A three-pronged initiative is underway under the aegis of the newly-elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to liberalise higher education by introducing private universities and restructuring State-led higher education under Rajapaksa’s manifesto – 2020-25 ‘Vision for Prosperity’ Medium Term Development Strategy Framework.
Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Higher Education, Technology and Innovations Dr. Bandula Gunawardane has presented three separate three Cabinet Memoranda (read here, here and here), bearing reference nos HETI/HE/UD/2019/28, 29 and 30 proposing the setting up of ‘Chartered Universities’, restructuring universities and university institutions and the establishment of a ‘Free Education Investment Zone’ all dated 24 December, 2019.
Although expansion of both state-led and private education is much needed at this hour the manner in which it so discreetly and secretively without proper consultation with the stakeholders and going against the very promise of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s election of pledges of not allowing privatization of any sectors; has earned the disappointment of many university academics and higher education professionals.
The Cabinet Memoranda no 28 proposes the introduction of ‘Chartered University’ concept to Sri Lanka which will see private-led ‘Not for Profit’ with both the state patronage and the contribution of ‘private philanthropists’.
The Ministry has identified the following institutions:-
1. National School of Business Management (NSBM) Green University – Pitipana, Homagama (Established under Companies Act)
2. University of Vocational Technology (UNIVOTEC) (Affiliated to the Ministry)
3. Sri Lanka Technology Campus (SLTC) – Meepe, Padukka (Affiliated to the Sri Lanka Telecom PLC)
4. Nāgānanda International Institute for Buddhist Studies (NIIBS)- Manelwatte, Kelaniya
5. Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy (SIBA) – Pallekele, Kandy (Affiliated to the Temple of the Tooth)
The Minister laments that although these higher education institutions has been imparting courses under high standards with powers to confer degrees but has not been recognized as fully-fledged degree awarding institutions by the University Grants Council.
However the Memorandum notes that these institution too do not to be incorporated into the UGC system as it requires admission of students according to the Z Score and complying with the rigid regulatory regime of the UGC.
However the institutions must comply with the conditions that they must be continued with the objective of not for profit and any extra revenues earned be only invested for educational development, that all courses must be approved by the UGC, that all education staff qualification must be in consistent with UGC regulations, all courses and facilities be marinated on par with international standards and that all Chartered Universities must include the Secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education or his representative in its Board.
Any Chartered University found to be in breach of any of these conditions and is not maintained properly after a grace period of two years may be subjected to the removal of its Chartered status by the Minister.
Restructuring of Universities
In a bid to increase university admissions, Ministry has proposed the increase of student admissions by at least by 25% entitling 7,500 more openings in the university system without incurring any additional costs to the Treasury with capital or staff recruitments but by optimizing existing human and physical resources.
The Memorandum proposes that with no new physical investments and with marginal increase in human resources upgrade Sri Lanka Forestry Institute (Nuwara Eliya), Institute of Surveying and Mapping (Diyatalawa), National Institute of Social Development, Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC Academy- Pitipana), Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) of Sri Lanka and the Association of Accounting Technicians of Sri Lanka (AATSL) be upgraded into universities under the purview of the Ministry of Higher Education, creating openings for 2,500 additional students.
The Ministry has also proposed that all state-owned higher education institutions and technical colleges that award NVQ level 6 be upgraded into University Colleges with existing infrastructure and without any additional burden to the Treasury but only with a new salary scheme on par with University Colleges.
One of the most drastic change proposed by the Memorandum is the formulation of an affordable fee-levying structure for University Colleges to meet the additional financial requirements.
A Cabinet-appointed Expert Committee headed by the Ministry Secretary and comprising UGC Chairman, Vice Chancellors of the Sri Jayawardenepura, Colombo, Moratuwa, Ruhuna Universities and NSBM Campus, presidents of professionals union, SLASSCOM (Sri Lanka Association for Software and Services Companies), Director General of Commerce, Prof. Chandra Embuldeniya and competent authorities appointed for universities and university colleges has been formed to study and report within six weeks to the Cabinet of Ministers on the new courses to be introduced, standards and qualitative regulatory mechanisms to be reintroduced; has also ben proposed.
Establishment of a ‘Free Education Investment Zone’
The Minister has proposed the setting up of a ‘Free Education Investment Zone’ in order to transform Sri Lanka into the international educational hub in South Asia.
The Memorandum states that the Minister believes that with the completion of Colombo International Finance Center at Port City and the proposed mega economic zone at Hambantota there arose a great need to minimize brain drain.
