Undoubtedly, higher education is the only path to upward mobility for most of our youth. Thus, university admission is extremely competitive in Sri Lanka and as such it remains a very sensitive national issue for many decades. Only about10% of those who sit GCE A/L are admitted to 14 state universities leaving out almost 90%. The fraction of students who are fortunate enough to receive free university education comes to about 17% of those who qualify for university admissions, leaving out 83%. This means that a very large number of deserving students are denied admission to our universities every year. As a result, many students are seeking admission to foreign universities particularly because alternative avenues are not available in most disciplines. They are also our citizens, who have been denied free university education. Thus, they also deserve opportunities and at least the freedom of choice for university education in our democracy.
Since the university admission is extremely competitive, it is essential to formulate a very fair, reasonable and a foolproof system for university admissions. This article deals with the deficiencies of the current university admission process, which includes both the admission policy and the admission procedure, and some specific suggestions for its improvement.
History and the present status
Prior to 1970’s university admission was purely based on merit as practiced all over the world. After the failure of a short-lived ethnicity based admission, a district quota system with a smaller all island merit component was introduced in 1972 for university admissions. Since then this policy remained almost unchanged except for minor adjustments to the different quotas.
There were some additional changes took place during the period 2000-2002. From the year 2000, all students applying to universities were required to take 3 subjects instead of 4 subjects at the GCE A/L. This change was combined with introduction of an additional Common General Test for university admission. It was expected that this test is an aptitude test like SAT in USA, but it was far from it. Furthermore, it is only a qualifying test and the pass mark is 30%, making this test very ineffective in the selection process. The other more significant change introduced in the year 2002 was to rank students for admission on the basis of a standardized mark, the Z-score instead of aggregate raw marks. This method is considered as an effective method of removing inconsistencies arising out of the level of difficulty in scoring marks in different subjects.
Currently, the district quota system is applicable to all streams (Commerce, Biological Science, Physical science and Technology streams) other than the Arts stream where all island merit based admission operates. Even in the Arts stream some categories such as music, dance, drama and theatre, visual arts etc. are excluded. For these disciplines district quota system operates. In the present district quota system, 40% of the available places are filled on all island merit basis while 55% of the places in each course of study are allocated to the students from 25 districts in proportion to the population ratio. In addition, a 5% of the places in each course of study are allocated to the students from16 educationally disadvantaged districts. The distinct feature here is that it gives more weightage to the admission based on district quotas rather than island wide merit. This has affected a large number of students from urban areas who have performed better at the GCE A/L exam while at the same time a group of students from the ‘educationally underprivileged districts’ has benefitted from this scheme over a period of several decades.
Defects in the system and need for change
Current 40-60 quota system has been in operation continuously for about 4 decades. No serious attempts have been made to improve facilities in the schools in educationally disadvantaged districts during this period. High weightage (60%) given to district quota in a highly competitive university admission process appears to be excessive and unfair. The quota system has many defects, and it has been extensively and openly abused by many students/ parents. The policy is based on the assumption that educational facilities are not uniform throughout the island to adopt the island wide merit scheme. It also assumes that all schools in the same district are equivalent and have equal educational facilities. However, it is important to note that the discrepancy in the facilities is visible even more within a given district. Each district, whether it is Colombo, Matara, Anuradhapura, Ratnapura or Jaffna, has well equipped good schools as well as poorly equipped bad schools. Therefore, it is hard to justify the basis of this scheme.
Since there is disparity in the educational facilities within a district, it would be more appropriate to use a quota system based on school groups rather than districts. In such a scheme, number of places allocated will be determined in proportion to the number of students sitting the A/L exam.
However, in the district quota system, admission numbers are determined in proportion to the total population. Former method is more appropriate for the allocation of places for university admission.
It is disheartening to note that 16 out of 25 districts (64%) in Sri Lanka are declared as educationally disadvantaged areas. These 16 districts are Nuwara Eliya, Hambantota, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mulllativu, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticoloa, Ampara, Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Badulla, Monaragala and Ratnapura. Similarly, out of 9 provinces four entire provinces (Northern, Eastern, North Central and Uva) have been declared as educationally disadvantaged. If one considers the whole provinces only the Western province is educationally advantaged. This classification needs reexamination. If this is the reality after 70 years of achieving independence from British rule, there should be something seriously wrong with our national policy.