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Reform strategy in higher education - Part II

Continued from yesterday


Text of speech delivered by Higher Education Minister Prof. Wiswa Warnapala at the launching of the World Bank’s Sri Lanka Higher Education Sector Report at the Hotel Galle Face on July 17, 2009.


Prof. Wiswa Warnapala

It is on the basis of the improvement of the access that both quality and relevance could be developed within the system. The access, through the external degree program and enrollment in tertiary institutions, has expanded in the last several years. The expansion needs to be accompanied with inclusiveness, and it essentially means an increase in enrollment.

The haphazard expansion, the adoption of ad hoc policies to tackle issues of access, and the over-emphasis on traditional disciplines, the continued reliance on the Arts system, resistance to curriculum reform, have affected the economic relevance and quality improvement in the higher educational sector.

Overturned concept

All these ills, including those factors associated with violence and closures of the Universities have created a situation where the graduate find it difficult to find a job in the private sector as they do not fit into the jobs in this sector.

Therefore, the burden is on the State and the perception of the graduate, articulated by certain political parties, is that it is the duty of the State to provide them with employment; the perception in this country is that a person goes to the University, not to acquire knowledge but to get a job, and the whole concept of the University has been overturned.

The State, by compulsion, is expected to provide them with jobs. It is only through a rational diversification of the system, and also with an expansion of the non-tertiary sector that we can bring an end to such attitudes and perceptions.

As long as the entire system remains totally State-funded, such perceptions cannot be eliminated; in my view, a construction of a highly competitive system of higher educational institutions, embracing both the public and the private sector, would bring about a change in relation to these issues, which are part of the political culture developed as a result of the partial impact of the social demand model of education, and once competitiveness enters the system, on the basis of global considerations, the system is certain to produce both economic relevance and quality.

Global excellence

Vocational skills vital to enter the job market. Picture by Ranjith Jayaweera

Since the development of a knowledge economy remains an important goal of all the developing countries, the establishment of educational institutions of global excellence should be the priority of the countries in our region.

Our experience in higher education, the role and capacity of our higher educational institutions, including those in the non-tertiary sector, is more than sufficient to build a base for the emergence of global centres of excellence.

The World Bank sponsored programs in the Universities has laid a solid foundation for this kind of change, and quality improvement, in the form of a panacea, has captured the minds of academics, whose role, as both teachers and researchers, have visibly declined in the last two or three decades due primarily to the absence of a vibrant intellectual culture in the Universities.

When I speak of a global university, as a centre of global excellence, I envisage, in my own way, a new curriculum and a research culture based on an awareness of the political, economic, social and cultural phenomena, without which issues of global significance could not be understood.

It is my view that all our Universities, both old and new, have specific and varied problems, and they need to be addressed from the point of view of a common perspective on Higher Education. In the improvement of both quality and relevance, it is the need for a common policy strategy-which needs to be given immediate recognition.

In the formulation of policies and strategies, based on current global considerations, one does not need to forget and discard the useful traditions of the system in the past, and they, depending on their relevance and utility, need to be made use of as a resource for further development and change.

If a global agenda is to be adopted on the basis of the reforms through which we intend to improve both quality and relevance, new policies are necessary to develop scholarship as one of its main missions. While we are improving quality, are we taking steps to improve both scholarship and research.

Importance of research

No University can function, in the modern context, without an internationally recognized research profile, and it is this status which can inculcate a desire for learning in the undergraduate community.

As Eric Ashby said “We talk about the University as a community dedicated to the preservation, advancement and transmission to knowledge”. It is in this context that we need to stress the importance of research in the Universities; today Sri Lanka is going through a period of transformation, and the Universities, if interested, can make use of this process of change for both useful and relevant research with which public policy on many a matter could be produced.

In our reforms strategy, the promotion of research will be given priority. It is in relation to it that we propose to expand the programs of the Post-Graduate Institutes in the Universities sector; they are catering to a large number of post-graduate students who are primarily in Masters level courses.

They enter such courses to enhance their employment prospects; what the country needs is an intellectual community capable of undertaking research on the basis of relevance so that the output of research could be used for the formulation of public policy. In other words, I am advocating policy-oriented research as the country is undergoing a period of transformation, for which new policy initiatives are necessary.

Indirect role

It is only through such research that the role of higher education in economic development could be realized. The World Bank has now recognized the indirect role that higher education can play in development and poverty reduction. Three key arguments have been presented by the World Bank in respect of this matter.

1. Higher Education can contribute to economic growth by supplying the human resources for a knowledge economy, by generating knowledge and by promoting access to knowledge.

2. The view is that higher education has the potential to increase access to education and in turn increase the employability of those who have the skills for a knowledge-driven economy.

3. The argument is that higher education can play a role in supporting basic and secondary education by supplying those sectors with trained personnel and contributing to the development of curriculum.

It would be useful to make use of these policy-standpoints when proposing changes in the field of higher education in Sri Lanka. All policy-makers and reformers must realize the role of higher education in national development, and it has an integral global aspect. It is supporting an economy that is knowledge-intensive. This means that the country needs to take bold initiatives in respect of certain aspects of higher education policy.

To be continued



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