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Re-thinking is Necessary on External Degree Programmes of the Universities in Sri Lanka

 A text of a speech delivered by Prof. Wiswa Warnapala, Minister of Higher Education at the Academic Seminar on External Degrees organized by the UGC on 19th September,2008 at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute.

 Before I venture into a discussion of the need to improve the quality of the existing external degree programmes, I propose to make a couple of criticisms of the external degree programmes which, in the last two decades, have become mills, churning out graduates who are neither competent nor employable. Today these graduates, who have become pawns in the hands of a political party whose one instrument of political mobilization is the unemployed graduates; they have formed themselves into a union whose membership is easily mobilized and articulated because they are impelled by the desire to get employment. They, as many a administrator say, cannot fit into a position as they do not have the capacity and ability; in other words, these graduates, who have come via the external degree mill, are half-baked and incompetent men who do not display any intellectual ability. This is a malaise within the system of higher education and this seminar, in my view, needs to look for measures to rectify this dangerous trend in the academic life of this country, which, if not arrested and corrected through a set of urgent and realistic policies, would result in a massive retardation of the intellectual life of this country.

With these remarks, I now want to advert your attention to the early beginnings of the external degree programmes in Sri Lanka. It is through an examination of the beginnings of the external degrees that we can understand the current problems within the scheme, and the legacies, above all, still persist within the system. Therefore it would not be out of place for me to speak a bit about its history as it is fundamentally relevant to the present.

Since the establishment of the University College in 1921, the students were prepared by this College as external students of the University of London. In many a place, the Colonial University, as Sir Ivor Jennings mentioned, functioned as an institution which prepared students for the external examinations of the University of London. It was the restricted function of the Colonial University. It was in 1859 that the Colombo Academy, which, in fact, was a leading Government school, was affiliated to the University of Calcutta and thereafter the same Academy, which was renamed Royal College in 1881, undertook the responsibility of preparing students for examinations for London University external degrees. At one stage, there was a demand that the affiliation of colleges with Calcutta University be discontinued, and instead, some members of the Legislative Council proposed the establishment of Government scholarships for higher education in England. As Ralph Pieris rightly pointed in his critical essay on Universities and Politics in Ceylon, the higher educational policy came to be linked with the English Universities and the British University examinations began to set the standards; London University examinations offered opportunities to students who could not afford to go to England for higher education. It was in this background that the University College was established in 1921 as a government institution affiliated to London University. It's curricula was very much oriented towards London University examinations. Yet another feature was that the less affluent students joined the Universities of India, particularly the Universities of Madras and Calcutta. After the establishment of the University College in 1921, there was a system of registration of students for external degrees. With the establishment of the single independent autonomous University in 1942, it was expected that the external degree programme would be discontinued. The view of the University of London was that their external degree programmes need to be made available in the future as well but the matter depended on the attitude of the Government of Sri Lanka. The opinion in India was that the continuance of external degrees was not in the interest of the development of the Indian Universities as it could interfere with the emergence of an intellectual elite educated in the Indian Universities. Apart from it, such a move could undermine the local Universities as institutions of learning. There were strong arguments in favour of the abolition of external degree examinations. In the case of Sri Lanka, specially because of the need to encourage professional education, there was this opinion that external degrees in professional education should be continued, and this was particularly necessary in such specialized areas as engineering and medicine. The subject of Law was included, though the demand was less when compared with both engineering and medicine. The attitude of the academic leadership of the University of Ceylon was that they, though ready to support the continuance of external degree programmes, were not prepared to undertake the responsibility of conducting the examinations. The examinations were to be conducted on the basis of an arrangement made between the Government of Ceylon and the University of London. The University of Ceylon, from it's inception in 1942, followed a restrictive and conservative admission policy, and this, in effect, prevented a large number of students from entering the University. The decision to continue the London External Examinations helped those students who aspired to get in to educational institutions and also those who were in employment and aspiring to get a higher educational qualification. This arrangement remained till the University of London decided not to conduct their external examinations in Sri Lanka.

