By Sterling Perera and Thilani Kaushalya
The Marga Institute during its more than a half-century of existence has undertaken many studies relating to economic and social concerns relating to Sri Lanka. These studies were aimed at promoting an independent approach to the study of the related issues. A pioneering, visionary and futuristic approach was provided by the presentation of a paper by Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke titled, “A Vision for Sri Lanka, 2025 and 2030, Pre-Requisites of Very High Human Development”, in 2015. This visionary paper is the basis of the current study with the Gamani Corea Foundation, titled, Contribution of Education towards a Vision of Sri Lanka 2025/2030.
Very High Human Development (VHHD), earnestly promoted by United Nations (UN), is today a much desired and sought out factor in National Development. The Human Development Index (HDI), devised by the UN, is now used as a valid comparative measure of placing the social and economic status of a country, replacing to some extent the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita and Gross National Product (GNP) per capita. The latter measure had placed the developing countries of the world too, not only far below in the measure of economic and social status but also condemned them to accept this distance as increasing annually. Attempts were made some years ago to soften this effect by replacing GNP/GDP with an index GNPP/GDPP, which sought to utilize purchasing power of a basket of items. Nevertheless, GNI and HDI have become more acceptable as it contains factors such as life expectancy at birth, as a health indicator, expected years of schooling and mean years of schooling for education as well as GNI. These use of these indicators give the developing nations aims to aspire to a higher status while improving them. This will automatically improve their Human Development Index. On the HDI scale, Sri Lanka had a score of 0.782 in 2019 while a highly developed country such as Finland had a score of 0.938.
Contribution of Education of Education towards VHHD
Out of the indicators concerned with education contributing to VHHD, Sri Lanka has comparatively high figures relating to primary and secondary education. In the case of primary stage, junior secondary (grades 6 to 8) schooling and senior secondary, lower cycle (grades 10 and 11), we have almost 100 percent male and female enrolment. In the case of the senior secondary, upper cycle (grades 12 and 13) we have a continually increasing enrolment with a higher proportion of females. In 2019, out of the 305,427 school pupils who sat the GCE (OL) examination, 225,539 qualified to enter the GCE (AL) classes. The problem here is the continuing higher numbers entering the Arts stream, mostly not out of choice, but because of non-eligibility to enrol in other streams. Further, the enrolment ratio of female to male pupils is 2: 1. At the tertiary stage, beyond AL, Sri Lanka with a gross enrolment ratio of 21.3 %, lags behind even Thailand with a gross enrolment ratio of 50%. It was as high as 95.9 % for South Korea in 2018. One big block to increasing tertiary enrolment is the restriction to enter the universities, despite a high rate qualifying to enter. In 2019, only 31,902 were admitted to the universities out of the 154,905 who qualified to be admitted. This year about 41,000 are expected to be admitted. There are other avenues, but insufficient, for enrolment in state and private tertiary education sectors. As such Sri Lanka can secure the required gains in VHHD to reach developed country status, by increasing attention to the development of tertiary education.
Sri Lanka’s attempt to achieve a knowledge-based economy is followed by increased demand for skilled labour. Higher Education plays an integral role in achieving a highly competitive and knowledge-based economy. Also, it has been included as United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG-4) ensuring life–long learning for all. Specifically, it targets achieving equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university education by 2030. However, in Sri Lanka, admission to state-funded universities, as indicated above, is highly competitive and only a few students fulfil their dream of entering university. Therefore, this article discusses the current situation of higher education participation rates in Sri Lanka and how we can possibly increase the enrollment figures to ensure more equitable access to higher education.
Many countries that offer free or low-cost university education are developed nations such as Norway, Germany, and Finland. Among developing nations, Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that offer free university education, at least for a relatively small proportion of students. The current policy of providing free university education promotes meritocracy and equity in the university admission process. But, at the same time, the admission process has become highly competitive. Visible signs of this competition are that many students re-take the Advanced Level Examination for the second or even third time with the determination of entering university or expecting to enrol for programs with high economic returns, such as Medicine or Engineering degrees in the STEM fields. The bigger question is what other options are available for those who cannot enter university. Currently, university education constitutes 83% of the government’s higher education expenditure, resulting in very little resource allocation for non-university higher education options.
