Looking to the future:
Meeting challenges of higher education
by Prof. Upali Vidanapathirana
The expectations of the millennium development goals (MDG) were to come into force again in Cape Town, South Africa when heads of universities met in April to discuss and debate whether the fading link between higher education and MDG, can be re-established.
Frankly, much of the MDG fanfare in the 1990s is lost by now. In the developing countries fraught by problems of political turmoil, soaring energy prices, recession and droughts, MDGs receded to the background.
Sri Lanka, in contrast, has performed laudably in the spheres of primary education and gender equality while its poverty reduction records have also shown that it is on the verge of meeting the timelines. These are positive signs. However, there are a few other areas where Sri Lanka needs to purposefully engage in raising its performance. One such area is higher education. This sector demands a lot more discussion, debating and commitment at all levels.
The MDG decade that elapsed should have made us a little wiser for the sake of our own survival. The younger generation that is the target group of higher education is wise and knowledgable. Therefore, those of us who are responsible for guiding the youth of this country cannot afford to be complacent about what we do and when we do what we are supposed to do.
This is because the prosperity or peril of our generation will depend on our ability to invest purposefully on education improvements of the generation to come. Currently it is burdened by a myriad of real and supposed problems that need serious attention. The purpose of this article therefore is to reflect on the future of the higher education of this country.
A fundamental assumption of this paper is that the future of this country depends almost exclusively on investments on human capital. Sri Lanka like Japan has an abundance of human capital that requires both enhancement and enrichment. Sri Lankans by nature are hard working. Given the opportunity they are capable of proving their calibre.
This is shown by all those Sri Lankans who have migrated for Education, employment or resettlement. Our youth are a lot more trainable, committed and capable. However, while living in Sri Lanka most of us are lethargic. The list of these negative attributes of Sri Lankans living in Sri Lanka is long and endless.
It is in this background that Sri Lankan authorities need to be astute. Their design and plans need to be futuristic. This is because
a) human factor is our greatest endowment and
b) the future of the world will be driven by knowledge.
In this context there are two other important lessons we can learn. Those countries that are worse off than us today have done badly in human capital development. Sub-Saharan Africa speaks volumes in this regard. Conversely, other countries that are performing better today have invested more purposefully on human capital developments. East Asia can be a case in point. Thus our directions should be clear. What is perhaps unclear may be whether we have the desired sense of direction to take us to the future?
There are no alternatives with respect to investment on human capital. The growth of economies in this country will depend very much on our ability to generate energetic human capital and use them wisely; this is because today economies are driven by knowledge; by science and technology; by training and education and by research and dissemination of research findings for real world applications. However, there is a vital need to make them relevant to our long-term needs.
There is also a need to generate new knowledge that is relevant to us. This new knowledge needs to be exploited to generate value to the economy and hence ready for human consumption. These changes may be equally or even more important than our investments on roads, bridges and power stations we build, expecting a brighter tomorrow. It does not mean that those investments are irrelevant. They can be made really relevant only if we can create a generation of people who can productively and purposefully use them to make our future prosperous.
The orthodox interpretations of economics may differ here as they do not distinguish benefits of investments on human capital holistically. This may be why social returns on the investments on education are rated high only in the case of primary and secondary education. Nonetheless, higher education too generates important value addition because of its contribution to social equity and social harmony.
In general, engineers, doctors, scientists, technologists, accountants and economists appear to be more self-serving in their approach. This idea has emerged because their contribution to national development is less tangible. Therefore, we should change our matrix without blaming the object to be measured.
First, the current conjecture demands a different tool kit that can be used to measure the socio-economic environment of Sri lanka resolutely and evolve strategies that are bold and unconventional. The war that drained this country both physically and morally is over. The economic crisis that engulfed the world since last year has shown signs of turning around. Interestingly, this crisis was useful as it changes socio-political and the economic order of the world substantially.
For instance, it has expedited the decimation of the uni-polar world order. There is also a change of ideological trusts. The ultra leftist as well as ultra-rightist views pertaining to politics also are undergoing change. These contextual changes have generated a need for striking a balance by seeking insights from different viewpoints and root them in our own cultural and social milieu.
Second, higher education has become an extremely competitive enterprise the world over (this feature is somewhat evident at primary education levels too). From the supply side, providers of education are numerous; they include the State sector, private sector, international providers, and a mixture of others including those who focus on skills development of different dimensions.
