Monday, October 29, 2012

Higher Education: Increased Fund Allocations Call For Policy Reforms

By Dinidu de Alwis, and Chrishanthi Christopher
The Appropriations Bill for the year 2013 was presented to parliament by Leader of the House, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. During the coming weeks, The Sunday Leader will take a detailed look at spending patterns on key subject areas, and attempt to set them in a historical context. This week, we focus on state-spending on tertiary education.
States pending and its trends
One of the many protests held requesting to increase the allocation by 6% GDP
State spending on education was a hot topic this year, which managed to garner public support due to large-scale union action by university lecturers. Calls were made asking the government to spend a sum equal to 6% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education, which brought in a bit of scrutiny from the mass public about spending on education, with specific reference to University Education.
The total spending allocated for the year 2013 through the Appropriations Bill stands at nearly Rs. 28 billion, split Rs. 18 billion as recurrent expenditure and nearly Rs. 10 billion as capital investment.
Out of this expenditure, the Ministry of Higher Education is expected to get Rs. 3.4 billion: more than Rs. 2.5 billion as capital expenditure and the rest for recurrent expenditure. The University Grants Commission, which is the governing body for Sri Lanka’s universities, will get a total budget of around Rs. 24.5 for its expenses: Rs. 17.1 billion for recurrent expenditure and Rs. 7.4 billion for capital expenditure.
In addition, an unspecified amount will also be spent through various other programmes – namely the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development – for vocational training and higher education purposes. Funds are also spent through various government bodies, including semi-governmental organisations such as research institutions, for studies both locally and abroad, including for PhDs for staff researchers. A total of 22,016 students were selected to universities in 2010, up from 21,547 in 2009 and more than double from 10 years prior.
“The developments proposed to the existing universities to improve them as university townships over the next 3 years and the ongoing quality improvements and incentives offered at universities to engage in research with the private sector, are also expected to shift the standards of Sri Lankan universities. Reforming skills education to a level that will award courses in engineering, tourism, ports and logistic services, IT and software, food processing and construction related subjects is also vital, to be able to meet the demand of an emerging economy, and also for the benefit of those proposing to venture on overseas employment, that is a main source of foreign exchange earnings,” the government said in a report released earlier this year, setting out the plan for education.
For the academic year 2010/2011, a total of 142,516 students met the minimum requirements for university entrance, out of a total 233,609 who faced the GCE Advanced Level exam. Out of this, 54,124 applied for university and 22,016 were given placements.
Policy shift needed
Nisha Arunathilake, an economist with think tank Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) says that at an initial stage of development in a country there are always arguments for giving priority for general level education, but adds that simply more money on the sector without reforms “would not work.”
“At present we have fairly good access to education at the primary and lower secondary levels of education. At that level the challenge for the education sector is one of improving quality.  Improving quality also call for more funds. But, more funds alone will not work.  We need to make sure that those funds are properly channelled for improving the education process and improving education outcomes.”
She says in order to prepare a workforce that is ready to face the challenges of the modern work place, education at the general level (although essential) alone is not sufficient.
“Workers need to have the advanced competencies for them to be able to learn new things and communicate effectively. Such skilled workers are needed in sufficient numbers to drive productivity in the workplace.”
Arunathilake says that Sri Lanka’s education system (both the tertiary and vocational training sectors) does not produce sufficient numbers of skilled graduates. The system needs to increase both capacity and quality to meet the challenge of producing enough such workers.  “Both actions call for more funds.  Again more funds alone are not the answer. Available funds should be used to produce the skilled graduates that are in demand in the market.”
“I would say all education sectors (general, tertiary and vocational) need more funds, and better means of administering those funds to ensure that all receive a quality education at the general level, and sufficient numbers receive a quality education in vocational training or tertiary education according to their choice.”
At present the government is spending about Rs. 20,000 per student in general education, about Rs. 32,000 a student in vocational training, and about Rs. 250,000 a student in tertiary education (according to rough calculations based on Ministry of Finance and Planning data for 2010).
“I think perhaps, first attention should be paid to improving outcomes from the amounts spent thus far. Just increasing funds, without improving their administration and management might not result in the desired results,” she says.
Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, the controversial head of the Federation of University Teachers Associations, doesn’t have a direction that he specifically wants the government spending to go to.
They were pushing for the government to spend 6% of the GDP for education, but throughout their struggle remained mum about how the spending should be broken down.
The current direction
Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawaratne, the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education, says that the plan for the future including bringing Sri Lankan universities into the list of the best 1,000 universities in the world.
“We want to make use of the budget allocation to improve the quality of graduates that pass out of universities and produce world class universities in the island,” he says, adding “We have selected seven universities - Colombo, Moratuwa, Peradeniya, Ruhunu, Jayawardenapura, Kelaniya and Jaffna – and have allocated Rs.100 million each to bring them within the first 1000 universities in the world ranking.
