26 October, 2020

Blog

Sri Lanka’s Human Skills Gap

By W.A. Wijewardena

Dr. W.A. Wijewardena

Sri Lanka’s Human Skills Gap: Dangerously looming over the country’s future growth prospects

Unrewarding educational attainments

There are some macro numbers relating to Sri Lanka’s educational attainments and human development which should surely please everyone. The country’s literacy ratio at 92 out of 100 on average is on par with any developed country. There is a wide-spread school system with a school in every 6.5 square kilometres of land. The schools are so well staffed that a teacher has to look after on average only 18 students, an attainment about which a school administrator even in a developed country will certainly feel envious of. While 90 per cent of children at age 5 gets admitted to primary education, some 80 per cent of those in the school going age has got a state run school. The teaching is so effective that about 61 per cent of those who sit for the GCE Advanced Level Examination pass the examination becoming eligible to enter a university. Of them, about 16 per cent is annually admitted to a state university where education is free for undergraduates in all streams. Vindicating the quality of the workers, Sri Lanka has successfully beaten up the unemployment problem pushing it below 5 per cent of the labour force, a state close to what is known as the natural rate of unemployment or no-unemployment. Thus, according to these macro numbers, Sri Lanka has a well developed skills pool and there is no doubt about its ability to make an effective contribution to the country’s continued economic prosperity.

SID Conference: Sri Lanka has a serious skills-mismatch

But this was not the picture that emerged at a conference organised by the Sri Lanka chapter of the international think tank on global development issues, Society for International Development or SID, last week. The conference, attended by a selected group of invitees, was addressed by two prominent economists before it converted itself to a forum of open discussion. The two economists who addressed the conference were Dr Nisha Arunathilake, an expert on labour studies attached to the Institute of Policy Studies or IPS, and Dr Suren Batagoda, economist turned bureaucrat, presently functioning as the number two at the General Treasury.

Nisha Arunathilake: Sri Lanka’s higher education is biased toward arts graduates 

Arunathilake in her presentation drew the attention of the audience to several key issues faced by Sri Lanka, in comparison to other nations in the region, in the development of its human resources and equipping it with required skills to take the country forward. This forward march involves, as pronounced by Sri Lanka’s authorities, migrating from the present lower middle income country to a higher middle income country in the next few years or so and then to a rich country within a single generation as has been achieved by South Korea and Singapore in the recent past. Thus, Sri Lanka’s skills requirements of tomorrow are not the skills it had yesterday or it claims to have today. There has not been a proper identification of these requirements and directing resources to meet these ends. According to Arunathilake, the school education in Sri Lanka is heavily oriented toward the study of arts subjects. The science stream is a totally neglected area without lab facilities and qualified teachers. As a result, the university education too is oriented to producing a disproportionately higher number of arts graduates. So, Sri Lanka’s much praised education system does not produce an adequate number of scientists and engineers. This is totally in contrast to the achievements of Singapore which turns out engineers and scientists in several multiples of arts graduates. Thus, Sri Lanka produces graduates, but the skills base of those graduates is not what the Sri Lanka’s economy demands. As a result, according to Arunathilake, there is a serious mismatch of available and required skills in Sri Lanka. Without correcting this mismatch, it is unlikely that Sri Lanka could attain its ambitious development goals.

Suren Batagoda: State education is already overstretched

Batagoda, in his presentation, highlighted the inadequacy of the system to provide inclusive education to all. Every year, slightly more than 300,000 babies are born in Sri Lanka and the state education system has to accommodate them for primary education by overstretching its available resources. However, within the school system, many get dropped out before they sit the GCE Ordinary Level Examination. Of those who sit the examination, only about a half continues to proceed further. Of them, though about a two third gets qualified to enter a university, only about 20,000 students are admitted to universities for tertiary education. This is roughly about 6 per cent of the children born in any given year. Thus, the university system has to be expanded but that initiative is constrained by a lack of funds. The alternative is to use the resources available with the private sector to expand the country’s higher education system. According to Batagoda, these are critical issues presently faced by Sri Lanka in its initiative to improve the skills base of people.

