Lateral entry to Sri Lankan universities

The fact that a significant number of GCE (A/L) students of Sri Lanka who qualify for university education fail to secure a place in the universities in the country is a major social and economic drawback. Although the government has provided free education at primary and secondary levels since the beginning of the free education policy in 1940s, it has failed to make free education available to all those eligible to receive a university education.

Many people can see this as one of the failures in the implementation of the free education system in the country. One can argue that the government is not treating equally all the tax-paying parents whose children fail to get a placement in the public universities. However, the education system in Sri Lanka cannot be discussed without reviewing or referring to the free education policy in place within the island for more than 60 years. Free education is part and parcel of the fabric of Sri Lankan life.

The architects of free education did not envisage the influx of a massive student population from secondary education to university education. Further, they did not formulate a sustainable solution for those students who qualify for tertiary education. Consequently, around 85% of the students who qualify for university education fall by the wayside,refer Figure 1 for some statistics:

Figure 1 – Students Qualified to University and Number of Students Enrolled

Source: University Grant Commission of Sri Lanka

A solution to this crisis was never supported by Marxist political parties, many graduates and undergraduates under the pretext of “safeguarding the free education system”. This has created several social and economic issues within Sri Lankan society. This unfortunate situation was politically exploited by Marxist political parties on several occasions in 1971 and the late 1980s. Due to the lack of a sizeable university educated population in Sri Lanka, the overall human behavioural qualities and material development of the society have broken down to a large extent.

A significant brain drain and an outflow of considerable amounts of much needed foreign currency (Rs. 148 billion annually, according to Ministry of Investment Promotion, October 2013) out of the country are another side of the problem of the lack of university education to the majority of Sri Lankans.

The Table 1 below illustrates the gravity of the crisis.
Number of Sri Lankans Students Studying in Foreign Countries 2001-2010

Source: UIS/UNESCO – The Tower of Learning- Performance, Peril and Promise of Higher Education in Sri Lanka, the World

Bank, July 2009, and Ministry of Investment Promotion -2013

The simple answer to this national disaster in tertiary education is to (i) establish many universities by the public and private sector, (ii) introduce innovative ideas of establishing university colleges and schools affiliated to such public and private universities, (iii)invite recognized foreign universities to establish their campuses in Sri Lanka. However, it is a known fact that this is not an easy task for the government, with other priorities in health, transport, and infrastructure development, etc., to invest in more public universities or increase the current university intake. The government has to think more creatively to cope with this massive demand for university education.

It has to formulate a new radical policy objectively to increase opportunities for university education to majority of Sri Lankans. The effective use of existing limited resources, Public Private Partnership (PPP), private sector investments, and allowing recognized foreign universities to be established in Sri Lanka are a few such policy decisions that need to be taken immediately. These proposals can be elaborated on more precisely with its respective categories as follows:

1. Innovative proposals: (i) Government Corporations and private industries commencing degree courses in their respective fields affiliated to local or foreign universities similar to the General Kotelawala Defence Academy and Brandix Garments (ii) Conducting evening, and night lectures utilizing limited current facilities more efficiently in the present public universities without limiting its functioning to day classes. (iii) Charging a nominal fee from the undergraduates in public universities in order to provide more services and encourage them to concentrate on education over the political and violent activities within and outside the universities, (iv) Not limiting the conducting of all lectures or the functioning of faculties to the traditional university premises but taking them outside the premises where more space and facilities are available in order to expand the university functions beyond the boundaries of the university.

2. Private sector participation: (i) Public Private Partnerships (PPP) to establish higher educational institutions (ii) Establish recognized foreign universities and university affiliated colleges and schools to award degrees under the government regularity authority (iii) establish private universities and colleges under government regularity authority similar to the Malabe Medical College.

3. General proposals: (i) Enhance distance learning facilities and on-line courses, (ii) Establish colleges and universities affiliated to existing public universities (iii) introduce a “lateral entry”top-up degree programme within the Sri Lankan university system.

In line with the above proposal an online survey was conducted by a group of business management students in 2009/10 and they found some interesting feedback for the above proposals.They are tabulated in Table 2 below.

Proposals to Increase Tertiary Education in Sri Lanka

From the responses set out in the above Table2 it is evident that a small minority is opposed to the expansion of university education in Sri Lanka. As noted in this paper above, this disruption of efforts to enhance tertiary education in Sri Lanka is mainly done by the so-called Marxist politicians, a majority of politically motivated undergraduates and a minority of university graduates from the government universities. The feedback in the above Table 2 shows that this backward thinking minority comprises not more than 25% of society. The majority of the population in Sri Lanka is enthusiastically looking to the expansion of university education in both public and private sectors.

