Beginning of a new era

Friday, 29 October 2010 06:41 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Higher education sector of Sri Lanka

By Tharanga Thilakasiri

The prevalence of a sound higher education system is a must for any country, irrespective of its development level. Therefore, it is the ultimate duty of respective governments to provide the best possible education to its younger generations in order to be competitive in this highly globalised world.

The Government has to take firm decisions on the future of our higher education sector

However, in the present globalised world, no government can afford to handle the education sector (particularly the higher education system) on its own. Governments around the world require the assistance of the private sector or the non-State sector to develop the same in order to be competitive in the highly competitive global market.

Today, we can see that many countries have been benefited from this process and India, Malaysia, etc., are the best recent examples.

In fact, I participated in the Annual Conference of the Institute of the Certified Professional Managers (ICPM) held in Colombo recently, where Prof. Robin Pollard of Malaysia and Prof. Lakshman Watawala of Sri Lanka explained the salient features of the higher educational systems which exist in Malaysia and India, respectively.

So, as Sri Lanka eyes becoming a ‘knowledge hub’ in Asia, we, as responsible citizens, have to build up an appropriate dialogue on improving our higher education system with the suitable assistance from the non-State sector in order to establish a ‘knowledge based economy’ here in Sri Lanka.

Establishment of non-State higher educational institutes

According to a report published in the Daily FT on 20 October 2010, the Government of Sri Lanka is to present a new Bill to Parliament soon to open up higher education. Accordingly, the education system in Sri Lanka will be classified into three categories, as follows:




Further, the report reveals that the Government will not abolish the existing free education system in Sri Lanka but six local universities such as University of Colombo, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, University of Peradeniya, University of Moratuwa, University of Kelaniya and University of Ruhuna will be developed to international standards.

Further, the University of Rajarata, University of Jaffna and Eastern University will be upgraded in the second phase of the programme.

This shows that the Government of Sri Lanka has identified the present global situation/trends which exist in the world, at last. As the university models have been changed from ‘elite model’ to ‘mass model’ and finally to the ‘international model’ (at present) over the years, this is a positive move taken by the Government towards establishing a world class university system within Sri Lanka.

Once again, this a commendable decision taken by the Government, provided that Sri Lanka implements these changes to our higher education system to be competitive in the international level in the coming years.

Where are we now?

As mentioned early, today India, China and Malaysia enjoy the benefits of the sound education system existing in those counties. These countries have immensely benefited from the concept of a ‘knowledge based economy’.

They have managed to improve their higher education system to be on par with the developed countries and increase accessibility to higher education for their students as well as for foreign students.

Moreover, today these counties can earn huge sums of foreign income by providing affordable education to students from other countries, including the students from developed countries.

According to a report published in the Daily News on 20 October 2010, the Higher Education Minister of Sri Lanka has revealed that Sri Lanka is spending Rs. 15 billion to Rs. 20 billion annually on foreign education. Further, he has stressed that Sri Lanka could save this amount with the establishment of the foreign university branches locally.

But there is a question that we have to ask ourselves: Where are we standing today in comparison to those counties? No doubt, we are nowhere. In fact we are not in a position to compare ourselves with such countries.

The International Ranking on Universities shows where we are now. Sadly, none of our universities are ranked among the best 1,000 universities in the world (more details are available in my previous article published in DFT on the topic of ‘Higher Educational System in Sri Lanka’ on 27 September 2010).

This gives us a clear idea about our existing higher education system. We have to definitely look for an alternative remedial action to put our higher education system back on the correct track sooner rather than later.

In reality, we are late compared to our regional neighbours but I do not think that we are too late even now, provided we work hard by changing our educational policies to suit the requirements of the 21st century. Hence, we have to act immediately as well as optimistically.

Lessons from Malaysia

As discussed early, today, India and Malaysia have been recognised as role models for others to follow in changing their higher education to suit contemporary requirements in the highly-globalised world. Particularly Sri Lanka as an emerging country in Asia can learn a lot from Malaysia on how they transformed their higher education system to what it is today.

The Government of Malaysia has introduced the Private Higher Educational Institution Act – 1996 (Act 555) with a view to provide for the establishment, registration, management and regulation and the quality control of education offered by the private institutions of higher learning.

According to the official Portal of the Ministry of Higher Education of Malaysia, today there are about 20 public universities, 27 polytechnic institutions (which provide courses for diploma (three years) and certificate level (two years) and 59 community colleges.

Apart from that, the following foreign universities and colleges have also set up branches of their campuses:


  • Monash University, Australia
  • The University of Nottingham, United Kingdom
  • SAE Institute, Australia
  • Swinburne University of Technology, Australia
  • Curtain University of Technology, Australia
  • Raffles Design Institute, Singapore


Similarly, Malaysia has introduced another act called the National Council on Higher Education Act – 1996 (Act 546) to provide for its function relating to higher education and for matters connected herewith. Some of the functions of the National Council on Higher Education are:


  • To plan, formulate and determine national policies and strategies for the development of higher education
  • To coordinate the development of higher education
  • To promote and facilitate the orderly growth of institutions of higher education
  • To determine policies and set criteria for the allocation of funds to higher educational institutions
  • To determine policies relating to the entry of students to higher educational institutions, etc.

