Future of education in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Future of education in Sri Lanka

31 May, 2020

Education has evolved to a highly competitive (non objective), individualistic, examination oriented process deviating from the original philosophy of education.  Everybody is interested in a certificate/degree rather than being proud of what one is competent of and could offer to the ecosystem,  said Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research at the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT), Professor Rahula Attalage in an interview with the Business Observer.

The challenge is how to transform this non-objective competition to a passion and aptitude based healthy competition where all attributes of  education could be inculcated to each student exiting the school system. This can transform society to a ‘high-qualification high-skill’ one as opposed to a ‘high-qualification low-skill’ one, he said.

In this interview, Prof. Attalage, a former Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa (two terms), outlines his views on the future of education in Sri Lanka.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q:  Can you, at the outset, explain the general attributes of education in terms of expectations and contribution to social development?

A:  Education is the process by which, in principle, one acquires knowledge, develops skills and competencies and cultivates attitudes and values in view of enabling effective and efficient co-existence of the individual, with the surrounding ecosystem while respecting the context and ensuring its sustainability.

This has been accepted as a philosophy in all great civilizations across the globe, including that of ours and more recently with education reforms proposed by Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara in 1943.  This emphasizes the notion of 3-H, Head (knowledge), Hands (skills) and the Heart (attitudes). Consequently, education endeavors establishing within a society, mutual respect and co-existence, integrity and fairness, moral and ethical value system, positive critical thinking and contribution to growth

Q:  Can you describe the link between education and knowledge economy? Should it be qualification oriented, competency oriented or both?  

A:  Knowledge Economy is one of the main current development models. The East Asian countries are shining examples for embracing the knowledge economy model. Sri Lanka has explicitly indicated its way forward in economic development employing a knowledge economy. One of its key ingredients is the strong platform of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. However, it is noted that only about 10% of schools in the country have Advanced Level classes delivering the science stream. The knowledge economy is innovation driven and results oriented. One important factor that the country should possess  to transform the innovative ideas into realisations is its ‘internalised skills of human capital’, ‘national innovation system’, and ‘Intellectual property based framework’. This calls for a vertically integrated (craft level to postgraduate level) and horizontally linked (lateral entry to tertiary education based on proven ability) efficient tertiary education system. In other words, the selection of the education pathway by a person should be one’s true passion and aptitude and therefore, the national education system should be geared to “unlock” the passion and aptitude. Of course this would call for a strong transformation in the social value system, a system which appreciates, recognises and rewards the skills and competencies of people, accommodating more in tertiary education.

Q:  What are the current challenges for the education sector in Sri Lanka in all levels, including primary, secondary, tertiary, University, vocational and so forth?  Can you also explain the challenges for quality on par with global dynamics?

A: Sri Lanka has a well-established primary secondary education system with more than 90% participation of the age group. However, it has evolved to a highly competitive (non objective), individualistic, examination oriented process deviating from the original philosophy of education in terms of the key attributes stated earlier.

Everybody is interested in a certificate/degree rather than being proud of what one is competent of and could offer to the ecosystem. However, now knowledge is globally available to all. The current critical challenges are as to how to transform this non-objective competition to a passion and aptitude based healthy competition where all attributes of  education could be inculcated to each student exiting the school system. This can transform the society to a “high-qualification high-skill” one as opposed to “high-qualification low-skill” one.

Q: How do you explain education as a circular economic model for developed and developing economies?

A:  Education has a cost involved with it. Quality education also has a price. It requires an investment in terms of resources: knowledge, experience, information, effort and infrastructure. Each country has its own, national policy that dates back to centuries. The bottom line fundamental principles underpinning it are social welfare, access, equity and the linear model is the open ended type where the outcomes are not essentially funneled back to  society which bears the major part of the true cost of education. With the current context of ‘globalisation’ this open ended linear model would lead to a negative balance of the harnessing the outcome of education to a particular society that funded it causing severe ‘brain drain’.

