By 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 The current system is outdated, against international practices and thus a complete overhaul of the university admission process is long overdue.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