24 February, 2024


Towards A Realistic University Admission Scheme For Sri Lanka

By R.P. Gunawardane

Prof R.P. Gunawardane

It is heartening to read the recent news item stating that the University Grants Commission is contemplating  changes in the university admission policy. The current system is outdated, against international practices and thus a complete overhaul of the university admission process is long overdue. In my previous articles on the same subject appeared previously, I have stressed the urgent need for the review of the current admission policy and the admission process in keeping with the current national context and international practices.

However, it must be stressed that the university admission in Sri Lanka is extremely competitive and therefore it is a very sensitive national issue. Always when there is a change in the selection methodology one party is affected where as another section of the community is benefitted. Therefore, any proposal to change the current system should go through a process of extensive consultation, debate and a thorough study before it is implemented.

Defects in the current scheme

Currently, the district quota system is applicable for selection of students to all streams (Commerce, Biological Science, Physical science and Technology streams) other than the Arts stream where all island merit-based admission operates. In the present district quota system, 40% of the available places are filled on all island merit basis while 55% of the places in each course of study are allocated to the students from 25 districts in proportion to the population ratio. In addition, a 5% of the places in each course of study are allocated to the students from16 educationally disadvantaged districts. The distinct feature here is that it gives more weightage to the admission based on district quotas rather than island wide merit. This has affected a large number of students from urban areas who have performed better at the GCE A/L exam.

Current 40-60 quota system has been in operation continuously for over 4 decades. No serious attempts have been made to improve facilities in the schools in educationally disadvantaged districts during this period. High weightage (60%) given to district quota over the island wide merit in a highly competitive university admission process appears to be excessive and unfair. The quota system has many defects, and it has been extensively abused by many students. The policy is based on the assumption that educational facilities are not uniform throughout the island to adopt the island wide merit scheme. It also assumes that all schools in the same district are equivalent and have equal educational facilities. However, it is important to note that the discrepancy in the facilities is visible even more within a given district. Each district, whether it is Colombo or Anuradhapura has well equipped good schools as well as poorly equipped bad schools. Therefore, it is hard to justify the basis of this scheme.

Only criterion for university admission is the performance of the candidates at the GCE A/L examination as measured by the Z score. Prior to 2002 aggregate of marks of different subjects was used for this purpose. In fact, Z score was universally accepted to be much more reliable than the aggregate of raw marks of different subjects in determining the merit order. No other student talents and experiences are considered deviating from international practices. Results of aptitude/ IQ tests, school reports and other skills, recognitions, achievements etc. are not evaluated. No additional testing/ interviews are held even for professional courses which require specific talents, abilities, attitudes depending on the profession. To my knowledge, this situation does not exist anywhere in the world. 

Need for major changes

Since there is disparity in the educational facilities within a district, it would be more appropriate to use a quota system based on island wide school groups classified on the basis of facilities available in the schools for the selection process. In such a scheme, number of places allocated will be determined in proportion to the number of students sitting the A/L exam. However, in the district quota system, admission numbers are determined in proportion to the total population. Former method is more appropriate for the allocation of places for university admission.

It is disheartening to note that 16 out of 25 districts (64%) in Sri Lanka are declared as educationally disadvantaged areas. These 16 districts are Nuwara Eliya, Hambantota, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mulllativu, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticoloa, Ampara, Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Badulla, Monaragala and Ratnapura. Similarly, out of 9 provinces four entire provinces (Northern, Eastern, North Central and Uva) have been declared as educationally disadvantaged. Only the Western province is educationally advantaged. This classification needs reexamination. If this is the reality after 70 years of achieving independence from British rule, there should be something seriously wrong with our national policy. 

In fact, this district quota system was introduced nearly 50 years ago as a temporary measure mainly because of the disparities in the facilities for teaching science subjects at the GCE A/L in schools of different districts. Simultaneously, it was also intended to develop the identified schools on a priority basis and to review the status in the districts after every 3 years to make necessary policy adjustments. Unfortunately, this did not materialize even after a half century! 

Furthermore, it is important to note that practical exams for science subjects at A/L were abolished long time ago. As a result, practical components of the science subjects are completely ignored in the schools, making laboratory facilities irrelevant. Thus, the need for district quota- based admission even for science streams cannot be justified in the current context. In addition, tuition facilities in science subjects are now widely available in both urban and rural areas.

