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Home arrow Higher Education Policy arrow “The Concept of the Entrepreneurial University and Sri Lanka,” Prof. WISWA WARNAPALA, MOH


The text of speech delivered by Professor WISWA WARNAPALA, Minister of Higher Education, at the "Policy Dialogue on Higher Education in Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom" held on 27th March 2008 at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Any kind of use of the contents should be duly acknowledged.

It is indeed a pleasure to be here today at this Policy Dialogue on Higher Education in Sri Lanka and United Kingdom, which, as you know, is expected to discuss the concept of the Entrepreneurial University. This is a new idea, which has been advanced in Britain on the basis of what is called Prime Ministers Initiative (PMI2) and it proposes to establish a new entrepreneurial culture through partnerships among the Universities in other parts of the world. The aim, therefore, is to get the Universities, specially in the context of globalization, adapt innovative ways with a view to preparing graduates who could fit and match the emerging global entrepreneurial culture. It is only through this kind of an innovative approach that Universities, irrespective of their historical background and intellectual culture, could become centres of economic development, agents of innovation and facilitators of entrepreneurship. This means that educational policies and strategies in the area of Higher Education have to be changed with a view to developing a workforce for the 21st century. In other words, the concept of employability needs to guide the policies and changes in the sphere of Higher Education and the immediate need is to enter into mutually beneficial international partnerships.