At present Colombo university is in the 1640 place and Moratuwa at 2100. “The skills of graduates are not up to standard and our end product is not marketable,” he admits. “We are aiming to improve their skills for employability and make them 100 per cent employable on a global level.”
At present the percentage of graduates’ employability is in the average of 60 per cent.  Moratuwa University has the most employability rate of 97 per cent followed by Colombo at 62 per cent and Ruhunu at 60 per cent, and Peradeniya at 53 per cent. Among the faculties Engineering got 94 per cent employability, Medicine at 90 per cent, science at 70 per cent and Management at 60 per cent. The figure drops to 23 per cent for the arts streams.
“Today’s graduates take down notes during lecturers and reproduce them in exams. But the market is asking for a different product. Arts skills graduates need to have skills that can market them.  We need quality assurance to improve their marketability. We are concentrating on ten areas where they need to be improvement such as communication, team work, integrity, intellectual ability, confidence, character and presentation, planning and organization, writing skills numeracy and analysis and decision making,” Nawarathne says.
For the government, through various policy documents that have been issued during its regime, English language skills and Information and Communication Technology skills are the main priorities for the future.
“We are also planning to encourage enterprising graduates who while studying will be running companies and business.  They will be the job givers. They will be given assistance and help. Hope to produce 1,500 entrepreneur graduates a year,” he says. The entrepreneurships of many were questioned recently at a forum on youth employment, where investment bankers were grudging about the lack of risk-taking enthusiasm of the state-university products. Nawarathne admits that more allocations for research are needed.
“Encouragement to do more research on social and burning issues such as floods, earthquakes and others for the economic development of the country,” he says, is another aspect the government is focusing on. Lack of funding for research was a major complain from university teachers during their union action a month back.
Nawarathne takes a more market-oriented approach towards education. “We hope to increase the intake of foreign students and our target is to increase the numbers to 10,000 students by 2015. At present the number stands at 1200,” he says.
“We have also invited the private sector to participate in our programmes. With the budget allocation, private sector participation and aid from donor agencies we can achieve our target,” he adds.
The Nay-Sayers
Sanjeewa Bandara, the convener of the Inter-University Student Federation, says that the present allocation will not be enough even to address the basic problems in the universities.
“It was because of the low allocations that we struck for a 6 per cent increase,” he says. Bandara’s IUSF, which is backed by the Marxist-leaning JanathaVimukthi Peramuna, was a strong supporter of the FUTA union struggle as well as an advocate for increase in education spending.
“We need buildings, lecture rooms, labs, computers and quarters for students. Due to lack of lecture halls we have our lectures in auditoriums that have only chairs and no facility to write down notes.  The Rajarata and Ruhunu universities have no lectures halls,” he complains.
Non-availability of computers is also said to be a key problem. “The Rajarata University that has around 2,500 students has only 60 computers. The Peradeniya University Dental faculty has only six computers.”
Complaints are also heavy on the lack of accommodation for students: “Earlier all students residing beyond the radius of 40km from home were given accommodation, but now students residing even 100-150 km cannot find accommodation in hostels.  Finding boarding places outside has become very expensive,” he says.
Many of the poor students are doing private jobs to meet their living expenses. As a result they have no time for their studies. Some even leave university because they cannot meet their living expenses. Bandara’s predecessor, Udul Premarathna, also shares the same concerns but says more needs to be done to change policy.
“We demand equal rights for all students, and for that we need enough funds allocated for education. There is no equality in the living standards of people. Poor people find equality only in the education system. But now due to minimum allocation this system is also discriminating the poor.  Poor parents have hope because of the education system. They educate their children and try to raise their living standards through them.  But now they are in a dilemma,” he says.
More money, more problems
The call for higher education spending generally come hand-in-hand with the calls for policy shifts in terms of how education in the island is viewed. The current government – which rode into power on social-welfare and pro-socialist policies, have taken a capitalist step of opening up the private education sector, and allowed private universities to start up in the island. It however, has not been without a price.
The voter base has created massive opposition for the move, which has found added momentum from the student populations of all state-funded universities and many academics. Political parties with a nationalist or leftist base – the Jathika Hela Urumaya and the JVP – have also opposed the move of letting in private universities, despite private institutions, which have affiliated degrees functioning in the country for decades.
The higher education policies of the island have to be complemented by either greater industry or through promoting entrepreneurship, to create jobs for graduates who leave university. If not the result would be further government expenditure that adds a tax burden to the income generating population, as successive governments, including the current one, are forced to hire thousands of graduates to the state-sector to fill position which are specifically created for the purpose of reducing the nation’s unemployment figures.
More money does not, as economists have said, equal better quality. More money with the current education policies would simply lead to more graduates being created, who are not necessarily of a higher quality. The burden, again, would fall onto the taxpayer.

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