Thus, in the current context, continuation of an arbitrary district quota system cannot be justified. The effective long-term solution will be to develop the affected schools in the districts on a priority basis with equitable distribution of qualified teachers and get away with the quota system gradually. Furthermore, it is very clear from the above facts that there is no justification for the selection of students to the commerce stream and music, drama and related disciplines using the district basis. It is high time that a comprehensive review is done immediately to formulate a more reasonable and a rational admission policy.

Along with policy changes, the admission procedure also needs to be changed. University admission in Sri Lanka is highly centralized at the UGC level with no participation of the universities, except for obtaining number of available places in each course from the universities. This is considered as one of the main reasons why a large number of vacancies remain unfilled in the university system every year. It is a waste of resources, in addition to the loss of opportunities for many students seeking university admission. 

One group of Sri Lankan students has been eliminated from our university admission process. They are the students who are studying in private/ international schools, which do not offer Sri Lankan GCE A/L but instead prepare students for London (UK) A/L exam. These students are in international schools mostly not by choice but by necessity due to unavailability of places in reputed government schools in urban areas like Colombo, Kandy, Galle and even Jaffna. They are also true Sri Lankan citizens who have legitimate expectation to seek admission to state university system. It is very unfair to close the door for these students to our universities. They also should have a pathway for admission to state universities.

Practices in other countries

We have a lot to learn from the experiences of university admission schemes practiced all over the world. Although most countries select students purely on merit, quota systems are operating in a few countries such as China, Venezuela, Brazil, Malaysia and Nigeria for varying reasons. The quota systems are based on criteria such as ethnicity, provincial and territorial identities. These quotas are generally unpopular and heavily criticized in those countries. In India, there are no fixed quotas, but the national universities make sure a fair representation of students from different regions and ensure adequate number of underprivileged sections of the society are admitted. 

In almost all the countries in the developed and developing world, the selection of students for university admissions is done entirely by the individual universities based on agreed national, provincial or university policies. In some countries, an independent central body (not the government) does the coordination work while actual admissions are carried out by the universities. This central coordination of university admissions is done to help students apply for several universities in one application form indicating preferences.  Since the whole process is done on line using a sophisticated system there is no delay in processing. The individual universities will make sure their additional requirements are satisfied and the interviews will also be conducted as required. Then the offer letters will be mailed and the students will have a deadline for acceptance. This situation prevails in most of the developed world including UK and European countries, Scandinavian countries, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In some countries like USA, the admission is done independently by the individual universities without any central coordination. 

In all these countries, many factors are considered for admission. The results of national exams and aptitude tests (e.g., SAT, MCAT), school/ teacher reports, work/practical experience, extracurricular activities etc. are all counted in the selection process. The students are subjected to additional testing and interviews depending on the course. The interviews are compulsory for professional degree programs to test their suitability to follow the course and practice the profession. Some of these aspects should be included into our admission policy.

Proposal for changes

As described above, there is an urgent need to change the admission policy and improve our admission procedure in line with international practices. The following proposals are presented for that purpose.

Admission Policy: The long-term national policy should be to abolish any quota system and achieve island wide merit in all disciplines in the university admissions. Evaluation of merit should also include all other achievements, practical experience, extracurricular activities etc. The following policy guidelines are presented:

1. 100% all island merit should be used for the entire Arts stream (including music and dance) and commerce stream with immediate effect.

2. For the Physical Science, Biological Science and Technology streams all island merit percentage should be increased gradually to reach 100% within a reasonable period with the implementation of a transitional school group-based quota system.

3. Z Scores should continue to be used to measure the merit order of their GCE A/L performance. 

5. A transitional quota system based on all island school groups should be formulated and implemented replacing the district quota system. All schools offering A/L science classes should be classified into 3 or 4 groups on a rational basis depending on the educational/ laboratory facilities, quality of teachers, previous A/L results etc. This should be undertaken as early as possible and completed within a year. After testing this scheme, it should be implemented until such time the selected poorly equipped schools are developed to an acceptable level within about 3 years. At this stage all admissions will be based purely (100%) on merit conforming international norms.