Further, Malaysia has introduced another key act called, National Accreditation Act – 1996 (Act 556) to provide for its functions and power and for matters connected herewith. Some of the functions of the Accreditation Board are:


  • To formulate policies on the standard and quality control of courses of study and certificates, diplomas and degrees
  • To set monitor, review and oversee the standard and quality of courses of study and for accreditation of certificates, diplomas and degrees
  • To determine the level of achievement for the national language and the compulsory subjects specified in the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act as prerequisites to the award of certificates, diplomas and degrees
  • To advice and make recommendations to the minister for his approval of courses of study to be conducted by private higher educational institutions.


Thus, I believe that we Sri Lanka too can learn from the experiences of Malaysian education system for the betterment of our higher education system in the years to come. In particular, the National Accreditation Act – 1996 signifies the importance of formulating policy standard and quality control of courses of study and certificates, diplomas and degrees.

Role of the non-State sector higher educational institutes in Sri Lanka

As we are already aware, the Government of Sri Lanka is to introduce drastic changes to the higher education system with a view to improve the quality and the relevance of our higher education system to match the 21st century job requirements to international levels shortly.

Hence, there will be non-State sector educational institutions in Sri Lanka before long. Basically, these universities can commence their operation as:


  • Branch campuses
  • Franchises
  • Joint ventures
  • Strategic alliances
  • 2+2 university transfer progamme (two years in Sri Lanka and remaining two years in the parent country of the branch campus)

However, besides the different entry modes, these non-State educational institutions must adopt pragmatic strategies for Sri Lanka. Firstly, they must understand the local culture and should pay the due respect for it, else it will be difficult them to survive in Sri Lanka.

Further, these foreign universities should focus more on the following important aspects of higher education if they are to continue successfully:

They should provide:


  • Quality based education
  • Students centred education
  • Skill based education
  • Job oriented education
  • Use of extensive modern technology
  • Fast adaptation to latest global trends, etc.

Also, such universities should charge reasonable course fees especially from the local students in considering that Sri Lanka is still a middle income country and expecting to become an emerging market economy in Asia in the future. However, sensible Government interference is required when deciding fees.

Nevertheless, the Government says that it will give tax holidays under the Board of Investment (BOI) law and free land, provided that 20% students are admitted free and the Government gets a stake in the venture. Accordingly, the Government should encourage these universities to set up their branches outside the commercial capital Colombo such as Kandy, Anuradhapura, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Nuwara Eliya, etc., so that development will reach these areas as well.

These universities should also promote ‘student centred education’ rather than conventional ‘teacher centred education’ for the benefit of our students. Similarly, they should promote ‘skill based education’ here in Sri Lanka.

These universities should employ mostly lecturers with postgraduate qualifications (such as Masters and PhDs), which will certainly ensure the quality factor.

Apart from that, they should employ well known industry specialists both locally and internationally to teach/coach students attached to theses institutes. Consequently, these specialists can bring their industrial experiences for the benefit of students.

Finally, these non-State universities should act as a partner of Sri Lanka’s development process and take every step to encourage in achieving the country’s goals by providing world class university education.

Way forward

Education is a continuous process which has to change according to the changes taking place in the international arena. The Government has to take firm decisions on the future of our higher education at this important juncture of the country’s history. Such decisions may not be popular among the masses, but considering the future of next generation of this isle, the Government has to take suitable decisions almost immediately.

As the University Grants Commission (UGC) always urges, its prime intention is to ensure the quality and the relevance of our higher education system; hence, these changes must be made without further delay.

It is also learnt that the UGC is in the process of introducing a ‘national qualification framework’ for the benefit of the higher education in Sri Lanka as it has been identified as a fundamental necessity to maintain standards in qualifications in the State and non-State sectors.

According to a report published in DFT on 16 October 2010, the Government plans to set up a ‘Quality Assurance and Accreditation Council’ (QAA) to regulate foreign affiliated higher education institutes that have already been established in the country.

According to the UGC, QAA is conducting a number of institutional reviews, subject reviews, awareness programmes. This a positive move considering the maintenance of the quality of our higher education system in international level.

At present Sri Lanka does not have a university ranking system in place and therefore, students and parents find it difficult to select a suitable higher education provider. Companies face the same problem in finding suitable graduates to fill their vacancies.

However, it is learnt that a common ranking system including public and private universities will be implemented for the convenience of local and international students.  Therefore, this ranking method will be immensely beneficial for the relevant parties. However, authorities should not forget to carry out all these changes in a manner which protects the existing university system, which comes under free education.

In addition, Sri Lanka should pay attention not only to university education but technical education as well. Of course, since independence, respective governments have done so much to promote technical education here in Sri Lanka, but I think we still haven’t fully recognised the value of technical education. Therefore, the Government should seek the assistance of the non-State sector to develop technical education as well.

Furthermore, there are thousands of students who follow various courses offered by the local universities as external students. However, there is a debate over the quality of such external candidates when compared to internal candidates. Hence, the external degree programmes offered by the local universities should be reorganised immediately. Nevertheless, it is learnt that the UGC has taken several steps to streamline these external degree programmes before long.


Finally, I believe that Sri Lanka in a position to be a ‘knowledge hub’ or a ‘centre for higher education’ in Asia provided our policymakers take appropriate decisions at the right time and ultimately facilitate the Government’s intention to establish a ‘knowledge based economy’ in Sri Lanka.

(Tharanga Thilakasiri M.B.A (International), AIMM, can be reached via [email protected].)