14 June, 2024


The Myth About The University Admissions Criteria

By M. Y. M. Siddeek

Dr. MYM Siddeek

Dr. MYM Siddeek

Truth alone will endure, all the rest will be swept away before the tide of time” – Mahatma Gandhi.

I believe there is a widespread myth that the Tamils were badly affected due to the university admissions criteria of the successive governments of Sri Lanka. There is no truth in it. It is true that not only the Tamils but also the Muslims who studied their A Levels in Tamil medium were affected by ethnic/language based standardisation of university admissions implemented in 1970 and 1971. However, with the introduction of the District Quota System, the Tamil students from the Northern districts of Vavunia, Mullaithivu, Mannar and Kilinochchi, from the Eastern districts of Trincomalee, Ampara and Batticaloa and from the Central province districts of Nuwara-Eliaya, Badulla, Bandarawela immensely benefitted. The District Quota System has been implemented by the successive governments since 1972 to admit students to the universities.

Before 1970, university admission was based on pure merit. The number of Tamil and Sinhalese students was almost equal in highly demanded medical and engineering faculties in the universities.  However, the Sinhalese students in the faculties were not proportionate to their population in the country. Therefore from 1970, the university admissions policies made it compulsory for the Tamil students to score higher marks than the Sinhalese students to enter the same faculties in the university. For example, Tamil students had to score 250 marks to get into Medical or Engineering faculty while Sinhalese students only had to score 229 and 227 marks respectively.  In short, students sitting for examinations in the same language, but belonging to two ethnic groups, had different requirements of minimum marks to enter the universities. It is widely claimed by some that this open discrimination of the then United Front Government of 1970 caused enormous harm to ethnic relations between Tamils and Sinhalese. This made it difficult for Tamil youths to enter university and as a result, the Tamil youths were not able to find suitable employment. Therefore, they say that this made the Tamil youths hate the Sinhalese and the university admission policy was another reason for the conflict between the Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.

From 1971, the same government made some changes to the university admissions criteria and the students were admitted to the universities based on language they sit. The number of Tamil and Sinhalese students admitted to the universities was proportional to the number of participants who sat to the A Level examinations in Tamil and Sinhala languages. This obviously decreased the proportion of the Tamil medium students in the universities. It is noteworthy that, according to 1971 A Level examinations results, a large proportion of the Tamil allocation was enjoyed by Tamil students from Jaffna and a large proportion of the Sinhalese share was enjoyed by the Sinhalese students from Colombo. Therefore, the Education Minister of that time seriously thought about this imbalance between the districts due to lack of facilities in the other districts of the country. Therefore, the District Quota System was introduced in 1972 to take into consideration of extremely limited facilities available in the districts other than Colombo and Jaffna. It is also important to note that, the ethnic/language based standardisation was in existence only for two years. Therefore, it can also be argued that impact of those short-lived criteria to admit students to the universities is immaterial considering a long history of higher education system in Sri Lanka.

