The private universities debate has once again come to the forefront. To secure our country’s future, it is imperative that children are allowed to achieve their maximum potential without facing discrimination according to their caste, creed, status or wealth. While a person’s socio-economic background has some influence on his or her personality, the polishing touches come from education. Additionally, higher education develops the ability of analytic and logical thinking in a person enabling them to take the appropriate decision at appropriate time. People with such abilities are instrumental for the progress of a society. Thus, it is imperative that we ensure that most of our children are given the opportunity to receive quality education of the highest level.
The main challenge we have to face in realizing this goal is lack of opportunity. While 70% of high school graduates in America entered some kind of a higher educational institute in 2009, the number of Sri Lankans entering public universities was as low as 4%. The talented contemporaries of our generation were not able to widen their horizons as they had to limit themselves only to high school education. Thus, most of them were disillusioned and Sri Lanka couldn’t utilize their full capacity. The number of technical colleges and vocational training institutions existing today is not at all sufficient to transform the majority of those who fall behind at A/Ls to be useful citizens. Though the number of universities and the number admitted to each university have increased annually, our public university system is still not able to fulfill the needs of the youth.
Expanding the public university system to solve this problem is not the solution due to several reasons. First and foremost, it is not affordable for a country like ours. Secondly, those who are responsible for state education have not planned dynamically to produce the quality graduates required according to the changes of needs and technology with time. Hence, there are unemployed graduates even among the meager number passing out from state universities while our industries are facing a dearth of new recruits with the required set of skills and talents. It would be a real blessing if we could improve the quality of graduates produced by spending public funds, at least due to the healthy competition that would be generated by establishing private universities. The fact that the creation of private universities will result in institutions physically located in Sri Lanka dedicated to higher education with no use of public funds itself is a blessing?
What is a private university?
A private university is an institution independent of state control. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a profit making institution. World famous universities such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford are private institutions. Funds are provided by well-wishers and alumni of those institutions and the operations are under the scrutiny of an academic council. With time, they have become great institutions serving all of humanity with new inventions resulting from their cutting edge research and knowledge sharing all around the world through their books, journals and websites.
We should not confuse these private universities with commercial profit-making institutions. Any charges or fees by private universities are to guarantee the progress and well-being of the institution and not to make a commecial profit. Students are selected to these institutions primarily on merit. The selection process is meant to be need-blind in many of these major universities meaning that the university does not factor in the financial status of the student at the time of selection. In universities like Caltech, Harvard and MIT, after selecting the batch of the most talented students according to established criteria, scholarships and student loans are given to those who cannot afford the tuition and fees as the good name of the university is retained by the talents and skills of its graduates. Such institutions that determine the future of their graduates solely on merit help the progress of a country immensely by helping to build a meritocratic society. In addition, the progress of these private institutions (as opposed to for-profit universities) is ensured by the government by providing tax breaks, student loans and avoiding political influence.
The socio-economic structure of Sri Lanka hasn’t progressed up to the point of having generous wealthy donors to start such institutions. However, what we know is that almost all private institutions in Sri Lanka are currently for-profit but still maintain their standards to attract customers. A good example for this is international schools in Sri Lanka. Thus, the prediction that the quality of for-profit private universities will necessarily be low in Sri Lanka is groundless. If one wants to predict how the market forces will react in the field of private education in Sri Lanka, what could be said is that the enterprises will continuously update themselves to provide the timely skills and tools longed for in the job market, as prospective students will not commit themselves to an education for which they will not get their money’s worth.
Brain drain and foreign exchange
Those who can afford foreign universities tend to stay back without returning after graduation with the intention of earning back the huge amounts they paid for their education abroad. In addition, when they study abroad, away from their friends and relatives under the influence of a new environment, there is bound to be certain transformations within most of those young people. As a result, we rarely see someone returning to the country after graduating abroad. The result is a loss of foreign exchange and “brain drain.” On the contrary, if these students pursue higher education even in a private university within this country, we would be able to produce graduates with a better understanding of Sri Lanka without incurring any cost or burden to the public.
Misconceptions of private universities
The majority is of the opinion that those who enter the public universities after facing an intense competition will be at a disadvantage at the point of seeking employment when those who scored less marks at the advanced level examination also compete with them as graduates from private universities. This is a myth. The bitter truth is that due to the limited opportunities in the public sector, while the graduate with honours class is at home with despair, the person with political influence and a mere ordinary pass is pushed to the available position. When it comes to the private sector employment, all of us know that they only choose the most talented with the required knowledge and skills to suit their needs. Thus, if those who are responsible in public universities have done their duty well in producing well groomed graduates and if the most talented enter those institutions, there shouldn’t be any problem for them in securing private sector jobs.