This becomes a very serious issue when the access to tertiary education is extremely limited in a society that is linked with the linear model. On the contrary, in the circular model, the outcome is harnessed back into the society where it can be the ‘value added’ to the process of education. This provides a sound platform with positive evolution, knowledge creation, knowledge mobilization and thus national policies and strategic planning becomes essential for the proper use of the ‘value added’.

Q:  Does the higher education in SL plays the expected role compared to region in output, key indicators, and stakeholder perception?

A:   Even though SL has a strong primary, secondary education system, our tertiary/university education has not played its intended role as of now. Even at the regional level, with a dominating state funded education system the typical indicators measuring the positive impact of education on society are not remarkable. In terms of intellectual property creation, value addition through translation of knowledge into products/services, top academic achievers at national level have not been able to sustain the same prowess. Our performance at international level has yet to be proven. I take the analogy of cricket where we have managed to dominate the platform at the highest international level simply by being strategic in terms of opportunity, reward, thinking and management.

Q: In your opinion, what are the opportunities available for education institutes in Sri Lanka in the post Covid-19 scenario?

A:   With the covid-19 pandemic raging the globe, almost all social and economic activities have come to standstill. However, the situation has created a window of opportunities for people to think in the ‘new normal’ scenario, in particular where ICT based innovative solutions for products and services in education, health care, distribution as opposed to large scale manufacturing, construction and tourism. ICT based education, in particular, can revolutionise and make a significant contribution to the community by introducing an enabling platform to student centered learning at one’s own pace, problem based learning, developing a culture of hybrid learning with the proper mix of self learning and conventional learning. SLIIT had envisioned a similar scenario last year with the unfortunate incident in April 2019 and some level of preparedness was available.

Q: Coming back to where your current intellectual contribution is utilised, what is the higher education landscape of SLIIT by way of programs, skills, employability, research, industry collaboration and innovations?

A:  SLIIT, enjoying the pride of 20 years excellence as a non-state higher education institute operating in the non-profit model, has expanded its horizon from offering diploma programs in IT to cater the deficiency in the IT professionals at that time. Currently SLIIT is conducting undergraduate programs encompassing domains of Engineering, Business and Humanities and Sciences inclusive of Architecture, Quantity Surveying, Law, Biotechnology, Nursing, and Education. Also, Graduate level programs through MSc in IT, MBA, MPhil and PhD are conducted in the institute currently. Except few programs of the international origin, the rest of the programs at SLIIT are Ministry of Higher Education approved. With the current student population of around 9000 students, SLIIT is equipped with modern laboratory facilities, state of the art curricula & modern program delivery methods with robust Quality Assurance practices. Access is available to state of the art e-resources together with highly qualified academic staff of around 300 with about 75 of them with PhDs from top universities in the world. SLIIT is committed to offer high quality program with rewarding experience to students with assured enjoyable skills. It is the first higher education institute in Sri Lanka to be accredited by IET (Institution of Engineering & Technology, UK), Member of Association of Commonwealth Universities, ACU and International Association of Universities, IAU) and works on fixed program schedule..

Q: How does the SLIIT model contribute to national development such as HR development, STEM support, incubators, and spin-offs?

A:  Commencing by contributing to human capital development in IT, SLIIT has extended its horizon domains in Engineering, Business, Humanities and Sciences. Its portfolio on contribution to national development encompasses producing graduates with highly employable skills, postgraduates with knowledge creating and research skills, institute with service to the society through industry collaborated projects, outreach activities, technology incubation envisaging productive spin-off companies.

Q: What do you suggest as the futuristic model for education in terms of student centered classroom learning, optimum use of human capital, capturing gifted talent, lifelong learning?

A:  Future of education will be governed by global challenges. Inquiry based-learning is expected to be the order of the day where the role of the teacher and the student are expected to be interchanged. National Education Systems would accommodate all and each student who would be free to have lifelong learning, equipped to take challenges of the 21st century. The education will enable to “unlock” the inquiring mind of an individual to be a potential self-employed performer at any time in the life. Gifted top performers would get surfaced, geniuses will not go unnoticed. If Sri Lanka can secure the world cup and Olympic medals, why not a similar feat through its strong education system?