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A text of a speech delivered by Professor WISWA WARNAPALA, Minister of Higher Education at the launching of the Ministry of Higher Education Website at the Watersedge - Battaramulla on 23rd August 2007.
Any kind of use of the contents should be duly acknowledged.

Please permit me to make use of this important occasion to speak a couple of words on the need to formulate a new policy on Higher Education. I am sure that you wonder as to why we need to formulate a new set of policies in the sphere of education. What is wrong with the existing policy strategy? The policies, which the country followed and implemented in the last fifty years, have made a contribution to the development of the country. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted that ‘every one has a right to education', and Sri Lanka, being the only country in this part of the world, adopted the Free Education Scheme in 1944 which, in my view, not only asserted the right to education but undertook to provide it to all. Thereafter all policies in the field of education came to be built on this historic piece of legislation with which education was made free from kindergarten to the University. In the process, the country, as a result of the Free Education Scheme, was able to achieve a high literacy rate, universal access to primary education, high rate of primary enrollment, equality of educational opportunity and gender equality. Sri Lanka, as a result of the educational policy enunciated in the forties, can claim to call itself locally with a literate population with an equally high political consciousness, which is reflected in the participation rates at national elections; it is more than 87 percent which, probably is the highest rate for a developing country. High literacy levels reflect the high level in primary school enrollment, the impact of which was seen in the secondary levels as well. In the colonial period, the enrollment to secondary schools was confined to the privileged and the semi-privileged classes in society and this trend came to be disturbed with the introduction of the Free Education Scheme in 1944. Since this piece of legislation, Western education, with English as the medium of instruction, was the accepted form of social and economic mobility. The education system, since 1944, came to be shaped by the belief that every citizen has a right to free education and the policy-makers, supported by democratic politics, always thought in terms of making ad hoc adjustments within the Free Education Scheme, and this commitment to preserve free education system, which, by this time, had become an integral part of the volatile political culture of Sri Lanka, interfered with the formulation of a comprehensive policy on Higher Education, and technical education. The political compulsions, which came on the scene in a variety of ways, demanded mass educational facilities for the large number of rural children, whose parents constituted the emerging alternative political leadership in rural Sri Lanka, and they demanded wider access to secondary and tertiary education. The Governments, which came to power during this period of transition, always worked on the premise that education per se was a central element in a social welfare policy.

The System, therefore, in response to such pressures, expanded and the educational system, with many more institutions, began to cater to the same original purpose of producing administrative professional and white-collar needs of the country. The absence of planning and direction in terms of manpower needs created a crisis within the system in the sixties and after, and the numerous ad hoc changes made during this period worsened the crisis within the Universities system, which, in my view, could be corrected by breaking-away from the social demand model of education which the country enjoyed for more than sixty years. It is time that we think of a development - oriented Higher Education Policy, and the international impulses are such that we need such changes if we are to compete with the rest of the world. Apart from that, we need the system to remain internationally competitive, and it is this requirement which compels us to introduce a new Higher Education Policy with greater emphasis on development. It is my view that the social demand model of education, which came to be developed with the introduction of the Free Education Scheme, needs to be transformed into a development-oriented Higher Education Policy. This means that the system of University education, which Sri Lanka inherited in 1921 with the establishment of the University College which later developed into a fully-fledged University of Ceylon in 1942, needs reform as the system has expanded in an ad hoc way. Because of the nature of the development of the Universities in Sri Lanka since the sixties, the University has been prevented from playing its role, and it could not effectively contribute to the formation of public policy. This was largely because of its failure to produce research with relevance, and yet another reason was the deterioration which the University experienced as a result of its expansion. With the expansion of the Universities system, all Universities remained in the mould of the undergraduate institution and in the process the post-graduate sector, which is vitally necessary for a reputation of a University, was not given its proper place. In the last two decades, Universities deteriorated as centres of learning and they failed to establish a research culture; this, however, was not entirely due to lack of funding. The over-politicization of the student community, led primarily by a political party which still maintains a base in the Universities, is the single factor for the de-stabilization of the Universities, because of which the Universities have failed to work according to the University calendar. While recognizing this need to address these issues by the policy-makers, it would be necessary to focus on immediate issues as quality and relevance. The curricula needs to be diversified; both teaching and research need to be based on the concept of relevance, and measures should be taken to maintain standards by stressing on quality. The Ministry of Higher Education, with a view to formulating a new policy, a development-oriented policy, is planning to set up a special Policy Unit to formulate a policy, with which the system could be transformed in such a was so as to see that it contributes to development. Sri Lanka, in my view, needs a comprehensive set of policies in the field of education, and Higher Education, as a key factor in development, needs re-orientation in terms of policy to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Our present strategy is to convert the Universities in Sri Lanka into knowledge institutions.

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