Tertiary education 2020: Quadrupling intake and placing a Sri Lankan university in Asian top 30

Tuesday, 28 October 2014 00:45 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The 2015 Budget speech included a commitment to increase the number of students entering universities to 100,000 by 2020. The current intake to Government universities is 25,000 per year, with another 30,000 qualified but not admitted, according to the Minister of Higher Education. The Budget speech also stated that the Government will ensure that Sri Lankan universities will be among the top 30 of Asian universities by 2020. Are these objectives contradictory? Can both quantity and quality be increased at the same time? The challenge of quality The QS Asian University Rankings assess the top 300 universities in Asia. Only one Sri Lankan university makes the list: the University of Colombo. It is in the 201-250 range out of 300 in 2014. In the previous two years it had been at the bottom, in the 251-300 range. South Asian universities with similar profiles can help place this in perspective. The University of Delhi is ranked 81st out of 300. The Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan is ranked 123rd; and the University of Dhaka is in the 171-180 range. Colombo is behind all three; every other university in Sri Lanka is behind Colombo. The leading universities in South Asia are the specialised engineering institutes: seven IITs are in top 100 with ITT Delhi leading in 38th place. In Pakistan too, the leading institution is the Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Science in 106th place. Surprisingly, Sri Lanka’s University of Moratuwa and Bangladesh’s BUET fail to make the list. Given where we are now, the task of placing even one Sri Lankan university in the Asian top 30 within five years, currently dominated by China, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, is no small ambition. The picture is no different if an alternative ranking is used. No Sri Lankan university is included among the 500 covered by the Academic Ranking of World Universities published by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University; East Asian universities lead among the Asian institutions as in the QS Ranking. The challenge of quantity Currently, we admit around 25,000 students a year to low-quality Government universities. To teach four times as many students, it would be necessary to recruit additional faculty. If the pool is unchanged, the increased demand will result in lower-quality faculty being hired. This is what happened when too many regional universities were established by the Kumaratunga Government. Faculty quality is the principal determinant of university quality. Therefore, university quality will decline. There is little debate about the need to improve the quality of university education in Sri Lanka. According to official data, a majority of the graduates in the Arts stream are unemployable. Their career path is that of conducting street protests and then getting absorbed into Government service. Currently, there is a concerted effort to improve the quality, defined in national terms, of the education imparted by Government universities. This is not an unrealistic exercise, even with the present stock of low-quality faculty. However, the President has changed the quality criteria from nationally-defined to internationally-defined. This is hard enough. But when it is combined with the dilution effects resulting from a quadrupling of the intake, one cannot but commiserate with the officials responsible. Expanding tertiary educational opportunities Sri Lanka should increase its tertiary school enrolment to keep up with its peers. The comparison below may come as a surprise to those accustomed to think of Sri Lanka’s educational attainments as exemplary. In this comparison, it leads only in secondary school enrolment. Its tertiary enrolment rate should at least be above that of Vietnam, a country with a lower per-capita GDP. Ideally, it will approach Thai levels. But should this be university enrolment, or tertiary enrolment, including university? Expansion of university seats without a corresponding expansion of appropriate employment opportunities in the 1960s was widely seen as contributing to the emergence of Sinhala and Tamil insurrections in the 1970s and 1980s. Where are the jobs? For example, it is estimated that the hotel industry will need 200,000 employees by the time we reach the target of 2.5 million tourists in 2016 or a year or two after that. It is obvious that no more than a small fraction will require university degrees or equivalents. There is a shortage of skilled workers in the hotel industry, but the answer to that problem is not more university seats. In fact, expanding subsidised university seats may create worker shortages in critical areas, given Sri Lanka’s youth population is not growing, as shown by the high median age. So the first thing to be done is to redefine the objective set out in the 2015 Budget speech as 100,000 entering tertiary education by 2020. The second thing is to expedite the conversion of the technical colleges and similar entities scattered around the country into efficient mechanisms for the delivery of employment-focused tertiary education. To the extent possible, private tertiary education suppliers should also be integrated into the exercise. In an ideal world, the institutions supplying vocational education will not be called universities. But less harm will be caused by calling them universities (after all, there is precedent in the oxymoronic University of Vocational Technology) than by expanding the current universities beyond reason. From 200th place to 30th in five years If the objective is to have a Sri Lankan university among the top 30 Asian universities within five years, nothing short of a “moonshot” will be required. A moonshot is an initiative that falls between an audacious project and pure science fiction; instead of an incremental 10% gain, it aims for 10x improvements, or change by an order of magnitude. The combination of a huge problem, a radical solution, and a breakthrough technology that might just make that solution possible is the essence of a moonshot. Five years after the end of the war and evidence of economic growth all around, the conditions are right for the Government to launch a campaign to attract expatriate Sri Lankans back home. The centrepiece of this effort should be a new, green-field university. If enough highly qualified Sri Lankans now living abroad can be enticed to return (along with a smaller proportion of qualified non-citizens to fill gaps), increased demand for university faculty will not result in lower quality throughout the system. If the new institution is headed by good scholars, they will tend to hire other good scholars, unlike the existing universities where the weak people in charge hire even weaker individuals who are unlikely to threaten their positions. To attract those who have lived abroad for many years, good compensation packages will have to be offered. Reactivation of the suspended dual citizenship scheme and providing good schooling options for the children of the returnees are among some of the other essential elements. Since the target is the top 30, the new university will have to be designed around the indicators that are given weight by ranking organisations. This would mean that significant weight would have to be given to research and publications. This will not be possible unless faculty are relieved of the massive teaching responsibilities imposed on those in the extant universities. High-quality faculty can be attracted by providing access to a high-quality research environment including intelligent and committed graduate students. In actual fact, few research scholars like to teach mass undergraduate courses. So the key to attracting them is a strong research environment. They will, in turn, attract good graduate and undergraduate students. The former will teach the latter for the most part, but interactions with star faculty will be assured within the curriculum. The classrooms will be flipped by delivering content through Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with face-to-face interactions with faculty and graduate students assisting them reserved for intense discussion and learning activities based on MOOC-delivered content. There could be a choice of the source of credentials from the new university and/or from “brand-name” universities delivering the MOOC content, at least in the first few years. Using MOOCs as the base technology for a new kind of university staffed by returned Sri Lankans is a radical solution. It is a moonshot. But for a problem as huge as that of placing a Sri Lankan university in the Asian top 30 within five years, nothing short of a moonshot will do.

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