14 August, 2020

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Come On Over, Everything’s Free In Sri Lanka

By Kath Noble

Kath Noble

Foreign investors must imagine that this country is a vast, uninhabited wasteland. Because if they are willing to start a business here, they are literally deluged with gifts. They get a conveniently located piece of real estate, hooked up to all of the necessary services, for very little or sometimes nothing, while they are earnestly reassured that the Government is working really hard to ensure that they can come and go smoothly via the most modern of infrastructure – brand new ports and airports, a network of expressways and so on. And no matter how much they make in profits, they won’t be asked to pay so much as a rupee in tax.

No doubt they are delighted to find that the scenery is quite nice too. They can congratulate themselves on their good fortune while reclining on a palm-fringed beach, champagne flute in hand.

This week, it is the future of Sri Lankan youth that they must pretend to care about.

A few days ago, this newspaper carried a report of an announcement by the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education regarding what he described as ‘Free Zones for Education’. The Government is planning to establish five of them – in Gampaha, Hambantota, Puttalam, Trincomalee and Kilinochchi.

Naturally, these are not going to be zones in which education is free but zones in which companies will be free to sell education without any of the normal controls.

They are to be given 100 acres each to set up their campuses.

If the agreement already reached with the University of Central Lancashire is anything to go by, they will also be offered a fifteen year tax holiday, followed by ten years in which they will pay at a concessionary rate. Twenty five years later, they may perhaps be ready to compete with other businesses.

I hardly know where to start.

The Government relies on two arguments to justify bringing private universities to the country. First, it says that it doesn’t have enough money to expand access to the existing state universities, so a lot of young people are missing out on the opportunity to get a degree. Secondly, it says that students whose families can afford to pay for their higher studies are currently sending them abroad, which means that Sri Lanka is losing precious foreign exchange.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that there is absolutely no possibility of increasing the budget allocation for higher education, although this is obviously not the case.

What is the degree that students can expect to get from these private universities?

If it is to be of value to young people, it must help them to get a job. If it is to be of value to the country, it must equip them with the skills needed to develop the economy.

Is it going to do either?

At the moment, there are more degree-holders in Sri Lanka than suitable employment for them. That much is obvious from the fact that there are ‘trade unions’ for unemployed graduates. What happens as the number of young people going to university increases? The University of Central Lancashire is expecting to enrol 10,000 students when it commences operations in Sri Lanka. Since there are currently only 25,000 places to be had in state universities per year, even a single institution in each of the five zones would boost the number of graduates threefold.

The more people have degrees, the less use they are to job seekers as indicators of intelligence and the capacity to work. They have to provide sought after training.

This is also obviously the case with regard to their contribution to the country’s development.

And for training to be sought after, it has to be of good quality. Employers are not stupid – they know what is being taught and how, or they very soon find out.

We may immediately rule out the possibility of standards being guaranteed by regulation, since the state has demonstrated very little interest in managing corporate activities to date and it is not likely to develop the capacity to do so in the near future.

So what is the plan?

The Government seems to believe that quality can be assured simply by offering incentives to good institutions to encourage them to come to Sri Lanka. It says that the freebies referred to above are only for ‘reputed international universities’.

That statement itself is a bit doubtful, given that the first agreement to be signed was with the University of Central Lancashire. The United Kingdom has 48 of the top 400 universities in the world, according to the most respected ranking, but the University of Central Lancashire is not one of them. In fact, I would suggest that even the majority of British people have never heard of it.

But even if it is providing a perfectly reasonable education in the United Kingdom in a few subjects, which is quite possible, why should we assume that it will be able to do the same in Sri Lanka?

There are three problems.

First, doesn’t Sri Lanka have different training needs to the United Kingdom? The curriculum of any programme offered in this country ought to be different if it is going to help its participants to find a job, and also if it is going to contribute to the development of the nation. That is common sense, since the two countries are at very different stages and have very different economies.

In fact, this draws attention to a larger problem. Who is going to decide which courses will be offered in private universities? Their choices will be guided by what young people are willing to pay for now, or at the most what they are likely to be willing to pay for in a few years. They will follow the trajectory of the economy, not play a role in shaping it, as higher education led by state universities should attempt to do.

Secondly, who is going to teach in Sri Lanka? Are Sri Lankans currently working in British universities going to come ‘home’? Are British professors going to move to Sri Lanka? Private universities will more likely face the same recruitment problems as the existing state universities – even if they offer higher salaries, which remains to be seen, the jobs will not be secure.

Finally, what incentive will private universities have to do a good job? Demand from young people for higher education is so strong that they will constitute absolutely no check on the quality of the courses.

There may be many problems with state universities, but at least their objective is education.

