Monday, October 10, 2011

A Case for Private Education in Sri Lanka - Safeguard free education, but broad-basing education a must

The Island,

Welcome to the fifty seventh edition of this regular column. Here in this column, we discuss a wide range of topics around Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) as well as about Business, Education, Entrepreneurship and the Society at large.

Malabe Private Medical College

The talk of the town these days has been the Malabe Private Medical College. I guess everyone has an opinion about it. I too have one and I felt it’s worth discussing here.

It’s a good thing. Yes, I believe this initiative is a good thing. For many reasons.

There are around 200,000 students sitting for local ALs. Many obtain a result that is sufficient for university entry. But only 20,000 or so get placements in government universities. Should that mean the rest don’t have a right to higher education?

Many students travel overseas for studies, this includes medicine. Medicine happens to be one of the most expensive courses in international universities. It is Sri Lankan money that disappears from the country. Yes it may be from the affordable class, but then again it’s our money. That is money that should have been kept within our country if those services were made available within the country. So, why should we let a whole lot of money go out?

Also, let’s not forget, the rich have sent their kids overseas for higher education for decades. So, if someone wasn’t selected to a local university but they were ‘very’ rich, then they could go overseas. We had leaders who were Oxford or Sorbonne educated, right? If private education is provided in Sri Lanka then it would not be as expensive as overseas education. Then even the less affordable could have a right to higher education. Why do we have to stand against extending the accessibility to education?

Quality is paramount

For many other areas of study, private education is expanding in Sri Lanka. So, the question is, why not for medicine? Of course, the quality is paramount and the standards have to be maintained. That’s the role of the authorities to maintain the proper controls and regulate the sector. So as long as there are processes to ensure quality and standards, there shouldn’t be a problem with the concept.

The government’s move to ask for 20% slots in these private universities for those who excelled well in their ALs will further expand the opportunities for those who can’t afford it otherwise.

At times I personally can’t understand the reasons for opposition when the facts are so clear that it’s a good move. It’s pretty simple that the world is moving towards an open economy. Well, we moved to one some thirty years ago and since then the world has opened up further, while we still struggle to come to grips with the concept. It is impractical to keep just the education system a closed one. Services that were provided by the government are today provided by the private sector.

For example, medical services are provided as a private service today. The doctors who work in the government hospitals themselves then go to private clinics in the evening and do private practice. If that is good in this open economy, why is private education bad? I wish the educated doctors association that is opposing this move wouldn’t be hypocritical in these matters.

Change is the only thing that does not change. So let’s be prepared to change with the times. Edwards Deming once said "It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory".

Safeguard Free Education

I benefitted from free education. I studied in government schools for thirteen years and then at University of Colombo for four years for my bachelors in Computer Science. So, I’m a result of free education in this country. My wife too studied at the University of Colombo. My father who was one of the most senior civil servants in this country too was a result of free education.

But, today it is not right for me to oppose someone else achieving a degree in Computer Science from a private institute. Everyone should have access to it.

I am all for free education in this country. It has to be safeguarded, full stop. But the accessibility to education has to be broadened. If government can afford only 20,000 higher education spots, who is going to look after the rest? The very rich will look after themselves. But the rest? Also, who is going to increase the number of higher educated graduates from the point of 20,000 onwards?

We are talking about making Sri Lanka a knowledge hub. Then knowledge is the key. Generating more and more people with various types of knowledge is the requirement of the time. What’s the mechanism to produce that?

Let’s not forget, the students who travel overseas due to the limitations in the local higher education sector have been educated by our free education system for at least thirteen years. This means that the people of this country have already invested in them. After spending a significant amount of time and money on them, we let them go out of the country along with about Rs 40 million of our own money to study overseas. Is that reasonable?

Money and Brain Drain

Then there is the risk of them not returning back at all. From personal experiences I know that a lot of students, who go to Australia, don’t return. They make some sort of visa arrangements and stay back. After working for a couple of years, getting married and having children who start schooling in the new country, it becomes practically impossible for them to return, even if they like to do so. Isn’t that brain drain? It’s our resources. So why create an environment for them to leave in the first place?

Apart from the educated doctors, it has been a few university students who have come forward to protest against this. I would just like to ask them to think of the real facts and see if it is the right thing to do for the country. Certain political parties might like students on the road. That is just to keep them alive. But the vast majority of students do understand this reality and have moved away from these opportunists. I encourage others to think deeply and understand the need of the country and act based on that.

I have been to a few countries and charging money for education seems to be a usual thing. While I don’t argue that it’s the only way, Sri Lanka cannot be on welfare on all matters. There can be economies in education too.

One Mr Aloysius Hettiarachchi (a civil engineer who passed out from Peradeniya in the late sixties) had written on a website (LankaWeb) regarding this. He says, "I, myself, have spent lot of hard earned money to educate my children abroad and one of them happened to be in medicine, in a so called developed country. I would have spent all that money in Sri Lanka if there were avenues available at home. One of my relation’s daughter was just one mark short of getting selected to a government medical college. She decided to go to Bangladesh and do medicine. Now, she has earned her medical degree and passed the act 16 easily. Why should we send our children to another third world country which may not have even the facilities that Malabe has".

There is a move to encourage more foreign universities to setup here in Sri Lanka. That is a good thing too, because in developed countries, the education system is broad and liberal, and that helps with producing what the country wants as it’s governed by market realities. In contrast the old government university system was hardly governed by any external factors; rather the universities kept doing what they had been doing for decades. While we have some top class graduates coming out of this system who do well here and overseas, it is a system that generates a few thousand unemployable graduates every year. Either this group has to be on the road being unemployed or the government has to ‘create’ unproductive jobs for them. Unfortunately the latter seems to be the action taken in most cases. Then we end up with a public sector that has too many people but is yet highly inefficient. Although it looks like a different issue, I feel they are interconnected. The system is not flexible and responsive to the realties of the day yet.

I wish everyone comes together in fixing these issues rather than opposing right at the start. I believe that’s the way the educated people handle things.

Please drop a note if you have any feedback to

See you next week!

The Columnist

Yasas Vishuddhi Abeywickrama is a professional with significant experiences. He was recognised in 2003 by CIMA (UK) as an up and coming business leader for the future. In 2011 he was recognised as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons (TOYP) in Sri Lanka. Yasas has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from University of Colombo and a Masters degree in Entrepreneurship & Innovation from Swinburne University in Australia. He has worked in the USA, UK, Sri Lanka & Australia and being trained in the USA & Malaysia. He is currently involved in the training organisation, Lanka BPO Academy ( Apart from this column, he is a regular resource person for ‘Ape Gama’ program of FM Derana. Yasas is happy to answer your relevant questions – email him at .

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