How Sri Lanka can thrive as an ideal higher education destination? | Sunday Observer

How Sri Lanka can thrive as an ideal higher education destination?

With Sri Lanka being commended for its highly successful measures in containing the novel coronavirus which led to a global pandemic whilst many developed nations failed to do so, it’s an ideal moment for the country to be positive and turn this crisis into an opportunity, especially when it comes to higher education. Sri Lanka has been trying to achieve the knowledge hub status for a decade now; it’s about time to start acting upon it and make a real transformation in both the state and non-state sectors to attract and encourage foreign students’ at least from neighboring countries thereby earning foreign exchange and significantly contribute to the national economy. Here are some of my thought-provoking advice and solution to achieve this.

Overview of the higher education sector

The overall higher education system in the country is expanding rapidly. There are two scenarios here: state and non-state. When it comes to the state sector, there are 15 universities that come under the purview of the University Grants Commission (UGC). These universities accommodated places for 31,000 new entrants last year, including in the subject areas of medicine, engineering and law. In addition to four other state universities, there are 38 technical colleges and eight university colleges that provide over 185,000 placements, totalling to over 216,000 placements, including universities, provided completely free of charge annually; well surpassing the 150,000- 160,000 students who pass the GCE A/L examination every year. With the Government genuinely interested in uplifting the standards of these institutions, the higher education sector has recently exhibited a progressive growth with the delay in policy planning and implementation now being taken care of. Timely planning and implementation of policies is of paramount importance for a speedy and responsive process to achieve its success. 

The non-state higher education sector has contributed immensely in the past years, however there are no sufficient formal regulatory and standardisations in place to regularly and periodically monitor and maintain compliance and quality in all their teaching and training programs. When Sri Lanka opened its doors to a free-market economy, many private institutions mushroomed in every nook and cranny of the island. With appropriate mechanisms, the higher education standards and excellence of the country can be significantly elevated to that of an international level.

Pandemic on higher education sector

It’s no doubt that the entire country has taken a hit with the recent outbreak of the coronavirus which has evolved into a global pandemic forcing many nations to go under lockdown. The higher education sector in Sri Lanka hasn’t been heavily affected in comparison to other industry sectors in the country. However, we most definitely see a delay in many of the planned activities and initiatives with the country imposing curfew and travel restrictions and if such measures continue to take place, the sector will certainly linger like many others. Various study programs and examinations are being halted but we hope the country will resume and catch up everything that was missed.

With many activities and schedules of international schools being delayed due to the pandemic, for instance the May/June sessions of their GCE A/L (both Cambridge and Pearson Edexcel) examinations, there could be an effect on those engaged in the non-state higher education sector. However, with other alternative measures taking place, for example, Cambridge International has decided to award grades to candidates using their own evidence combined with evidence from schools, the sector can probably expect a smooth and quick revival. With Sri Lanka being well equipped when it comes to information technology and digital infrastructure, we see many higher education providers implementing e-learning, blended learning and distance learning methods which I believe are the future in education.

Crisis turns into an opportunity

With every crisis situation comes opportunities and positive avenues that can be explored. Sri Lanka has been trying to be a knowledge hub for almost a decade, however due to numerous reasons, the nation has seen a delay in achieving this. Many of the developed countries have failed to timely act upon and contain the novel coronavirus and this has resulted in most of the parents to think twice whether to send their child overseas. Though the country has promoted the sector among many neighbouring countries in the past, the chances were low due to students choosing developed countries as their preferred choice of study destination. This certainly opens up an opportunity for the country to not only create and sustain a truly international learning environment where parents would be more than willing to enroll at a local higher education provider, but also go onto attract and welcome prospective students on a regional level with a vision of reaching globally later on.

This is an ideal moment for Sri Lanka to attract prospective students, especially from countries such as the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and China, for example, and market its range of local study programs approved by the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) and recognised by the UGC, as well as various transnational education (TNE) programs where foreign degrees are offered here at home, enabling international students to study in Sri Lanka and obtain their preferred foreign degree rather than having to visit the particular country.

Knowledge and expertise among local academic professionals

Sri Lanka has conventionally been on the lookout for foreign expertise preferring over the many local intellects that are readily available. We have very solid professionals in various fields of study. For instance, when we take the current global pandemic, many Sri Lankans abroad are front-runners.  There are so many Sri Lankan researchers, thought-leaders and scientists in countries, such as Australia, UK and US giving brilliant advice and solutions. My view on this is that we have sufficient expertise locally and there is no need to look for those from abroad unless it’s for something that’s very new to us. Many countries send professionals for advanced education and training and they return to their home country to give back and contribute in their respective fields; some countries even go onto sponsor them. Unfortunately, a few who go overseas from Sri Lanka return because many feel they’ve wider opportunities back there or no favourable environment or relevant positions available back home. When a country sends academic professionals overseas for such activities, there needs to be right measures to track them and a stimulating environment needs to exist with suitable positions made available to recruit their expertise upon their return.

Regulations to monitor the quality of education

The non-state sector has heavily contributed to Sri Lanka’s higher education sphere in the last decade, with a higher capacity to accommodate the growing demands of students. There is a regulatory body for the state sector as we’re all aware, the UGC whereas the private sector comes under the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) Non-State Division. There have been initiatives in the recent years with the country introducing the Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework (SLQF) which is a nationally consistent framework for all higher education qualifications offered in the country, requiring both state and non-state to comply with it. However, there is no authority to regularly measure or monitor whether they really comply with the quality assurance system. Therefore, the Government should have an Independent Quality Assurance Commission with immediate effect, reporting directly to the highest authority or even the President. This commission needs to visit and conduct audits and quality checks periodically preferably at least once a year. There needs to be minimum standards introduced to all higher education institutions, including resource personnel, infrastructure facilities, leisure, and so on, requiring them to adhere to norms and standards of quality in all their teaching and training programs.

(Continued on next week)