Practical proposals for higher education

Wednesday, 2 February 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

FULFILLING a need can be a tricky business. Sri Lanka, in its quest to upgrade its education system, seems to be heading in all directions at the same time, which could have serious repercussions unless it is brought together into a competent model.

All sane minds admit that Sri Lanka’s education needs to be revamped to international standards. The means to this end is what the argument is about and many roads are being travelled to reach this goal.

For example, on Tuesday it was announced that 10,000 new entrants into the university would be given a laptop each to improve their English while 10,000 more who are already in the system would be given the opportunity to learn the same language via online courses by the Higher Education Ministry. This latter project is supported by the US Government.

Similar stories have hit newspapers over the last few months, detailing plans to start new courses and exchange programmes as well as entire new institutions. A fortnight ago, the National Institute of Business Management (NIBM) was given permission by the Cabinet to take a Rs. 3.5 billion bank loan to buy land for the establishment of a business school. While this does not come as a surprise given that NIBM has been churning out graduates for the past 42 years and annually equips around 10,000 students with management qualifications, the sheer scale of unorganised growth makes one wary of the big picture.

The Higher Education Ministry is braving the wrath of a multitude of factions and preparing to throw open its arms to accept private universities. While it is positive that local institutions such as NIBM are preparing to take on this competition and forge ahead, it must also be observed that this must be done in a practical manner. Billions of loans taken by local bodies must be eventually repaid and their sustainability must be earnestly focused on if public institutions are to go head to head with private ones.

Moreover, management is just one fraction of the immense number of new knowledge fields that have opened up and are required in Sri Lanka’s march for development. Economic growth is not only dependent on shiny new roads but a vital change of attitudes and intellectual freedoms that will forge a new country with fresh ideas and goals that are firmly entrenched in sustainable development.

For this evolution to happen, education is essential; but not just at university level. Knowledge is an ever-changing element and the education of professionals is also necessary. In addition, education of children from Year 1 onwards needs to be reconsidered.

This is a tough task, but changing things at the top is going to have limited results unless the positive changes filter downwards. New processes in education systems are a long-term process but as a continuous engagement it needs to have a clear institutionalised process, which the Government is struggling to implement.

The Higher Education Act is to be presented to Parliament in the coming months and its shortcomings along with overall policies have to be debated strongly while a sharp eye will have to be kept on the implementation process. Helter-skelter education development could cause more problems for the already-embattled higher education system and undermine all the efforts that are currently being made; they are also a warning of how badly a competent monitoring structure is needed to filter practical proposals.