28 January, 2022


University Admission: Do Not Rush Changes – Follow The Proper Procedure

By R.P. Gunawardane

Prof R.P. Gunawardane

There was a prominent news item recently stating that the Cabinet of Ministers has granted approval to introduce a new school-based scientific methodology to determine admission to state universities instead of the current district-based Z-Score system. This news item further states that this proposal was presented to the cabinet by the new Minister of Education.

If this news item is true I have two serious issues arising from this action.

1. National policy for University admission and the implementation of this policy come under the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Higher Education. It appears that this proposal is presented to the cabinet without the concurrence of the UGC or the Ministry or the Minister of Higher Education. This procedure is not regular.

2. Cabinet proposals are normally presented at the last stage of the whole process and procedure. What is the procedure followed? Did any committee consisting of experts study the defects in the current system and alternative or better methods suitable for university admission? As all senior administrators are aware, the cabinet papers are presented as the last step after extensive consultations and the study of all the reports and recommendations. Unfortunately this has not been followed in this case. 

According to the news report already a decision has been taken to change the district based admission and the Z score method to a school based admission system. Again there is a mistake and   misunderstanding here. What is proposed I believe is to change the district basis method to a school based quota system. Z score will remain, because Z score was introduced replacing the aggregate of marks to determine the ranking of candidates. Ranking of candidates should therefore be done using z scores.

At present district quota system is in operation for all streams except the Arts stream. For the arts stream all island merit based admission scheme is used. For all other streams (Physical Science, Biological Science, Technology and Commerce) 40% of places in each stream are allocated on all island merit basis and 55% are allocated to 25 districts in proportion to the population ratio. Another additional 5% in each course is allocated to16 districts declared as educationally disadvantaged districts.

It must be stressed that 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 community will benefit. Therefore, any proposal to change the current system should go through a process of consultation, debate and extensive study of the alternative scientific methods suitable in the Sri Lankan context. Workshops may also be held in this regard inviting all the stake holders before a final decision is made. Only at this stage a cabinet paper should be presented by the relevant Ministry.

This author has published an article titled “University Admission process needs Urgent Review: A Proposal, in the the Island on April 26, 2017 proposing a School Group based quota system as an alternative to district basis scheme while retaining the z score for ranking candidates. Interested parties may refer to this article for further details.

Attempts to change admission schemes 

Since the introduction of GCE A/L examination, sole basis of selection was the aggregate of marks. Originally it was on island wide merit and then it was changed to a combination of island wide merit and district basis with additional quota to educationally disadvantaged districts.

The most significant change introduced subsequently was the use of a scientific method, a statistical procedure of Z-score to rank students for admission instead of using the aggregate of raw marks. This was introduced in the year 2002 after extensive consultations during the 2000-2001period with all stake holders by having a series of workshops and meetings with academics and educationists to arrive at the most suitable method. It was pointed out that adding marks of different subjects to get a total for ranking students is like adding number of apples and oranges to get a total value. The Z-score method is considered much superior to aggregates in ranking students in different streams. Z-score brings marks of different subjects to a same level so that meaningful rankings can be worked out. It has been proved that the ranking on this basis is more fair and reliable, and it is considered the best and simplest option available to minimize discrepancies that arise due to different subjects, number of subjects, variable marking and different curricula.

In spite of following the lengthy procedure involving extensive consultations to implement this change there were several Supreme Court cases filed by some affected students challenging this new method. However, the Ministry and the UGC along with the experts were able to defend the new scheme successfully and all the cases were dismissed.

Defects in the current System

The currently used district quota system has many defects. It has been widely reported that the district quota system is abused extensively by many students. There is plenty of room for abuse in this scheme. In fact, number of undergraduates who gained admission to universities has been convicted for this offence and some were expelled from the universities. However there are many cases of abuse never detected by the authorities. Some of these culprits are now holding high positions after graduation. 

