By R.P. Gunawardane –
Undoubtedly, higher education is the only path to upward mobility for most of our youth. Thus, university admission has become extremely competitive in Sri Lanka and it remains a very sensitive national issue for many decades. Only about 17% of those who qualify for university admission is admitted to state universities for free higher education leaving out over 80%. This means that a very large number of deserving students are denied admission to our universities every year. As a result, many students seek admission to foreign universities at a very high expense, particularly because alternative avenues are not available in most demanding disciplines. They are also our citizens, who have been denied university education due to lack of places in the state university system. Thus, it is a responsibility of the government to provide these youth at least the freedom of choice for alternative university level education with some state support.
To achieve this important national objective the following proposals are presented for implementation. It is important to note that this proposal does not include very high capital expenditure or establishing new state universities. The same objective can be achieved with some adjustments to the existing university system and with strong state sector-private sector participation with minimum additional investment by the state. We need to make use of other non-state sector higher education establishments (non-profit as well as for profit) for this purpose by facilitating their expansion with specific guideline/rules and with a strong mechanism for accreditation and quality assurance.
The main proposals are outlined below:
There are several pre-requisites to implement these proposals. First of all, our state university system should be synchronized to coincide with international system. Currently, different universities have different academic years. It is even more depressing to note that different faculties operate different academic years within the same university!
Thus, the university academic year should be fixed like in all the other countries from September to June (9 -10 months) beginning 2020-2021. Like our school academic year (January-December) this should not be changed under any circumstance. If there are disruptions due to strikes etc. course material should be displayed on line, alternative arrangements should be made for practical/clinical training and the exams should be held as scheduled. This is very essential to get the new batch admitted on time.
In order to start this process GCE A/L examination should be held in April every year (like in 2002-2007 period), the results should be released in June, so that the new batches can be admitted in September in the same year. This will lead to smooth functioning of the university system as practiced in all the other countries.
State University System
Sri Lankan state university system consists of 15 universities representing all the provinces in the country with a total of 89 faculties covering almost all the disciplines. In addition, there are six other university level degree awarding institutions established by acts of Parliament but operated under different Ministries outside the University Grants Commission (UGC).
The university system under the UGC should be given the complete freedom with regard to academic matters as stipulated in the Universities Act No.16 of 1978. No additional legislation is needed immediately for this action. Unfortunately, in recent years UGC has taken over some functions of the university senates with regard to implementation of new academic programs. This is irregular and the UGC has exceeded its power and violated the Universities Act in this regard. This irregularity should be stopped immediately so that novel programs allowing more admissions to universities will be expedited and promoted in our university system.
Optimizing use of existing facilities
Currently, most universities operate 8 hrs. per day, only 40 hrs. per week for undergraduate programs unlike in other countries. Most foreign countries utilize the resources much more efficiently working from 8 AM till about 9 PM in the night and also having classes during the weekend for specific programs. In addition, no fixed lunch interval is provided in other countries. The data show that our utilization of the available floor space and other infrastructure facilities in the university system is grossly inadequate when compared to international practices. This is something which must be corrected immediately.
With the proposed changes the Sri Lankan university system should be able to work from 8:00 AM to at least 8:00 PM in the evening without a lunch break. This is not going to be a problem because the same student or lecturer will not have lectures/labs continuously. In addition, certain courses also should be conducted in the evenings and the weekends.
Inter-faculty, multi-faculty and inter-university degree programs
Currently the degree programs in the state university system are organized and conducted by each Faculty separately. These degree programs involve mainly the subject areas taught in the same faculty limiting the scope of degree programs. Senates of the universities can change this rule and decide to start a series of new inter-faculty, multi-faculty and inter-university degree programs covering wide range of new and emerging fields depending on the facilities and expertise available in different locations. A coordinator or joint coordinators can be appointed for each such program.
This will lead to rapid expansion and diversification of degree programs in the universities. Particularly, at the Universities of Peradeniya and Colombo with 9 different faculties in each could multiply their degree programs in large numbers by this approach opening up opportunities for thousands of more students.
Use of LMS for course delivery
Learning Management systems are used all over the world for efficient delivery of degree programs. Through these systems course materials can be displaced, quizzes/exams can be conducted and student communications can be managed efficiently. Use of these programs will increase the efficiency of delivery enabling the enrollment of a large number of students for each course. There are a large number of such programs available in the world. Most common course delivery program extensively used in USA is the BLACKBOARD. This is very efficient but expensive. However, currently similar programs are available free of charge. One such program is called MOODLE. Thus, LMS-MOODLE could easily be utilized by our state university system.
