18 August, 2022


How Popular Presidential Election Promise Can Be Fulfilled: University Education For All Those Who Qualify At GCE A/L

By R.P. Gunawardane

Prof 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.

Concluding Remarks

 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

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Latest comments

  • 4

    I think Universities should begin preparing Course work for new undergraduate Degree and Diploma programs. Where they can not collect course material for a graduate program, it should end up as a Diploma and as they are working they should visit the University to upgrade that to a Degree Program. I heard in the Medical field, there are no Medical Lab Technicians or Medical professionals trained Medical Administration. Senior doctors, instead of upgrading their qualifications, they become Medical Administrators which become a wastage of education and experience
    Sri Lanka should give up OLD Boys club of University Lecturers protecting their Territory. People with Similar education should be recruited from Overseas Living Sri Lankans as well as from non-Sri Lankans for just one year appointments. Many countries have that practice of hiring PhDs with new disciplines or from new areas.
    Universities also should train people suitable for overseas employment Simple speaking, they should not make it just a Manufacturing line which produces unemployed graduates. For example, UK, I think, has unemployed Physicians. Sri Lankan doctors also get tangled in the same net, as Sri Lanka is not supportive to educated. I have heard sad stories.

  • 5

    Prof. at this hour we are badly in need of skilled workers to start small and medium work shops and not many useless graduated youth who think they should be facilitated with a govt job. In the sense diversion of talented youth and to give them a hand and back up our development with our own productions with our own raw material is it not so?? There are anomers potential to work on, but unfortunately profs. like you only support old method uni education a pity and unfortunate for our country.

  • 4

    Have three sessions a day,morning, day and night. Then three batches and new batches in the vacation time .

    • 6

      Dear Yakdehikandage Samadara Jayasinghe,

      Like P.B. Kalugalle’s Ashva Vidyalaya of the 1960s. I hope some still with us can remember, and share their recollections.

  • 3

    Long over due . Great relief .
    Watch out for the losers – the ‘Tution Gurus ‘ !

  • 2

    Sri Lankan Private medical colleges and private universities can train people to overseas and also from overseas.. Those who have money should be allowed to have trained in private collages. They can be trained for overseas employment. The failure of SAITM is completely political and Corruption at the highest level. Another thing is when we came ti Grade five or Grade nine, we learned every thing we must learn. Bachelors degree in the university should be the initial training and there must be continuous upgrading for that education. Computers and Technology are a must. There are different University systems too. Russia’s first degree ends with the Masters’ Level.. India has first degrees which needs the completion of about THIRTY FIVE or more subjects. The British or American education systems also failed over the times. So, Sri lankan universities should diversified in different ways. tge most important thing is degree programs should address the country’s needs.

  • 8

    Prof Gunawardane. Thank you for your excellent suggestions. I did not attend any of the Universities in Sri Lanka. But I did teach at the University of Jaffna, Kilinochchi Campus during 1994/1995.
    While improving the universities in Sri Lanka and encouraging Private Universities based on Accreditation, it is important to create new universities of science, environment and technology that is different from the operation of the national universities.
    I am a Sri Lanka citizen (Not Dual) who spent 6 months (approximately) each year since 1994 in Sri Lanka but mostly in the East and North as a volunteer most of the years. In 2018 I focused on exploring how the 163,000 candidates who qualified to enter university can be helped to enter universities and graduate with qualifications that will employ them in the Science, Environment and Technical fields. At the same time create a university that is of a different model than the existing ones.
    My recommendations are in a 6 page Concept paper. The major ideas in the paper is given below:
    1. Establish and Administer Universities of Science, Environment and Technology (USET) in each of the 9 provinces.
    a) Government grants will be channeled through a Provincial UGC consisting of Vice-Chancellors, members from eminent persons from the industry and business, and professionals. PUGC’s function shall only be granting funds.
    b) Each Province shall have a Board of Trustees. It shall have the power and responsibility to raise funds from within the Province, Country or from International Donors.
    c) USET students shall be residential. d) USET will use the semester credit hour course system. e) The semesters will start and end based on the Farming Seasons. f) There shall be two months of long vacation and end of semester short vacations. g) THE MEDIUM OF INSTRUCTION SHALL BE ENGLISH.
    Each USET shall require students to agree to a Work-Study-Financial Aid program as a condition for admission.

