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The text of speech delivered by Professor WISWA WARNAPALA, Minister of Higher Education at the inauguration of the National Online Distance Education Service at the BMICH on 26th February 2008. Any kind of use of the content should be duly acknowledged.

I am happy indeed to be here today on the occasion of the launching of the Online Distance Education Service, which, in fact, is an internet based delivery network for students following degree and diploma programmes. This particular programme has been launched by the Distance Education Modernization Project (DEMP) funded by the Asian Development Bank, and this is an attempt to inject modern technology to programmes based on the concept of Distance Education and Open Learning. It is therefore relevant and appropriate for me to draw your attention to the need to expand the Distance Mode, and its immediate relevance needs to be emphasized. The Distance Education Modernization Project (DEMP) was inaugurated in 2003 under the Ministry of Higher Education in order to provide access to talented youth of the country to make use of the new technology to obtain a marketable educational qualification. It is here in this context that one has to stress the importance of Distance Education as a formula to widen the access to higher educational opportunities.

Comparative Advantage

Sri Lanka, when compared with the States in South Asia, is a country with a comparatively developed human resource base, and it was entirely due to the educational system which the country inherited at independence. The country, since 1931, was moving in the direction of a Welfare State, in which social welfarism became the central feature of the State, and education, as the primary responsibility of the State, laid the foundation for social welfarism in Sri Lanka. Education, though it became free with the introduction of the Free Education Scheme in 1945, was elitist in character in the British period; it was true that a network of schools came into existence and provided education through secondary schools to a small segment of the people. It was this limited elite which made use of the University College and the University of Ceylon in the first phase of university education in the country, and university education, in its initial phase, remained highly elitist in character. In 1942, even after the establishment of the fully-fledged University of Ceylon, the intake to the University was to remain at 904, and the University, after its expansion, was to recruit only 5000 students. In other words, the policy-makers believed in a restricted intake, with which they wanted to make the University elitist in its orientation and this, in terms of policy, was in agreement with the educational policy of the colonial period. Yet another reason for this policy was the absence of a social demand for the expansion of education.

The situation, however, underwent a change with the introduction of the Free Education scheme in 1945, which, in effect, was the social demand model of education. It was form of popular response to certain political and social changes that were taking place in the country in association with the impact of the adult suffrage. The introduction of the universal suffrage in 1931 had a tremendous effect on the social policy of the country, and the social demand model of education, under which education was made free from kindergarten to the University, resulted in a marked growth in the demand for education at all levels, specially primary, secondary and higher. In Sri Lanka, in the initial phase, which could be described as the Donoughmore period, the demand was for both primary and secondary education, and this sector grew fast because of the high rate of enrollment. In the period 1947-1960, the secondary education began to expand, and it came to be based upon the size of the child population. It was during this period, due to both scientific and environmental improvements, that there occurred a marked decline in infant mortality and morbidity rates. With compulsory primary education, which is now more or less universal in Sri Lanka, primary school enrollments expanded, and this could be linked to the big increase in child population. Yet another fact was the change in the parental perceptions relating to education; they wanted to provide their children with an education which, as they perceived, provided them with an opportunity to go up the social ladder. Both social and demographic factors have emphasized the unique importance of the child in eyes of the parents.

In my view, the sole cause for an increased demand for education was the rise in the child population, and this was integrally linked to the opportunities offered by the Free Education Scheme. In Sri Lanka, the introduction of compulsory education made literacy almost universal, and it led eventually to a great upsurge in the demand for both secondary and higher education. The expansion of education, specially under the Free Education scheme, benefited all social classes, and it offered several educational advantages to the children in the rural areas. The change in the medium of instruction made a similar impact on the system, which, now got itself converted into a fully established social demand model of education.