The findings of the survey tabulated in Table 2 above indicate that the most popular proposal for the expansion for the university education is the “Lateral Entry” mechanism. It has been voted for by 92% of the participants asthe most suitable way to resolve the current crisis caused by the lack of university education for the majority of Sri Lankans. In most developed countries, their citizens can follow a degree course at any convenient point of time once they have achieved the required entry criteria.

Thereby, these countries have given their citizens an opportunity to qualify academically at any time they wish. This will in turn produce an educated population which is a wealth to the nation. Dr. N. M. Perera in his work of “The Case for Free Education” clearly identified this concept of “lateral entry” to the Sri Lankan universities as early as 1944, when the free education system was debated in Sri Lanka:

“The second category comprises those entering immediate vocational education. This would necessitate the establishment of a number of polytechnic schools in the chief centres of the country -Kandy, Jaffna, Galle, and Colombo- to suit the various demands of the pupils and the various needs of the country. The length of the course will depend on the nature of the vocation.

The theoretical instruction in these schools will be combined with practical work. It should be possible for late developers even at this stage to enter the University for Higher Development, say, in the various branches of engineering so that in the first two years these polytechnic schools would provide a sound theoretical background combined with practical work” (Perera,1944:pp.32-33; published by Dr. N M Perera Centre, Colombo).

Unfortunately, almost 70 years later, the Sri Lankan university system has failed or is unable to understand the importance of this concept and been unsuccessful in implementing the same to date. One would think it is a failure of the successive governments one after another. However, it is unfortunate to see that it is not the politicians who did not implement lateral entry mechanism proposed in 1940s to date but the attitude of university dons and their administrative bureaucracy. In Sri Lanka, over 100,000 students are left out without a proper tertiary education each year as shown in Table 1. However, considerable numbers of these students are following various diploma and certificate courses in technical institutions and in similar organizations as shown in Table3.A similar numbers of students are studying for various local and international professional institutions examinations such as the Institutes of Chartered Engineers, Architects, Accountants and Quantity Surveyors, etc.

Number of Students in Technical College Courses
Source: Department of Technical Education and Training

The statistics above in Tables 1 and 3 provide sufficient justification to commence a lateral entry mechanism to cater this sector of the student population of Sri Lanka. This would not only be one of the answers to the lack of university education in Sri Lanka but will increase the educated population stock in Sri Lanka bringing the following immense benefits:

i. Sri Lankan students would be able to graduate as degree holders from local universities rather than going out of the country;

ii. The lateral entry courses can be self-financed and sustainable without burdening the government if they are commenced as nominal fee-based courses. Therefore, the Government would be able to provide more funds for the expansion of public universities;

iii. More job opportunities will be created in the academic and non-academic fields of the national universities;

iv. As most of the students will be retained in Sri Lanka, the brain drain would be minimized;

v. Students who have not received an opportunity to enter government universities would have an alternative route to obtain a university degree locally;

vi. As the students are studying locally, it will retain a considerable amount of foreign exchange within the country;

vii. The system can be extended to cater to the non-graduate employees working in other countries; especially in the Middle East;

viii. Finally, more importantly, the “lateral entry for the top-degree” mechanism would be able to implement within the free education frame work.

Through the lateral entry mechanism, Sri Lankans would be able to enhance their existing knowledge. The lateral entry process therefore will work as a vehicle to top-up their current qualifications such as the higher diploma, national diploma, and national certificates to degree status(Figure 2). Lateral entry top-degree is beneficial in many ways. Firstly, the student comes with strong hands-on practical experience after doing the diploma and similar courses. Secondly, after choosing a certain stream and pursuing both the diploma and the degree in the same field the depth of knowledge in the chosen field increases. Thus the lateral entry mechanism proves beneficial for both the student and the industry.

Figure 2: Later Entry to Top-up Degree in Universities in Sri Lanka

It is believed that the foregoing would strongly vindicate the University Grant Commission (UGC), and Ministry of Higher Education lobbying the university dons who still need to adjust to the innovative thinking patterns and to adjust to the global trends in tertiary education to implement top-degree courses within their respective universities with lateral entry mechanism. The benefit of commencing such a lateral entry top-up degree courses in Sri Lankan universities would benefit to all Sri Lankans who lost an opportunity to obtain a university bachelor degree due to the prevailing disparity in the university intake system. 

Speak Your Mind