If there really is a need to expand access to higher education beyond the capacity of the budget, the next best option is to offer additional places at state universities on a fee-paying basis to students with the next best marks, not to allow companies whose sole motivation is making a profit to decide who gets to study what and how.

Both options have the same close to zero chance of stopping young people going overseas to study – the main reason they go is not to get a degree but to try to settle there permanently.

So much for the Government’s logic.

I am not sure whether even the Minister believes it. More likely is that this entire debate is being conducted because some businessmen see the higher education market as potentially extremely lucrative.

And they are probably Sri Lankan.

While a lot is now being said about the Government’s handouts to foreign investors, especially in the light of the appallingly low level of taxation in the country, one question that is never asked is how many of them are actually Sri Lankans. These days, it is not only the West that has multinational corporations. Sri Lanka too is developing its share, and they are in a prime position to exploit such opportunities. They can send money out of the country today and bring it back to a very warm welcome tomorrow.

*Kath Noble’s column may be accessed online at http://kathnoble.wordpress.com/. She may be contacted at kathnoble99@gmail.com

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Latest comments

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    [At the moment, there are more degree-holders in Sri Lanka than suitable employment for them. That much is obvious from the fact that there are ‘trade unions’ for unemployed graduates. What happens as the number of young people going to university increases?]

    kath , this is a very shortsighted article . The issue is that we produce way too many uneployable arts grads . They need to produce more technology grads . and if the country cant employ them the world will . I am a product of the free education system . We do need to have private universities in areas where the grads can really find employment . and to rely on the UGC budget to do so is not realistic .

    Every govt has tried to do this but the jvp and the student unions have shut them down . but this cant go on for ever

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      Ms. Noble does seem to have wandered into an area she doesn’t know enough. The idea of foreign universities is not bad in itself. What matters is whether they are effectively managed in terms of academic standards.

      Certainly there are Sri Lankan academics who will come back to work in these institutions provided of course the conditions are right – and that does not mean merely remuneration.

      Also it is rather a sweeping generalisation that students go overseas only to try and settle there. Many prefer to go overseas because of university strikes and resultant delays in the local universities.

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        Kath is English and would know the quality of this British University – one that no one has heard of!
        No doubt Lanka will be the Hub for third rate degrees from strange universities…
        In the Mid East quality universities from the US, UK and Aussi operate have campuses, but in Lanka it will be third rate foreign universities that will be operating if at all..
        Actually this all seems like spin to talk up the DEVELOPMENT DISASTER in Hambantota where there are no skilled human resources except agriculture and fisher folk, and where Shangri La is having second thoughts about building its hotel!

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      I remember hearing from imprisoned JVP members in the early 1970s, that they had degrees and were unemployed, while sons and daughters of Politicians got gainful employment even though unqualified!

    • 0
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      Dead on Kath – keep it coming and thanks!
      In their desperation to get foreign currency to prop up the falling rupee and cover up the massive FINANCIAL and DEBT CRISIS the country is in due to borrowing on commercial markets and their looting and bankrupting of national corporations and banks (NDB, NSB, Peoples Bank etc) the Rajapassa brothers and the sick criminal Nivard Cabral at the CB are now in a panic – selling public assets to fly by night “investors” and have clearly lost the plot and started believing their own SPIN doctors!
      It is the people who are paying for and
      The Krrish project and Shangri La hotel in COlombo and Hambantota are in delayed and disputed.. most investors are pulling back and out as they see the dictatorship and political resistance and violence building to another peak in Lanka..
      However, burying their heads like ostriches the Rajapassa brothers and sons cling to the idea that Hambantota and Lanka – in that order – is the center of Asia (because of Lanka’s strategic location which they have turned into a gigantic fantasy to boost their self-importance), the world and the universe, and hence they think that hospitals, universities will rush to set up camp there and sell degrees and medical services! Look at what happened to Apollo hospital now under Gota the Goon – will anyone be rushing to Lanka to set up anything?
      Rajapassa brothers are also desperately throwing good money after bad in Hambantota which should be written off as a DEVELOPMENT INDUCED WASTELAND or DEVELOPMENT DISASTER
      Rajapassa have built so many white elephants in Hambantota – port – airport- highways convention center in a sleepy fishing village with zero human resource capital for service sector. Thier latest plan is to turn Hambantota into a Medical Hub – throwing goon money after bad!
      Who are the doctors who will go to work in hospitals in Hambantota.

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      Sri lanka will soon be famous as the Hub for THIRD RATE DEGREES from third rate British colonial universities!

      Voila the Miracle of Asia!

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      You hit the nail on the head Abhaya . Whatever ones’ political leanings , it is futile trying to criticise every new initiative of the GOSL. It is a fact that each year US$ 300 million + is being remitted overseas by parents who want to educate their children abroad.
      Whilst being a massive drain on the foreign exchange reserves of the country , it has also caused countless families severe financial hardship .