    • 6

      Dear Dr Nagalingam Ethiveerasingam,
      I was amazed to see such a positive response from you. I know that you are proud to be a Tamil, but you have demonstrated a determination to be realistic, and improve life for the people throughout the country.
      This article is now into its fourth day, and yours is the first serious response. I have already made a perfunctory and dismissive comment. Yes, I still see it as Professor R.P. Gunewardena trying to provide an eye-washing solution to President Gota’s election promise to provide University Education to all who pass their A. Levels. I did not vote for Gota. The ojections to Prof. Gunewardena’s suggestions are obvious – starting with: “where are the teachers?”
      I know that you are no Quisling. Let me work out my own thoughts, and then expand my observations. I fear that my analysis will be rather more gloomy than your carefully thought out response, but I assure you that it will be as sincere.
      It is very necessary that we must put the past behind us, and move forward, offering criticisms which are constructive. It is more difficult for you to do that, given that you are a Tamil. I am grateful that you have pointed out for us the way forward. You have, here, been just amazing.

    • 1

      Teach kids grade 1 to 12 in Sinhala then suddenly throw enlglish in there face.

      • 3

        From Grade 3 to 13 English is taught (poorly) 5 periods a week. Science, Medicine, Engineering and Agriculture students study for their degree in the English medium. In the second year they are all competent enough in English. I takes. It takes 5 hours a day for 4 months for a student, after AL, to pass IELTS exam, or to get 1200 in the SAT.

  • 3

    Jayasuriya and Ethir,
    You both make valid points.
    Ethir’s writing is definitely more accurate, but he won’t know why the formal teaching of English from Grade 3 to 13 is poor. In Grades 1 and 2 English words are used even more erratically by the class teacher. It is referred to as “Environment Related Activity Based Oral English”. Few of those teachers will know all those words. The idea is that children get over the “strangeness” of the language. In the process, they will learn things that are wrong, and acquire bad language habits. Can’t be helped. You can’t have it both ways.
    Then there’s the “kaduwa” factor – the fear that the “average” student has of making “mistakes”. Those mistakes will not be made by those from English-speaking families who are almost always richer, and usually of higher social status. The latter categories are often nasty and laugh at their poorer cousins.
    That problem will not be there if it is Hindi that is taught. Many Sri Lankans watch Hindi movies (I don’t) so there is immersion in the language. Nobody will laugh at mistakes. No, I’m not advocating Hindi as our foreign language, and it may take another fifty years for us to be politically part of India (despite the mighty attempts that our politicians are making to impoverish us). English it has to be for many reasons.
    I’ll talk about IELTS later. I’m not familiar enough with SAT to pontificate about it.
    I’m sure that Ethir, like me, is waiting for other comments to come in. We can’t really blame Gota for his plans. He doesn’t understand the subtleties, nuances and intricacies. And I understand that if I say too much at one go, nobody will read; more significantly, they’ll decide that I can do all the thinking for them.
    Is it all right wishing you “Good Night”? It is 2.21 a.m.

    • 3

      Sinhala-Man. Just a few observation now. Will write more tomorrow. It is 10:30 pm in Los Angeles. Your “Good Nght” was 2:00 pm here!

      SAT is a predictive test that was tested for many years and ha a reliability of r=0.9. What it predict is that students who get a score of 900 will graduate from a university in 4 years. Its validity and reliability is being questioned by Hispanic, African Americans and other ethnic groups. Universities really depend on the last 3 years of the Cumulative Grade Point Average, work and volunteer experience and extra-curricular activities of applicants.
      I googled Panini Edrisinhe and found an article Rajiva wrote in the Island. (Had you met Sam Wijeyasinghe? Great human.) He wrote you were not popular as you objected to those who have not qualified to teach English were heading departments and institutions. I would object to that too in sports orgs, some departments in universities in Sri Lanka, and Education Ministries etc.
      When I hear from you more, especially on finding qualified staff, I shall respond of how that can be solved based on my experience in Sierra Leone – 1965 to 70; Nigeria 1980-85, Papua New Guinea 1977 and 1986-1990 Faculty of Agriculture, U of J 1994/1995.

