We need to analyse the government’s attempts to embark on a process of further liberalising the higher education sector in Sri Lanka in this context. The open market economic regime, which commenced in 1977 continuously guiding policymakers towards capitalistic economic extremism, provides the basic premise for this exercise. It is incorrect to claim that the government is trying to privatise the higher education sector. The process of privatisation of higher education, in fact, began in 1977 as a patchwork process. What is unclear is whether the government is attempting to fix and correct the unwieldy system of higher education or further privatise by advancing the patchwork process.
The government is seemingly embarking on getting the private sector to provide higher education without independent assessments on the existing system. A lack of consultation with relevant stakeholders is a hallmark of the present exercise. The academics of the universities are clueless as to what the government is doing or is planning to do for the higher education sector. The government has kept people in the country in the dark on the contemplated reforms. People are wondering if they all will have to buy higher education in the future. However, privatisation of universities cannot be (should not be) done without obtaining the peoples’ mandate for such a drastic systemic shift. One needs to look at the goals of various higher education institutions in relation to the role that the state must play while trying to allow markets to participate in providing higher education. The new system of higher education needs to be embedded in a Sri Lankan model of free economy. Both, the state and the private sector can play their role in higher education complementarily, so that the best can happen in the future. A Sri Lankan model of higher education has to be identified with due regard to the historical, social, and cultural principles and imperatives of Sri Lankan society.
Privatisation of the higher education sector in Sri Lanka has taken place as a piecemeal exercise since 1977. It began with the introduction of the Universities Act of 1978 that introduced external degrees. Various other regulatory arrangements resulted in the commencement of a number of tertiary education institutes. The state provided funding for financing a significant part of undergraduate education in the country. First, the Universities Act of 1978 allowed all universities to offer external degrees on a fee-levying basis. Private institutions conducted teaching. The universities administered examinations according to curricula prepared by each university and awarded degrees. For the last 30 years, universities awarded a large number of Bachelor’s degrees in the areas of management, humanities and social sciences through this process. These external degrees are private degrees in terms of recipients as students have paid for learning as well as evaluations. However, the universities or policymakers paid little attention to the quality and relevance of external degrees because the policymakers were preoccupied with internal undergraduate education. The institutional mechanism in the university system was suited, basically, for internal undergraduate education.
Secondly, the government introduced policies and regulatory changes to allow universities/institutions to sell postgraduate degrees. Private provision of postgraduate education commenced initially through postgraduate institutes. Subsequently, the Faculties of each university commenced offering postgraduate degrees on a fee-levying basis. Since 1977, we experienced the private provision of postgraduate education.
Thirdly, newly established tertiary education institutes began the training of skilled workers in various fields and awarded diplomas and certificates. Finally, various private institutions were allowed to emerge in order to train skilled workers in the fields of ITC, management, accountancy, and languages, etc. Some of these institutions have functioned as licensed franchises of foreign universities and assisted foreign universities to offer certificates, diplomas and degrees through distance mode. Through this channel, developed countries got the required skill workers trained, because developed countries have always tried to pull skilled workers from developing countries to their countries to fill the skilled-worker cadre. This evidence makes it clear that government privatised the higher education sector through a patchwork process since 1978. As a result, the higher education sector has become extremely unwieldy and difficult to fix.
In their efforts to reform the university sector, policymakers must understand and value the dual roles that universities play. The dual roles are the creation of knowledge and training of skilled workers required for the country. The mission of a university should embed both these provisions. The attempt is seemingly to convert universities into institutes that train skilled workers. However, the country also needs intellectuals. Skilled workers are not necessarily intellectuals or vice versa.
An intellectual is a person who uses thought and reason and critical or analytical reasoning. An intellectual is a person involved in, and with, abstract, erudite ideas and theories. He/she is a person whose profession solely involves the production and dissemination of ideas. He/she is a person of notable cultural and artistic expertise whose knowledge grants him/her intellectual authority in public discourse. He/she is a person of high mental calibre and applied mental agility that can inductively or deductively reason from evidence and patterns, with the creativity to think outside the box. An intellectual is endowed with the power of understanding and capacity for the higher forms of knowledge or thought characterised by intelligence or mental capacity.
A skilled worker, on the other hand, is a person who has acquired special skills or a person trained to work in a specific occupation. The list of skilled workers as professionals is extensive, namely; bakers, butchers, minters, cooks, cutters, dyers, editors, fishermen, gilders, hunters, electricians, managers, financial advisors, fund managers, bankers, teachers, engineers and doctors, etc., to name a few. Skilled workers are not necessarily intellectuals. We must recognise the fact that the nation requires philosophers, sociologists, mathematicians, biologists, archaeologists, economists, historians, botanists, natural scientists, etc., to name a few.
