21 September, 2023


University Admission Process Needs Urgent Review: A Proposal

By R.P. Gunawardane

Prof R.P. Gunawardane

Undoubtedly, higher education is the only path to upward mobility for most of our youth. Thus, university admission is extremely competitive in Sri Lanka and as such it remains a very sensitive national issue for many decades. Only about10% of those who sit GCE A/L are admitted to 14 state universities leaving out almost 90%. The fraction of students who are fortunate enough to receive free university education comes to about 17% of those who qualify for university admissions, leaving out 83%. This means that a very large number of deserving students are denied admission to our universities every year. As a result, many students are seeking admission to foreign universities particularly because alternative avenues are not available in most disciplines. They are also our citizens, who have been denied free university education. Thus, they also deserve opportunities and at least the freedom of choice for university education in our democracy.

Since the university admission is extremely competitive, it is essential to formulate a very fair, reasonable and a foolproof system for university admissions. This article deals with the deficiencies of the current university admission process, which includes both the admission policy and the admission procedure, and some specific suggestions for its improvement.

History and the present status

Prior to 1970’s university admission was purely based on merit as practiced all over the world. After the failure of a short-lived ethnicity based admission, a district quota system with a smaller all island merit component was introduced in 1972 for university admissions. Since then this policy remained almost unchanged except for minor adjustments to the different quotas.

There were some additional changes took place during the period 2000-2002. From the year 2000, all students applying to universities were required to take 3 subjects instead of 4 subjects at the GCE A/L. This change was combined with introduction of an additional Common General Test for university admission. It was expected that this test is an aptitude test like SAT in USA, but it was far from it. Furthermore, it is only a qualifying test and the pass mark is 30%, making this test very ineffective in the selection process. The other more significant change introduced in the year 2002 was to rank students for admission on the basis of a standardized mark, the Z-score instead of aggregate raw marks. This method is considered as an effective method of removing inconsistencies arising out of the level of difficulty in scoring marks in different subjects.

Currently, the district quota system is applicable to all streams (Commerce, Biological Science, Physical science and Technology streams) other than the Arts stream where all island merit based admission operates. Even in the Arts stream some categories such as music, dance, drama and theatre, visual arts etc. are excluded. For these disciplines district quota system 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 while at the same time a group of students from the ‘educationally underprivileged districts’ has benefitted from this scheme over a period of several decades.

Defects in the system and need for change

Current 40-60 quota system has been in operation continuously for about 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 in a highly competitive university admission process appears to be excessive and unfair. The quota system has many defects, and it has been extensively and openly abused by many students/ parents. 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, Matara, Anuradhapura, Ratnapura or Jaffna, has well equipped good schools as well as poorly equipped bad schools. Therefore, it is hard to justify the basis of this scheme.

Since there is disparity in the educational facilities within a district, it would be more appropriate to use a quota system based on school groups rather than districts. 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. If one considers the whole provinces 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.

It has been reported that some students are registered in rural schools of disadvantaged districts without attending classes, only for the purpose of sitting the A/L exam, but travel to an adjoining district (usually the home district) for full time tuition classes. This usually happens with students from highly competitive districts such as Colombo, Matara, Galle, Gampaha etc. It is difficult to control such abuses in a primitive quota system of university admission.

More influential elites always make sure their children are admitted to good schools in the district, which have limited number of places available. This will push the poor, helpless and disadvantaged parents to send their children to bad schools in the same district minimizing their chance to enter the universities. Thus, in the present district quota system with additional 5% for disadvantaged districts will not help the most disadvantaged group gaining admission to universities. It appears therefore that underprivileged groups continue to be disadvantaged and the whole purpose of having the district basis of admission with additional 5% of places allocated to 16 ‘educationally disadvantaged districts’ is lost. This policy has failed to produce desired results.

In fact, the district quota system was introduced 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. It was expected that this policy will reduce influx of students in the science steams to better equipped schools in the big cities. 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 45 years! Since the core issue underlying the problem is the inadequacy of facilities for teaching sciences in some schools in the districts, an arbitrary permanent district quota system will never solve it. The effective long term solution will be to develop the affected schools in the districts on a priority basis and increase the merit quota 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 individual 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. The other alarming feature is that only one criterion, the GCE A/L score, is used in the selection process, and results of aptitude/ IQ tests, school reports and other skills, achievements, experience 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.

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. It should be noted that London A/L exam has practical tests for science subjects unlike in the local A/L exam. These students are in international schools not by choice but by necessity due to unavailability of places in reputed government schools in urban areas like Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Matara, 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 programmes to test their suitability to follow the course and practice the profession.

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 achieve the ideal situation of 100% island wide merit in all disciplines in the university admissions as practiced in most countries. We need to develop a strategy and action plan to achieve this status within ten years. The following policy guidelines are presented for this purpose:

1. 100% all island merit should be used for the entire arts stream without any exceptions including music, dance and related disciplines with effect from 2018.

