Dr. Gamini Wickramasinghe speaks on the future of higher education in Sri Lanka

Friday, 1 July 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Jayantha Sittampalam

Dr. Gamini Wickramasinghe, current Chairman of Bank of Ceylon, is perhaps better known for his pioneering role in the IT industry. His company Informatics, established in 1983, is still a powerhouse of software development, churning out new and innovative software products for the international market.

What is not so well known is the fact that he is also a pioneer of private education, setting up Sri Lanka’s first international campus to offer students the chance to earn an international degree without attending a foreign campus. After gaining affiliation with the prestigious Manchester Metropolitan University, his brainchild, the Informatics Institute of Technology (IIT), was established in 1990 primarily to educate students in IT at a time when Sri Lanka produced less than 30 to 40 graduates per year in the emerging field of IT.

Initially feeding the nascent IT industry with suitably qualified IT graduates, IIT has, over the years, moved up to occupy celestial heights in the firmament of tertiary education, notably for its record of 100% employment of its graduates, but also for the remarkable exploits of its students in other fields of enterprise. Its illustrious alumni have added lustre by an extraordinary record of achievement in such fields as music, fashion, advertising and journalism, clearly not even remotely connected with IT.

Bhatiya of BnS fame, currently top of the pops in the Sri Lankan original music scene, is one such case. Sanjeev Jayaratnam, a first class honours graduate from the first batch at IIT, is today a celebrated lecturer and also the leader of another successful band, The Revelations.

While IIT was initially affiliated with the Manchester Metropolitan University, it has now forged links with two very prestigious institutions, the University of Westminster and Keele University, both of United Kingdom.

At an impromptu interview conducted at the head office of the Bank of Ceylon, Dr. Wickramasinghe spoke candidly on his views regarding Sri Lanka’s prospects as an education hub and IIT’s future. Following are excerpts:

Q: How did you get in to the field of education? How did it all start?

A: IIT started in 1990 when Lalith Athulathmudali was the Minister in Charge of Education. He was our advisor. In those early days national education was totally State controlled. The Minister gave guidelines for the private sector to formally enter the field of education, particularly because this was at a time when there was serious student unrest since it was in the aftermath of the JVP uprisings of the late ’80s.

At the time we started, the private medical college too was having problems. Students were then forced to go to UK or USA for a private degree, spending colossal sums, and then local institutes started offering the opportunity to study a few years here and then go abroad for the final year. We started just after that and offered a higher education programme leading up to a British qualification. We started by offering the full degree programme in Sri Lanka for the first time from day one. 

Q: But why did you, an IT pioneer, go in to higher education?

A: To be honest, it was for a very selfish reason. We had an IT company but could not find a sufficient number of educated youth to work. Quite simply, we needed people because at the time all Sri Lankan universities put together did not produce even 30 to 40 IT graduates. So we had a major problem. The industry did not have people. That is why I said selfish. Because we had a need, we decided to have our own university just to feed us and the industry. We assumed leadership and took the initiative. If we did not start at that time, Sri Lanka would have still been way behind. We are at a certain point today with many IT specialists such as programmers, database analysts, communication analysts, internet experts and webmasters. 

Q: What kind of a person is the industry looking for? 

A: The industry is looking to hire someone as complete as possible, not only for IT knowledge. Today, the ideal candidate is a good communicator, a good marketer and an efficient business administrator. Not only pure computer science, they should be work-ready professionals. The courses at IIT are structured to reflect that need. 

Q: How is the industry responding to the graduates you produce? Or are they still only working in your IT companies?

A: Actually even before IIT graduates obtain their final results, they are offered jobs. I think it’s a matter of confidence. You have to have confidence. One key programme that differentiates IIT from other institutes is industry placement during the third year of the course. Before their final year, all IIT undergraduates enter a compulsory industry internship programme of one year duration. It helps build self-confidence and trains them for the needs of the industry.

Q: How is an industry placement different from real employment, say as a management trainee?

A: In a job, the expectation is higher and employees have duties and responsibilities that he or she must perform accurately and efficiently from the very first day. An industrial placement student can ask questions, take time, build confidence and learn on the job. In a few months our students get the confidence.