The district basis admission scheme was introduced on the premise that teaching/ learning facilities in sciences at A/L are not uniform, having poor facilities in schools in different districts. Thus, there is no justification to apply district quota system for the arts and commerce streams. 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. Thus the need for district quota based admission even for science streams cannot be justified in the current context. Furthermore, it should be noted that tuition facilities in science subjects are now widely available in both urban and rural areas.

This scheme also has taken it granted that all schools in the same district have equal educational facilities to teach sciences at A/L. This is in fact not true, and the differences in facilities for science teaching at A/L are much more prominent within a given district whether it is Anuradhapura or Colombo. It is well known that in most districts there are schools with adequate facilities as well as ones with very poor facilities. Thus, it is apparent that the very foundation of the district basis admission is not valid. 

Furthermore 16 districts out of 25 districts (64%) in the country are declared as educationally disadvantaged districts. These 16 educationally disadvantaged districts are Nuwara Eliya, Hambantota, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Manar, Mullativu, Vavunia, Trincomalee, Batticoloa, Ampara, Puttalam,  Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Badulla, Monaragala, and Ratnapura. If this is the current situation in Sri Lanka after 72 years of gaining independence, this itself needs urgent attention by the government. This classification is somewhat doubtful because there are some good schools in these 16 districts. Students sitting the exam from better schools situated in the so called educationally disadvantaged districts are unduly benefitted by this scheme.

Another disparity in the selection of students to universities in Sri Lanka is the fact that the sole criterion of selection is GCE A/L grades and Z scores based on marks of each subject. In all the other countries many other factors are considered for selection such as school reports, innovative activities, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, work/ volunteer services experience etc. to judge the student’s suitability for admission to a particular course. Thus, our selection process is deficient in this important aspect and it should be given serious consideration when developing a new national policy for university admissions in line with international practices in the future.

Suggestion for a more suitable method

Since the district basis admission has many defects, it is more appropriate to develop an admission scheme based on all island school groups having similar facilities rather than on districts. Schools in a particular group can be selected so that they all have equal or similar facilities. In order to develop such a scheme all schools in the country having GCE A/L science classes should be classified in to a few groups (about 4) based on factors such as availability and quality of teachers, status of laboratories, previous GCE A/L results in science streams etc. This is not an easy task and it needs a comprehensive study of facilities and extensive consultations. There may be many objections for whatever classification you may arrive at. Therefore, this should be started early in order to test the new scheme before it is implemented. Once the classification is successfully completed the new scheme should be tested using at least the data of the past 3 years and compared with the district quota system to justify the new method. 

If the new method is justifiable, it should be implemented initially as follows:

1. 100% island wide merit should be used for both Arts and Commerce streams

2. For Physical Science, Biological Science and Technology streams a) 50% of the places in each stream should be allocated on island wide merit and b) Balance 50% of the places in each stream should be allocated based on school groups in proportion to the number of students sitting the GCE A/L exam in each group.

It should be noted that in the school group based admission, number of places allocated in each stream is determined in proportion to the number of students sitting the GCE A/L exam in the school groups. In contrast, in the current district basis scheme, admission numbers are determined in proportion to the population in the districts. The proposed new scheme is considered much more appropriate for the allocation of number of places for university admission.

All island merit quota should be gradually increased with the improvement of facilities in selected schools over the years. The ultimate goal should be to reach the 100% all island merit scheme for all streams once the disparities in the facilities prevailing in the schools located in disadvantaged areas are eliminated or minimized.

Furthermore, minimum criteria for university admission have not been reviewed for a long period of time. It is high time that minimum criteria also be revised along with the proposed changes.

*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

  • 3

    The best option is University academics involve with other administrators take policies and not the politicians who always take personal decisions favouring a certain special interest group.

    • 1

      JD, brilliant! A brilliant mind like you must be made the Chancellor of all universities of this entire world. What are you doing SL? You must move to Switzerland and manage all the universities around the world. Thanks for your brilliant mind. :)

    • 1

      Mr. JD,,
      Correct sir.
      Its the duty of the politician to take the public option up to bureaucratic level.
      Its the duty of Bureaucracy to make it happen with correct checks and balances in place
      Its called policy making..
      We sometimes tends to mix above two parts.
      And more university academics must participate in Bureaucracy decision making level.

