By 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