At IIT, students run projects and make presentations as they are groomed to work as analysts or project leaders. You are part of a team. While your individual skills are valuable and you also learn to be part of a team, a team player. More importantly during the industrial placement year, the students work under supervision.

Q: In your opinion, do you think employers prefer graduates with industry placement experience? 

A: it’s obvious. If you only learn theory and go to the industry, sometimes you do not know what the real expectations are and often you don’t know how to respond. You are shy. I know many people who are shy and don’t want to come forward. 

Q: Well, we know that the IT industry welcomes IIT graduates, but can they fit into roles in other fields and other industries?

A:Some senior managers of Unilever visited me recently on a banking matter. Of the four who came to see me, three were IIT alumni, including the Chief Financial Officer, who had read for an IT degree. IIT graduates have been doing very well in many fields. In the world today, I think you need to have some knowledge of IT, whether you do medicine, dentistry or agriculture. Down the line, because of its universal applicability, you do need to integrate some IT concepts and utility in to any field of work or business. I know that in the field of medicine IT is essential. For business, IT is a natural extension. 

Q: Where do you see the IIT heading in the future? Where is private education heading in the future?

A: It is very interesting. Now in Sri Lanka I think we have about 237,000 students sitting for the A/Ls and a little over 23,000 are admitted to universities per year. What happens to those who don’t gain admission? The present Minister of Higher Education is, admittedly, attempting to do something about this and is criticised and abused for attempting to do so. He wants to make Sri Lanka an education hub.

Everyone is talking about making Sri Lanka into one type of hub or the other, but taking into account the considerable private investment in the education sector and the sustained growth we’ve seen over the last 20 years, it is a very viable and welcome initiative. Now that the war is over and there’s peace and freedom, I think it’s a great idea whose time has come. 

The Minister invited foreign universities to come and establish business and he offered private education institutions, including IIT, land and facilities to build campuses and develop the education industry. I think a lot of students, not only from India, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries, but also from Western countries, will choose Sri Lankan campuses to study at. It’s now a peaceful country with friendly people and they can enjoy the good life here while pursuing their educational goals. I’m sure they’ll all love to come to Sri Lanka!

What’s more, imagine the colossal sum of foreign exchange Sri Lanka will save! We spend large amounts of pounds and dollars for our students to study abroad. Not only will we save all that foreign exchange, but we’ll also peg the brain drain, because a large number of students going abroad to study don’t come back. 

The third largest export out of Australia is education. Education can easily be one of Sri Lanka’s top 10 exports. 

Q: So, according to you Sri Lanka should now think of marketing education overseas? Can the Government help promote it abroad?

A: When you make our education system, courses and qualifications internationally acceptable, students can use it, like an international driving license, anywhere in the world. That is the start. I think we have to market ourselves. Take tourism for instance. Unless we market tourism, we can’t expect anyone to come here on holiday. If you want large numbers to come, we must showcase ourselves and give enough incentive to come. It’s the same for education. 

Q: How should we go about this? A Public-Private Partnership or some other mechanism? 

A: The Government of Sri Lanka, Export Development Board and the Education Ministry could join hands like we are already doing in the health sector. Now, I think, like you suggested, some sort of joint action is required. Sri Lanka is poised for growth and the education sector is right now primed to really grow – even to become an international education hub. We need good universities to come and set up business here; world-class reputed universities to establish in Sri Lanka and call it their foreign campus.

Q: Since you are Chairman of Bank of Ceylon, this statement could possibly be interpreted as being political. Are you okay with that?

A: No. Actually, it is not a political statement. It is merely an economic fact about development, made in the best interests of the country. Take the education fairs held annually by various organisations, including the British Council. Easily over 40 universities are represented at a typical education fair. Why do they come? Because they need students paying higher overseas students’ tuition fees. So they introduce various marketing concepts such as scholarships, incentives, etc., to attract students from here. We must do the same.

Now I think Sri Lanka is at the right place. When you allow the private sector to run things, they iron out problems and run things smoothly. But of course, the Government must regulate, sometimes slap the private sector with fines and deterrents, but essentially the private sector must be allowed to run things. I think this is a great opportunity.

(The interviewer is a pioneer of inclusive strategy and Managing Director of Cameron Pale & Medina, the only inclusive communication company in 

Sri Lanka. He can be 

reached on sitta@cpm.lk.)