2. 100% all island merit should be used for the commerce stream with effect from 2018.

3. For the Physical Science, Biological Science and Technology streams the following schemes with the years of implementation are suggested below:

(i)  50% all island merit and 50% district basis allocated to the 25 districts in proportion to the population should be used with effect from 2018. There is no need to give an additional quota to ‘educationally disadvantaged’ districts.

(ii) 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. Private schools offering A/L science classes should also be included in this classification. This should be undertaken as early as possible and completed within a year. After testing this scheme, a quota system for admission could be developed based on this classification for implementation with effect from the year 2020. The quota for school based admission should not exceed 40% of the total number of available places with 60% places allocated using island wide merit in each stream effective from the year 2020.

(iii) With effect from year 2023 the quota system should be changed to 30% school group based quota for the 25 districts and 70% all island merit.

(iv) In the year 2025 complete and comprehensive study should be carried out to assess the university admission scheme and the outcome should be analyzed with the view of moving towards 100% all island merit for university admissions by the year 2028.

4. There should be a pathway for students with equivalent qualifications such as GCE A/L UK 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. For this purpose, an Admission Committee should be set up in each university to select students to the faculties 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.

Concluding Remarks: The school classification should be carried out after comprehensive study in consultation with relevant experts and interested groups. Once the school classification is completed, test calculations should be done for the previous 3 years to compare the numbers from school groups with the numbers obtained by the district quota system to find out whether new numbers are reasonable, prior to implementation of the new scheme. During the transition period accelerated action plan should be implemented to improve teaching and laboratory facilities of identified schools in different districts on priority basis.

It is expected that the combination of the z score method of ranking students coupled with a higher island wide merit quota and relatively smaller school group quota system implemented after a rational classification of schools, will most likely produce a much better and a fair system for university admissions in Sri Lanka. However, the ultimate goal should be to reduce the school group based quota gradually with the improvement of facilities of schools to reach the most desired 100% all island merit scheme for all streams.

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

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Latest comments

  • 9

    There should be some form of positive discrimination in favour of children from schools with poor facilities rather than districts— at least until all secondary education is properly quality assured.
    However, with the decisive role of private tuition in examination performance there is no true merit measured, and there is much to do in this respect

    Most importantly, the admission system should be fully computerized with the UGC’s role limited to monitoring.

    Students should be allowed to list their preferences from among programmes in state universities (and other institutions of higher education (say a maximum of 5 from each category).
    Students seeking places in each programme should be ranked and their order of preferences matched with eligibility. This method is in practice in the UK for decades now.
    As the students know very little about the places that they wish to go to.
    university vacations should be used for visits by potential applicnts.
    Aptitude tests can be used. But their fair conduct is important, and tere is the risk of their discriminating against students from ‘poorer’ schools.

    An even better scheme will be to let the students obtain a general degree in four or five broad disciplines and then be selected for professional degree programmes based on preference, performance and aptitude. Such models exist in North America.

    The universities should freely conduct their business in the recruitment of all staff and enrollment of students. The UGC should be a powerful and competent monitoring body to which each university is fully answerable for every decision.

    • 2

      he universities should freely conduct their business in the recruitment of all staff and enrollment of students.

      So they can bend the law and bring in their family members,
      This should be removed from UK system too, They abuse this to discriminate students of other races!

      • 4

        Excellent article.

        Take the medical stream as an example.

        2016 intake had 1300 students to 8 medical faculties. 60% on district quota.

        Believe it or not, there were 1800 students who had better results than those admitted under district quota and hence they missed out medical education. This is how crazy the current system is. A student from Dematagoda or Kolonnawa school near the garage dump who got 2 As and 1 B missed out on medical entry but a student who got 2 Bs and 1 C from Nuwara Eliya is selected for medicine.

        Change the sty system immediately.

    • 0

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    • 2

      Prof R.P. Gunawardane

      Thanks. Very good analysis.

      In addition to the subject tests, there should be intelligence tests, and furthermore,, those who take the A/L 2 or 3 times should be “adjusted” and normalized for relative to those who are taking the first time, by increasing the Z score they need to enter, just like the District Quotas.

      Even in a district, the schools should be graded based on facilities and availability of teachers, and theit qualifications.

      This is where the IQ tests become quite critical.

      Remember, the average IQ of Sri Lanka is 79, but the A/L students probably have an IQ close to 90 or higher. What is the minimum IQ needed to complete the university courses for the various faculties, departments and fields?