The District Quota System for university admissions introduced in 1972 abolished medium wise standardisation of marks. There is no evidence for existence of language based standardisation after 1972. One of the other reasons for the introduction of the District Quota System was to control continuing influx of students to Colombo and Jaffna schools due to lack of facilities in other districts. It was therefore thought that if admissions to universities were decided on a District Quota System, an incentive for good students to remain in their home towns would be created. Therefore, one of the objectives of the District Quota System was to ensure that the best students from rural schools gain admission to the universities from schools in their own districts. It was also thought that selections on a District Quota System would eliminate the handicaps created by the lack of sufficient satisfactory facilities in certain areas such as Nuwara-Eliya, Mannar, Vavunia, Mullaithivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Monaragala, Polonnaruwa etc. This fact was never appreciated by the critiques of the District Quota System and was never mentioned in the debates. According to the District Quota System of 1972, 30% of university places were allocated on the basis of island-wide merit and 55% of the places were allocated on the basis of comparative scores within districts on the basis of the population strength of each district. Therefore, if a district has a population of 18% of the total population of the country, 18% of places available for any particular group of courses were allocated to that district whereas another district with a population equivalent to 7% of the total population, it would get only 7% of places in that particular, group of studies. An additional 15% was reserved for students from underprivileged districts such as Nuwara_Eliya and Trincomalee. This 15% too was allocated on the basis of the population strength of the underprivileged districts. Once the total number of students for each district is determined on the basis of the population strength of the district, 100% merit basis was applied within the district to select the students for each course of study. I am not arguing here that this is the best system because a student’s performance can be affected by various factors such as I.Q., school and home environment, extra- curricular activities, attitude and aptitude for learning etc. Inclusion of all these factors into the admission criteria is impossible. It is very important to note that Sri Lanka has only a small number of universities and therefore , the education system in Sri Lanka is very competitive. Approximately only 9% of the students who sit for the G.C.E (Advanced Level) examinations, and only about 14% of those who qualify, are admitted to universities. Therefore, it is fair to provide opportunities to the students from all the districts, more importantly to the students from educationally underprivileged districts other than Colombo in the West and other than Jaffna in the North. The District Quota System has also brought an ethnic balance. In 1969, before the introduction of standardisation/District quota System , the Northern Province which was pre-dominantly a Tamil province with only 7% of the population of the country, was allocated 27.5% of the places for science-based courses in Sri Lankan universities. By 1974, after introduction of the District Quota System, this was reduced to 7% which is equivalent to the population proportion of the province. Similarly, from the other predominantly Tamil districts of Vavunia, Mullaithivu, Mannar, Batticaloa, Trincomalee etc. the percentage increased to closer to their population strength. Similarly, the Western Province with 26% of the population of the country was allocated 67.5% of the places of science-based courses in 1969. This reduced to 27% in 1974 which is closer to the population strength of the district. It should be stressed here that the majority of the share enjoyed by Jaffna Tamils were distributed among Tamils in other Tamil districts such as Vavunia, Mullaithivu, Mannar, Trincomalee, Ampara, Batticaloa and Hill country where the facilities in the schools were very poor. Majority of the share enjoyed by Colombo was distributed among rest of the Sinhalese. This is the major impact of the District quota System.

Therefore, the district quota system not only brought benefits to those students not having adequate access to educational facilities, but also had a significant impact on the demographic patterns of university entry. While the open ethnic/language based and short-lived university admissions criteria of 1971 and 1972 have long been dismantled, many Tamil youth still feel that they are discriminated against in access to higher education because of the false propaganda by some politicians and Tamil movements.

It is true that the Tamil students in the District of Jaffna were affected by the District Quota System for a few years. But in the mean time Tamil students from all other districts of the Northern and the Eastern provinces have benefitted immensely with the implementation of the District Quota System. For example, soon after the creation of new Kilinochchi district in 1984, one Tamil student from this district was admitted to Medical faculty with only 182 marks when the students from some other districts had to gain about double of that marks to go to a Medical faculty. Isn’t it a record in the recent higher education history of Sri Lanka to go to a Medical faculty with such a very low mark? I am sure this particular student, now a senior doctor, should be able to witness this. Similarly, a large number of Tamil students from Vavunia, Mannar, Mullaithivu, Trincomalee, Nuwara-Eliya etc. were privileged to gain admission to the universities due to the introduction of the District Quota System should also be able to witness the benefits they derived. Isn’t it a benefit that the Tamil community derived from the District Quota System? Therefore, it is a false believe that the Tamils were badly affected by the University Admissions Criteria of successive governments. What the District Quota System does is to provide equal opportunity to the students from all the district irrespective the language they speak and their ethnicity.

Now the district quota system has slightly changed. Up to 40% of the available places are filled in order of Z – Scores ranked on an all island merit basis. Under District Merit Criteria, up to 55% of the available places in each course of study is allocated to the 25 administrative districts in proportion to the total population, that is, on the ratio of the population of the district concerned to the total population of the country. A special allocation up to 5% of the available places in each course of study is for 16 educationally dis-advanced districts including Jaffna District. It should be highlighted here that Jaffna district is now considered an educationally dis-advanced district and the students from that district are also immensely benefitting from the District quota System. The island-wide merit 40% was only 30% in 1972. There were only 5 districts classified as underprivileged districts in 1972. It should also be noted here that Jaffna district is benefitting now more than Colombo, Kandy and some other districts since it is now considered an educationally dis-advanced district and gets extra number of admissions.

However, in selecting students to a given course of study, it is ensured that the quota allocated to any districts (55% and 5%) is not below the quota in the academic year 1993/4 or 2002/2003, whichever the greater. As a result, the districts in the North and the East are not disadvantaged by a large outflow of population due to the war.