Some claim that university lecturers will also try to earn more by working in the private institutions like doctors and therefore the standards of the public universities would decline even further. The truth is that this is already happening in great magnitude even now. Today, there are enough lecturers working as visiting lecturers not only in universities in and around Colombo but also at faraway places such as Uva Wellassa, Rajarata, Ruhuna & Wayamba universities. University academics have an unlimited freedom to update their knowledge on the subjects they teach and to generate new knowledge by carrying out academic research. In addition, they should be testing new methods of teaching to replace old and outdated methods. There are strategies to stop misusing the freedom granted to them. It is certainly not by imposing rules and regulations but by resolving the problem according to the principle of cause and effect. Be it in public or private universities, those who are excessively engaged in such activities mostly do their permanent employment as a service and turn to other institutions as the meager salary they receive from the government university is not at all sufficient to meet their aspired standard of living. That is why the entire academia, without paying any attention to the status or the dignity of the profession, supported whole heartedly the recently launched trade union action of the university academics. To restore the dignity and the accountability of the position of the university teacher who possesses a boundless freedom, in addition to providing an appropriate salary for their qualifications and services, incentives should also be given contingent to their increases in productivity and efficiency.
On the other hand, it is not realistic to assume that an institution can get the maximum benefit from a person just because his services are limited to that place alone without engaging in any external activity. It is well known that talents and efficiencies of people differ. If an academic is willing to sacrifice the priceless freedom of the profession to earn money or for any other reason, he should be allowed to do so. However, it is the responsibility of the administration to device strategies to make sure that he doesn’t jeopardize the dignity of the institution or try to enjoy unfair advantage over the other fellow academics of his place of permanent employment. In any case, when a successful private university system is in operation, Sri Lankan experts scattered all over the world with a love for the motherland and currently serving foreign institutions due to the lack of opportunities in Sri Lanka for their craft could come to serve in these institutions. Having such men around could only be a boost to industries and would help Sri Lanka catch up with the rest of the world. As a byproduct, the employment opportunities will be increased for the graduates passing out from all universities.
An allegation against awarding degrees from the private medical colleges is the fact that they would be using the government hospitals as teaching hospitals. There is no doubt that building their own teaching hospitals would improve the health sector of the country. As this requires a huge monetary investment, there is no harm in using the nearby general hospitals for the time being. The government should charge a fee for this service to at least cover the costs. We do know from experience that a hospital improves rapidly after becoming a teaching hospital. Just think for a moment. The doctor produced by this institution is a daughter or a son of our own country. Most probably, a child of a citizen who shoulders the burden of paying taxes to maintain the public university system of this country. What is wrong with letting this child, who pays for his own higher education, use a bit of public property? When he or she is serving as a doctor, isn’t that service for the whole society’s benefit? That person has volunteered to solve the problem of lack of doctors in this country without becoming a burden to the public.
At the moment, doctors coming from universities in Bangladesh, Cuba, Latvia, Ukraine, India and China assimilate to our health service and they work in government hospitals as the state university system is unable to produce the required number of doctors annually. There are no criticisms against those doctors or the doctors passed out from the North Colombo medical college - this created a huge uproar during the infamous period of late eighties. We should not forget the fact that some graduates from the North Colombo medical college are among the university academics now. Can we not treat graduates of private universities the same way we treat graduates of unknown foreign universities?
We should realize that the Advanced Level examination is not the only way of determining the intelligence or the suitability of students. What university dropouts such as the Bill Gates - the founder of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs - the co-founder of Apple demonstrate to us is the value of intrinsic talent over competitive education. Those who have inborn creative talents not testable in exams do not fare well in the competitiveness of the A/Ls. The creativity of a child could disappear due to such a fierce competition. The country will be benefited in the long-run by letting such talents educate themselves as they wish. There could not possibly be any harm by doing so.
Can the state bear the full burden of higher education?
Governments taking the burden of providing higher education to each and every person, without considering whether one could afford it or not, is an unsustainable, outdated policy in today’s world. It is evident even in the United Kingdom where some of the oldest universities of the world established by the Royal Charter exist. Though the government bore the full cost of higher education immediately after the Second World War, when the student numbers continued to grow, the government reduced costs by adopting the policy of providing funds according to the productivity and the efficiency. By a report submitted in July 1997, it was recommended to stop providing free university education completely. This was implemented in a few phases and by the academic year 2006/7 students had to bear the cost of their education and a student loan scheme was introduced to help those that required assistance. In addition to these, there are a few fully private universities independent of the royal charter. The majority of the universities in countries such as America and Japan are private. Even our neighboring India has 86 private universities. Except for Nordic countries, in all countries with successful education systems, there is a tendency of imposing some form of a charge to provide higher education. Even though the United Kingdom has only a few fully private universities, those established under the royal charter are also fee levying institutions. In addition, except for academics, the government has no influence over those institutions.
Are alternative proposals meaningful?