Anyone who passes all three subjects in their Advanced Level is eligible to apply for University. The most recent statistics show that 301,771 students sat for the Advanced Level exam in October last year and 194,297 students are eligible to apply for University entrance, which is nearly 64% of students who sat for the A/L exam. Unfortunately, all these eligible students cannot be admitted to the Sri Lankan university system. Based on 2019 university admission data, only 18% (or 31, 902) of students were admitted to local universities, although the number qualifying is as large as about five times the number admitted. Over the past decade, the expansion of university education does not match the growing demand for university entrance. Figure 1 shows that university admissions have increased by merely 10,000 from 2010 to 2019.
Figure 1: University admitted vs. not admitted students, and admitted as a percent of eligible from 2010-2019
Source: Department of Examinations, 2020; University Grant Commission, 2015; University Grant Commission, 2020
From a regional perspective, Sri Lanka lags far behind in terms of tertiary education participation than the Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore, which are the leaders in the field of education in Asia. In 2018, Sri Lanka’s gross tertiary education enrollment ratio was 19.6% whereas South Korea and Singapore accounted for 96% and 89%, respectively (table 1). Countries like South Korea have changed their education policies to align with their economic policies. Earlier their focus was to provide basic educational needs to fulfil manpower needed for its industrialization efforts, which involved more routine processes with minimal creativity. But, now their focus is to achieve a knowledge-based economy encouraging creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving in their education to adapt to the changing demands of a knowledge-based economy. In this perspective, it is imperative for Sri Lanka to increase the opportunities available for tertiary education in its journey towards a knowledge-based high human development economy.
Table 1. Tertiary Education Gross Enrollment Ratios 2016-2019
Source: UNESCO, 2021
The expansion of tertiary education was greatly assisted by state or state-related institutions such as, the Open University, National Institute of Business Management (NIBM), Schools of Technology, National Colleges of Education, Institute of Computer Technology, Institutions such as the Ceylon German Technical Training Institute, Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT), and professional associations such as the Sri Lanka Institute of Chemistry. The number and variety of tertiary education provided by the private sector vary. Many of these are affiliated with foreign universities and institutes of tertiary education.
How can we expand tertiary education enrollment?
Labour market analysis shows that Sri Lanka does not require a general expansion in tertiary education, rather it requires more focused expansion. A study conducted by the Center for International Development at Harvard University found very high wage premiums among selected occupational professionals in Sri Lanka such as ICT professionals, ICT technicians, business professionals, science and engineering professionals, and various managerial occupations. The very high wage premiums suggest shortages in these disciplines of tertiary education. Hence, the expansion of tertiary education needs to be more specific in order to cater to the labour market demand.
The strategy to reach VHHD status through education, is to increase the enrolment in higher education, specifically in Science, Technological, Engineering and Mathematics institutes. The increase in enrolment is prevented by the shortage of teaching personnel in these fields. One strategy which might be explored is the use of qualified personnel in these fields working in state and private sector institutions. A much larger number of pupils can be accommodated in the universities by including off university, profession-related project work on academic term basis to the state and private sector firms engaged in technological work. European and US universities now allow students to pursue one or more terms of academic work in other universities even in other countries. The methodology followed could be modified for use here. The academic quality can be certified by the universities through a suitable affiliation procedure. In this way, a larger pool of highly qualified personnel will become available to assist the universities in the accommodation of a significant number of additional students.
By taking the Covid-19 pandemic optimistically, Sri Lanka could introduce online degrees for selected programs. With the start of the pandemic, Sri Lanka increased its exposure to using online technology for learning. Though some employers still prefer traditional graduate degrees, online degrees are becoming more popular in the recent past. Even most prestigious Ivy League universities are now offering selected degree programs online.