On-line and Dual-Mode degree programs
On-line degree programs are very common in most countries today. But, it should not be 100% on line. Some components of the program should be conducted on campus and this interaction with the academic staff and the other students is extremely productive. Dual mode programs involving an on-line component and a sizable in campus component including practical/ course work would be the most appropriate methodology for Sri Lanka. If already not implemented, all degree programs in liberal arts should necessarily include English language and ICT components in their core courses.
Expansion of external degree programs by the State Universities
Most universities currently conduct external degree programs. Without seriously affecting internal undergraduate and postgraduate education, the state universities may expand these external degree programs in certain disciplines. In this case state universities can collaborate with private sector higher education institutes for delivery of these courses with some specific guidelines.
Expansion of the Open University Degree Programs
The Open University of Sri Lanka with its main campus located in Colombo has an island wide network with 8 Regional Centers and 19 Study Centers distributed throughout the island. Current programs offered by the Open University can be expanded rapidly with the introduction of new degree programs making maximum use of their Regional Centers. The Open University Regional Centers should be further expanded, strengthened and more laboratory and ICT facilities should be provided to them. Some of these Centers may collaborate with the state university campuses close by during weekends to share their facilities and staff for conducting courses.
Six other state university level institutions ( Kotelawala Defence University, Ocean University, National Institute of Education, University of Vocational Technology, Bhiksu University and Buddhist and Pali University) also can expand their admissions by similar methods described earlier for universities coming under the UGC and the Universities Act of 1978.
It is possible to triple the intake (rough estimate of total intake will be around 100,000 per year) if we can effectively implement the above proposals in our state university system alone in about 3 years.
Use of Recognized Degree Awarding Institutions in the Non-State Sector
There are 22 non-state sector degree awarding institutions recognized by the UGC. In addition, there are over ten private sector organizations affiliated to foreign universities offering degree programs. In many of the latter cases 100 and 200 level courses are conducted here using qualified visiting foreign or local staff. The examinations/ evaluations are conducted and the degrees awarded by the recognized foreign universities.
Intake can be considerably increased by cooperating with the recognized non-state sector higher education institutions operating in Sri Lanka. The government initiative is needed to facilitate and promote their expansion and diversification through a package of facilitating policies, tax incentives etc. Specific targets should be given with a time frame. Additional condition should be included in the agreement to award certain percentage (about 10-20%) of scholarships to needy students by these institutions.
In addition, Joint ventures between the state universities and private sector, professional organizations like Institute of Engineers, Institute of Architects, Institute of Chemistry, non-profit foundations, foreign universities etc. also should be facilitated and promoted for rapid expansion. Among the non-state sector degree awarding institutions SLIIT, NIBM, IIT, SINTEC and SLT Campus are most suitable for establishing collaboration/ joint ventures for expansion of university education. Again the government initiative is needed to encourage and promote these ventures through a package of facilities as outlined above.
However, it must be stressed that further opening and rapid expansion of university education to non-state sector should necessarily be accompanied by, (i) an independent accreditation and quality assurance mechanism and (ii) need-based scholarships, vouchers and loan schemes for needy students. The broad-basing the providers of tertiary education will introduce an element of competition to both the state and non-state sectors, which is expected to improve quality, provide more variety and reduce cost of training.
Low interest/ interest-free loans on need basis to students
Students following degree programs in local non-state sector institutions and for those proceeding abroad for university education in specific fields of national interest should be given need-based interest-free or low-interest loans with assurance to serve the country for a specific period of time (for example, 5 years). This will considerably reduce the burden on poor parents.
Opportunities for young graduates
With the proposed expansion of university education in Sri Lanka, a large number of students will be graduated every year. It is extremely important for the government to be ready to guide them, provide avenues for professional advancement and employment opportunities. The Sri Lankan economy should be expanded rapidly to provide a large number of job opportunities for these young graduates.
If this proposal is fully implemented it is possible to fulfill the Election Promise -2019 within a period of 3-4 years.
*Author is an Emeritus Professor, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education & Higher Education, Chairman, National Education Commission of Sri Lanka, and Visiting Professor, Indiana State University, USA