Online Concept

It is in this background that one has to look at the relevance of online concept as it is the technological mode through which access could be improved. Today the central problem in the system of higher education is the need to expand the access to cover all students who aspire to get into the system; in other words, more educational opportunities have to be created for those students who find places within the formal University system. The architects of the independent and autonomous University of Ceylon, while advocating the establishment of an elitist institution, did not anticipate a kind of educational explosion, through which a large clientele of students began tapping the door of the University of Ceylon, which, thereafter, was forced to change its policy on the restricted intake. It is in this context that one can conveniently say that the University of Ceylon, built on an elitist Oxbridge model, was required to make certain adjustments; thereafter, all policies in the field of higher education were based on the need to accommodate the impact of the social demand model of education. In other words, the immediate policy changes were needed to expand the access and provide more higher educational opportunities to the increasing number of students.

In response to this demand, the system was expanded; though the system underwent an expansion with 15 Universities, the question of access still remains a major problem, and this is primarily because of the fact that the annual intake is still less than 20,000. The intake for this year is 19,650, and the number left out of the system is more than 100,000. Nearly a half of those who sit the Advanced Level examination, which, from international standards, is a highly competitive examination, obtain the minimum qualifications to enter a University. In other words, nearly 100,000 students or more are denied access to the conventional Universities, and therefore the need of the hour is to find an alternative path to get a tertiary qualification; it could be done only through the use of the Distance Mode. Today, Sri Lanka, at this given point of time, has to ensure a more efficient use of public resources to open more opportunities for higher education. In formulating a policy, this factor has to be taken into consideration, and this is one reason that modern technology has to be used to provide more access to higher education. Non-University institutions need to be utilized to meet the demand for improved access to higher education and such institutions, in the Sri Lankan context, must provide opportunities for at least 40 percent of those leaving the secondary schools with a good A/L qualification. To attract them, good quality programmes have to be devised through the Distance Mode.


It is an accepted fact that Distance Education and open learning programmes can be effective in increasing access, and this is what we intend to do by launching this ONLINE service. This, though based on modern technology, could be done at a modest cost. The purpose, as I mentioned earlier, is to provide access to those who fail to get enrolled as University students. This kind of programme can offer opportunities to under-privileged groups, for instance, women who need to be empowered - could benefit from this programme. In India, 41 percent of the students enrolled in Open Universities and other Distance Education programmes are women. This is primarily because of the fact that Distance education is considered a form of life long education through their skills could be upgraded to meet the requirements. Yet another feature is that through the Distance Mode access could be extended to students from the poorest social strata. I do not need to emphasize the fact that the conventional University programmes are expensive, and in Sri Lanka, investment per student varies from Rs.40,000 to Rs.400,000, and this is quite a sizable burden on the State. In terms of teacher-student ratio, the Distance Mode could provide instruction to a very large student clientele. Educational institutions, in the given global context, have to respond effectively to changing education and training needs, and adopt more flexible and realistic modes of instruction organization.

Life long learning methods are a mode which could be effectively used in an environment where there is this problem of access to higher education. If the country is interested in a development framework that can support knowledge driven growth, it needs an expanded and inclusive system of education, and the Ministry of Higher Education, through the promotion of this project and the Distance Education Modernization Project (DEMP), proposes to make the system more inclusive so that it reaches a larger segment of the country's population. The access is to be expanded through the use of modern distance education technology, and the project, which we are launching today, apart from improving the access to those students who have been denied the higher educational opportunities, would inject high tech educational technologies to the tertiary education system in the country. This is a student-centered online learning system which, in the end, develop the learning culture in the country.

Higher Education, according to the UNESCO, was an open door to the 21st century. The Delore Report, which the UNESCO produced, stated that ‘Education is a collective asset that all people should have access'. In keeping with this objective, we propose to expand the access with a view to surmounting some of the major problems in our own system. Higher Education, at this juncture, faces an enormous challenge, and we need to take bold decisions to make Higher Education socially relevant and socially efficient. The recognition of this fact is the philosophy on which we propose to formulate new policies in the sphere of higher education in Sri Lanka.

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