Upananda Vidanapathirana: Skills and growth should go together

Dr Upananda Vidanapathirana, President of the SID’s Sri Lanka Chapter and Chairman of the Conference, opined that producing more scientists and engineers is a must but it has to be done in a growing phase of an economy to absorb them in productive employment. Hence, economic growth and the production of exclusive skills should go hand in hand together. Economic growth demands more exclusive skills and more exclusive skills will contribute to further economic growth. What he meant was that the educational system should be flexible enough to identify these developments and make available the needed skills to the economy. What he meant was that skills should be developed neither before growth takes place nor after it has happened but at the right time. If skills are developed before growth, without being fruitfully employed, such skills will leave the shores of the country; on the other hand, if they are not available at the time growth takes place, then, growth will be impeded.

Growth requires quality workers

What these learned economists presented in their speeches boils down to a simple economic truth. That is, continued sustainable economic growth requires quality workers and quality workers are produced by a country’s educational system. Arunathilake specifically referred to the emergence of the knowledge based economies throughout the globe and the need for gaining readiness to be a part of that system. Batagoda confessed that the country’s annual research and development outlay standing at less than 0.1 per cent of GDP is not sufficient to produce that knowledge base. Hence, knowledge is the power today and much more has to be done to acquire that power. Without that power, all other powers – military, political, majority-rule or religious – become fruitless as far as the economic prosperity is concerned.

Technological advancements are the key to growth 

But, how does knowledge come about? It comes from learning. Learning is imparted by all types of education – formal, non-formal and informal. Learning facilitates research and research brings about inventions. Inventions lead to technological advancements and technological advancements lead to economic growth. In the case of advanced countries today, it has been found that between one-third and a half of economic growth they have attained have been due to the technological advancements they had had in the past. So, a country should foster technological advancements if it is desirous of having a high economic growth. Any economic growth not accompanied with technological advancements, as is the case of growth of Sri Lanka today, is short – lived and unsustainable. Thus, a country is required to enhance its investments in both education and research and development. Education will produce knowledge workers and research and development will foster technological advancements.

Alison Wolf: Education doesn’t matter if entrepreneurship isn’t there

But the availability of knowledge workers and technology is necessary for economic development but not sufficient to attain that objective. For education and technology to do that job, there should be a different set of ground conditions available in an economy. This has been lucidly explained by Alison Wolf, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education of the University of London, in a book she published in 2002 under the title “Does Education Matter?”. The subtitle of the book, “Myths about Education and Economic Growth” explains her thesis well. According to Wolf, the countries which have spent a great deal of money on education have got mixed results: Some have got higher growth, some no growth at all and some, negative growth. Thus, there is no clear relationship between educational attainments and economic growth. What is necessary is that a country should invest in correct type of education, build correct type of attitudes amongst its student population and have correct type of policies to translate that knowledge into commercially viable businesses. Finally, it is entrepreneurship that matters and to promote entrepreneurship, a country should have ground conditions that are helpful for promoting entrepreneurial spirits among its citizens. These ground conditions, though Wolf has not mentioned, are the protection of property rights, maintenance of law and order and adoption of market friendly policies by the government. The World Development Report 2013 just released has branded this quality of the government as a ‘proactive developmental state’ and has identified it as a prime driver of economic growth of a country.

Joseph Schumpeter: Inventors and innovators should join hands 

Before Wolf, these ideas were more formally presented by the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter some seven decades ago. In his 1942 book titled “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”, Schumpeter identified three factors relating to education and entrepreneurship that lead to a continuous growth in capitalist economies: Invention, Innovation and Diffusion. Invention is the creation of a new product, new idea or a new process which comes from education, learning and research. These inventions standing along will not lead to capitalist growth. They should be put into practice or viable commercial ventures by entrepreneurs through a process known as innovation. Thus, without innovation, inventions are simply fruitless. An example from recent times for the combination of inventions and innovation comes from the Apple products. According to Walter Isaacson, biographer of Steve Jobs, it was Steve Wozniak who invented the Mac computer. Had it not been used commercially by Steve Jobs, the innovator, that invention would have simply remained an abstract invention. Therefore, a scientist who has made an invention becomes useful only if his invention is carried forward by an entrepreneur by establishing a commercially viable enterprise, a process known as ‘innovation’. But will the scientist and entrepreneur get together to benefit from each other. No if they do not join hands and Schumpeter called this coming together as ‘diffusion’. So, for an economy to continue to thrive, according to Schumpeter, there should be three acts that have come together. Inventions created by scientists, innovations created by entrepreneurs and diffusion by combining the scientists and the entrepreneurs.

