Higher Education in Sri Lanka: Squabbling while our future burns?

Cartoon by Awantha Atigala

What do you think of higher education in Sri Lanka, a young documentary film maker asked me a few weeks ago.

That would be a good idea, I replied. I wasn’t trying to be too cynical, but that’s the stark reality.

Sri Lanka’s 20 million population is served by 15 public universities. Between them, these had a total of 65,588 students (not counting those enrolled with the Open University) and 4,738 faculty members in 2009.

None of these universities come anywhere near the top 1,000 (or even top 2,000) of the world’s universities as independently ranked using measurable criteria. Some say we have universities in name only, which of course those inside the system protest and deny vehemently.

University World News, an online global higher education publication focusing on international higher education news and analysis, recently asked me for a comment article on the crisis in Sri Lanka’s higher education sector. When I said I was a complete outsider to the system, they replied that’s precisely why they wanted my view.

So I wrote a 1,100 words which has just been published. My original title was ‘Squabbling while our future burns’ but some editors like to understate (their prerogative). I’m glad the rest of my text has largely survived their considerate editing.

Here are the opening paras:

“Sri Lanka’s university system is overburdened, outdated, and badly in need of reform. But politicians, academics and students just can’t agree on how to do it. So they fight.

“The recent wave of student protests have focused on one element of a wider package of proposed reforms: inviting private universities into a country where publically -funded universities currently dominate.

“In Sri Lanka’s heavily polarised political culture, the much-needed reforms have become the latest source of bickering. Yes, we need public discussion and debate to make the best policy choices. But what progress can be achieved when rhetoric replaces reason?

“As a concerned citizen and anxious parent, I call this reckless squabbling while our children’s future burns…”

Read the full essay on University World News website
SRI LANKA: Squabbling while higher education burns

The essay ends with the brief author bio, part of which reads: “Nalaka Gunawardene sometimes calls himself a ‘higher education refugee'”. My regular readers know how and why.