The product mix on offer is also broad and varied; it includes academic courses as well as different types of professional and skills development programs. All these products and their providers take business promotion drives seriously; some of them may be more covert while others are even overt. A cursory look at Sunday newspaper advertisements gives the idea that millions are spent on colourful advertisements to promote institutions, individuals and courses. It shows that the higher education market is not only competitive, but also lucrative.
From the demand side, the buyers are selective; an element of choice that was not present a few decades ago has crept into domain of higher eduction as well. This is a drastic change that has engulfed all sectors and communities. People today have become more mindful of educational providers, teaching faculty, content, costs, relevance, quality, media and learning ambience. These were propositions that were unthinkable two decades ago. These two opposing forces have made higher education an extremely competitives enterprise. This situation is not peculiar to Sri Lanka. It is a worldwide trend and our neighbours such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal are not spared by these changes.
Another related area is the numbers game in terms of the number of people who seek opportunities and the number of seats that ate available for them. This is a stark reality in the higher eduction sector in particular. For instance, the number who sat for GCE (A/L) examinations stood at 201,686 in 2006 and the number selected to the university system of the country was a meagre 17,248. In 2009 this number increased to 225,000 whereas the number of places in the university system too has numerically increased to 21,000. However, the number of students entering universities as a ratio of those who sit for the Advanced Level examinations remain abysmally low; it is strikingly low for the age cohort comparing poorly with the rates for those neighbouring countries including Bangladesh.
There are many other issues that may be relevant. But they make the paper long and the arguments woolly. Suffice to state that the current demand and supply conditions pertaining to higher education in particular have created a massive void. It is this void that has attracted other providers who are genuinely capable of providing such services as well as those who want to derive quick financial benefits.
Here again the weekend newspapers provide ample proof of the complicated nature of the higher education ‘market’ in Sri Lanka. A word of caution regarding the use of the word ‘market’ is warranted here. It is used consciously because of the existence of the forces of demand for and the supply of higher education opportunities in the country. However, it does not necessarily mean that the arguments supports ‘unfettered marketism as proposed by some writers.
As in many other countries in South Asia, Sri Lanka too registers some resistance to private investments in the sphere of higher education. This resistance is partly attributed to what we believed to be ‘real’ reasons and other reasons that are ‘imaginary. Let us look at the real reason first.
Two important real reasons are a) quality assurance and b) social equity considerations. Both considerations are unquestionably valid. In a country where there is no regulatory mechanism to guide private investment on higher education, there is a real danger that diplomas and degrees can easily be generated for a price. Such a scenario can be extremely counter-productive in relation to the first assumption that ‘knowledge’ is the key driver of development.
However, the sorted knowledge imparted can hinder the very development process that it tries to inspire. The second aspect of social equity too can be equally valid as high-priced qualifications necessarily lead to widening the divide. This is primarily because only the rich can afford to buy such qualifications which trigger further accumulation.
The ‘imaginary’ reasons are mostly based on ideological considerations, attributions and assumptions. For example, higher education as a public good must be exclusively in the hands of the State. The expression that privertisation of education is inherently bad has become questionable in a situation where even primary education in Sri Lanka has a high element of private involvement and investments. A case in point is the private tuition that is quite pervasive at all levels of education.
According to the Consumer Finances and Socioeconomic Survey of the Central Bank, private investments that go into education have increased substantially both in rural and urban areas during the past few decades. These are voluntary investments or expenditure. There is growing private ‘health’ sector in the country patronised by both the rich and the poor.
Yet, there are seemingly valid apprehensions pertaining to the goals and ownership of private providers of higher education. Firstly, if there primary goal is ‘profitability’ it goes against the models operating in many other countries where the so-called private providers are identified as not-for-profit organisations. Secondly, with respect to ownership too, if investments are exclusive private funds it may be inconsistent with those models based on State/private endowment funds that contribute substantially to meet the expenses of private universities.
Thirdly, there can be questions regarding the quality of the faculty staff employed by those institutions. Eventually, there can be a likelihood of questionable institutions providing questionable qualifications. These are genuine anxieties that arise in the absence of regulatory mechanisms to guide private investments of credible sources and options in the country.
The public sector providers too are not totally free from criticism. Two important criticisms are worth mentioning here. The first question deals with the relevance of the qualifications provided by the public universities. This is a contentious issue. On the one hand, an evaluation regarding the attributes that make a qualification relevant or vice versa is not forthcoming.