  • 3

    More suggestions- Most A/L students sit A/L examination more than once. Two or three times and all of them are considered equally for University admissions. The number of attempts at A/L examination is ignored. This is a huge disadvantage and a burden for students sitting A/L examination for the first time. They have to compete with those who are sitting the same examination for the second time or third time (They have studies three years or four years while first time students have studies only for two years). Therefore students should be discouraged to sit A/L examination again and again. If they sit A/L second time, 10% of the Z-score should be reduced and for the third time 20% of the Z-score should be reduced. Then the students will make use of their first attempt results to enter the University. This will also help them graduate at an early age. Most of our University graduates are over the global average age of a graduate. The other advantage is that our University students will be fresh and then teaching will be easier.

    • 3

      Even an older person must be able to sit AL any times and get in to UNI!
      It is there right to education!
      Yeah it is a competition! Se la vi!

  • 2

    Sam Abeyratne@

    You may be raising a very good point with increasing the number of students that sit for the exams in the country today. But dont you think, even if some students repeat AL exams 2-3 times, they would not sit for the same question papers. If they are so bright, such students can get through it without any problems right ?
    . If anyone would not get through the exam at first attempt means not necessarility that they are incapable of passing it as expected. Some may have various reasoning not to have got through.
    I too got through my exam in the last attempt, but even at first sitting I had enough marks to get selected to an University if the placements were enough at each of the Unis. However I later moved out of the country and studied my degree without any problems.

  • 2

    First of all every applicant must write an essay on the value of Free education!

    Must write a declaration that they would not disrupt education to others by stupid protests! There are thousands of university students who go to university to learn!

    Must take an undertaking that they would do a service to the country to compensate for the free education!

  • 4

    There is a flaw in our thinking. We lack imagination and lim it the imagination of our children.
    An academic friend told me that when a young boy missed admission to do medicine, the school and the parents asked him to resit. My friend knew the parents. He called the boy and asked him “What do you want to be?”
    The boy said “A doctor”
    “I like to treat the sickly”
    Why don’t you try the Ayurvedic Medical School?”
    The bod took the advice and is now practicing.

    We should rid ourselves of the habit of looking at anyone who does not enter university as a ‘failure’.
    It will make sense to inform parents and children about the wide career options available so that the children choose their future career early in life and prepare themselves in advance. The government should upgrade and quality-assure all technical and vocational schools to make the students feel proud of the useful skills that they learn.

    Universities are producing graduates whose learning cannot be used in the country. Higher education (I mean all post-school education) should be linked to national economic planning.

    • 4

      “We should rid ourselves of the habit of looking at anyone who does not enter university as a ‘failure’. “
      Absolutely true. Even the author says:”Undoubtedly, higher education is the only path to upward mobility for most of our youth”
      There are many more paths to at least financial upward mobility. The problem is ingrained social attitudes where a nondescript doctor has higher status that an excellent building tradesman. This has to change. The country doesn’t need an army of unemployable graduates. Not even paper engineers. It needs people who can man the industries and set up their own enterprises. This needs strong policy direction. Even unto s*******m if you insist!

      • 1

        Thanks. I fully agree.
        I strongly advocate the upgrading of technical and vocational qualifications to be on par with university graduates.
        At one time engineering graduates were taught by staff, many of whom had industrial experience. I learned much from the rather rude ‘vadu baas’ at Maradana Tech as well.

        Since the 1980’s students are being taught by too many keyboard and monitor PhDs. I do not object to the kind of PhD anyone has. But to teach students in a professional field one should be able to relate theory with practice.

        There was a UGC offer years ago for an year’s leave for Engineering academics to get industrial training. No takers— because the UGC will not allow two salaries. That is how much we value the profession for which we train our undergraduates.

  • 0

    Free education and Freedom to receive the education

    O/L and A/L dropouts can still proceed to get a Uni Degree now through University of Vocational Technology and also through Open University. SLAAS is trying to make the students in disadvantaged districts through its school programs. This can be done better by the Provincial Ministries of Education but sadly the Provincial Education Ministers are not educated enough to understand the value of this student focused outreach program. I have seen a leaflet produced by the OPA for the use in its Career Guidance programs. The document is very informative but needs regular updating. The professionals in the regions can play a lead role in organizing Career Guidance Programs if they form Regional Branches of the OPA.

  • 0

    Prof R.P. Gunawardane

    It is necessary that the university faculties are given a specific role in the university admission procedure.

    there are no fool -proof systems. Every system has its own merits and demerits. when you ask the invidual faculty should be given some access, that is introducing subjective errors.

    I here, even now, some students pass their post graduate degree and both the mother and the father are in the supervisory committee. Eventhose days, politicians children got favoruations when they were selected as academics, and some stories say even professors favoured some female students because the student was a pet of the teacher.

    the best policy is govt should try to take every student who passed the examination. there should be some discrimination with respect to those who get passed their A/L because of tuition classes.

    • 1

      university admission process first should stop prioritizing monks.Monks should be in the temple, not in the university.