To overcome the problem of not having enough space in the public university system, in his book “Private universities- fashion and the reality”, Mr. Anuruddha Pradeep Karnasuriya proposes to expand the existing public universities and to charge the additional number of students admitted. Ironically, he provides ample evidence in his own book to show that the country will never be able to produce the required graduates by implementing his proposal. I quote a few of those instances here. He uses the tables containing valuable data in pages 240-242 very cleverly to support his claim that the number of students to the Arts faculties should be drastically reduced immediately to utilize the savings for other programmes for which there is known need. Accordingly, even though the government boasts that the university intake has been increased from eleven thousand in 2000 to twenty thousand in 2009, the great majority (6800+) were to the arts faculties while only 1100+ medical students and 1300+ engineering students were taken in. Even though highly intelligent deep thinkers are needed to be successful in the arts stream, it is a well-known fact that when choosing the stream for advanced level, good students tend to choose other streams due to the employment prospectus attractions of the medicine, engineering and accounting professions. As a result of this, unfortunately, an intelligent student rarely chooses the arts stream. However, even from the meager 4% of the school leavers who get admission to the state universities, more than 30% are Arts students. Further using data in pages 232, 235 and 236, Mr. Anuruddha successfully argues that the existing district quota system is unreasonable. He very rightly demonstrates that so many talented and hardworking young men and women in districts such as Colombo are left at home without getting the well-deserved opportunity to enter a university. He even quoted Prof. Carlo Fonseka about the admission to the medical faculties under the district quota system: “when thousand students are admitted to the medical faculties of the country, there are two thousand students at home who scored more, in the bio stream, than some of those admitted students.” When considering other factors not mentioned here, we can safely say that great many talented and hardworking students are unable to enter the state university system while about a lot more that enter are not as good as them. What is the reason for this alarming discrepancy? The reason is that, including the University Grants Commission, these decisions are taken by the state representatives who have received political appointments. While they only take decisions favoring short term political gains, those who have chosen the fields that have the highest demand for professionals in the country have to stay home frustrated sometimes even after obtaining 3 A’s. In addition to these, discussing the autonomy of the universities in pages 279 and 280, Mr. Anuruddha himself shows the unacceptable influence by the minister of higher education on disciplinary matters of the university and how the vice chancellor has become a political appointee.
I could add some more to this list but will only mention here about the university grants commission circular number 876 which is a sheer violation of human rights. According to that, some non-academic positions could be filled only from the list provided by the ministry! Isn’t it only a dream to think of a country upholding meritocratic principles when such circulars promote appointing party supporters while the suitable people continue to be jobless and frustrated? That is not all. Those students who have been selected to the universities have to undergo a compulsory leadership training sponsored by the ministry of defense and thereafter they have to face the scrutiny of their seniors in the name of ragging. Whether they like it or not, they have to listen to the political ideologies of those seniors. How can we expect good results by expanding such a system?
International level private universities in Sri Lanka
There are various types of private universities all over the world for us to consider which particular category is suitable for Sri Lanka. Let us consider America which has 43 of the 50 best universities according to the 2011 Webometrics ranking. There are more than 5800 big and small universities in the USA. The majority of these are private universities. They can be lightly categorized as for profit, non-profit and not for profit universities. However, fitting to the free world, these universities have been established according to various models. Among these, some universities have produced several Nobel laureates, some have come up with great inventions uplifting the conditions of mankind and some have produced world class sportsmen and athletes. Though they have to pay tuition by even taking loans from the federal government, each state of America has one or more state universities somewhat similar to what we are used to in Sri Lanka. But none of these are subjected to political influence.
If we were to realize the stated goal of the government: transforming Sri Lanka to the knowledge hub of Asia, our universities should be able to attract students from the neighbouring countries as well. That is not all. We know that the majority of the crème of free education is serving in other countries as evidenced by the fact that some batch reunions are now happening in Australia or USA. The major reason for most of them leaving their loved ones and the environment they grew up in is that the conditions are not conducive to expand the expertise they have gained and the remuneration is no way comparable to their earning power in those countries. Those who come back ignoring such factors also tend to return soon due to the unprecedented ways state institutions are politicized.
Without trying to make profits or earn commissions, we should carefully select a model or a few models that will help progress the country after a thorough study. In doing so, we should pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of our people and our cultural heritage. For example, if we can maintain the good standard of the established universities by charging a reasonable tuition from those who can afford, we should subsequently be able to attract foreign students for higher rates. If countries like Bangladesh, Cuba, Korea and Ukraine can attract university students, we in Sri Lanka should not have any problem. We Sri Lankans usually do excellently well in whatever we put our minds to. Thus, there won’t be any problem in attracting foreign students to private universities in this lovely island just as International schools presently attract Maldivian students. In addition, by giving scholarships to those who have fared well at the advanced level and other accepted examinations according to a set criterion, we can uplift the standard of these universities. It will be a golden opportunity to the Sri Lankan expatriates scattered all over the world to return and serve their own country. The country would be able to earn foreign exchange by exporting knowledge instead of housemaids, tea, coconut and rubber.
As a truly free and democratic society, by allowing the private universities to function as mentioned above, government universities also could increase the intake of certain faculties and make arrangements to charge those additional students a fee comparable to the private universities. Competition generated by this will help both private and public universities strive to improve their quality of education.
What we have in Sri Lanka today is not real free education. It is only ‘an education’ without having to pay. If one can learn without having to subject themselves to so many conditions, have the freedom of expression without becoming pawns of various political elements and live as a member of a free, open and democratic society where students have the ability to pursue their dream field of education without being pigeonholed based on a cut-off marks system, that will be the place where one can obtain true free education. At the end of the day, both private and public universities in Sri Lanka will ultimately create ample opportunities for all Sri Lankans to acquire the best possible education.
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