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A text of a speech delivered by Prof. Wiswa Warnapala, Minister of Higher Education at the Graduation Ceremony of the Institution of Incorporated Engineers at the BMICH on 17th October, 2007.
Any kind of use of the contents should be duly acknowledged

At the very outset itself, please permit me to thank the institute of Incorporated Engineers of Sri Lanka for giving me this opportunity to come before this distinguished professional audience. The Institute of Incorporated Engineers of Sri Lanka was established through an Act of Parliament in 1977, and the distinguished membership of the Institute, in the last three decades, made a tremendous contribution to the development process in the country; they, as specialists in Engineering Technology, have undertaken the construction, operation, maintenance and project management of the major development projects of Sri Lanka. I am told that this institute has a total membership of 4000, representing eleven different areas of engineering technology. In this lies the significance of this Institute as a professional organization.

I would like to advert my attention to the Universities system in Sri Lanka. Our University system, which consists of seventeen (17) Universities, 9 Institutes and 7 Post-Graduate Institutes, began formally in 1921 with the establishment of a colonial-oriented University College, which was later elevated to the status of a fully-fledged University in 1942. It was this institution which remained as the premier institution of learning in the country till the system began to expand in the sixties.

Before I refer to the expansion of this institution and its impact on the intellectual life of the country, I need to draw your attention to the nature of professional education in the country, and it was through an organized system of professional education that a professional elite came on the scene. It was in the 1870s that both Medical and Legal professions came to be established. It began with the creation of the Medical College in 1870 and the Law College was established in 1874; the Ceylon Medical College functioned under the Department of Health while the Law College, since 1900 functioned as an autonomous institution outside the sphere of official influence. These were the earliest institutions of professional education and they, in the given period, made a noteworthy contribution in producing a professional elite who, as time passed, contributed to enrich the professional and intellectual life of the country. While these two institutions - Medicine and Law -dominated the field of professional education, the Ceylon Technical College was founded in 1893 as an institution under the Department of Education, and this laid the foundation for the training and production of people with engineering skills. It began with 25 students and later, especially atfter 1900, it began to expand to cover other areas of technical education. In the initial phase, the Ceylon Technical College undertook the training of skilled personnel for Government Departments engaged in development, specially such departments as Public Works, Irrigation and Railways. The Ceylon Technical College, as the nucleus of engineering studies, evolved into a University Institution and since 1933 it began preparing students for the external engineering degrees of the University of London. This scheme of training Engineering personnel went on till 1950, and nearly 104 graduates, who passed out through this route, became reputed engineers of this country.

Most higher education institutions of this period functioned under Government Departments, and this relationship, to a great extent, interfered with the development of University educaiton. The University College of 1921 suffered because of this relationship, Sir Ivor Jennings, before the creation of the University of Ceylon in 1942, complained of this relationship which, in his view, had a debilitating effect on the evolution of an independent and autonomous University. It was the same with the Ceylon Technical College, which, too suffered as an institution because of bureaucratic control over an academic function. This relationship with a Government Department, I need to emphasize, created a major crisis within the Technical College in 1948 because no proper facilities were provided for the engineering courses. Though the College functioned for more than half a century, it could not produce a substantial number of professional engineers. It took another ten years to establish a Faculty of Engineering, which came into existence in 1954. The Government of the day stressed the need to produce more as the country was embarking upon an ambitious programme of development.

With the expansion of the Universities system in 1960, the entire system underwent a transformation in response to certain popular pressures associated with the impact of the Free Education Scheme of 1945. It could be described as the social demand model of education, under which education was free from kindergarten to the University and all of us know that this scheme, though a massive burden on the Sri Lankan State, made a contribution to the advancement of the country. Sri Lanka, when compared with other countries in our part of the world, achieved steady progress in such areas as literacy, universal primary enrollment, equality of educational opportunity, universal access and near-gender equality. In addition, high political consciousness and very high rate of electoral participation - nearly 87 percent - could be attributed to the impact of the Free Education Scheme. Sri Lanka has achieved universal literacy. It is here in this context that I would like to give you an example from India. Karnataka is the most developed and industrialized State, and it accounts for 5.13 percent of India's population. What is the literacy rate of this State? it was 56.04 percent in 1991 and the rate is 66.64 percent in 2006. Though the Karnataka rates have been higher than the all-India rate, it has to catch up with neighbouring States like Kerala - 90.06, Tamilnadu 73.4 and Maharastra 76.9. Sri Lanka's rate is more than 94 percent and this shows the nature of our human resource base which could be effectively utilized to accelerate the process of economic development.

Why did I make use of the occasion to mention some of these basic facts? In my view, the country needs a new approach to both University and professional education; more opportunities need to be created to expand the system of professional education, especially areas associated with engineering services. There are several institutions, the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technical Education (SLIATE) and the University of Moratuwa, with large innovative courses in Engineering and Technology, has emerged as a centre of excellence. There are institutions which are outside the Universities sector, which we propose to develop and expand on the basis of the development needs of the country. In my view, policy changes in the sphere of higher education, need to be development-oriented. If one wants to make use of the existing human resource base, one has to devise a development-oriented policy strategy, through which a concerted effort could be made to accelerate the development of the country. India is doing it in a big way and it spends nearly 6 percent of the GDP on Education and their system of education has provided great vitality to the process of economic development. It is my view, that Sri Lanka, just at this moment, needs to break-away from its traditional mould of higher education and devise a formula through which tertiary education institutions could be made development-oriented, and they need to be providers of knowledge, needed for development. Traditional disciplines should remain but over reliance on them is not at all necessary. New Universities, which we set-up in the last ten years, should become new centres of learning and both technical and vocational education should be given more priority as they could be integrated into a system that can successfully help the economic transformation of the country. Higher Education is no longer reserved for a handful of elites and it is no longer identified with only academic excellence. Specific training needs to be provided to produce higher level technicians, and this is in this context that vocational training becomes relevant.
The Universities system, therefore, needs to be modernized and transformed through a scheme of diversification in order to convert them to centres of leaning. What is necessary is to adapt them to the social and economic needs of the country, and the policy of the Government is to re-orient the tertiary system, with more emphasis on technical and vocational education. The Universities, in terms of their roles and functions, need to be re-moulded in such a way so as to change them into centres of learning. The challenge before them is to create an intellectual culture where production and dissemination of knowledge become important; to-day the undergraduate behaviour is deplorable and there is a group of students bent on anarchy and destruction. There is a vocal element led by a politically motivated group of student leaders associated with a political party which still believes in the political potential of the youth, who destabilize and vandalize Universities. In the light of these experiences, it is my view, that the entire tertiary system of education needs to be over-hauled with a view to modelling a system on the basis of the need to develop the country, and it is with this perception that the Government, with the assistance of the World Bank, is now engaged in the formulation of a development-oriented Higher Education Policy which will address immediate issues relating to Higher Education, including those vital areas as University education, Technical Education and Vocational education. All three need to be integrated into a totality so that the country can make use of its human resource base for development. It is the view of the Government that Sri Lanka cannot move forward without a comprehensive change in the system of education and I, therefore, would like to invite the distinguished professionals, who are present here to-day, to help us to evolve a culture of learning in this country.