Wednesday, 28 August 2013 00:00
To uplift the education sector and to provide equal opportunities for all masses of the population, LAUGFS Higher Education Services Ltd., the education arm of Laugfs Holdings, was established in 2011. Continuing to uplift the corporate sector since its inception by extending structured learning programs to those on the lookout for skill development, the institute has so far produced and released 800 qualified individuals.With the objective of filling the gap prevailing in the local job market and the education sector, LAHES Director and CEO Vindhya Weeratunga shared the contribution made by the institute to the two key areas that is a source for the corporate sector.In an interview with the Daily FT, Weeratunga outlined LAHESâ€™ journey over the past two years, its strengths, challenges faced and future plans, Following are excerpts:By Shabiya Ali Ahlam
Q: What is LAHES and how did it originate?
A: LAHES is a part of the LAUGFS Group, which is a highly diversified business conglomerate in Sri Lanka. Laugfs in 2011 decided to move into the education sector as at the time the Government was talking about privatising higher education. While we saw an opportunity in this sphere, we also come from this mentality where we want to give something back to the country. It was a twofold initiative, one from the business point of view and the other to give more opportunities for students in Sri Lanka as well as those in the Asian region.
However, the plans did not materialise as expected since the Private University Act did not come to effect. Nevertheless we started the operation and continued to do so. Now we focus on corporates and therefore have branded ourselves as â€˜LAHES, The Corporate Campusâ€™.
Q: LAHES is affiliated with a couple of institutes. What are the universities?
A: Our business model is to work with reputed universities not to offer bachelors or undergraduate degrees, but executive education program. We have partnered with top universities such as the National University of Singapore (NUS) for this. With the NUS we have established a four day course for which the faculty would fly down to offer a program that is similar to that extended in Singapore. The other university that we are partnered with is the Asia E University in Malaysia, where together we offer the Executive MSC in Human Resource Management. Although we are affiliated with top foreign universities, all our qualifications are affordable.
Q: Tell me about the program structure at LAHES?
A: In addition to the programs we offer through affiliation we have our own we well. Whilst we work with established brands, we want to build a Sri Lankan brand for education and that is LAHES. We study the prevailing gaps in the job market and try to fill such. LAHES has come up with unique programs for school leavers, the LAHES Professional Diploma in Business Administration. Here we select school leavers from diverse background and not just from Colombo. We take these students through class room learning for three months and for the balance three months, we involve them in a fulltime internship within the LAUGFS Group. This way we can monitor, develop and give the necessary exposure. The first batch of students just graduated this month and the best five were taken in as management trainees which means they are set for life.
Likewise, we have many unique programs where we try to address gaps in the market. The reason we targeted school leavers was because out of so many that sit for Advanced Level examinations, only 20,000 get into university. That doesnâ€™t mean that the rest are not intelligent. It means that the country does not have enough opportunities. So we take them in and give them the career guidance, which is lacking in Sri Lanka.
Q: So what makes the institute unique?
A: There is a plethora of opportunities in terms of jobs in Sri Lanka. But so much so, what is offered by other institutes does not fulfil the requirement. They copy programs offered by foreign universities where some part of the study are irrelevant. We try to identify that gap and address it with our programs. The best example I can give is the pharmacy program. Most of the pharmacies in the country do not have qualified pharmacists. To become a qualified pharmacist in Sri Lanka a person has to sit for the Government exam. We have incorporated the Government syllabus into our curriculum so that all participant of our program is prepared to sit for this exam as well. In addition to this, we also guarantee jobs at Laugfs. Whatever the course we offer, there is a job waiting for them at Laugfs. LAHES has the comfort of doing so since the group is so very diverse in its operations.
Q: Does the LAUGFS Group give preference to students coming from LAHES over other institutes?
A: Yes. The first preference is given to those who are qualified from LAHES.
Q: What is the strength of the institute?
A: The strength of the institute is primarily the power of LAUGFS. It is only because of that we can guarantee jobs. However, we are looking for other companies to endorse our programs as well, where they would accept those qualified from LAHES.
Q: How about the faculty?
A: LAHES works with independent faculty members. The reason we opt for this model is simply because our programs are very diverse. Depending on the audience I could always change the faculty even if it is for the same subject. Sometimes the same module is offered to different batches having different characteristics. For the executive level we will have one lecturer and for the middle management level we will have another. Depending on the audience we select the lecturer since the way the content is being communicated makes a difference. In total LAHES has about 40 visiting lecturers who are focused on different disciplines. Elements we look into include their academic qualification and experience in the corporate environment. Itâ€™s a good blend of academics and professionals.