  • 0

    What waste of human resource in SL..what politicians can not see academics should see it and guide policy makers to introduce new policy in education…some politicians are dump heads in SL..do not work for public but work for their own pocket ..we are wasting future wealth of this nation by not changing univeristy system..see most of Univeristy dons are fake and some of them do not have any qualifications..during MR time many bought certificates..some teachers and school principals too managed to forged documents. What a bad situation is higher education in SL…

  • 1

    In the last six decades employment of Tamils in government service has been falling drastically and now it’s extremely low except as teachers, doctors and engineers.
    In the last few decades the UN has been unable to get data on government employees on ethnic basis from successive Sri Lankan governments.
    Most of the appointments go by ‘lists’ from government Ministers and parliamentarians.
    North and East are the highest in unemployment and underemployment(and lowest in economic development).
    Any merit or quota system?

    • 0

      I endorse your complaints about the disparities. There is neglect and discrimination. But there is need for some soul searching as well.

      Take doctors produced by the UoJ. How many want to sere in the North?
      Nearly 15 years ago when the Ministry of Health (based on request of TNA MPs) required medical graduates after internship to serve in Jaffna for two years. Many in the Jaffna medical fraternity rose in protest.

      If there are many Sinhalese doctors in the Teaching hospital in Jaffna, it is not an invasion but a consequence of desertion of responsibility by young Tamil doctors. I have met a few Sinhalese doctors serving in Jaffna, and was most impressed by their sense of professional commitment.

      On employment, I think that we need to get the NPC to act to get the MPs to take the matter up at the right places.

  • 0

    May be you need one of Tamil Eelam war to give Tamil community it’s rights ..

    • 0

      what are you talking about dude? what discrimination?
      District quota enables kids from rural areas to come to Uni, I was from Colombo and I was affected by that too, But we should not avoid it! Otherwise poor districts will be poorer!

  • 1

    The district quota system should be abolished for science streams as well. Students from the so called underprivileged schools attend the same tuition classes in cities along with those students from city schools. Yet when 3Bs are sufficient for those from so called underprivileged areas 3As are required from city children. The district quota system was introduced when they had practical exaams to eneter into sciences and there is no such thing now.

  • 1

    Standardisation was introduced in the 70s with the sole purpose of reducing the intake of students from a particular ethnicity.Altruistic arguments were put forward then,like underprivileged areas,disadvantaged schools etc etc.
    I believe Prof:Gunawardena was then a young Asst:Lecturer in the Science faculty at Peradeniya and his Wife would have left the Medical faculty and doing her Internship.
    I admit,there was indeed an imbalance of students,based on ethnicity, in the science based faculties like Engineering,Medicine,Dental,Vet& Agriculture faculties,based on population ratios.It must be admitted that this imbalance was due to Historical reasons.At that point of time some schools were more advanced than the others;Even now that is the case.Are the students to be blamed for this?
    With one stroke of a pen all this was thrown overboard and Standardisation introduced.In other words,it was a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul!
    The logical exercise would have been to upgrade and empower the disadvantaged schools through the length and breadth of the country so as to create an equal opportunity[as far as possible] regime in higher education.
    The abrupt change of policy merely exarcerbated the ethnic tensions in the country.Stadardisation was also the launching pad for the LTTE!

    Now almost 45 years after,we are still talking of devising a more equitable system for University admissions.Could we put the toothpaste back into the tube?

  • 1

    yes, agree with the writer in all the aspects.

    The admission criteria for state and non state higher education / degree awarding institutions should need a change.

    All this harthals are due to this admission criteria not been on merit.

    Equal oppertunity based on merit has to be offered by degree awarding institutions. The best students should be selected for best universities.

    Develop the 16 under previllaged districts for God’s sake ! this was not done for 45 years ! Will the authorities look in to the needs of these 16 districts more than 50% of Sri Lanka ?

  • 0

    high time they made the merit component 60% from current level of 40%.We are losing bright youngsters from our universities due to more weightage for districts than merit.Merit should be the only criterion,but until all districts come to the same standard,we can’t make it 100% merit immediately.However 60% immediately is fair.

  • 0

    The system of selection for universities cannot be justifiable under any circumstances since the variation among developments are natural. one way of minimize this situation is to have the schools for primary education ,secondary education and higher education basis on their educational performance which has to be accumulated from the year one. government can facilitate the schools accordingly. the studies student get fair opportunity to have their studies well. the student having less performance on studies should be directed to the skills development centers and to follow courses at
    professional skills educational centers which they can study for diplomas and degrees following after.Then country can Develop skilled labour,professionals for technical and para grades which they can have jobs globally. university education should be universe education. there also should have job oriental and subject oriental courses. if not just like present day the unskilled and unnecessary graduates should not produce through the universities spending huge amount of tax money .

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