The issue of external examinations attracted the attention of the State Council in 1945; the late S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, then the Minister of Local Government, with some kind of visionary zeal, wanted the newly established University of Ceylon to create opportunities for external examinations. It was his view that the University of Ceylon, though an independent and autonomous body, should also conduct external degree examinations in order to provide more access to higher educational opportunities. D.S.Senanayake, speaking on this occasion, defended the independent position of the University of Ceylon, and stated that the Government could not dictate terms to the University. It is my surmise that Jennings may have influenced by D.S.Senanayake on this matter. The motion, however, was voted upon and it was passed with 31 voting for and 10 voting against it. This shows that there was legislative interest in external degrees because it was a matter of public importance. The University of Ceylon, being an independent and autonomous University committed to the principle of an exclusive residential University, was not ready to implement the decision. It came to be criticized both inside and outside the State Council but there was no public outcry on the matter. There was no doubt that Jennings's belief in an exclusive residential University contributed to the lines of thinking of the then Government.

The introduction of the Free Education Scheme on the basis of the social demand model of education began to broaden the opportunities for secondary education and a network of secondary schools came to be established in the rural areas, and this scheme extended opportunities to the rural child. The switch-over to Sinhala and Tamil Swabasha - too had an effect on the system, and the University of Ceylon, though a residential University based on a restricted intake, faced the major test as to how it could find places for the increasing number of students qualifying for admission to the University. Two traditional centres of learning - the ancient Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya Pirivenas - were elevated to the status of Universities, and the relevant piece of legislation, the University Act, No.45 of 1958 recognised the need to create opportunities for granting of external degrees. Needham Report of 1958, in supporting the demand for external degrees, stated that nearly 2000 students followed courses of the Indian Universities. It further stated that the external examinations of the University of London have always been popular in Ceylon and their attraction does not seem to have diminished even after the establishment of a University in the country. The London examinations have provided the only avenue for poorer students and those already in employment for seeking higher educational qualifications. It was the view of the Needham Commission that the existing facilities were inadequate or unsatisfactory. In fact, it stated that ‘the problem of numbers cannot be ignored much longer because it is a responsibility of the nation and cannot be left in the hands of foreign Universities. It also expressed the view that the syllabi of the external examinations of the University of London were not entirely suitable for Ceylonese students. Such arguments supported the immediate expansion of the facilities available for University education and it included a scheme for the conduct of external degree examinations. Most of the students offered Sinhalese as a subject for specialized study and the Government of Ceylon provided the funds for the retention of an examiner; the students who prepared themselves for external examinations of the University of London, did not pursue their studies under proper supervision. They obtained assistance through correspondence, private tutors and tutories. They, as today, were only interested in profit making. Needham Commssion, criticizing this kind of education, commented that ‘ leaving a section of the youth to manage their own higher education in this manner has also unhealthy social implications. There is a waste of potential talent which could be developed and guided into fruitful channels. It can also lead to a sense of social uneasiness'. It was in this context that the Needham Commission recommended ‘ the immediate expansion of the facilities available in Ceylon for University education'. Their view was that the award of external degrees could not be postponed any longer. They were very forthright in their recommendation and they, in fact, stated that ‘ we cannot share the view that external degrees would vitiate the ideals of University learning, provided they are awarded under proper supervision and examination standards'. They were of the view that ‘ it would be a Utopian proposition to think of providing University education to meet the present extensive demand only through residential campuses. ‘ While recommending external examinations, the Needham Commission further stated that the external degrees should have exactly the same examination standard as the internal degree'.

The Ceylon University Ordinance, No.20 of 1942 was amended in 1961 to enable the University of Ceylon to grant external degrees. The Higher Education Act, No.20 of 1966, which reduced much of the autonomy of the Universities, provided for the continuance of the granting of external degrees. It was on the basis of the University of Ceylon Act, No.1 of 1972 that an Agency was proposed for the conduct of external examinations. On the basis of this piece of legislation, the External Services Agency was established. In 1978, the new Universities Act permitted the conduct of external examinations by the Universities as before, and the whole process was brought under the supervision of the University Grants Commission. Under this scheme of external examinations, the number of students registered for various external examinations were as follows: 











