Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Act giving permission for the establishment of Private Universities

Today there are 75,000 students enrolled in State Universities excluding the Open University and those following External Degree Courses which are also qualifications given by the State. Each year 17,000 Bachelor’s Degrees are awarded by all State degree awarding bodies including those of Open and External nature.

A further 75,000 follow courses, not always leading to degrees, such as diploma awarding institutions, Aquinas University NIBM, CGTTI and even the diplomas and lower qualifications offered by the Open University and other state sources. Some students once they receive diplomas, go on further to complete degrees if they so choose as they receive exemptions and course credits so to do. These courses are fee levying and possibly subsidized to a lesser degree by the state. The UGC(University grants Commission) has some input into either licensing or approving the diplomas and degrees so awarded by way of input.

In addition there are approximately 100,000 students following various degree courses in private institutions, accredited or not with overseas universities. They exclude the further 300,000 students who follow diploma, CIMA, CIM, CASL, AAT and various other courses some that are better recognized by employers than State Undergraduate degrees and others less so. This latter population I would refer to as the private sector of tertiary education. This group does NOT undergo any state supervision, regulation or certification. Ironically the Private Sector in my experience is better able to gauge the quality of a certificate from these bodies over those of the state ones, and all the above are almost exclusively taught in English and awarded in English. We must remember that there are billions of rupees spent by the people, which employ thousands of teachers, full time and part time in this tertiary education sector. It is also possible that some teachers in the public sector also teach in this sector for additional remuneration, by moonlighting!!

In this background the Government is about to introduce a Bill in Parliament to establish some norms for the latter sector that I referred to. There will obviously have to be definitions of what constitutes a University, a Degree and so on, and in that context about half of the Private sector tertiary education institutions are likely to be excluded from the bill. For example the CIMA qualification is likely to be excluded, as it is a completely independent body clearly aligned to the UK parent body, which sets the exams does the testing and monitors the standards.

I presume that a swathe of institutions that offer courses, some of them providing 2 out of a 4 year degree, where the balance has to be completed at the overseas mother institutions will be included in the bill for regulation or standardization.
Yesterday a newspaper reported that FUTA the federation of University Teachers who are battling for a pay raise, have condemned the setting up of Private Universities, making clear allegations that third rate institutions have set up shop here offering courses, and that neither Harvard, Cambridge or Oxford have set up campuses here. They must be dreaming if they think that as the likes of the top 10 universities of the world are not present in Sri Lanka, then they should be banned, when the best Public University in Sri Lanka is world ranked in the 500 range.

In reality their beef should be that by using the private education escape route the government has made a policy decision to promote Private University Education, so that they will take the slack, and fewer resources will thus be required from the State for the Public University system. This abrogation of the rights and resources for the Public Sector, is what needs to debated, rather than the merits or not of the Private Tertiary Sector which is thriving in Sri Lanka and should not be messed around with. Some form of basic regulation of these establishments so that people spending money are not duped by fly by night operators is all the state should be take responsibility for.

There was a recent protest by the Medical Students against the Private Medical College in Malabe, accredited to a Russian University if I am not mistaken. We know the outcome of this battle in advance as they will be permitted to operate, but abide by some basic guidelines to ensure that minimum standards are adhered to. After all if we permit students to go to any University Overseas to get a Medical Qualification if they have the means to support themselves during the study period, why should we prevent the same from happening in Sri Lanka!!! The overseas qualified doctors have to sit a special exam in Sri Lanka before they are permitted to practice as doctors here, and in the worst case these same local privately educated doctors should be permitted the same privileges. Remember their Medical Qualification is not being awarded by the State University System.

Given the aforesaid setting in Sri Lanka, I suggest all those young people and tertiary sector teachers, agitate for more directed spending for Public Sector Tertiary Education. They should identify the weak areas, the needed areas, the areas where the demand for skills is greatest. In the interest of social justice, those who come up the hard way, by way of scholarship or bursary due to their disadvantaged backgrounds, must have a chance in this system to attain their goals.

We must face reality, and achieve practical goals, and not compromise the free education ethic, but take out the ‘FOR ALL’ as far as Tertiary Education is concerned. No country can provide free education for all who qualify!

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