It is in this context of the policy priorities that one has to consider the continued relevance of the traditional model of University education, through which Universities came to be developed on the basis of the Oxbridge model which we inherited from British times. It is not my view that this model, which served a useful purpose during the initial phase of University education in Sri Lanka, is totally obsolete, but my concern, to which I gave expression on a number of occasions, is that this model of the University, specially in the current context of Sri Lanka, needs far-reaching changes in order to accommodate the effects of globalization. Therefore, please permit me to refer to certain relevant historical facts. The system of University education in Sri Lanka, which consists of fifteen Universities and several post-graduate institutes, began in the twenties with the creation of the University College in 1921 and it was this colonial institution, with limited objectives, which was later converted into a fully fledged autonomous University - the University of Ceylon in 1942, and the system, which began to expand since the sixties, derived inspiration from this institution adapted on the Oxbridge model. The early advocates of the University - the leading members of the University movement - perceived the University as a symbol of the national renaissance and it, therefore, to a large extent, became an integral aspect of the nationalist revival, because of which the University of Ceylon, from its inception, began to give priority to the teaching of traditional disciplines. The Ceylon University Association, which was formed for the purpose of clamouring for an independent University, always claimed that the University was an essential prerequisite for the continued existence of the Sri Lankan nation. The disciplines more related and relevant to the restoration of Oriental culture attracted many a student and the initial phase of the research culture in the University of Ceylon came to be associated with the traditional disciplines, primarily those in the Humanities. This emphasis, however, did not mean that the social sciences and sciences were totally neglected, and this kind of emphasis on traditional disciplines partially agreed with the colonial objectives as the University was expected to produce graduates to fill the positions in administration, schools, law and medicine; they were the traditional employers of University graduates and what the country needed at that time was a limited number of graduates and this, in fact, was in line with the elitist character of the University. The intake in 1942 was 904, and the policy was to adopt a restricted intake, and Sir Ivor Jennings, when planning the residential University at Peradeniya, wanted to confine the annual intake to 5000 students. This, in other words, meant that the University of Ceylon would continue to remain an elitist institution, offering opportunities to the children of the privileged and the English-educated. Today the annual intake is around 20,000; the intake for this year is 19,650 and the entire system has nearly 72,000 students, whose employability is the main challenge before the Government. It is an enormous challenge which could be surmounted only with the adoption of correct policy initiatives. Though the business, industry and commerce came to be confined to those institutions associated with the plantation industry, they were not developed enough to offer opportunities to the graduates. In other words, the graduates did not play a conspicuous part in the industry and businesses of the period. Therefore the requirements of professions such as administration, teaching, medicine and law determined the nature of the development of the University in its initial phase, and no attempt was made to modify the courses in keeping with the developments in the country. Universities still remain embedded in the traditional disciplines. Yet another reason, which interfered with the freedom of the University to choose its curriculum, was the continued dominance of the traditional disciplines. There was this opinion, from the beginning of the University movement, that the ‘projected University should dedicate itself to the development of Oriental languages'. It was this philosophy which guided the early development of the country's intellectual enterprise; a galaxy of renowned scholars came on the scene and they enriched the intellectual life and the research culture of the country. The University therefore, was conceived as an institution which would revitalize and promote indigenous culture. Sir Ivor Jennings, writing in 1945 on the Universities in the Colonies, stated that' one of the tasks of the colonial University is to act as a major cultural centre'. The opinion in Sri Lanka was that the establishment of a University would lead to increased efficiency in the public service and the enrichment of the intellectual life of the country. In the initial phase and thereafter, the emphasis was on traditional disciplines, and this was primarily due to the fact that before the establishment of the University of Ceylon in 1942, the examinations conducted through the University College had a curricula more oriented towards London University examinations, and this feature, from the point of view of the advocates of the University of the early period, resulted in the retardation of the indigenous languages and culture. In 1921, in the form of a response to this criticism and challenge, the Department of Sanskrit, Pali and Sinhalese was established under Suriyagoda Sumangala Thero, and Tamil was later taught in the same Department, and it was heavily weighted in favour of Humanities. In 1922, Humanities included English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Pali, History and Philosophy. Science subjects taught at the University included Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Botany and Zoology. The only subject, which came within the area of Social Sciences, was Economics. The colonial University was expected to cover a wide range of subjects with a reasonable balance between academic and professional subjects. Jennings for instance, took the view that in arranging the syllabi of the University attention wherever possible be paid to local conditions. The decision to bring the subjects of study within the scope of the Civil Service Examination influenced the students choice of subjects at the University. The inclusion of Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhalese as subjects for Civil Service Examination increased the number of students offering theses subjects, and it affected the place of Oriental languages in the University curriculum. It was therefore very clear that no such emphasis was laid on social science subjects. Economics was taught as a part of the course in History, and Prof. S.A.Pakeman wanted it separated only after the establishment of a fully-fledged autonomous University in 1942. P.J.Thomas, who was in charge of the subject of Economics, was of the view that the economics courses were hardly suited to the conditions and needs of Sri Lanka. In 1928, Dr. Das Gupta came to Sri Lanka, and his arrival and the establishment of the Chair in Economics in 1936 created a fresh interest in the establishment of a separate Department of Economics. A separate Department was created in 1939. Sociology was first taught as a part of the Economics course; this, in fact, meant that the Department of Economics was made the broad-based department of social sciences, consisting of Economics, Statistics, Economic History, Political Science and Sociology. Such subjects offered opportunities for specialization within Economics, and Sociology was made a separate department in 1959 but no independent course leading to a special degree was arranged. Prof.K.P.Mukherjee and Prof.H.C.Ray two are the Indian scholars who came to Sri Lanka during this period. The criticism was made from the very inception of the University that no attempts have been made to teach Commerce, and Accountancy was made a part of the Economics course in 1951. In respect of this matter as well, there was the influence of the syllabi in the British Universities. The Commission on Technical Education, which was appointed in 1961, recommended the need for a course in Commerce, and thereafter every University began to teach courses in Commerce and Management. It is in this context that one can agree that the concentration on traditional disciplines, more akin to those in Oriental Languages and Culture, stultified the development of subjects, and it was perhaps this legacy that affected the growth of enterprising graduates interested in entrepreneurial activity. The Department of Economics, while producing a good set of Economists, dominated the intellectual life of the University, specially in directing the social science and the graduates, who came out of the Department, entered various professions in the State sector, including the Central Bank and the Banking sector. Still they were not entrepreneurial-oriented and this was primarily due to the nature of the economy and the nature of the economic ideology of the period.