  With the establishment of the Open University, the opportunities in the sphere of higher education expanded and the Distance Mode was used to expand the access. The rigid programme of registration for external degrees began to change and an open policy was followed to expand the access to higher educational opportunities. The expansion of the Open University, on the basis of the concept of Distance Education and Open Learning, was seen as an attempt to take the University to the people and thereby expand the access; the Open University, through a network of regional centres, has provided more access to higher educational opportunities. The number of persons, completing external degree courses in Humanities and Social Sciences constitute slightly more than half the number of graduates produced by the internal degree programmes of the Universities. The crisis in the conventional University system is that it cannot absorb all those students who qualify at the Advanced Level examination; for instance, in 2005, the number qualified was 117,435 out of which 16,292 were absorbed into the formal system. The number not selected for University admissions was 86 percent. It is this fact which has encouraged the students to seek registration for an external degree and today, all Universities, without a proper plan, have organized external degree programmes with a view to extracting financial benefits. The major incentive has been the income generation through external degree programmes; still the fees are inadequate to provide quality education. Yet another fact is that the income so earned from external examinations are not properly used to provide high quality service to the external student clientele. The system has been built in such a way so as to produce poor quality graduates who are coming out of the mill without academic competence and intellectual ability. The whole scheme has been organized solely to provide the student with a certificate which he proposes to market for a job.

The existing external degree programmes cover eleven Universities, and the number of students registered with the Universities is 206,152; this, in effect, means that the total number of students, who sit the A/L annually, virtually enter the external degree programmes of the Universities. The following are the figures relating to registration for external degrees:


Course of study

New Registration

Total enrolled














BSc (M)




BSc (BM)
























BA (M)















Eastern University






South Eastern




Sabaragamuwa University






Wayamba University














 The above statistics explains the current position in relation to registration of students with the formal Universities system. In 2006, the total number registered amounted to 150,142. In 2005, the number enrolled stood at 139,311. The increased enrollment is largely due to the fact student-parent perceptions are such that they, instead of looking for employment opportunities, prefer to follow a University course, thinking that it would help them to obtain a socially respectable job. Though the pass rate at the external examinations is low, the external degree programmes, largely because of their poor quality, have created a social situation where we see a volatile group of degree holders seeking employment. It is this deficiency in the entire system of external degrees which need investigation as corrective measures have to be taken to prevent the system deteriorating further, resulting in the production of shallow, non-intellectual and half-baked graduates who do not fit into any position in a highly competitive global-oriented labour market.

Nobody denies the fact that the external degree programmes of the Universities have expanded the access and more opportunities have been created in the field of higher education for those students who qualify at the A/L examination. This, as we all know, is necessary as there is a massive demand for higher education in the country; there is only one single route which consists of the O/L, A/L and the University. In other words, the Sri Lankan student rarely looks for an alternative path, though many an opportunity has been offered to follow an alternative path. There is a serious imbalance within the system; it has failed to produce a quality graduate, and it is this question which needs to be examined as a priority measure to rectify the situation before it develops into a major phenomenon threatening the very foundation of this society.

The present nature of the external degree programmes show that the system has been changed into a mass system, and this shift, in my view, requires the establishment of an apparatus, a management mechanism to handle the new challenges that have developed as a result of the expansion of access. The quality of the product has virtually declined, and it is this seminar which has to examine the issues integral to this transparent decline in the quality of the external graduate with a view to recommending some realistic corrective measures. In my view-from the point of view of my observations and personal experience-the following are the areas where decisive policy changes are necessary.

Enrollment of external candidates

All Universities must follow a single system of enrollment based on a nationally-accepted single formula, for instance, the use of the Z score with a minimum cut off point so that the number seeking registration could be restricted. No ad hoc enrollment on the basis of three A/L passes should be allowed in the future.

Combination of Subjects

This is of fundamental importance as there is a vital need to make the external degree programmes relevant to the demands of a rapidly changing economy. The subject combinations through which degrees are awarded, do not reflect the current development needs of the country. The traditional disciplines, which became important in the fifties, still dominate the curricula. The subject combinations, specially subjects relating to the General Arts Degree, are based on traditional disciplines which do not have any relationship to the needs and demands of the labour market, and it is this fact that interferes with employability. It is here that the policy framework for higher education needs to be linked to specific national conditions, especially those burning issues relating to employment and labour market policies.

Registration Mechanism and the Number of Candidates

As indicated earlier, the number of candidates registered by the individual Universities for the external degree programmes are not within manageable proportions. For instance, University of Kelaniya is registering students in thousands and this kind of liberal form of registration is the principal reason for the decline in standards and quality. A restrictive formula needs to be immediately imposed and a University, on the basis of its academic resources, should be given a manageable number, based on a rational and useful subject combination criteria. The issue is largely due to the inability of the formal system to absorb the students in the Arts stream; those who are left out of the internal degree programmes look for low cost external degree programmes.