5. There should be a pathway for students (SL citizens only) with equivalent foreign qualifications such as GCE A/L London from local private/ international schools to apply for admission to state universities.

Admission Procedure: It is necessary that the university faculties are given a specific role in the university admission procedure based on the national policy. The coordination and the monitoring of the admission procedure should be done by the UGC. Highly sophisticated computer system/program should be employed for this procedure at the UGC with links to universities. The students should have access to this site for application on line indicating their preferences. Universities are expected to select students based on the agreed national policy after any additional testing, interviews etc. This procedure will expedite the admission process and avoid the difficulty in filling vacancies in the faculties currently experienced by the university system.

*The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka

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Latest comments

  • 2

    There area few issues with Z scores.
    It is a fair comparison between performances in different subjects (or subject combinations) provided that the samples are comparable in quality. (Remember the disaster of 8 years ago with two different examinations papers in each of several subjects after a curriculum revision?)
    Also the examination papers should be designed so that the marks have a near Normal Distribution.
    Even then, large differences in the SD (standard deviation) can imply some injustice to high performers.
    Where students compete with different subject combinations for a certain programme (like Technology) can we expect students offering different subject combinations to be of comparable ability?
    Can we give equal weightage to all subjects within combinations allowed for a given discipline. Should not there be a variation according to importance to the programme. Chemistry cannot be on par with Physics for Engineering and Physics cannot be on par with Biology for Medicine.
    (to continue)

  • 2

    Is there not a bigger role for mathematics for the new generation of doctors?
    The basis for standardisation should never have been medium of instruction; and district quotas are meaningless in the context of private tuition and abuse of the school system.
    There is a strong case for positive discrimination based on the educational facilities accessible to a student. (I wrote a comment on this way back in 1974, but not many took notice.) Those who have had it good thus far will not look kindly to losing even a tiny fragnent of their privileges. Let them protest, but let us recognize that education is about fair play as well.
    The grade of the school itself is inadequate to assess this. The urban/rural difference and even living conditions in the area where a school is located are important. A school located in a backward area of Colombo can be far more disadvantaged than one in Anuradhapura town or Vavuniya.
    But is it the school that decides student performance in the GCE(AL) examination?
    Is there not a fundamental flaw in a school education system comprising formal school and informal (after hours) ‘schooling’?
    More important than our interest in university admissions should be the future of 97% of school leavers with no opportunities before them.

  • 2

    More important than our interest in university admissions should be the future of 97% of school leavers with no opportunities before them.
    An excellent document on school education was published by the National Education Commission in 2017. It had very good proposals for reforms in education and examination as well as for starting career guidance early in the school.
    The membership of the commission was changed shortly after and the report has been shelved. Studies on higher education (not just university) and vocational education were initiated. I wonder if there has been a follow-up.
    Most importantly, are students and parents interested in higher education or merely an embossed sheet of paper with the names of an institution, an individual and a degree, that could serve as a license for a cushy job.

  • 1

    Till the racist venom of standardization poisoned University entrance, what really was wrong with selection procedure in the fifties and sixties?

    Tamils are now in more than 3 digit reputed Universities, getting coveted Degrees and benefiting from
    well paying positions. Tamil Diaspora itself is marveling at the performance of the second and third generations, studying in nearly a 100 countries and states.

    • 1

      Anyone who saw the video of the hapless “English” student being grilled by Gota would understand that there is a problem in the quality of the “free” education being handed out. That poor girl was totally convinced that she was fully qualified to be a teacher of English. What are the qualifications of the people who gave her the 2-year Diploma? Are short-cuts being taken to show greater output? Are similar things happening in other fields as well? If so, this is serious.

      • 0

        Here is the link to the video:

        • 0

          You are being rather harsh on her.
          She was unprepared to ask her question in English. It is not her mother tongue or her normal language of conversation.
          Despite her lapses, she stated her question fairly clearly.
          There are people who write paragraph after paragraph in the CT, piling howler upon howler. How many of us complain? Does CT take notice?
          Do you want English Special graduates for the job?
          I had the unenviable task of rescuing meaning from a Tamil translation of a 200+ page typed English text. It was not that the teachers of a reputed Tamil school in Colombo who shared the work did not know the languages. But idiom and technical terms are always an issue.
          We are trying to make up for sins of omission of the past. Let us be more tolerant.

