Mr. S.B. Dissanayake, Hon. Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Sunil Navarathna, Secretary of Higher Education, Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Heads of Departments, Members of the Academic staff, members of the Administrative Staff and Ladies and Gentleman.
I wish to thank the Ministry of Higher Education for inviting me here today. It is opportune to have a workshop on New Horizons and Strategies for Higher Education as higher education faces many challenges as well as opportunities today.
Historically the system of higher education that gained ground in Sri Lanka was the British model of university education that originated during the latter part of British rule and continues to influence the traditions of university education even today. The British model of university education in Sri Lanka originated with the establishment of the University College in 1921 by way of preparing external candidates for the degree at the University of London. The first degree awarding Sri Lankan university was established in 1942 initially in Colombo and later moved to Peredeniya. It followed the early British model of the Ox-Bridge tradition represented by Oxford and Cambridge. Over the years we have expanded the number of universities diverting from the original Oxbridge model and formulating our own parameters. However, the west has moved away from the Oxbridge model to a mass model and currently to the international model.
At present, we have fifteen universities, three campuses and eight degree awarding institutions under the preview of the University Grants Commission in the country. Annually, well over 35000 students are admitted to these universities both as internal and external candidates. Furthermore, 25,000 are registered at the Open University for higher education. The demand for university education has expanded steadily over the years especially with near universal coverage in primary education and equal access to education for the girl child. However, the phenomenon is that Sri Lanka as a country is unprepared to face this demand for higher education. All of you are aware of the struggle to achieve the high standards set for university admission and the anguish and pain of those who pass the examination very well but are denied access to higher education. We at the UGC are almost daily faced with this issue.
Consequently we have sought immediate solutions that bring short term returns. Some of our responses are unplanned and leads to a lack of efficiency and effectiveness in the use of resources. As an apex body that manages finances we at the UGC are often concerned by the heavy investment in infrastructure that is planned and implemented without clear operation and maintenance plans. The Operation and maintenance costs become an onus to the state and I am sorry to say I have witnessed the absolute neglect and under utilization of space and other resources due to such unplanned infrastructure development.
However, the dire need of the hour is access, equity, relevance and quality of higher education of which infrastructure is only one element. Research, teacher qualifications and adequate numbers and the effective learner centred teaching learning process takes precedence over infrastructure. It is remarkable what a focused, well trained teacher can do as evidenced in our formal education system especially in the pre-colonial and immediate post colonial era. Limitations in access and equity have pushed our students to access higher education in other countries sometimes accessing education services of poor quality. Right now about 2 percent of those who sit for the GCE A/L examination gain admission to universities overseas. Some of them never return to the country resulting in a loss of well trained and skilled human resources. More and more cross border institutes that offer degrees from overseas universities are established in the country attracting another segment who can afford the education offered at these institutions. What happens to the rest is not monitored and analysed systematically and this is an area that is of great concern. The Ministry of Higher Education and the UGC are making continuous efforts to address the demand for university education but it needs to be practical, planned and regulated within the higher education policies of the government and more importantly recognize the constraints posed by economic and political factors. You cannot implement solutions in a vacuum in a country where education is the most politicized social infrastructure.
In this context, it is pertinent to understand what a university means and what is meant by university education internationally as we cannot live in cocoons woven out of our own ignorance. The university is a broad community that includes academics, students, and administrators, officials of the state, parents and civil society. Thus, it is a body comprised of a broad community with a common goal-the pursuit of higher learning and research. It is the centre of highest learning in any given country. In this context I would ask the question “what does one expect or what are the objectives to be achieved after entering university either as an internal or external student? It is my understanding that every one aspires to acquire and develop his or her knowledge, competencies and skills of a particular discipline. This is the final stage of preparing a responsible citizen. A university is not a certificate factory or a vocational training centre but a place to promote excellence in higher education and research. It should be able to impart knowledge and the ability to comprehend and analyse. A university education should be able to produce well-educated people with a capacity to think analytically or scientifically.
In the mid 1960s and the 1970s when we had three to five Universities it was possible to offer quality education including good infrastructure facilities to our students. The University of Ceylon was reputed as one of the most beautiful universities in the world. The university was a residential university and English was the medium of instruction. Those who were engaged in teaching and learning at the university were respected by the wider society and were able to contribute to the socio-economic and political development of the country. They were groomed for citizenship from their cradle. However, with the expansion of university education as marked by the increase in the number of universities and students what emerged was a discrepancy in the established universities and the new and a concomitant limitation of facilities such as accommodations, food and recreational facilities.