Need for a Central Quality Assurance Scheme

The absence of an independent agency responsible for quality assurance, especially in respect of external degrees, is yet another problem in the system. I refer to the absence of a mechanism to assess the quality of external degrees offered by the Universities and the quality of education offered by the various institutions which constitute an important segment of the well established tution industry, the financial turnover within it ranges around millions. In the formulation of a policy on quality assurance in respect of the external degree programmes, it is always useful to rely on guidelines prepared by the UNESCO as they are based on international standards. This kind of an assessment is certain to enhance the quality as the providers are expected to maintain the required standards in a highly competitive higher education market. It is here that the concept of the global University becomes relevant, and it is my view that Sri Lanka, despite all the adverse criticism of the Sri Lankan Universities which are endemic with unwanted student militancy, needs a number of Universities of excellence to shape the development of the country in the future. The quality of external degrees has become an important issue, and the decline in quality is largely due to the fact that they depend on private tution classes which are ill equipped for the job. It is only an exercise in direct teaching where incompetent and unqualified teachers provide the clients with a set of notes; they cram the stuff and make no attempt to acquire knowledge. This deficiency in the existing arrangement is primarily due to the absence of a direct relationship with the University with which the external candidates are registered; for instance, the University involvement is confined to the formulation of the syllabi, setting of question papers and the marking of papers. Marking of scripts is not properly supervised and thousands of scripts are given to examiners who do not do a proper assessment. Yet another reason for the decline in quality is the absence of a learning environment as in the case of internal students who is adequately exposed to a learning process.

All these issues could be successfully tackled by establishing a mechanism to control and monitor the tutories engaged in teaching the external candidates. I advocate a system of registration of all Tution Centres in the country under a renewable licensing scheme, where an annual registration fee could be levied. It is through such a form of registration that the competence of the institution could be assessed; for instance, it is at this point that the qualifications and the experience of teachers too could be examined. Through a Central Mechanism - some kind of a unit within the UGC with supervisory powers - the entire programme could be monitored, and it is through this formula that the provision of course material, the form of instruction, the competency of teachers and other basic facilities could be assessed. It is my concerned view that the University teachers-the so-called Tution Wallahas- who are involved in teaching, setting and marking, should be brought within a set of strict rules, and this is necessary to meet the criticisms relating to the conduct of external examinations. All University lecturers involved in such external programmes are required to obtain permission from the Dean of the Faculty, and they, above all, need to be prevented from setting and marking of examination papers. There is plenty of criticism in respect of this matter, and all varieties of irregularities have been committed by certain individuals who run the external degree programmes at the expense of the internal degree programmes. Strict criteria needs to be imposed with regard to this matter as there are numerous cases of intellectual dishonesty. It is my view that through an effective system of quality control that the accountability of the external degree programme could be maintained. The focuss needs to be on the end product-the external graduate-who, in my view, needs to be a competent, intellectual-oriented and academic-oriented person who is expected to display the characteristics of a learned person. The great disappointment is that the Universities, instead of producing a learned and a cultured person, have been producing a set of half-backed, non-intellectual young men and women who, as rabble rousers, have become pawns in the hands of a political party which de-stabilized Universities since the seventies. It is my fervent hope that the ideas which I place before this distinguished academic audience, would receive the attention of the academic community of the Universities of Sri Lanka, and it is time that Sri Lanka, with its great traditions and cultural heritage, establishes educational institutions of global excellence. Universities all over the world are getting ready to face the challenges of globalization, and a process of internationalization of education has taken place. Sri Lanka, unless it changes accordingly, is certain to get herself isolated as the internationalization of Universities transcend geographical barriers. It is in this context that I call upon the Sri Lankan Universities, with an innovative approach to global changes, to pay attention and commit resources to become players in the emerging higher education market. Today the determination of optimal education outlays has a direct relationship to the rate of economic growth and it, therefore, is accepted that the rate of economic growth of a country depends to a considerable extent upon the availability of skills of all types in the labour force. It is on the basis of this thesis that I advocate the production of quality graduates through the external degree programmes of the Universities.

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