A proactive developmental role for the government

These three processes are independent of each other and an economy should have appropriate ground conditions for them to come together. Education should develop scientists and they should have funds and facilities to conduct research. That research will bring about inventions that lead to technological advancements. Then, there should be entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks by adopting the new inventions made by scientists. Entrepreneurs should be supported by funds and protection so that they could put the inventions into commercial practices. Then, there should be mechanisms for both parties to come together and make available the products they produce to the ultimate users. The government has an important proactive developmental role in creating these mechanisms. It should ensure property rights by observing the rule of law and maintaining law and order. It should also facilitate the quick and fair enforcement of contractual arrangements without taking sides. Inventions come from free thinking and therefore, the government should promote and guarantee the freedom of thought and the freedom of expression. The 20th century British economist John Maynard Keynes succinctly presented this requirement when he said that “The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: Economic Efficiency, Social Justice and Individual Liberty.” These three requirements are interconnected and they feed on each other. Thus, if one is absent, the other two too will quickly disappear. Recognising their importance, the World Development Report 2013 has highlighted the need for permitting people to express their opinions by giving voice to people and creating opportunities for public discussion. This is because inventions and innovations are changes and changes cannot be brought about without questioning the prevailing order. The suppression of people’s right to question what they see as incorrect will surely create a nation of slaves and not a nation of thinkers.

Fill the skills gap or perish

Sri Lanka should therefore make hard choices today. It should enhance its investments in correct type of education to produce free thinkers and foster inventions through them. Then it should promote entrepreneurship so that the inventions made by free thinkers will be carried forward in the form of commercially viable enterprises. This is facilitating innovation. Then, there should be ground conditions conducive for both inventors and innovators to join hands to put the inventions into practical use by producing goods and services needed by people. It is only through this process by which Sri Lanka could fill its skills gap – the gap between the skills available and the skills needed. Until this gap is filled, Sri Lanka’s ability to foster continuous high economic growth is greatly impeded.

*W.A Wijewardena could be reached at waw1949@gmail.com 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    Dude, in a corrupt and nepotistic dictatorship like the miracle of Asia, free thinking and entrepreneurship is NOT an option.. Mediocrity is the name of the game, which is why the best and the brightest entrepreneurial souls migrate overseas and there is a huge post-war BRAIN DRAIN- just as much as the boat people..
    Many of the remaining professionals who live in Lanka are or act as if they are semi-retired in order to keep out of trouble..
    I know very highly qualified US trained Ivy League academics who should be in the university system and training the younger generation, who are put off by the politicization and petty politics of the Sri Lankan academic system. The example comes from the top. Both the ministers of Education and Higher Ed are foolish goons – so why bother?! In shot the governance crisis is the ROOT CAUSE of the rot systemic rot!

    • 0
      0

      How can a corrupt state prevent brain drain taking place in the country. Best students leave the Island just after the Advanced level examination, rest leave after graduation.
      Newly appointed University Grant Commission (UGC) chairperson is also likely to face contempt of courts charges unless she take necessary steps to compensate students by accommodating affected highly qualified students from Kandy district affected due to malpractices done by the additional secretary on university admissions, this has happened after this chairperson was appointed to the UGC. Kandy district is given the highest Z score cut off mark and relatively less number of students were taken for the faculties of medicine, agriculture and biological sciences. Additional secretary for university admissions have violated the court order and taken a substantial number of students illegally from Gampaha and Colombo district for medicine. For example index number1070827 and more than 15 students from Colombo District have been illegally admitted while depriving the chances for students from Kandy and Kurunegala Districts. Students and parents have gathered undisputable documented evidence on these malpractices, before they initiate contempt of courts procedures and cases on compensation UGC will have to compensate the affected students that could avoid further disrepute for the UGC and more disgraceful resignations, and these unpleasant events are still avoidable by timely action. They cannot cover up these facts one day it will surface like graves in the Mathale district as the students are aware of the irregularities and they have documented evidence. UGC can call a special meeting and take a decision on compensating highest ranking students deprived of university education as there are thousands of newly appeared vacancies in peripheral faculties. Unpleasant court proceedings can be avoided if the UGC can take a wise decision.
      Brain drain can be controlled if there is no corruption. Best option left for the UGC chairperson is to take a simple and straightforward decision on compensating the affected students by absorbing them on the basis of Island ranks before the students initiate contempt of courts proceedings. Compensation issues can come up many years later when the present Chief Justice retires and changes take place in governments. Younger generation will be more educated in time to come and they would definitely seek compensation in the future, best solution is to compensate these students by absorbing high ranking students now rather than facing more problems in the future.

