By 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