The renowned scholar and respected educationist, Rev Professor Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thero, Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, is also reported have advised the Minister that he should strive to attain his goal with an ‘unbending spine’, thereby cautioning the Minister of the need for standing valiantly to the mounting opposition that may come up from various quarters.
Opponents to Private Universities
From past experience, one may surmise that such opposition may come from his own Cabinet colleagues, opposition politicians, academics, student unions and citizens who may sincerely believe that it is the government’s duty to provide education to people at all levels. In fact, the first sign of opposition manifested itself within days of the Minister’s announcement in the form of posters on the city walls criticizing the Minister and one student body openly declaring war with government against its new higher education policy.
The Need for Quality Assurance
However, overcoming the opposition is only a half of the battle which the Minister will have to fight in the pursuit of this goal. The other half of the battle constitutes the establishment of a viable, sustainable and quality assured private university system in the country to function effectively alongside the existing state university system.A University Degree: A Device for Social Mobility
The demand for higher education arises from the community mainly because it is a sure way for a person to move up in the social ladder which economists call ‘social mobility’. Higher education, especially university education, is believed to enrich the human capital of an individual and that enrichment is said to open up new opportunities enabling him to earn a higher stream of income on a permanent basis. Hence, with the expansion of the middle class which normally takes place with the progressive growth of an economy, the demand for university education too expands phenomenally. But if the local university system cannot satisfy that demand, the unsatisfied parents do not have a choice, but to seek facilities available elsewhere to have their children educated.
When they do so, the experience shows that they do not seem to mind whether it is a private university or a state university or a local university or a foreign university, as long as the institution involved is a recognised university. This is demonstrated by the parents’ choice of higher learning institutions in such countries as Bangladesh, Nepal, China and India which are latecomers to the international higher education business and do not have a proven track record of the standard and quality as the long standing universities in the Western world.
The Crime of Suppressing the Demand for University Education
The plight of the parents who are unable to send their children out for university education is rather pathetic. They have for long been agitating for the expansion of the university education facilities in Sri Lanka and their collective call has been for the government to break the monopoly and allow the private sector to set up universities. For all these years, this demand has been kept in suppressed form by the country’s political leadership which did not dare to face head on the organised opposition, which very often becomes violent, to a private sector participated university education system. Spending Foreign Exchange for University Education is not a Sin
For many, Sri Lanka should open up private universities in order to save foreign exchange which the country is spending in large volumes year after year. They clam that it is a sin to waste the country’s scarce resources. This is nothing but the familiar ‘import substitution argument’. Spending money on education is an investment and in this case, it is an investment in the most desirable and productive capital of the day, namely, investment in human capital.
With the increase in quality graduates who have studied in reputed foreign universities, the country’s human capital stock too enhances improving its capacity to produce more and sustain that production levels. Hence, spending foreign exchange on education is just like importing machinery and equipment that add to the country’s physical capital stock. As such, Sri Lanka should open up its university education system not to preserve foreign exchange, but to improve its human capital stock with quality education available within its own borders.
If quality is not assured, then, the opening up of the university education system does not bring about any perceptible benefit to the country.
The Need for Careful Planning
In the past, private university education was introduced to Sri Lanka in a very ad hoc manner. While the government was bent on expanding the state owned university system, the University Grants Commission or UGC had been empowered to approve the requests for degree awarding status by private institutions at its own discretion on a case by case basis. In the absence of a clearly spelt out policy in this regard, private organisations were groping in the dark; with many state sponsored requests being approved with no difficulty, private institutions too were compelled to seek state assistance for getting recognised.
The inevitable result was that these approved institutions failing to maintain the required quality or standards on the one hand and failing to be financially viable on the other. It in fact gave a bad name for the privately managed universities in the country. There was one occasion where such a privately managed medical school being absorbed by the state sector and attaching it to a state university which did not have experience in running a medical school.
Hence, quality assurance, financial viability and continuous surveillance are essential prerequisites of opening up of the country’s university education to the private sector.
UGC Needs Capacity Enhancement
UGC as the name denotes, is a body that has been set up to allocate state resources among the state universities. Though it has come of age with more than 30 years of existence, it has not been able to assure the quality of the state university system over which it has direct controlling power. There is no system of rating of universities in place and students apply for admission to various universities on hearsay and not by informed knowledge. This has made the matter for the employers more difficult. They go by some ‘rule of thumb criteria’ for evaluating the prospective graduates who seek employment with their institutions.
It is therefore necessary to enhance the capacity of UGC if it is charged with the task of assuring quality, overseeing financial viability and continuous surveillance of the private universities to be set up under the new system.
Continuous financial viability is important because if a private university is mismanaged and becomes bankrupt, the students who go through the system and have not yet completed their degrees cannot be left in the lurch. Then, it will become a liability of the state to take over such institutions and rehabilitate them as has happened in a number of cases in the past.
In such a scenario, a private university will become a liability of the society rather than a value adding asset.
How does the UK Handle it?
The United Kingdom, when it started to open up its higher education system to the private sector, set up a Quality Assurance Agency or QAA to advise the Privy Council which has the power to grant degree awarding status to any private educational institution. QAA is owned and financially supported by its members who are universities, but in order to maintain independence, quality assurance and rating are done by an independent executive board, similar to arrangements found in rating companies with separate rating boards independent from the governing boards. Unlike Sri Lanka’s UGC, QAA has clearly spelt out its policy, requirements which the prospective candidates have to fulfil and the process of evaluating applications etc. The writer is aware of a case in which he had an interest, it took more than three years for the applicant to satisfy all the requirements which QAA had laid down.
The importance of having a QAA type arrangement is that it makes the entire approval and continuous surveillance process free from politics.
Do Not Rush and Spoil the Soup
Hence, Sri Lanka should do careful planning before introducing private universities to its higher education system. Any rush job that does not reckon quality, viability and sustainability of new private universities is doomed to failure. It will simply discredit the private university system as a whole and vindicate those who are opposed to private universities. Above all, the community too will lose a valuable opportunity to enhance its higher education opportunities.
The writer is a retired deputy governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. To read previous columns in the series go to the WatchTower section on the main navigation panel or click on the links below. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org