Reimagining higher education in Sri Lanka

Aug 29, 2013 (LBO) – The following was written as a framing document for the 49th LBO-LBR CEO Forum, held on 27th August 2013.

How would you reimagine higher education? Is it centrally planned by the Ministry and the University Grants Commission, or is it a result of decentralized initiative?

Imagination is unlimited. But to be of any use, there must be practical methods of getting from where we are now to where we want to be.

Multiple imaginings are possible. Here is mine.


Higher education is not limited to the first few years after K-12 schooling. It’s not limited to a three- or four-year chunk of one’s life. It occurs throughout one’s whole life. There are periods when one learns along with other people, face-to-face in organized settings. There are other periods when one learns by interacting with people in virtual settings, through collective projects, games and so on. Learning is integrated with work; and work is, in many cases, learning.

Learning is catalyzed by teachers, but not all knowledge comes from them. In fact, I like to think of the subject under discussion as “higher learning” rather than higher education. The latter is a supply-side term that is premised on education being poured into the empty vessels that are the students. My term envisages a more active role for the student and gives greater weight to the demand side.

A part of what is currently taught in universities, the nuts and bolts, is no longer so taught but is learned through online education on the lines of Khan Academy and learning groups. Students have access to mechanisms to demonstrate their mastery of such basic concepts and skills

The old disciplinary silos no longer exist. Engineers study literature and lawyers, data analytics. The boundary between the formal higher-education and vocational-education streams is porous.

Multiple education providers exist, many non-profit but some for-profit; none are directly operated by the government. Government acts as regulator on one side and as a source of subsidies for students, and through them for the institutions of higher learning, on the other. Institutions of higher learning get their revenue from students directly. If enough students choose not to spend their education account funds at a particular institution it may go out of business.

All students have education accounts. Some have to pay back what has been spent on them. Others have their loans forgiven because they perform certain national services, including military service. Others have them forgiven because of their family circumstances. Life-time university teaching is a thing of the past. Entrepreneurs and professionals take sabbaticals at universities. Most university faculty serve on five-year renewable contracts. Revolving doors between the academy and industries and government are the norm. Everyone in higher education, teachers as well as students, engage in research. Since rote learning from text books no longer is the norm, more time and resources are available for research. Conventional libraries no longer exist. Online systems that provide relevant information when required do.

Credentials still matter and are given out carefully. They are regulated not so much in terms of certain pre-conceived definitions of what constitutes knowledge but in terms of truthful reflection of what has been learned. Facilities exist for employers to check the credentials of job applicants and get a full understanding of what they have learned.

The multiplicity of Ministries is no more. Just one Ministry of Human Resource Development exists. Only one Tertiary Education Commission staffed by professionals exists with responsibility for regulation of credentials and for policy development.

Understanding that higher education is inherently international in the 21st Century, the TEC works in close collaboration with peer organizations around the world to ensure that employers in Sri Lanka are able to assess all credentials, local or foreign.

A larger organization, the Tertiary Education Funding Agency (the successor to today’s University Grants Commission), focuses its energies on the funding side: the maintenance of student educational accounts, out of which higher educational institutions, for-profit as well as non-profit and those that provide virtual learning as well as those that provide hybrid forms, derive their revenues. It defines the border between institutions eligible for funding and those that are not. Here, the new TEFA collaborates with the TEC. In addition, the TEFA works with the government revenue authority to ensure that those who must pay back funding received through education accounts do so.

Baumol’s cost disease (whereby salaries increase over time without commensurate increases in productivity)which debilitated US universities is contained by competition among Sri Lankan credential suppliers and between them and virtual suppliers based on massive online open course (MOOC) technologies, in some cases offering prestigious foreign credentials. How to get from here to there

Establishing education accounts for all students; breaking from non-performance-based funding for government universities; removing barriers to entry to higher-education supply; rationalizing the tertiary education policy and implementation structure; and the improvement of the quality of higher-education professionals are among the critical first steps.
I was happy to see that some first steps such as education accounts for students and enabling private suppliers to enter the market, not only by removing barriers but by providing land, are being taken by the government.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.