The quota system to admit students to universities is nothing new. There are other countries following similar systems. A very good example is China. The quota system recently introduced in China allocates more students from poorer areas to the universities. According to the system, the universities in 11 of the richer provinces are to admit a total of 210,000 students from poorer provinces. Another example is Nigeria. The universities are guided by admission policies such as quota system, catchment area, carrying capacity, and educationally less developed states and others. Educationally less developed areas are given 20%. Only 45% of the available places are reserved for candidates with very high marks. This is just 5% above the current 40% merit based admissions in Sri Lanka. The Nigerian university admissions policies are aimed at addressing the issues of ethnic representation. Even in the UK now many academics and politicians are thinking of widening access to university. They accept that all youngsters should have an equally good chance of going to university. There are arguments in the UK academic and political circles to force the universities to discriminate in favour of under-represented groups. The argument is that they should be given admission and an opportunity to learn regardless of whether their Advanced Level results are poor. Although they do not support a quota system, it is similar to a quota system.

I remember at this point what John F. Kennedy once said; ‘all of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have equal opportunity to develop our talents’.

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Latest comments

  • 3


    Your line….
    I Believe there is a widespread myth that the Tamils were affected due to the university admissions criteria of the successive governments of Srilanka. There is no truth in it.

    Pl.replace MYTH with BELIEF and delete NO.
    That in essence is what standardisation is all about!
    Why did you carry such a weak brief? Were you asked to do so?
    Any intelligent person should have known that it was a total fraud!

  • 3

    Dr. Siddeek,

    I know this is not a research paper but the use of numbers in your article obscures a lot of information. A percentage needs to be disaggregated by ethnicity,place of origin, gender, type of university program, subject, type of university etc in order to make the argument you are trying to make. In your reply to Dr.Hoole you mention “If you do a statistical analysis”…well the problem is that you show us no evidence of this statistical analysis. Presenting percentages the way you have done de-contextualizes data and this is dangerous.When scholars write opinion pieces we are still obligated to present data and interpret the data and allow for other researchers and scholars to run the same numbers to validate claims. Although this is impossible in a CT piece the readership deserves to see the “analysis” and the assumptions we make when we run numbers.

    We need to see statistical trends in how the said policies actually changed the dynamic you are arguing for. Percentages in sporadic years do not cut it, at least not anymore when there are sophisticated analysis mechanisms that allow for better models to be set up to understand this phenomenon. When we do this, we are responsible to interpret the numbers for our readership. We need responsible scholarship and I think many of the comments in this section are highlighting grave discrepancies in the data you present (i.e. cut off scores) and lived realities. And if you frame a phenomena as a “myth” better corroboration of data must be undertaken. We have a ethical obligation to be transparent about how we crunch numbers (and in this case if analysis was undertaken at all)

    Also, what is the source of this data?, we know that our country struggles with collecting meaningful data. So if you had to use percentages because of data limitations, then you need to have explained the limitations in your argument.

  • 2


    No opponent of the district quota system could so far prove that it was disadvantageous to the Tamil students in the districts other than Jaffna. I challenge. You cannot prove it.

    As you said this is not a research paper. This is not even an article. This is an opinion page I believe. Truth is truth. Myth is myth. The truth never dies. I have presented enough information, data, percentages and examples to support my opinion. More than 2000 words are more than (long) enough to support my opinion. In this opinion page I cannot write a long thesis presenting all the statistics I have with a statistical analysis you expect. Then I have to write problem statement, description of the problem, research aims and objectives, hypothesis to be tested, methodologies, how my methodologies differ from other researchers’ methodologies, conceptual framework, key words, their definitions, literature review, scope of the study etc; etc; etc; As you said it is impossible in CT I believe. If you would want to counter argue and prove I am wrong, please present your data/statistics briefly to disprove me.

    • 2

      “No opponent of the district quota system could so far prove that it was disadvantageous to the Tamil students in the districts other than Jaffna. I challenge. You cannot prove it”

      Mr Siddeek

      The onus is on you to prove that standardisation is a myth, because you started it!. It is like police asking the accused to prove his/her innocence without doing their ground work.

      Let me give you a start. The Null hypothesis is there was significant ethnic discrimination in the way standardisation was implemented in early 70s.
      The ball is in your side.