On the other hand, the public university system has not made a genuine attempt to examine the extent of relevance of their qualifications and to rectify lapses if any. The second question deals with the expansion of the external degree programmes in the country which is argued to have become ‘degree mills’. The numbers involved in the external degree sector exceeds 300,000 learners following the so-called “easy-to-complete” combinations of subject disciplines to get degree certificates. This has become a negative externality as such qualifications trigger protest movements of unemployed graduates.
It is evident that the problem at hand is not simple. Higher education in Sri Lanka is plagued by a complicated mix of problems and issues that need carefully designed, but speedy and effective solutions, for instance, it is worth debating whether there is a space for striking a balance between private and public funds to augment opportunities for education.
In economics, education falls into the category of public goods where the State has to accept a major responsibility. However, the usefulness of private investments cannot be totally overlooked on account of the following six reasons:
1. Even today parents spend private funds for public education at all levels despite the fact that public education is supposed to be ‘free’.
2. Billions of valuable foreign exchange is drained by seeking education abroad. It is estimated that about 8,000 to 10,000 youth annually leave Sri Lanka for countries including Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan at the low end and to Australia and America at the high end and leads to a high outflow of foreign exchange. The drain of foreign exchange in this manner is estimated to be in the range of US $ 4.5 to 8 billion annually.
3. If at least only part of this amount can be utilized to augment the capacities in our current higher education system, many of these students could be absorbed into the system at a relatively lower cost.
4. Further Sri Lanka can be made one of the centres of excellence in education in this region and thereby attract foreign students from South Asia and the rest of the Third World.
5. Many countries including India, China and Vietnam have moved away from totally public higher education institutions to fee levying institutions with sufficient safeguards to protect both ‘merit’ and ‘needy’ cohorts of the youth. Vietnam too has established private universities providing higher educational opportunities.
6. In any case Sri Lanka needs graduates capable of fulfilling its developmental demands. The current “output” of graduates which is about three percent of the population is perhaps the lowest in South Asia.
7. The budgetary imperatives of the country do not allow Sri Lanka to start many more public sector universities. Even if started, the rigidities in recruitment and compensation will not make the university system sustainable.
It is therefore necessary that a mechanism is evolved to garner private investments to develop a system of non-state university institution in the country. In addition there is the need to initiate a regulatory mechanism to assure the quality of programs offered and also to ensure that a quota of deserving students are provided with free or subsidised tuition.
Further, the university system should be made sufficiently flexible in terms of curricula changes to suit the demands of the country.
These imperatives have contributed to a situation which has demanded us to revisit the educational policy with respect to the establishment of a properly accredited system of non-State actors in higher education. There is of course a danger of misreading such an effort partly due to political expediency and partly on account of genuine fears of national interest.
These fears can be allayed only by creating space for debate and discussion regarding the issue at hand more fervently.
It is in this context that Sri Lanka should explore other avenues to solve its problems in higher education. In a country where 130,000 GCE A/L candidates acquire the minimum qualifications to enter the university system, only 20,000 students are admitted to the 14 conventional universities.
The media, political parties, and the civil society are fascinated by these limited numbers that are admitted. A simple content analysis of media reports and Parliament debates will show that the entire country has forgotten the destiny of the remaining 110,000 students who acquire the minimum qualifications or the others who are dropped out completely off the system owing to their inability to secure minimum marks.
One might wonder as to why there is no mention about distance education in this article thus far. As far as the writer is concerned, it is the best policy option. It is best not because of one’s vested interest, but solely because it has been tried and teste both in the developing and developed world. For instance, the British Open University among the first 10 universities in the UK in terms of contribution to teaching, research and scholarship.
The Indira Gandhi Open University in India offers high quality study programs to cater to the needs of more than 1.8 million students scattered around different parts of the country and it too ranks very high in the overall academic ratings.
Likewise, there are many distance open universities in Germany, Israel etc that offer high quality educational programs to cater to both national and market needs of those countries.
The current information and communication technological revolution has opened many vistas to users of online resources and free services to acquire and enhance skills.
The Open University of Sri Lanka has ventured into teaching Natural Sciences Engineering Technology, IT, Law, Management and Social Sciences, Education and Nursing Education in Sri Lanka, many of which were inconceivable with the distance mode a few decades ago.
It is in this context that the education policy of this country needs to make an authentic and radical shift to exploit the true potentials of distance education to meet the challenges discussed above.
The writer is Vice Chancellor of the Open University of Sri Lanka.