      I personally see no problem at all if the GOSL wants to take action to plug the brain drain , and in the process curtail the erosion of dwindling reserves of valuable forex.

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      what is the point of provinding education at a COST to the student which the student would not be able to use in this country? Is it worthy for the country?

      If SL produces graduates with their money foregoing tax revenue, what is yield we get if they are going overseas to find jobs?

  • 0
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    Why is Lanka Lover Ms Kathy against our local lads getting a Lankashire Degree”?.

    Do the Billions of Dollars our South Asian lads and lassies spend on British and Australian degrees give them meaningful jobs?

    Wuldn’t a piece of paper from Lankashire more acceptable to our growing private sector bosses than a piece of paper from Matara?.

    Besides, wouldn’t a bit of British accent give a bit more boost at the interview?.

    Don’t they have young people with PhDs in Science and Engineering working as sales reps in Western countries?

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      not sales reps more like marketing engineers and sales managers . there is a huge difference .

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      Tsunamisekera:
      To begin with, I don’t think the English county has decided to change its name to “LANKASHIRE” even though your Lokka might pass such legislation sometime soon in Sri Lanka after bestowing PhDs on a few killers of teenagers at Weliveriya?
      Also, what do other countries do with incoming criminals who have defrauded home-buyers in the countries of their origin?
      Unfortunately, they are more advanced than the Land of a Thousand Rajapassas to employ Vaasakuttis, so it must be tough to find appropriate employment for the likes of you.
      Better working as a “Sales Rep” in a developed democracy than providing toileting assistance to MARA, as you do, don’t you think?

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        P Y;

        I certainly like your well worth Answer to K S SUMANAWATY.

        “providing toileting assistance to MARA, as you do, don’t you think?”.
        He does not have that much of Brain power to think.

        Like his Idiotic Masters.

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    I am anti Rajapakse but have to say that Kath Noble should concentrate on whatever happens in and due to the country of her origin. we should galvanise and bring and end to our own problems instead of depending on these people to fight our battles for us.
    Concentrate on the Palestinians please…..

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      To dear Leo 76

      Kath’s origin is immaterial but please respect her engagement in debate on policy. She has spiritedly articulated arguments pertaining to the of entry of foreign institutions.
      Sri Lanka has an internationally respected higher education system, and the goverment should look at expanding this sector to suit the needs of the country. If need be, with foreign investment but, under the current adminstrative structure. As rightly pointed out by one writer, there are too many arts graduates at present. Sri lanka produces engineers, doctors and science graduates of the highest quality, but what is in urgent need is sectors that will produce more of high qualtity tradesmen/women, technicians and technologists to meet the demands of new and existing industrial sectors.
      Education is not only ensuring a meal ticket but also opening of minds. Kath’s input is welcome, as much as overseas investment(where it is needed).

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      Leo76, Sri Lankans have no idea how to solve its own problems. The only language we know is thuggery and intimidation and the white van disappearences thrown in for good measure. So you must be thankful for any foreigner who shows interest in solving our problems or for pointing out the futility of our actions. If a Sri Lankan tries to criticize government action or inaction there will be an immediate response by a white van visitation.

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      Leo76:
      Which “Palestinians.” The one who was butchered down south by your “leader’s” stooges who have STILL not been brought to trial even though 2 years have passed?
      If you think you are being clever by diverting even this lukewarm attention to what your friends are doing here, you are sadly mistaken.
      Answer us one question: If the world waited for the German people to try and execute Hitler, don’t you think the outcome would have been obvious? Is that what you are suggesting we do here?
      ANSWER, PLEASE!

  • 0
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    What are you doing out of the kitchen Kath???

    • 0
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      YOU,V Leon;
      Another Buffoon, Sitting On his Brain?????

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    but she has a point….who will teach? what subject? to what standards?
    what is the cost? who can afford? so many answered questions

    • 0
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      She is on transition mode – WHETHER TO SUPPORT MR or not…. The message of the current article is not clear anyway. :(

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        How can a Pinguththarayek like SB be able to decide ALONE whether we lankens HAVE STAKE FOR private universities. This issues they should be debated in Parliament. We really dont have democracy in this country… now they dont have debate on any issues ? MR will soon bring the official law to kill own people – as the 20th Amendment :(

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      that is the beauty when the economy decides who , the universities will not teach courses that cannot find jobs . if the pay is right there will be enough teachers . if no one can afford there will be no universities will there ? .

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      Selva, we shouldn’t let these minor details get in the way of a major money making opportunity. Wait and see how the lesser speckled British universities show us the who, what and how. Beneath all our protestations we still love and hanker after what our old colonial master can produce. Come back Albion, all is forgiven!