  • 0

    Method of selecting students for universities should be governed by an educational philosophy. This is unfortunately lacking in Sri Lanka. Q.On what basis should we select candidates for university admission? Obviously merit should be the main criteria. Otherwise students who enter universities on a low score may not perform well in the university and society later(this is a topic where further educational research is needed). Guiding principle here is equal opportunity. Since many students do not have equal opportunity to attend the best schools with better facilities and teachers, some steps are needed to accommodate those from less advantaged schools until such facilities are provided. Thus, some number of students need to be admitted on equity and social justice grounds(e.g. 20%). This may not necessarily be on district quota system. In Australia for example, individual universities have various mechanisms to admit students from disadvantaged backgrounds or on equity grounds. e.g. mature age students, Aboriginal students. In Australia, while applications go to a central agency for processing, final selections are done by University faculties. Students can nominate their preferences for courses and universities in the application. Universities have their own criteria for selecting students for specific courses including interviews and further tests.

  • 2

    Because, of Tuition classes high numbers are passing the exams from those regions. Anyway, items such as work experience either voluntary or not also and relevant other education and experience too, should be included

    • 1

      Instead all these games playing, can you bring a system of one candidate for each family has a missing persons in Vanni? Isn’t standardization started the war. Can you fix the cause?

  • 0

    One of the main problems with our university admissions is the age of undergraduates. If they are lucky, they start the first year when they are 21. Sadly, in other countries students graduate when they are 21.

    We must change the system so that students can start their undergraduate studies when they are 17. There is lot of stuff in A/L, O/L and pre-O/L curricula that can be removed. I do not know whether people in charge of our education system realize the value of 4 years when one is 17-21 years old. It’s a crime to waste lives of our students in this way.

    One problem in addressing this is accommodating multiple batches at the same time both at school level and university level. However that can be resolved by shortening the school year by (e.g.) 3 months. After 4 batches students would complete school 1 year early.

  • 0

    have separate exam iq/eq/etc for admission by each university
    and 50% pass mark for all schools/private candidates

  • 3

    No mention at all of what sort of graduates the country needs! What is the point of another 2,000 BAs in Pali and Buddhist Civilization? They will be lucky to get a bus conductor’s job.

    • 3


      “What is the point of another 2,000 BAs in Pali and Buddhist Civilization? “

      The Department of National Planning (Part of Ministry of Finance) needs lots of them. The Planning Ministries have always employed Pali and Buddhism graduates for a long time (since mid 1960s onwards).

  • 2

    This not something new. The only purpose of changing the District Quota is to take away the advantage the underdeveloped Tamils districts are getting after the devastating war. 120 school in Northern districts are closed after the war because, as per Aanduwa, there was no point of operating them. The Racist SinhaLE Wildlife Sanctuary did renovate and refurbish those school. Now the school based selection game is coming. That mean the Sinhala politicians can directly point out the children who they want to go to Universities. In Addition to that, there is need to Sinhala Principal’s recommendation too? If they see America is doing War Crime, they wants it to do that to Tamils. Could they bring American Princes controlled education system in Lanakwe. The education system in America is with cities and Provinces(States).

    Tamils cannot get out of anything and come up in their lift. From 1948 the Wildlife Sanctuary Aanduwa used Sinhala Only, Standedidations, quota system……. keep inventing to destroy Tamils’ life. Tamils need to go alone if they have to get out this chokehold.

    • 4

      “The only purpose of changing the District Quota is to take away the advantage the underdeveloped Tamils districts are getting after the devastating war.”

      Oh yeah, it’s always about you guys, everything happening is directed at your people and the government is out to get ya. Take off your tinfoil hat please.

  • 0

    Aha! Here we go again! Standardisation with a new look; School based scientific [ My foot! ] methodology!

    Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.
    I fear the Greeks even when bearing gifts……

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