Along the line our social, economic and political fabric changed and our universities changed concomitantly developing a sub-model of its own with the more established universities maintaining some of its traditions. Currently the biggest challenge facing our University education in Sri Lanka is offering equity in access and quality of education. Almost 50,000 students seek admission to the fourteen universities, three campuses and eight undergraduate institutions in the country. However, universities in Sri Lanka are able to accommodate only 22,500 of them. Of these Higher Education Institutions, students and parents prefer six universities as the others in their minds are classified as under-resourced.
Therefore we are pushed to think out of box and study global trends while being mindful of the fact that higher education is one of the most politicized areas. The Ministry and the UGC are looking at other options such as the establishment of non state universities or branch campuses of reputed international universities and offering degree awarding facilities to existing institutions that meet our standards as a solution to expanding access and maintaining equity. However, we have to be mindful of the fact that such steps require feasibility studies, good monitoring mechanisms that regulate the quality of education offered and national policies and imperatives on higher education that create the ambience for such institutions to thrive and develop while safeguarding our own national universities. We cannot let what has happened to our international schools happen to higher education. They have wide and varied standards in infrastructure, teacher qualifications and deployment and syllabi and operate in a relatively unregulated environment.
Let me focus briefly on relevance and quality of university education. The model of a good university is topic of much debate. However, no consensus has been reached as to the precise meaning and role of university education. As I mentioned earlier, the university is a community of the state and its officials, academics or teachers, students, administrators, parents and the civil society. Thus, it is an educational institution where all stake-holders operate collectively and in harmony towards achieving the mission and vision of university education.
However, a more specific interpretation of its basic elements is that a university is an autonomous body along with academic freedom. In order to carry out its activities, it should have freedom to work independently along with responsibility and accountability. The following conditions are essential for the autonomy and accountability of the university.
- Academic and administrative staff should be recruited on the basis of their merit.
- The performance of teachers and students should be continuously monitored and evaluated.
- Teachers should have the opportunities and facilities to develop their skills and analytical ability.
- The class rooms, library and laboratories are well equipped.
- The curricula and academic programmes should be revised from time to time.
- An efficient university administration to ensure the efficient and effective functioning of administration.
Currently, Sri Lanka is one of the few countries which finances university education almost in its totality. As a result, university admission and the provision of basic facilities are restricted by the demands on the national budget by other urgent needs such as defence, emergency relief, health and education.
In enhancing the quality of higher education and in developing innovative approaches university teachers or the academic community play a vital role in the development of university education in any country. They should not only have a thorough knowledge of their subject through research, teaching and training but they should also be aware of the big picture including student issues. The roles and functions of academics and non academics are critical but it is the academics that have to play the role of role models in developing the inter-personal and analytical skills of students. In is only then that students acquire a sprit of enquiry, and a taste for learning, research and discovery.
The roles and functions of the administrative staff too are critical. For an efficient and effective university system, it is necessary to have highly motivated and trained administrative staff that facilitates higher learning. In other words, each and every university should have a efficient and honest bursar, registrar and most importantly an innovative vice chancellor.
In such a context what is the role of the students. First and foremost, there should be mechanisms to absorb students into a system of higher education where self learning is critical compared to the rote learning in schools. They have to be motivated to develop their inter-personal skills and talents to meet the demands of the labour market and world of work in general. We have to be blunt about some of the issues in student politics and recognize the fact that we have to promote academic advancement over narrow political ideologies and promote responsible behaviour as against violent behaviour. The process of citizenship building is at its peak in the university and we have to look for alternate models such as increased exposure to the world of work, industry and research that gives them a hands on experience so that they imbibe good citizenship. These are all challenges as university students have build up an image of violence, indiscipline and arrogance and establishing linkages with the world of work also calls for a change in the projected image.
The parents are vital stakeholders in this process. In primary and secondary education school development societies play a vital role but the role of the parent disappears once students enter the university. Parents are vital linkages with the world of work, in resource mobilization, student discipline and in citizenship building.
Last but not least, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has a pivotal role in the development of university education in the country. The UGC strives and encourages universities and its faculties to introduce new courses and programmes with two objectives in mind. The first is to align our human resources to the potential demands of the labour force. The second is to increase our intake to universities ensuring access to a wider number of students. However, then we are faced with the challenge of ensuring quality as limited resources are spread widely and therefore thinly. To overcome this constraint the UGC has taken action to regulate the external degree programme and encourage to increase of internal students and expand programmes of distance education through the open universities.
However, to expand and develop university education in Sri Lanka we need to review our effectiveness and efficiency and transcend the narrow interpretations that we have given to university education. It requires creativity, commitment hard work and far sighted decision making.