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CONVOCATION OF THE SLIATE

Speech delivered by Prof. Wiswa Warnapala Minister of Higher Education at the Convocation of the SLIATE held on 23rd November, 2007 at the BMICH.
Any kind of use of the contents should be duly acknowledged.

The convocation of any academic institution is an important event in the life of an individual who seeks to start a career, and the Diplomates of the SLIATE, who pass out today, are certain to enjoy the benefits of their education in a rapidly changing society dominated by technology. Fredrico Mayo, the former Secretary General of the UNESCO, once stated that world is experiencing a ‘third Industrial Revolution', under which a wide variety of technological changes affect the lives of people. Knowledge generated through technology has become a vital factor in the development of a country. This kind of change and emphasis on modern technology makes it necessary for all countries to think in terms of expanding the opportunities for technological education in Sri Lanka.

Though various opportunities were created for technical education during the British period, it was only in the last four decades that a concerted attempt was made to expand the opportunities for engineering education in the country, and several public sector institutions were set up for this purpose, and they, in fact, introduced a number of courses which received international recognition. Today Sri Lanka has Universities, Institutes and Vocational Authorities engaged in this task, and technological knowledge is imparted through these institutions, some of which, in the process, have emerged as centres of excellence in the field of skills development.

The traditional view of higher education as essentially designed to develop and transmit academic knowledge has undergone a vast change and the arrival of new technologies in the changing world demanded new human resource requirements. In other words, new developments and changes demanded new skills, and all countries, realizing the need to adjust themselves to this emerging new situation, began making changes in their tertiary institutions with a view to producing more and more skilled middle level technicians. In other words, in addition to engineers, whose profile had to change to adapt to this new situation, a special category of professionals became necessary with specific training, and this category was to consist of higher level technicians. It was this philosophy of change which motivated us to establish the SLIATE, which, in the last ten years, has expanded into an important tertiary institution. This was an aspect of the diversification of the tertiary education in the country; the appearance of similar institutions alongside the traditional University is now a vital part of the process of diversification of the available opportunities in the sphere of education.

In a rapidly changing world, the higher technicians needed advanced scientific and technological knowledge, and the knowledge acquired differed in its application. In other words, a specific education was required to undertake a specific job, and it is here the concept of relevance became important. Therefore the need for a specific education and skills training represented an intermediate levels between engineer and specialized worker. The production of such skilled personnel is the present task of the SLIATE which produces several hundreds of such men who do not face any difficulty in finding a job with a very attractive salary. Employability is assured for them, and the demand for their specific qualifications and training is very high; in addition, their qualification is internationally accepted; you need to be proud of this as your qualification is an international passport to a lucrative career abroad.

By establishing the SLIATE, our Government, in the period 1994-2000, created a system of technological education, though still not widespread in the country due to various technical and administrative constraints, to meet the demand for training which, then, was unheard of in higher education. This kind of Institution, like the SLIATE, had to be in step with industrial and technological change in the country, particularly with regard to the technologies implemented in any given country, and the various public and private institutions engaged in development could make use of this level of technicians who, in course of time, could obtain higher qualifications as well.

The common quantitative element across all regions and in most countries is the increasing demand for access. In Sri Lanka, the problem of access is reflected in the Advanced Level Examination results, according to which access to Universities is in the region of less than 20,000 a year. This, in terms of policy, means that more and more opportunities need to be created in the non-University sector to facilitate and encourage access while focussing on quality and relevance. The expansion of our tertiary educational institutions, in the last three decades, has certainly increased the access but has created new problems, some of which will remain for sometime till radical changes are made to the supply and organization of higher education in Sri Lanka. In both Asian and Pacific countries, for example, there is a heavy concentration of higher education in the urban areas, and it was this policy which led to the inadequate provision of facilities in the rural areas. In this context, another factor which emerged was the need to expand the access, and in response to it new Universities and new tertiary institutions were created with a view to bringing about a change in the intellectual environment of those places in the rural areas. Such changes were made to address the growing demand, and the primary objective was to satisfy the individual aspirations and the socio-economic need for higher levels of competency in the workforce and for an enlightened and responsible citizenry. Because of this strategy, the participation rates in higher education increased in the last several years and it is likely to continue in the future as well. The expansion of the higher educational opportunities through the establishment of new Universities and Institutes has been subject to occasional criticism; the very rapidity of the expansion, it is argued, has inevitably meant some lowering of academic standards, both on the part of those who teach and those who learn. Growth has imposed enormous strains and created many distortions presumably in Universities. Many institutions are overcrowded, adding to the resources problems and resulting in education of questionable value and quality. In my view, this malaise is not confined to the new Universities; it is equally prevalent in some established Universities, and bold policy changes are necessary to rectify the situation if these institutions are to function as centres of learning.

The rise in the number of Universities in the country, though came in response to an increasing demand and the output of the graduates created a new situation, under which the demand has shifted from the traditional employers of graduates-for instance, administration and teaching, to business and industry. Universities therefore, were expected to adjust to this position and the requirements of these sectors demanded certain modifications of the courses. The failure to respond immediately to this need helped the Technical Education sector to introduce courses which had an immediate relevance to the emerging situation; they could do it because the Universities, traditionally resist changes in the curriculum. In other words, their freedom in this regard is generally limited as most Universities prefer to remain in traditional disciplines. Innovative changes relating to curriculum are often resisted. Today most Universities in the West provide courses which are specifically designed to train the future leaders of business and industry. Many of the new Universities have now rejected the stricter academic training of single subject honours courses in favour of multi-subject courses which try to avoid the divisions inherent in traditional learning, which the University of Ceylon began to emulate during the colonial period. It is my view that it would be stimulating and more useful to the student who does not want to be confined to a single academic discipline, to gain a university training that will be of benefit in what ever career he or she may choose from the wide range of occupations now available in the modern society. Though there are problems within the tertiary system, some of which are entirely due to a political agenda of a group of students who indulge in violence without an objective, Universities still remain the main training ground for a comparatively small segment of the country's population. Its intellectual elite, if provided with the necessary opportunities and incentives, is certain to make a contribution to the transformation of this country. The social milieu from which the present undergraduates now come has undergone a radical change since the inception of University education in Sri Lanka. More significantly, the University, in the last half of a century, has become the natural apex of the educational pyramid and the natural goal towards which a young man of moderate intelligence moves is the University. This is an aspect of high educational mobility in this country, and this in itself raises a host of problems. It is in this context that SLIATE, as the premier Technological Institute, becomes relevant and important in producing the required talent for the world of business and industry. It is only on the basis of this strategy that a new direction could be given to the nations life, by which I mean the immediate establishment of linkages between tertiary educational institutions and the labour market in a given country.