twenties, local students – through no fault of their own – are still just starting their degree programs. By the time most foreign people are done with their Master’s, Sri Lankan students are still trying to complete their Bachelor’s. So long does this cumbersome process take that most students marry and even have children while they are attending university.
Into this inefficient and fund-starved system, the Government is planning to unleash private universities. In fact, the Government is planning to use the higher education system to galvanise lacklustre post-war Foreign Direct Investment, but such plans by the previous Government did not even make it out of the starting gate.
The Government is keen to promote private universities but desperate to avoid troublesome standoffs with student unions. But they also cannot rush through crucial legislation, as was attempted by the previous Government, which would empower the public higher education system and regularise their private counterparts. Lack of transparent discussions and growing concerns over corruption will also make stakeholders insecure about the direction of the country’s higher education sector. One crucial divergence point will be how to provide accreditation to private degree awarding institutions. The previous Government took enforcement of standards little into consideration and caused much consternation, especially among the medical fraternity. The Sirisena- Wickremesinghe Government will have to have a much more inclusive stakeholder approach if it has even a chance of opening up the higher education sector.
Students, tired of being caught between a rock and a hard place, would probably welcome the option of getting an accredited degree at home. But without proper monitoring and standardisation, their parents’ hard-earned money could go to waste.
On a larger level, Sri Lanka needs technology and knowledge transfer in order to foster economic growth. On the surface, that seems like an argument for private universities, but knowledge needs to be matched with intelligent minds, at present the best crop is funnelled to public universities. The fear that State universities will become the destination for poor students while their richer colleagues opt for private universities should not be allowed to become reality. The ideal of universal higher education opportunities must be upheld.
In such a morass of challenges, it is imperative that the university system is guided on the ideals of fairness and equality, but past experiences do not bode well for the future. The Government has not put in place wide-ranging reforms for the education sector, which would make it more competitive and has basically laid the foundation for yet another standoff with university teachers and students that bodes ill for everyone. Therefore, the Government will have to make fresh overtures to other stakeholders, and do it fast, if they have any hope of making this elusive goal come true.