          • 0

            Agree — the only useful piece of information in that exchange is that the President is a bully. My sympathies and admiration were with the young lady.

          • 0

            I wasn’t being harsh on the poor girl. Rather, I wanted to know what idiot had given her a worthless “diploma” which convinced her that she was qualified for the job. Maybe these people hand out diplomas to meet quotas?
            There is a serious lack of quality in most fields . It is better to have a few really good teachers than a lot of crappy ones for show.
            For what it’s worth, I did see that Gota himself didn’t speak to the girl in English. Why?

            • 0

              Look at the quality of English of some professionals on these pages.
              I have come across many who write correctly but are in trouble when they speak, especially under pressure.
              However, we cannot blame the GR regime for the apparent poor quality of her diploma.

    • 0

      If what you say is true, what are Tamils complaining about?
      The curriculum was rather primitive into the 1950s. The quality of course content improved tremendously in the 1960s.
      Where education got screwed up was with the arrival of private tuition in the late 1960s that grew into a vast industry by the 1990s.
      Lack of adequate investment in school education since the 1970s and planned neglect since 1978 are matters of importance.

  • 1

    This is a very comprehensive article highlighting the serious problems with the current system. The current major issues viz. the school system abuse by some students, effect of private tuition classes, total disregard to the science practical and it’s effect to higher learning of scientific disciplines, suitability assessment of candidates to pursue professional courses etc. are well presented. The propose methods are a very good start.

  • 0

    A very good article – explains issues of the Z score… the entry through district quota is also the main reason for ragging…

    IN SL ragging/hazing at the time it started would have been as a leveler. Now it has taken a vindictive purpose. the main issues are as below.
    (i.) Free education – no pressure to pay and educate oneself – if no cost then students put no value and loaf around.
    (ii) Z score – this was a leveler at that time but now its a divisor = we need to move back to meritocrasy as all district infrastructure has improved. “A” Colombo should not equal a “C” in Nuwara Eliya. you can give some quota to a district but after that it should be on merit.
    (iii) The students think once they get through Uni entrance – all is done !! 4 years to loaf and then a guaranteed GOSL job. GOSL is not responsible to provide job, but politicians have built up this presumption. No other country gives guaranteed jobs like that!! NOT ONLY FREE EDUCATION BUT ALSO A JOB???”
    (iv) Arts stream degrees were the staple in 1940-1970 but have VERY low relevance in current job skill set. Still SL uni’s are stuck with non-value adding courses churning out 1000’s of arts graduates, who then become teachers – leading to a vicious circle.

  • 0

    Thank you Sir. An exceptional well rounded evaluation indeed.
    (1) We would have moved to being one of the leading educated and developed Nation a long time ago if it was not for the bloody JVP/FP/TULF blunders. We were indeed that Progressive Nation 60’s and 70’s and on a mindfull development journey that would have delivered all you have kindly mentioned in your analysis.
    Not only that we would have been the “Centre For Educational Excellence” for the entire region..SAARC and ASEAN if not more International content.
    (2) India has quota system(call it what you will)..just as any sensible and intelligent Nation would do to navigate issues as required…is the name of the Journey and Independence means…give and take for a common cause.
    (3) I think in your proposal point 2 would have been our GoSL natural cause of action/path should we have not spent the last 50 years killing each other. We needed a bunch of educated children to Nation build not explosive experts.
    (4) We also need to put serious emphasis on Technical Colleges where all the schooling does not need to go all the way to A/L but diverted to Technical Colleges for Electricians/Masonry/Fisheries and million more skilled labours required for National economical planning without imported foreign labours.

    • 0

      …….Advanced countries such as Switzeland/German system where government officials have advised Sri Lankan parents not to press their children to end up being doctors and accountants…but all other skill set required for a diverse society.
      (5) We in the UK invest too much on education and most end up doing nothing related to their education…we are reevaluating our investment too for a more dynamic system fit for purpose as system can not afford such luxuries any more. Remove the state hand out all will fall into place

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