The University of Colombo. While the quality of education in Sri Lankan universities, especially in the humanities is being questioned, is educating a few undergraduates in foreign countries the answer?

On the 12th of March 2019, after much delay, the Sri Lankan parliament finally approved the country’s budget.  Sri Lanka, with its cash-starved economy had been hobbling along since last year’s constitutional crisis. Though there were threats from the opposition of defeating the budget and toppling the regime, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera managed to secure a clear majority in support for his budget proposals, and ensure the survival of the regime he represents in the process.  As to be expected, since 2019 is an election year, budget 2019 is more an ‘election budget’ than anything else.  For a long time Sri Lankan politicians have used national budgets that come up for approval in election years as a means to entice voters.  This is no different from all such previous efforts.  I leave it up to economic pundits and political soothsayers to fathom the pros and cons of the budget in general.  My interest today is to focus on one aspect of the budget that has to do with higher education, but comes across more like a fleeting afterthought than a sound policy recommendation.

This has to do with the proposal to offer scholarships to ‘foreign’ universities for undergraduate education for those young people who are the best performers at the General Certificate of Education – Advanced Level examination, which decides the fate of those who aspire to enter universities for undergraduate education. The Minster has somehow decided that this largesse courtesy of Lanka’s taxpayers will benefit fourteen lucky people.  Where this magic number has been plucked from, no one knows.  On the face of it however, this seems like a sensible scheme. After all, why should our young people not go to other parts of the world for higher education?  It makes far more sense than what public money is often spent in our country, not to mention the fiscal leakage through corruption. It is perhaps in this context that the social media had gone gaga over this proposal.  I had seen a number of memes flying around cyberspace praising the proposal.

But what does all this mean in actual terms? Why ‘foreign’ universities? And what exactly is ‘foreign’? For example, would this scholarship be open to youngsters to go to universities in Pakistan and India for instance? Are these kinds of countries adequately ‘foreign’ to our people? Or should the money be spent in universities in countries like England, US France or Japan and lately China, which are perceived to be more ‘foreign’ and more posh in varying degrees according to our collective reckoning than any of our neighboring countries. And why is this offer of scholarship at the level of undergraduate education as opposed to the postgraduate level, which one assumes would offer more sustained training?  These kinds of questions necessitate some reflection on what this proposal means — whether it becomes a reality or not.

Mangala Samaraweera, the Minister of Finance, proposes to educate 14 undergraduates in foreign universities.  Wouldn’t that money be better spent if they obtain their post-graduate education abroad?
Mangala Samaraweera, the Minister of Finance, proposes to educate 14 undergraduates in foreign universities. Wouldn’t that money be better spent if they obtain their post-graduate education abroad?

At one level, the government’s proposal to send some of our brightest young people to other parts of the world for undergraduate education seems like tacit acknowledgement that our own undergraduate education is in the doldrums.  That is not an unreasonable assumption when one looks at the local undergraduate education scenario, particularly in the social sciences and humanities.  But in some of the technical fields from medicine to engineering and computer sciences, basic undergraduate education is reasonable even though there may be significant differences in the nature of training in different universities.  But if this is the case, why attempt to send young people overseas at such a basic level of education at considerable cost, when they can get a sound education at home?

The issue of cost of course varies depending on what the government means by ‘foreign.’ The general tendency in these kinds of situations is to consider ‘foreign’ as in Western Europe, North America or East Asia, in that order of preference.  Prof. S. W. R. de A. Samarasinghe, in  a recent opinion in The Island offers a revealing cost comparison assuming that ‘foreign’ in this context could mean the US.  He notes that the annual fees for a US university with better recognition is about LKR 9.0 million. And he says that for fourteen students, the annual fees alone will cost about LKR 126 million. The four-year bill for the overall undergraduate education for fourteen youngsters will cost about LKR 500 million. This is only for fees. There has to be additional costs for medical insurance, food, accommodation, travel, books and so on.  Prof. Samarasinghe compares this projected cost for 14 students for one year in a US university with the actual expenditure of the University of Colombo in 2016 which amounted to  LKR. 4,158 million. As he notes, “without adjusting for inflation, the university fees for 14 students in a US university will cost 3% of Colombo’s annual budget.”

Seen in this sense, more than a policy, this amounts to a fleeting slogan, and that too not a slogan that has any thinking behind it.  ‘Foreign’ is a tricky concept when it comes to higher education.  There are plenty of universities in the so called west, which are simply not worth the money one needs to pay to get admission.  On the other hand, even established universities in many of these ‘foreign’ lands are facing difficult times in terms of intellectual infrastructure that one can no longer simply be enamored by the brand value of a university merely because it may have been established 100 or more years ago.

Compared to this, there are also other ‘foreign’ universities closer to home which usually does not fall within the purview of our parents’ imagination when it comes to sending their children oversees for higher education. And the same might be the case with the government as well. For instance, though India’s higher education sector is facing considerable difficulties in present circumstances, its more established IITs (Indian Institutions of Technology) would offer as decent a technical education as one would get in the ‘foreign’ lands of our collective imagination. Similarly, despite the steady dismantling of Pakistan as a state, some of its private universities such Lahore University for Management Sciences and the Beaconhosue National University offer a reasonable education in their own areas of expertise. Or take the example of the South Asian University in New Delhi, which was co-established by Sri Lanka along with the other seven members of SAARC. In the first phase of the university from 2010 to 2014, Sri Lankan taxpayers had paid US $ 2.950 Million towards the upkeep of the university. Even though this is miniscule compared to the financial infusions to the university from the Indian Government, these are significant costs for a cash-strapped government such as Sri Lanka’s.  But compared to this expenditure, no Sri Lankan government or its university governance mechanisms have played an active role to set up scholarships or to encourage our students to go to the better academic programs in this university which after all Sri Lanka co-owns. That is perhaps it is in India, and therefore not adequately ‘foreign.’ And despite the annual infusion of funds from government coffers, the university’s existence seems to be by and large forgotten by successive Sri Lankan governments, which has meant that its facilities have hardly been made use of by deserving Sri Lankan students.

The government provides scholarships to students to enter the humanities stream.
The government provides scholarships to students to enter the humanities stream.

This is the general situation in which the present budget proposals to send youngsters to ‘foreign’ universities for undergraduate studies needs to be assessed. At the moment, what appears is merely rhetoric without the benefit of serious thinking or reflection.  It seems to me that sending students to training anywhere needs to be a thoughtful act, particularly if taxpayers are to pay for it.  And that too makes much better sense at the postgraduate level when students are more mature to know what they need, rather than at the undergraduate level.  And finally, the sense of ‘foreign’ in this discourse should not come from our colonized mindset, but from rational thinking augmented by research which may indicate which institutions offer the best possible training and where.

Rather than an ad hoc slogan promising expensive overseas educational trips to young people, the more sensible thing for the government would be is to set up a public scholarship fund from which deserving students may be able to draw funds for high education anywhere in the world if that level of education is not available locally.


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