      • 0
        0

        We dont need to discuss more about the indifference against corruption while seeing that the president of the country appointed the new chief justice – Mohan Peris not considering the records of on going cases being investigated. Enitre world is well aware of the fact that still legal CJ to the nation – Dr. Bandaranayake ^s impeachment process was illegal. In a country- western graduated FORMER LAW PROFESSOR- country^s current external affairs minister was pro for all these performances of the govt. Why could not he open the eyes of the top leadership- ONE OF THEIR CABINET MPs – Prof. RW was criticizing the manner of process being not constitutional. So much is about the divided role plays in the so called 2/3 powerful ruling coalition. Above all president ^s rhetoric about fulfilling his election manifestos as resounded by him lately- as if he has fulfilled all of them – but not uttering a single word about the abolishing of Executive Presidency. Latter is not a matter for the opposition either. People^s anger is there but many seem to be not taking anyone serious either.

        • 0
          0

          They destroy all social norms, rules and regulations needed for the survival of a nation. Indifference to corruption will destroy own existence the politicians and their followers at the end. They dig their own grave.

          • 0
            0

            I have the feeling they care only about their pockets.

            European countries have rigorous laws that are in place in merciless manner. That was the reason them to have developed those countries centuries back. This is the same with CHina too. Where there are laws, people will have to obey the rule of law. Today lankens are like meeharakS (Buffaloes), they can behave as they think is right. Police behave the same. Whenever genuine politicians introduce better systems to the nation, there will be progress of the nation too. Until then, the folks will stay as it is.

            • 0
              0

              Under the current Chief Justice no justice for thousands of students affected. That is the reason why so many complaints to the UN on Human rights issues. If there is room for hearing the cases in Sri Lanka without rejecting each and every fundamental rights case there will be less complains to the UN.

    • 0
      0

      Though I’m sure the writer has misspelled, It is essentially the gist of it: The governance is ‘SHOT’!! Crying patriotism often mentions the Sri Lankan “Free education” as what spring-boarded them to “Western Prosperity”. This “Free Education” is what no politician’s families wanted. This free education is the same that all criminals, all vandals, all hooligans in the country also received. This free education is what made the parents pay their measly wages to private tuition classes, give up food, pay with blood and tears and staying up with their children for years worth of nights to see them get to the Universities. Hah… Universities!! There was never the money to buy text books. The libraries do not carry them! Most lecturers are not trained as teachers. Some defy ethics and individual rights. Years of agony, “boarding rooms”, unpalatable food, sweat and the mosquitoes and years and years of sleepless nights – This is what you have to go back and “PAY FOR”????? Free education did not stay up four years worth of nights swatting mosquitoes in sweltering heat, worried over not understanding the stuff the ill-trained lecturer muttered, and having NO BOOKS to study from, I DID!! Free education did not pay for my parents and sibling’s sacrifices, THEY DID! I received nothing special and the difference is only that I STAYED AWAY FROM TROUBLE, and I WORKED HARD. And tell me how you paid for ten years post graduate education that I paid for by doing dishes in restaurants, working petrol stations, and sleeping no more than sometimes 3 hours a night tuition 10×40,000×128 ~ Rs.50 million! The Free Education paid that??
      My father is not a politician, and he is not a business tycoon. My father does not make money from dealing drugs, grabbing land, or importing ethanol. Why would I return to a situation that I loose the one thing that I have: Repaired (or being repaired) self esteem, Freedom and earned equality?

  • 0
    0

    The choice to perfect in Human skills should precede with the achievement of social harmony among all stake holders. The large percentage of literacy among the population means nothing without moral and ethical values in place. Education before Morality is like putting the horse behind the cart.

  • 0
    0

    How can the North and the East catch up with the rest of the country please? Over the last 4/5 decades funding for the schools in the North and the East has been less than that in the rest of the country and the ration of teachers to pupils was also less.
    Now army officers are teaching in many schools in the North.

  • 0
    0

    There are so many positive skills Sri Lankans have. Masters of war crimes, expert liars both local and international, killers murderers, project managers of mass murder incarceration and white elephant projects.

  • 0
    0

    High marks for entry to arts courses and lower marks to enter science and engineering courses will encourage more students to pursue science studies.
    We need more graduates of these disciplines.

    • 0
      0

      Under the present corrupt system marks and the Island ranks have completely been ignored, some bizarre percentages will be taken in to consideration that is also altered by the corrupt Additional Secretary according to the amount paid by the students.

