Friday, July 20, 2012

Editorial - The Sri Lankan degree

Ceylon Today, Date:2012-07-18 13:06:00

As the strike by the university lecturers completes its second week, with the dons seemingly having a few more arsenals to throw at the government to force a favourable decision, it is perhaps time to put university education under the microscope and ask a pertinent question – just how job worthy is a Sri Lankan degree?

Early this year, the Labour Ministry admitted that Sri Lanka has a problem finding jobs for its graduates. This was a truth that every unemployed graduate, protesting in the streets and in front of government offices, knew. In fact, in a country which boasts of successfully bringing down the overall unemployment rate to 5.8%, the percentage of the educated unemployed is a disconcerting 20%. The numbers are even more disturbing if you take the overall youth (15-24) unemployment rate, which stands at 21.3%.

Just how big a problem this may turn out to be remains to be seen and will to a great extent depend on a number of factors, primarily the political will to revamp the university education system. But, increasingly the issue is coming under the spotlight as is the stark reminder about how the Arab uprising began and what it actually represents – the hopelessness and frustration felt by young men and women, educated, unemployed and unable to make any headway in life.

Sri Lanka has long been regarded as a model of a successful welfare state, yet in the past few decades it has faced major challenges in providing employment and meeting the aspirations of youth.

The 1971 insurrection is a harsh reminder of just how things can get out of hand if issues, especially relating to unemployment, are left to fester. It is worth noting that an astounding 24% of the population were unemployed during this period and that among the jobless and among the rebels were a large number of youths – graduates and those with Advance Level qualifications.

Certainly, the current overall unemployment figures show a remarkable, even enviable improvement and have helped Sri Lanka to be placed 148th in a list of 198 countries and in a better position than the US, France, Sweden or India. But disturbingly, no attempts appear to have been made to rectify the glitch in the youth unemployment segment, allowing the gap to widen to its current 21.3%. The increase doesn’t simply reflect the problem of not having sufficient jobs to go around, but the qualified not having the qualifications to secure a job.

This is the fallout of a university education system that is totally out of sync with the present day market requirement. In short, most of our degree courses, especially in Arts, Humanity and Social Sciences do not prepare the students for the job market.

This incongruity is well understood if one compares the Sri Lankan system of education with that of the American systems. The latter is aimed at producing entrepreneurs, while in Sri Lanka we create qualified, unemployable graduates who need additional vocational qualifications if they are to be employed in the private sector. Resultantly, they end up being job seekers, looking for a position, any position, in the already bloated public sector.

So graduates protest outside government buildings, demanding that the State that gave them the higher education also provide them with jobs. Perhaps, the graduates do recognize the irony of the demand – they are unemployable because of the kind of education they received.

The need to revamp the higher education system and structure it to meet the modern-day demands have been discussed and debated ad nausea, but to date there have been no political will to initiate the required changes. Among the demands put forward by the Federation of University Teachers Association is the call to increase government spending on education, suspend all existing
 higher education
place, and to refrain
 micromanagement of the universities so that these universities can thrive as autonomous institutions that would act as a catalyst in the development of Sri Lanka

The dons’ demands are worth listening to. For the disparity between the educational curricula and the job market is not an issue that will resolve by itself.

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