As such the ‘Free Education Investment Zone’ would be set up on the 700 acre land in Millewa, Horana acquired by the Urban Development Zone for an Industrial Zone but stalled due to public protests closely following the special investment attracting scheme followed by Malaysia when setting up the ‘Special Free Education Investment Zone’.
However it must be noted that Malaysia does not have a ‘Special Free Education Investment Zone’ but a Special Economic Zone and high-technology business district under the National ICT Initiative of Malaysia formerly called the Multimedia Super Corridor but renamed Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC).
However due to lack of consultations with stakeholders and due to its highly secretive nature education experts and academics are much skeptical at these initiatives.
“The three cabinet papers propose drastic changes to higher education. These changes occur without public consultation and without a proper analysis of their consequences,” claimed an expert on grounds of anonymity.
“These are as follows:
1. The establishment of ‘chartered universities’, which will give degree awarding status to non-profit private institutions.
2. The establishment of a ‘free education investment zone’, which will cater primarily to foreign students and which promises to be heavily subsidized through the national budget in 2020.
3. To increase university intake by 25% and to elevate institutes awarding qualifications of NVQ level 6 and higher into degree awarding university colleges. These activities will not include any form of government but private investments.”
“We have many questions regarding the above proposals.
“Although the government proposes the introduction of the ‘Chartered Universities’, we are not the US (United States of America), where non-profit universities operate with large endowments. The question then becomes who will fund these institutions. Because of their non-profit status, global trends indicate that they are easier for governments to subsidize than private for profit institutions. In fact, the World Bank, which has a substantial hold over our education system today, openly advocates such a system. Generally, such initiatives result in the already limited State resources to education to be distributed across private and public institutions. The outcome is a depletion of funds for public institutions to operate. In fact, these trends have already begun.
Private personal funds will also be used to run these institutions. Today existing degree programmes at SLIIT (Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology) and the Kothalawala Defence University (KDU), both developed through heavy subsidy, run between LKR 500,000.00 and 2,000,000.00. To cover these costs, our already debt burdened households are now being given credit facilities for education by banks. Globally education related debt has created heartache in countries such as the US and Canada. Can we afford additional debt? Can we not learn from the stories from other countries? Will chartered universities necessarily address the educational aspirations of the public? Maybe, but only if one is rich. The outcome will sadly be to further stratify our society based on class.”
“With regards to the setting up of the ‘Free Educational Investment Zone’, the use of the term ‘Free’ in the ‘free educational investment zone’ uses something we cherish very much for purposes of exploitation. Firstly, like a free trade zone, the ‘free’ educational investment zone will ensure that regulations that gave birth to the free education system of this country, will not be applicable in this zone. It ignores the epic struggle by the ordinary people of this country to create our cherished system of education. We recognize that our system of education needs reforms. These reforms should however benefit our public. It should not be a means through which the private sector and the global financial system exploits the hopes and aspirations of the Sri Lankan people. The State promises to heavily invest in this zone. One must ask, at what cost? Other than the financial investments required, they are likely to accelerate the brain drain from state institutions just as Chartered universities are likely to.”
Referring moves to increases in intake, he questioned whether arbitrary changes by the political apparatus to universities and institutes result in better educational services to the general public.
“In fact, this year, allocations to universities have been cut. Universities are struggling to find the resources needed to conduct existing programmes. Other resources, such as teachers and laboratories are also not equipped to teach beyond prescribed class sizes. There is a very real danger that taxing the system further will result in greater numbers of degree awardees but whose qualifications have less value and meaning. While the educational aspirations of the public need to be met, these changes have to be made with proper investment and with a proper analysis of the resources required.”
“While we recognize the urgent need to address the aspirations of the youth, we must proceed with caution and with a holistic perspective. School education needs to be strengthened to ensure that students who leave the school system irrespective of their wealth are prepared for the next stage of their lives. Thus, firstly, school education needs to be strengthened. School teachers require better and continuous training. The National Institute of Education needs to be transformed and teacher salaries must be increased. Disparities between schools must be addresses in a manner that ensures that irrespective of their school and your resources, a child has equal opportunities to fulfill their aspirations. Student achievement must be construed as multifaceted to ensure that students realise their talents and leave the system feeling enriched and hopeful about the future. Technical and university education should then be available to these students to pursue their varied aspirations irrespective of their means. The role of teaching, research and outreach that universities must perform need to be given due consideration. ‘Universities’ that only teach are only universities by name and will only corrupt the system.” (By Sandeepa Perera)