      University admissions are the most corrupt, and unfortunately the Supreme Court is also not prepared to look in to the grievances of students. Admissions delayed for years and compactly irregular, nobody knows until the bizarre cut off is given whether she is selected or not.

  • 0
    0

    Even though the students to teacher ratio is admirable how good are the teachers? How capable and keen are they? What are the level of abseteeism among teachers and students? What is the reason for a majority of students to select ‘Arts’ subjects? Is it because the subjects do not require an enquiring and questioning mind but is mostly devoted to memorising text? Our teachers too do not like to open a subject for debate, whether it is History, Economic Theory, or Languages. So we produce closed minds. Look at the members of parliament who are mostly university graduates. Do they show any initiative and drive, originality and enterprise? No! They are all closed minds with servile attitudes ready to obey a command. It is our education system that produces these people. Therefore, firstly there is a need to change the approach to education and improve it’s standard to enhance intellect. Secondly it is necessary to create a climate of freedom to think, a sense of justice and fairness in the system. Thirdly an opportunity must be created for all who qualify for university but cannot enter due to restrictions to have alternative facilities available for higher education. Fourthly there must be gainful employment opportunities to look forward to. As one commentator stated many leave the school system after O.Ls or A.L.s. The more enterprising ones dislike the restrictive oppressive system operating here and migrate to other lands. Authoritative systems produce mediocrities and that’s what Sri Lankans have loved doing so far.

    • 0
      0

      I believe Since CBK ^s terms spent relatively more for the EDUCATION, there have been some improvements in the school education in SL. Teachers salaries were increased in huge amounts. This I know from some teachers known to me. Earlier it was like – I mean 2 decades ago, graduate teachers for Alevels classes were not well trained. I am talking about pupular schools. So we can just guess how the knowledge of those teachers at maha vidyalayas were. However, again I feel that school inspectors seem to fail to do their service properly in the last few years. That could be the reason why grade 5, Olevel and Alevels exam papers contained numbers of mistakes that one had not found in the years in the past. Eventhough the minister of Education could argue in various manner, we have to look at the statistics and compare them. Then only they can find where they have gone wrong.

      • 0
        0

        The Department of Examinations should take all necessary steps to prevent leaking of examination papers; UGC must take a firm decision on filling all the vacancies in the order of Island ranks for all faculties that would solve problems facing students in this generation.

        Filling the vacancies only on the basis of merit, therefore in the order of Island ranks will give an equal chance to compensate all affected students in the Island. That will solve the problem of discrepancies and inequalities in all the districts.

  • 0
    0

    Endless corruption, now it is time for the Supreme Courts to intervene and put an end to the corruption at the UGC.

    They plan to use a similar failed and irregular method for admissions for the next year as well. There is no court order to use such a disgraceful method in the future. UGC is deceiving the public, legal fraternity is fully aware of these manipulations.

  • 0
    0

    What ever the current leader ship is education must take priority. I I I don’t believe the current politicos ;even with their corrupt ways; would act to reduce the effectiveness of the education system to create a cheap workforce. The latter was elaborated in an interesting form reportedly by Rohana Wijeweera as recorded in Rohan Guneratne’s book titled ” A lost Revolution ?” in the section “Interrogating the JVP leader”.
    Our salvation is in the entrepreneurship of the normal citizen. The creation of engineers and technicians would support the new entrepreneurs. The funding for education, the quality of teaching must be protected and watched very closely and audited regularly.The teachers and lecturers must be supported through short professional, internationally recognised qualifications. The education should be scientific in functionality and humanistic by nature of delivery. I prey earnestly that Bodhi Satva’s will yet again rise from our resplendent land.

  • 0
    0

    Just a single officer is involved in all these corrupt practices. Corruption at the UGC will come to an end on the day Additional secretary responsible for admissions is found guilty in the Supreme Courts and life imprisoned, who is accountable for irregularities and complete destruction of University admissions in the Island.

    Premakumara has changed the Supreme Court orders some students who were not selected according to the SRFC 563/2012 and a lot more below the cut off mark for Colombo have been illegally admitted, that is an alteration of Supreme Court documented evidence, which can be very easily proven in a court of law. Level of corruption is rampant.

    Anybody who traces those documents can go to courts and prove it very easily. Previous court order clearly state that this corrupt method based on percentages is not applicable for future examinations. Additional secretary has disregarded that particular court order as well.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 7 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.