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      De Selva,- “who will teach? what subject? to what standards?
      what is the cost? who can afford?”
      Those ‘who can afford’ will be the Politicians who have no degrees, and so have an Inferiority Complex about themselves! See how Mervin flaunts his ‘doctorate’!

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        It is horns on his Cap.

        He wears this Dr cap and Cloak to go to toilet, I think.

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    Kath is quite right, this university (UCLAN) is not a prominent one. It has no Medicine, Civil or Electrical Engineering or Architecture degrees. It does teach the low cost Law, Accounting, Building, Fire Engineering type courses and lots of Art courses, Journalism, Fashion etc and probably wants to display an ‘international’ dimension to prospective British students. It started as the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge in 1828 and, having been amalgamated with several other colleges, became Preston Polytechnic. It was given university status in 1992. It is one of about 40 Polytechnics that became universities in the Nineties. There are plenty of British employers who wouldn’t dream of employing graduates from UCLAN. I can assure you all that Peradeniya and Colombo are better universities. If the Government wants to improve the opportunities for tertiary education in this way it should at least try to recruit universities that have a good reputation.

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      you can hardly expect oxford and cambridge to want to set up here . I dont think the reputation on the uni in the home country does not matter as much as what they do in Sri Lanka . They will have local staff and local curriculums . like everything else education is a busines if you dont beleive it check with the American Universities . In any case the Grads from the Local universities will always be better in my view . Simply because they are the top 5% period . but that is way too little to fule a technology driven economy in the country .

      As for the Tamil Diaspora Goons who want to run the country down like Dinuk and Gamini you failed you lost . now go somewhere else and eat crow . No body cares for your nonsense

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    Politicians fill their pockets with the peopl’s money.

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    Kath Noble, your gimlet eyed observations will stick in the craw of some for sure.

    The UCLAN was an arts college that grew up to be a northern polytechnic and provided a valuable service turning out good quality technicians and artisans. Then, in the nineties, with a slew of other technical colleges it was ‘upgraded’ to university status but still offering much the same subjects. Now they need to generate income to justify their existence and the cry of ‘go east’ echoes through the corridors of these establishments.

    Our restless young Sri Lankans love nothing better than associating with something foreign. In our desperation, we don’t look further than our noses and you can bet our young will flock to fill the classrooms regardless of the uncertainty of what comes later. Most have no idea of what a proper university experience entails so the product doesn’t have to meet any great expectations. In time to come the penny will drop; but that is in the never never. Re the 3 problems you have raised: the GOSL will not those get in the way of a quick fix. Like with Magampura and Mattala, let’s act now and ‘see what happens later’.The GOSL are only interested throwing something to the baying masses now and, let’s not forget, the very handy 10% that comes from allowing these ‘investors’ in to set up their bunco booths.

    All this stirs such wistful memories; who can forget the first flush of graduates from the Colombo university racecourse campus (fondly called the ashva vidyalaya – horse college), and the despair as they found the degrees not worth the paper they were printed on. Still, those who bagged jobs as conductors on the first CTB busses showed what a little learning can do as they tampered with the new ticket issuing machines and reaped a small fortune. Those early graduates formed the rump of the JVP that chanced their hand in April 1971. As they say, the rest is history.

    O tempora o mores!

  • 0
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    ‘What are you doing out of the kitchen Kath?’

    your comment is uncalled for and very silly.

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    Abhaya:
    Although you don’t understand, what Kath says is that we need grads to face the present day demands.
    Although you blame the JVP for the government moves to have private degree awarding institutions, you have forgotten the role the SLFP played when the North Colombo Medical College was set up by the UNP govt. Ask Nimal Siripala and SB what their campaign then was. Just blaming JVP is not the full truth.

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      oh I know all about the NCMC . but that never made any sense . We dont really need more medical Drs . I think the local unis already produce enough .

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    The lads and lassies that go oversees who are good in their fields and who attend accredited universities get good jobs which leads to a world class life style earning top incomes. But unfortunately not all the lads and lassies going abroad these days are good in their studies. As a matter of fact quite a large number of them are utter duds. The only reason they go abroad in because daddy boy wants them to spend his ill gotten stash and get something out of it. They are so bad that they are unable to qualify into the more prestigeous colleges. Unfortunately it is not these type of mutts who will got to the locally established fly by night operations but the genuinely talented poorer middle class kids who just could not score enough to get into the state universities or in some cases refused to go to them even though selected for very good reasons.

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    Poor Kath, she has to write something for her paymasters!

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      Are u a drop out from Lancashire?

    • 0
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      WE think, SO DO YOU.

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    Sheer madness to invest in a country where is no property rights in force. Only launderers will bite the free zone stupidity.

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    Everything for trade and commission to MARAs family and his friends in Sri Lanka. They also export large number of women without nil protection from sexual and all other forms of exploitations to arabic countries to earn foreign exchange.People have no voice.

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