The expansion of the Universities sector in the sixties and the seventies, though a necessity, took place in response to populist politics of the period. In 1945, the Free Education Scheme, under which education was made free from kindergarten to the University, was introduced and this social demand model of education had a profound impact on University education. A network of secondary schools came to be established, covering most of the rural areas of the country, and they, as expected, began to produce a large clientele of students educated in the national languages. Now the demand was to find places for them in the University of Ceylon which, still, remained the domain of the English educated elite of the country. It continued to produce graduates to fill the positions in the higher technical and administrative cadres of Government departments. The view that the University should remain the focus of culture and learning came under attack, and the popular demand was that the University should be opened to much larger number of students. The pressure groups of the period, including the language enthusiasts began demanding an unlimited extension of University education to provide higher educational opportunities for thousands of school leavers educated entirely in the national languages.

It was in this background that the two ancient centres of learning, both Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas, were converted into Universities in 1958, and one objective of this move was to promote Buddhist learning. The traditional disciplines, as mentioned earlier, began to dominate these two institutions as well, and the subsequent expansion of the system followed the same principle; in other words, the system of university education, though expanded, came to be built on the same tradition. The majority of the students sitting the University Entrance Examination offered these traditional subjects, and the Universities, as anticipated, were responsible for the over-production of graduates who are not employable. It was in the seventies that a genuine effort was made to teach and study what is required for modern Sri Lanka and the Universities, which were established in the eighties and nineties, made fundamental changes with a view to diversifying the curriculum with both social and developmental relevance. The courses were modified by giving the traditional disciplines a secondary place; they were modified in such a way so as to meet the demands of both business and industry. The very rapidity of the expansion and the changes inevitably meant some lowering of academic standards. Though the concept of employability received added impetus, the number of graduates was such that there was an over- production of graduates who could not be absorbed into the available State institutions. The lack of immediate employment opportunities had an impact on the undergraduate community and it led to both student unrest and their violent behaviour, which, in the process, became the major de-stabilizing factor in the entire system. Most students do not possess the required skills and they do not understand the importance of the world of work; yet another deficiency was the absence of a close relationship between Universities and the industry. The graduate needs to be made more enterprising to understand the impact of globalization on our own country. Today we live in a borderless world where borderless education raises important issues that affect tertiary education, and the challenge before us is to make a fundamental adjustment in our priorities in the sphere of higher education. The fundamental challenge, in my view, is how to build advanced human capital for the purpose of the development of the country. It is here in this context that Entrepreneurial Education becomes relevant; it, in fact, means that the Universities are expected to respond to changes in the economic environment or to the needs of the employers. If this is to be achieved, a healthy relationship between the Universities and the industry needs to be built, for which rigid and traditional structures need to be revised. Undergraduate education needs to be made more inter-disciplinary and the emphasis on academic training of single subject honours courses need to be rejected in favour of multi-subject courses with which employability could be guaranteed. Multi-disciplinary studies can offer opportunities for the undergraduates to get involved in entrepreneurial activities. An Entrepreneurial University is different from the traditional University which, in the case of Sri Lanka, is totally dependent on State funds; the Entrepreneurial University, with linkages with industry, business and the world of work, can generate funds on its own, and it, with the production of innovative and entrepreneurial graduates, could improve the employability of the graduates. Through such a programme, the mismatch, which now exists between education and training, could be avoided, and the graduate should be trained on the basis of knowledge and skills required by the work place. Sri Lanka, with the traditions associated with University education, needs appropriate policies for the development of entrepreneurship education, and this Dialogue on Higher Education which has been organized with the assistance of the British Council, is certain to help us to formulate a new set of policies with a view to promoting the concept of the Entrepreneurial University in Sri Lanka. The Ministry of Higher Education, with the assistance from the World Bank, is now engaged in formulating a new development- oriented Higher Education Policy for Sri Lanka, and this Dialogue is certain to add new inputs to that debate and discussion. New policy initiatives could be introduced only on the basis of a total break-away from the traditional mould of the Universities in Sri Lanka.