Education reforms - Part II

HGS Prematunge

The education system decides a country’s labour force dynamics and a sound education helps individuals make more intelligent and informed democratic political choices. Moreover, it is an obvious correlation between the level of education and income, social mobility, economic and social status. In this light the bold reforms for the education sector, such as the introduction of a new university entrance scoring system in place of the Z score, university education for all those who qualify at A/Ls and the advancement of the A/L examination to April announced by the new government, are welcome news. However, whether these will actually come to term and how viable these reforms are, remains to be seen.

One of the more promising changes proposed is providing university education for all those who qualify at A/Ls. According to Prof R.P. Gunawardane in his article ‘How a popular Presidential Election Promise – 2019 can be fulfilled: University Education for all those who qualify at GCE A/L’, which appeared in The Island, December 11, 2019 issue, only 17 percent of those who qualify for university admission is admitted to state universities. This means that 80 percent fall through the cracks.

It is no secret that our education system has reached its carrying capacity. As discussed in previous articles in this column, bureaucratic governance and budgetary constraints have further hampered development in state-run universities. S. Abayratne and U. Lekamge point out in their 2012 paper titled ‘Policy Reforms in Higher Education: Transforming Sri Lanka Into an Education Hub’, that this has resulted in brain drain and associated financial losses to the country.

The inability to cater to the increasing education demand at state-run universities has resulted in a loss of opportunities to students, who are forced to look for alternatives abroad. In fact, the competition to get into a local medical faculty, coupled with the lack of alternative local education institution force students to migrate, resulting in an exodus of foreign exchange.

In ‘Education Service Delivery Economics Of The Sri Lankan State University System: Cost Competitiveness, Concerns And Strategic Opportunities’, Lalithasiri Gunaruwan and Thilini Samarasekara point out that Rs 1.6 billion per year of foreign exchange would be saved if the government could provide facilities to produce more doctors compared to the cost the country incurs in order to educate Sri Lankan medical students in China. The costs incurred by the Sri Lankan State universities to produce an internationally acceptable graduate are significantly less than the fees charged by competing Chinese and Russian universities. This means that Sri Lankan universities are quite cost effective, at least in terms of medical degrees.

Quality

But how practical is providing degrees for all, in terms job market dynamics? Without employment opportunities and scope for professional advancement these reforms are unlikely to work in favour of the country’s human capital development. Gunawardane points out that the economy should be expanded accordingly to provide jobs for the influx of graduates.

Moreover, the cost-ineffectiveness of the Sri Lankan university system, in terms of producing marketable graduates, has been called into question by educationists. This is certainly the case for a considerable number of arts graduates who often languish by the roadside demanding that they be given jobs by the government for a degree that was paid for by the government. This goes to show that providing education opportunities for a greater number will be futile unless the quality of education is elevated.

Gunawardane also points out that the expansion of the higher education sector has gone unchecked, with minimum consideration on diversification and quality assurance. As a solution he recommends that assessment and monitoring of quality of teaching and research and teacher evaluations by students should be conducted periodically.

The task of implementing the Presidential election promises on education falls on Education Minister Bandula Gunawardene.
The task of implementing the Presidential election promises on education falls on Education Minister Bandula Gunawardene.

Finance

Although free education has relieved the burden on the public, it comes at a huge cost to the government. According to the University Grants Commission the grand total of recurrent expenditure of all major universities and higher educational institutions in 2017 is a whopping Rs 37 billion. According to UNESCO, public spending on education as a percent of GDP in Sri Lanka, from 1973 to 2017, was an average of 2.55 percent, with a minimum of 1.5 percent in 2012 and a maximum of 3.48 percent in 2016.

However, according to the paper ‘Economic Benefits and Options for Financing Higher Education in Sri Lanka’ by Harsha Aturupane, Sri Lanka’s public investment in education is the lowest among East Asian countries. He points out that the recommended percentage of national income invested in education for advanced middle-income countries is approximately 4.6 percent. Increased investment in education is imperative to incorporate modern education assets and infrastructure and new technologies. Failing which, it would result in a negative impact on the quality of education.

Governance

Biswajit Maitra and C.K. Mukhopadhyay point out in their paper ‘Public Spending on Education, Health Care and Economic Growth in Selected Countries of Asia and the Pacific’, that to economically utilise funds allocated for education, good governance and democracy goes a long way.

