In an article published by Colombo Telegraph (26.5.2017) Sarath Jayasuriya raises an important question about the value of courses offered by state funded universities in Sri Lanka while commenting on the issues and politics around SAITM and the nature of graduates produced by private universities. He says, majority of these graduates from state universities are added to the unemployment queue and this requires the immediate attention of protestors against SAITM to get the authorities to open their eyes and ears. This is a timely reminder to all those concerned with the future of our graduates particularly large numbers of them being trained in the humanities and social sciences.
Suitability of education and training received by graduates for employment locally and globally is a crucial issue in anybody’s language as the more immediate aim of any undergraduate is to find employment after graduation. Most students follow courses that are not suitable for employment by their choice. It is due to their inability to get admitted to professionally oriented courses such as medicine, engineering, law, accounting, commerce, business and management. According to the hierarchy of (false) values prevalent in the society, less value is placed by applicants for university places on courses such as nursing and teaching compared to professionally-oriented courses.
In the higher education field worldwide, there is ongoing debate and discussion about the purpose of university education. Some academics emphasise the need for producing graduates with a skills set suitable for the employment market in a given country, the broader region and global economy. What role universities play in such endeavor compared to the role played by vocationally oriented training institutions are debated? For example in Australia Technical and Further Education or TAFE Colleges offer vocationally oriented courses. Very often universities work closely with such Colleges to create easy pathways for students to move to university after completing their TAFE qualification in fields such as early childhood education.
However, among the community of academics, there is a broad consensus that university courses should play a much broader role in providing students with critical thinking and problem solving skills, knowledge of contemporary issues and global affairs, historical and cultural heritage of one’s country, communication skills including skills in foreign languages, rights and responsibilities of citizenship, ethics and spirit of community service etc. The idea is to produce future citizens with a sense of identity and community responsibility rather than self-interested individuals who aspire to climb the class ladder with the qualifications acquired as public money is used in education.
On both counts the higher education system in Sri Lanka seems to struggle and the reasons for this dire situation are well known. In a country that appoints Commissions of Inquiry for even trivial matters, authorities have not thought it necessary to initiate an inquiry into the issues of course suitability or the state of affairs in higher education institutions including governance and politicisation. The university sector is being treated as a sacred cow and billions of rupees are pumped into the system annually as if the system is perfect. Reform is not even in the terminology of policy makers and the higher education hierarchy.
One aspect that needs to be emphasised is the lack of ‘market sensitivity’ in most courses offered by Sri Lankan universities. In other countries authorities take actions to ensure the education provided through courses is suitable for the times, graduate needs and industry expectations. This of course does not apply to courses in philosophy, history, literature or similar areas of study. In other words, universities in countries like Australia ensure market sensitiveness in the degree courses offered. For each course offered, there is a list of ‘graduates attributes’. Lecturers develop course content, assessment tasks etc. to match these attributes. I am not aware of similar requirement for the courses offered by Sri Lankan Universities.
One reason for Sri Lankan universities to offer courses with less market sensitivity is due to the fact that 100% funding is guaranteed by the state. In Australia only a little more than 50% of funding is provided to universities. In turn the universities are required to generate ‘additional income’ for operational purposes by way of entrepreneurial activities, research and consultancies. Government provides funding for research on the basis of highly competitive application vetting process annually. Such applications require well-developed team research proposals showing not only collaboration among researchers across institutions but also clearly identifiable outcomes in various fields plus rigorous methodologies.
In the cases of Sri Lanka, university academic and administrative staff receives their salaries irrespective of the quality or suitability of the courses offered, student satisfaction ratio or the nature /quality of research conducted. Elsewhere I have pointed out that the research conducted by social scientists is not grounded in the local social and cultural context. They rather imitate Western models or theories and often the aim is to prove or disprove a theory produced in Western capitals. The aim of such research is to generate empirical data to prove or disprove an outdated theory. Such research adds very little to generation of knowledge useful for policymaking or problem solving in the country. Academic dependency on Western theories, concepts and models as well as research methods is a serious issue in many Asian, Latin American and African universities.