There is a misperception among policymakers that universities should give undergraduates basic ICT and language competency. However, why should the government wait until students come to the universities to give basic training in ICT and English? In my view, universities should not spend their resources to provide basic literacy in ICT and languages (English, Sinhala and Tamil etc.). The government must create a proper system to provide required English and ICT competency in schools because students undergo 13 years of education from grade 1 to grade 13 before they enter a university. If students enter universities with competency in basic ICT and English, students will be well equipped for higher learning or unlearning in the universities.
Policymakers should also recognise the basis for the provision of higher education. The system of free university education relies on a strong philosophical premise. That is, markets fail in providing higher education fully, efficiently, equally and fairly. In order to understand this, one can look at the definition of goods and services in terms of the ability to supply them through the market mechanism. This involves two properties of a good or service; non-rivalry and excludability. Private goods are excludable with clearly defined property rights attached to them; and often, they are rivals in consumption. If one person consumes a particular private good, others cannot enjoy it any longer. This rivalry in consumption and excludability in production makes it possible for the people to exchange the good through the market mechanism. The excludability of private goods makes them tradable in markets on prices. Public goods on the other hand are non-rival in consumption or indivisible of their benefits. They are also non-excludable. Non-rivalry in consumption means that consumption of a public good by one person does not detract anything from its consumption by others. Non-excludability refers to the fact that it is impossible, or at least extremely difficult to exclude people from the good’s consumption. This is the oldest definition of public goods that goes back to Samuelson’s seminal work in 1954.
According to the above definition, the market mechanism works in the training skilled workers. The price mechanism does not work in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. This implies that training of skilled workers is a private good and the creation and dissemination of knowledge is a public good. However, some argue that private provision is possible but not feasible in countries like ours as most people are unable to pay to buy higher education.
Samuelson’s definition has however, given rise to various criticisms because, with respect to social justice and economic equality concerns, most critics ask the question whether the private provision of higher education is feasible. First, many analysts point out that concept ‘public’ and ‘private’ encompasses variable properties. Whether a good is public or private is often not a given but a matter of policy choice. In the case of higher education, the majority of people have supported the public provision of university education for the last six decades in Sri Lanka based on the premise that most people in the country are unable to pay to demand it. Second, a good’s public quality in consumption, or being there for all, must not automatically mean that all population segments actually enjoy it and find that it has positive utility for them.
In the case of obtaining training in skilled worker categories, the poor are not able to pay for a degree so that they are not able to effectively demand education. The government may also create institutions to provide training of skilled workers privately for those who are able to pay. For these reasons, most people in Sri Lanka are not able to make an effective demand for higher education because of the inability to pay, and therefore state universities should provide free higher education. Any higher education reform exercise needs to pay due regard to this fact.
There is no doubt that the higher education sector should be reformed to allow those who are able to pay to get Bachelor’s degrees, if they have reached the qualifying levels. Regulatory changes are required for broadening the entry qualifications for Bachelor’s degrees. Sri Lanka needs a higher education model where both public and private provision occurs formally. The government must fix the unwieldy higher education sector. In order for the state universities to be able to effectively undertake the duals roles mentioned above, the government should be able to retain high quality and research-oriented human resources in the state university system. For this purpose, the government must provide academics in the state universities with internationally competitive salaries and other benefits. Government must also provide adequate funds for undertaking research required for the country. To liberalise the higher education sector, a new Universities Act is needed giving more autonomy to the universities.
The government must examine the possibilities for state universities to offer Bachelor’s degrees on a fee-levying basis by formalising the existing external degree programmes. For this purpose, the state universities can establish Affiliated Campuses to offer high quality external degrees on a fee-levying basis. The government must create efficient institutional structures in the state universities so that they can offer high quality postgraduate degrees on a fee-levying basis through various partnerships with globally renowned foreign universities. In order to facilitate postgraduate education and research, the government must strengthen the faculty structure with a proper management system to suit postgraduate education or establish postgraduate institutes affiliated to each faculty. Both of these arrangements – affiliated campuses to offer external degrees and postgraduate institutes to offer postgraduate degrees – will strongly enhance the resource base of state universities by lessening the burden on the national budget.
It is obvious from the above discussion that the government needs to facilitate and finance independent rigorous investigations and evaluations before introducing measures to reform the higher education sector. The government needs to create a feasible model for higher education and research that strengthens the state universities while creating space for the private provision of higher education. The chosen model of higher education will determine whether Sri Lanka is destined to be a prosperous and humane nation or an impoverished one. For reforming the higher education sector in Sri Lanka, policymakers can creatively emulate countries like Singapore, South Korea, and Malaysia. It remains to be seen whether the government has decided to consult all stakeholders involved or keep faith with the two-third majority in parliament to reform the higher education sector.