      • 3

        Thanks, Ethir, for the explanation of the purpose of SAT. I did help one student a few years ago. As for ILETS, I’m very familiar with the exam and helped a couple even yesterday. Before they came, I emailed your observations on how much work must be put in, together a further link to this article. I was glad to find that they had read it all, but they still insist on sitting in mid-January, although their writing is very poor. Writing now tends to be the main problem.
        Yes, Rajiva once invited me to their Colpetty home to meet his father. A remarkable man who remained active for a very long time. His elder son, Sanjiva, and I were briefly school-mates, but I wouldn’t say we really know each other. Rajiva I know well enough, although much younger. He’s a workaholic. His scholarship is sound, but he’s too much into politics, and, of course he hates his cousin, Ranil.
        I know that I could have been used a little more, but let that be forgotten. We must look to the future, but I don’t see myself contributing much. My health is good enough, but I was never the outstanding athlete that you were. Your energy is amazing.
        Although it is others who must push ahead with language teaching, I could continue to warn when schemes seem to be going wrong. In certain areas, I know a few things, and what is appreciated by students is that I direct them to newer sources of knowledge. I give away my secrets as it were.
        My two toddler grand-daughters were in the Sinhala Medium at Ladies’ College, but, alas, they are back in Malaysia and will grow up with mainly English.

        • 1

          Sinhala-Man and Amerasinghe. Thank you for your comments.
          Regarding the Provincial University of Sc Env and Technology (PUSET) I like to see it established in rural areas and not in cities. Some of the reasons are that the PUSET will improve the infrastructure of the area. help attract business establishment and improve the economy and employment of youths of the area, adequate land space will be available and give a lift to the reputation of the area.
          The primary and secondary education system need a radical change to improve it. The National Examination now serve as a Filtering Plant to select 19.1% of students for the University and slightly less to other Tertiary education institutions. The First Ministry of Education in the Northern province conducted a Northern Education System Review in 2013. Its report was published in the Northern Education Ministry and the National Ministry of Education. The draft of that report was discussed in a 3-Day Symposium in Jaffna where the then MOE Minister Bandula and 20 Secretaries and Directors from the MOE participated. The Report was available in the NEM and MOE Website until 2018. Now they are not there. If colombotelegraph wishes to publish it or if anyone wants a soft copy I can send it.

          The National Education Commission included some of the recommendation in their 2016 Policy report to the President. One of the recommendation is Compulsory education age was increased to 19. Students who failed the AL are to continue Voc and Tech education in Year 12 and 13. The NIE developed and excellent curricula and a new form of assessment – No paper and pencil tests. The program started in most of the 1AB schools in January 2017.

          Many other recommendations are given in NESR Report. Every page of the report has illustrations, graphs, Tables, Pie Charts and photos.
          The Chapter Titles are given below:
          Northern Education System Review Process
          Current Situation: Teacher, Student & Administration.
          Psychosocial Wellbeing of Students and Teachers.
          Teaching, Learning and Examinations.
          Tutories & Their Impact on the Education System of the Northern Province.
          Administration, Appointments, Promotions, Transfers & Teachers Issues.
          Finance, Staff Requirements, Expenditure & Teacher Salaries.
          e-Planning, Database, Research & Publication.
          Early Childhood Development Education.
          Special Needs Education.
          Continuing Education.
          Institute of Tamil Medium Education (ITME).
          A New Northern Province Schools Administration System.
          Implementation Process, Timeline & Responsibility.
          Conclusion and Recommendations.

  • 3

    Within a short period of four days , this forum is getting impregnated with precious , multifaceted thoughts. Well meaning fathers are many . More are welcome .
    Vaguely , the final product to be delivered is expected to be a highly educated
    Sri Lanka
    ” Long over due . Great relief” .

  • 0

    Dear Ethir,
    It looks as though there’s only a day to go for comments to be made on this article, and we haven’t really got into discussion of the many things that we wanted to.
    While it will be good for us to exchange more comments the next time that we see an article of education in general, I feel that many of the ideas that we wish to discuss will be of too specialised a nature to discuss on a site devoted mainly to the social impact of policies. I wish we could be in direct email contact since I find you now in California.
    You really are an inspiration to all Sri Lankans.

    • 0

      Please check with Rajiva and request for my email. I correspond with him on and off since 2014 and recently when he was a candidate. I shall send him an email.

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