If you wish to post any interesting articles please e-mail them to secretaryfuta@gmail.com.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Universities should increase research

Sunday Observer 10/07/2011

Sri Lankan universities should research to increase our high tech products’ share in exports as it is only around 1.5 percent of our total exports, said Minister of Higher Education S.B. Dissanayake.

The minister was addressing the Sri Lanka Economic Summit 2011 organised by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) in Colombo, last week.

Delivering the keynote address on ‘New Growth Opportunities - Higher Education and Skills Development’ the minister said that the global economic landscape has been changed over time and Sri Lanka’s main exports such as tea and rubber hold a very small percentage of the global trade. The value of the world tea trade is only $ 8 billion, while figures for coconut and rubber are $ 20 and 25 billion.

On the other hand, the value of the world electronics industry is $ 1,800 billion, while trade in products such as IT, telecommunication, nano-technology, and bio-technology products generate $ 2,000, 2,500, 200 and 100 billion respectively.

Sri Lanka exports a large quantity of vital minerals that are used in high tech industries in raw form and universities should focus on research to add value to these products, he said.

Today, we need new high yield seeds, machinery for agriculture, pharmaceuticals, marketing and administration systems. University academics should research in these areas as there are ample opportunities in these areas, he said.

The Minister said that human capital is the main resource and driving force of an economy. Knowledge is the tool that humans use to achieve diverse results and it is amassed and disseminated through education and training.

Sri Lanka has been boasting of a high literacy rate akin to that of developed countries for many decades at the basic levels.

But we have not succeeded in keeping that pace when it comes to higher education, training and skills development, to meet the needs of a knowledge economy.

Sri Lanka ranks 82nd out of 140 countries in the latest Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) published by the World Bank which indicates the extent we need to progress. University education in Sri Lanka is dominated by the State and it is unable to meet the demand and the quality required by the labour market.

In 2010, although 61 percent of the students who sat the Advanced Level examination were eligible for admission to a university, only 17.2 percent gained admission due to capacity limitations.

Besides, with the upsurge in economic activity, many industry sectors are encountering shortages in skilled manpower availability.

The government is in the process of opening the higher education segment for private sector investment. This is expected to increase the domestic capacity of university education.

The majority of graduates who pass out from our universities are not happy as they cannot find employment. Why has this happened? A large section of the cream of the students who have undergone a university education cannot find employment unless they are employed by the government. So, there is a clear issue of quality. There may be many reasons for this. At times, students may be forced to study what is available at the university, which does not in any way match the requirements for gainful employment. To get out of this situation we have to emulate other countries. The public sector alone cannot absorb these graduates and we have to think of how to produce marketable degrees.

The government alone cannot supply the increasing demand for higher education and therefore the non-state sector should take part in the provision of higher education.

Quoting Milton Freedman, the Minister said, “‘There’s no free lunch’ and taxpayers pay for the higher education provided by the government free of charge.” The new Act of Higher Education is now ready to address the issues prevailing in the higher education sector, he said.

”Our objective is to provide graduates with quality degrees that they can market here and abroad. We will take every possible action to improve the quality of the degrees and improve the skills of the graduates. The Sri Lanka Qualification Framework and the Sri Lanka Quality Assurance and Accreditation Council will be established from next year to monitor quality aspects of all higher education institutions and their degrees. Since the corporate private sector is the ultimate employer of these graduates we need your support,” the Minister said.

We have taken steps to change attitudes, and improve their soft and leadership skills. A wrong perception was created on the leadership training program begun for university students. The first batch of students had doubts over the program but now they are happy with the program.

Another three months training program will begin for university entrants to improve their IT skills, English knowledge and other soft skills.

Vice Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa Prof. Malik Ranasinghe delivered a lecture on ‘Challenges and Opportunities in University Education’.

He said that the university administration, governed by Act No.16 of 1978, is obsolete and does not match present needs. Students are selected by the University Grants Commission (UGC).

The State pays for the cost of the education and over 30 percent of the students get government financial support through Mahapola Scholarships.

The anticipatated outcomes are equal opportunities, students’ choice, a useful education and a marketable degree. Unfortunately none of these outcomes is met today.

Opportunities are not equal in the education sector because facilities in all schools are not equal. There are 9,700 schools in the country and of them only 2450 schools have A/L classes. There are only 670 schools with A/L science classes. Of them only 175 schools have so far sent students to medical faculties and only 206 schools have sent students to engineering faculties.

Students do not have a choice in selecting subject streams and the selection is done by the UGC with only a few students obtaining high marks having a choice in selecting subject streams. Out of the students who enter universities 53 percent follow arts subjects, 25 percent commerce while 22 percent follow science stream subjects.

The usefulness criteria is also not met. Employers seek academically sound, technically competent graduates with soft skills who are flexible team players. Since graduates who pass out from our universities lack in these areas they are not marketable.

To produce marketable graduates the private sector should closely work with universities and help in their training. This interaction is now in IT education in the universities. It should expand to other sectors as well. There are ample student based research and development and consultancy based opportunities in universities.

The investment opportunities in Sri lanka in the higher education sector is long term. Within the next five years nothing will change in State universities. Therefore, private sector support to make the provision of university education competitive and produce employable graduates must take top priority.