  • 2

    The following are copied from internet

    The percentage of Tamil students admitted to engineering courses fell from 48.3 percent in 1969 to 24.4 percent in 1973, and 14.2 percent in 1975.

    – The percentage of Tamils gaining admission in 1969 for medicine was 48.9 percent and in the dental science 38.1 percent, agriculture 47.4 percent and in the veterinary sciences 66.7 percent.

    – But in 1971 the figures were: medical 40.9 percent, dental surgery 56.1 percent, agriculture 39.5 percent, veterinary sciences 23.8 percent of Tamil students only, gained admission.

    -In 1972 medicine – 39.3 percent, dental surgery – 53.0 percent, agriculture – 39. percent and veterinary science – 39 percent of the Tamils were given admission.

    -In 1973, medicine – 36.9 percent dental surgery – 46.9 percent . agriculture – 51.1 percent veterinary science- 13 percent the Tamils were given admission

    -In 1974 medicine – 25.9 percent, dental surgery – 28.6 percent, agriculture – 11.1. percent and veterinary science – 28.1 percent of the Tamils were given admission


    As late as 1990s DSQ was unfavourable to Tamils as I remember sitting for A/L in that period . In fact 1991 A/L Jaffna batch had a separate advanced level exam which was tougher than the original exam held at August in 1991.

  • 3


    The onus is on you to substantiate your claims. This is not a research paper, but what is lacking is your analysis. Actually, a simple regression analysis should have sufficed, and that method and your assumptions could have been explained in less the 200 words.I was pointing out how your argument falls short because of the lack of analysis, and we all know presenting numbers does not cut it. I am not one for baseless truisms of truth is truth, myth is myth. If this was your opinion, then why frame it as truth vs.myth. It makes no sense. I think I already pointed out how percentages are not a good enough measure. Plus, if you had consistent data you were drawing from you can cite the source. You are making the argument, you are responsible to do the work and base your “opinions” on your analysis. In contemporary research while we write for peer reviewed journals, we also write our findings in ways that are accessible to the public.

    The readership is far more intelligent and cognizant of truth and myth conspiracies. We deserve good evidence. Your challenge to my critique is rather childish and a good way of evading responsibility for the quality of your data, it sounds like “I didn’t do the work, but you do it to prove me wrong”. If you had done an analysis and presented the source of your data maybe I could take you up on it. We have wonderful researchers and scholars within our ranks who would be happy to take you up on your challenge. But how does one counter analyze a non- analysis? You do your part and present your evidence in substantiative ways and then based on what you actually find (which I suggest should be how you come to having an opinion) the rest of us will do our part.

  • 2

    Ms. Anamika,

    You expect me to do a regression analysis in CT? You are trying to demonstrate that you are a researcher and you know how to do a research.

    What about ARCH and GARCH models? Do you expect me to do them also in CT?

    • 1

      Dear Sideek,
      In my batch of 250 medical students, where admission was done strictly on merit, there were only 10 Muslims (including one Malay and one Borah) as compared to Tamils being 75 out of 100 in Peradeniya and 45 out of 150 in Colombo.Subsequently when standardization and district quota systems were introduced the number of Muslims entering medicine increased. This shows that Muslims benefited at the expense of Tamils.

  • 2

    Dr. Siddeek

    I expect you to do the work of presenting numbers responsibility and interpreting them in ways that account for limitations. Whatever sophisticated model you use, if it can’t be explained to the general public in accessible ways to me that’s a faliure. Don’t conflate your opinion with the truth. They are not the same. You have an opinion, but it’s not a universafailure. No analysis, no source of data those were my critiques.

    Regardless of if I am a researcher or not, remember not to under estimate Your readership. This is not about me, this is about you losing your credibility, specially by the dissapointinh waysbin which you respond to critism.

  • 3

    What you’ve just argued for is that inferior Sinhalese need the help of their nanny state to compete with superior Tamils. How racist!

  • 2

    Sri Lanka’s high schools in 18 out of 23 districts could not produce a single engineer or doctor until 1979.

    A policy which allocated 45 engineering and 44 medical students from one elite group to another under represented constituency contributed to the 30 year old Higher-Education War in Sri Lanka.

    • 2

      Sundara lingam
      Your slip is showing sir!
      Your surname should not be split like the way you have written

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