Funding is pointless if promising education reforms are continually undermined by practical constraints such as inappropriate planning, lack of monitoring and skilled manpower, widespread corruption and administrative bottlenecks. In fact, Sujata Gamage in ‘Right to Education is Meaningless without Accountability in the Public Education Sector’ in the Law and Society Trust Review (2008) argues that pouring more money into the present system is futile as inefficiency of government is at the root of inequity in education.

In such a scenario, how is Sri Lanka to provide quality education for another 80 percent? Gunawardane proposes cost effective adjustments to the existing university system to achieve this, along with strong state sector-private sector participation with minimum investment by the state. He observes that 15 universities, six other university level degree awarding institutions established by Acts of Parliament, 22 degree awarding private sector institutions recognized by the UGC, private sector institutions offering foreign degrees in combination affords ample infrastructure, equipment and expertise to deal with national needs.

Gunawardane recommends that the Sri Lankan university system fall in line with the international system. He observes that different local universities have different academic years and even different faculties operate different academic years within the same university. He suggests that the university academic year should be fixed from September to June and examinations not delayed under any circumstances.

The University Grants Commission
The University Grants Commission

Legal reform

Gunawardane points out that the university system is in need of a proper legal framework in order to implement progressive reforms, to curb political interference and misuse of power. He recommends the sole authority over academic matters should be vested in the university system under the UGC as stipulated in the Universities Act No.16 of 1978. Appointment of Vice-Chancellors should be made democratic and free from political influence, ideally through a transparent process such as calling for applications.

Gunawardane points out the most obviously practical manner in which to accommodate the extra number of students is to optimize the use of existing facilities. Most universities operate eight hours a day, only 40 hours a week, unlike in other countries that work from 8 am to about 9 pm in addition to conducting weekend programmes.

Degree programmes

Another solution suggested by Gunawardane is inter-faculty, multi-faculty and inter-university degree programs covering a wide range of emerging fields depending on facilities and expertise at hand. He envisions that such programs would result in a rapid expansion and diversification of degree programs. Multidisciplinary degrees would help transcend traditional subject boundaries bringing Sri Lankan higher education on par with the international education sector.

Learning Management Systems (LMS) for course delivery is another innovative solution. Gunawardane points out that highly efficient but expensive LMS programmes such as BLACKBOARD is used in the US to deliver course content and conduct exams. He claims that this will enable enrolling of a large number of students and points out that Sri Lanka can make use of similar programs such as MOODLE, available free of charge. Another solution is a combination of online and in-campus coursework or practical, since this interaction with academic staff and the other students is imperative.

External degrees are already available in many universities and its expansion could accommodate many more students. Gunawardane suggests that this could be achieved with the help of private sector higher education institutes to deliver such course. The Open University, with a system of eight Regional Centres and 19 Study Centres and an established distance learning programme is already equipped to handle an influx of students.

Other state university level institutions such as Kotelawala Defence University, Ocean University, National Institute of Education, University of Vocational Technology, Bhiksu University and Buddhist and Pali University can also expand their services to accommodate more students. By such methods Gunawardane claims that it is possible to triple the intake, to an equivalent of 100,000 per year.

Private sector promotion

The intake can be considerably increased by cooperating with the private sector and Gunawardane suggests facilitating policies and tax incentives to promote their expansion in return for a certain percentage of scholarships and loan schemes for students of low income families. Government could also provide interest-free or low-interest loans under the condition that recipients serve the country for a stipulated period of time. Joint ventures between the state universities and private sector, professional organizations like the Institute of Engineers, Institute of Architects and Institute of Chemistry could further expand the resource base.

However, Gunawardane cautions that such reforms should be accompanied by specific guideline and an independent accreditation and quality assurance mechanism. He recommends the establishment of an independent and autonomous Accreditation and Quality Assurance Council for the purpose. This would ensure the establishment of standards and procedures that conform to international norms.

Funding

One solution to reduce funding pressure, as discussed in a previous article, is to share the burden of cost between the government and students. For example, 30 percent of recurrent expenditure of the Open University of Sri Lanka is raised through tuition fees. State universities could be marketed to paying foreign students who are likely to spend much more elsewhere in Asia. They could also open their gates to paying local students who obtain insufficient marks for entry, provided that those who obtain highest results at A/Ls are still ensured their right to a free education. Gunawardane recommends that universities should be allowed to retain income generated by them for their developmental activities, thereby promoting innovation.

The downside to levying fees is that such a policy decision is highly politicised and controversial. However, this would not only arrest the exodus of foreign exchange but also allow state universities to run autonomously on their profits, or the income could be used to strengthen scholarship schemes for the benefit of students from low income families.

(This article is the 23rd instalment in a series of articles which discusses education related issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint.)

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