Q: How many students have passed out so far?
A: I would say approximately 800 students. This is because we have many short courses for which the student intake for each batch is about 40.
Q: LAHES has completed two years and you have been here since its inception. How has the journey been so far?
A: My previous background was in an MNC. Many were questioning me at the time as to why am I leaving a MNC for a local company. I think that is the best move I have ever made. At LAHES we are given a lot of freedom to do what we want and believe in. At the MNC I learnt a lot which I use here at Laugfs. Here I get the feel that am doing something worthwhile for the country. From the beginning it hasnâ€™t been a bed of roses. I have had my ups and down. I think that such made this initiative stronger. We have had our challenges as we entered this sector hoping the Private University Act will materialise, but to date it didnâ€™t happen. This didnâ€™t stop us and we chose to still contribute to the education sector. I was brought up in an environment where education was supreme and I am certain majority feel the same. That passion exists here at LAHES as well. Coming from the Founder Chairman of LAUGFS, his is highly passionate about education. He says what made him today is the free education offered by the country. He feels that because he benefitted from the education system, it is his responsibility to give back to the country.
"The everyday challenge is to get the decision makers in the corporate sector to realise the value of a program. Itâ€™s not that they donâ€™t realise that it is important but there are limited budgets from a corporate point of view. There is only so much they can allocate for a person to develop him. I feel that HR people need to be more aware of what employees require to take the company forward. There is a long way to go and it is challenging from a companyâ€™s point of view since they look at everything from a rupees and cents valueThere are CEOs who worry about developing their employees, but there is another bulk that doesnâ€™t see the value of training and have the opinion that it is up to the employee to develop himself. It doesnâ€™t always work that way as the saw has to be sharpened from time to time. A common debate is, what if the person they train leaves the company soon after? To this I say, â€˜what if you donâ€™t develop that person and that person stays?â€™ To break out of that mentality and getting this message across is a challenge"
If student walks into LAHES wanting a qualification and cannot afford it, we would help him. For the LAHES professional diploma we would mainly select students coming from rural areas since we want to give them the opportunity to learn. They donâ€™t have the best English knowledge but that isnâ€™t the only element that is required in the job market. Yes. The journey did have both, the high and lows.
Q: How far do you think the institute has come since inception?
A: We have certainly come a long way. Fortunate we had a rapid growth. Usually with start-ups, universities like NUS wouldnâ€™t want to work. Since we had a good relationship with them it worked. I believe that most of the time business works on the basis of trust.
During the two years, we have come really far, especially within the LAUGFS Group. Although the companies did offer training before, the employees feel that with LAHES they underwent structured learning.
Q: What are the typical day-to-day challenges faced?
A: The everyday challenge is to get the decision makers in the corporate sector to realise the value of a program. Itâ€™s not that they donâ€™t realise that it is important but there are limited budgets from a corporate point of view. There is only so much they can allocate for a person to develop him. I feel that HR people need to be more aware of what employees require to take the company forward. There is a long way to go and it is challenging from a companyâ€™s point of view since they look at everything from a rupees and cents value. There are CEOs who worry about developing their employees, but there is another bulk that doesnâ€™t see the value of training and have the opinion that it is up to the employee to develop himself. It doesnâ€™t always work that way as the saw has to be sharpened from time to time. A common debate is, what if the person they train leaves the company soon after? To this I say, â€˜what if you donâ€™t develop that person and that person stays?â€™ To break out of that mentality and getting this message across is a challenge.
Q: Is there room for improvement?
Q: In what areas would you say?
A: In terms of programs I would say we need to improve. I am quite aware of the gaps in the market and more can be done to bridge this. We donâ€™t take the easy way out, so a lot are lined up for the future business plans. I also feel we havenâ€™t marketed our self-enough. To this I feel we need to go out there as position ourselves.
Q: Could you elaborate on the future plans of the institute?
A: A lot of novel programs are coming up. One is that we are working with an American University to offer a qualification for corporate executives. The model we are trying to establish is that they will go through most of the program here and for three weeks they will be in the USA. So we are always trying to do something unique since if not, there is no point in trying to do something new. There is no institute that offers such a combination.