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A text of a speech delivered by Prof. Wiswa Warnapala, Minister of Higher Education at Induction & Graduation Ceremony Organized by the Institute of Engineers’ on 27th July, 2007.
Any kind of use of the contents should be duly acknowledged

The Institute of Engineers’ is a leading professional organization in the country, and it, in a variety of ways, has made a noteworthy contribution to the development process in Sri Lanka. It is, therefore, appropriate and relevant to focus our attention to certain aspects of Higher Education Policy in Sri Lanka.  Higher Education, primarily as a result of the impact of the developments in the 21st century, faces unprecedented challenges which have emerged due to globalization, and importance of knowledge as the principal factor in development. Higher Education, in my view, is central to the creation of a knowledge-based society, and development of a country depends, to a large extent, on its ability to produce and make use of knowledge for development. In other words, knowledge is becoming the core of a country’s competitive advantage, and the production and dissemination of knowledge are part of the process of development based on an effective Higher Education Policy.  Sri Lanka, though it claims that it has had a comparatively stable Higher Education system consisting of the Universities and other allied education institutions, still lacks an ambitious Higher Education Policy which could accelerate the process of economic and social development in the country. The Universiteis, since the establishment of the fully-fledged University of Ceylon in 1942, have made a contribution for the development of both intellectual and professional enterprise in the country. We know that several professions, through the University system, came to be developed in the country and they, like the Engineering profession, have made an impact on the process of economic and social change in the county.

Education in Sri Lanka, since the introduction of the Free Education Scheme in 1944, helped the country to move towards greater social equality. Such things as universal access, equality of opportunity and gender equality have been realized, and a strong human resource base has been established.  Amidst such achievements, differences in income produce differences in family and social environment and such factors tend to reduce considerably the opportunities of socially-disadvantaged children. Though most of the students, who enter the Universities, come from rural areas and from poor social class backgrounds, there are still socially disadvantaged children who, because of the backward schools in such areas, cannot enter the Universities.  This had created some kind of an imbalance in the system as these children, who are not provided with proper facilities, cannot enter the Higher Education system.  Though the accepted norm is that the children of higher professional people are more likely to enter a University degree course that children of a semi-skilled or skilled workers; the situation was entirely different in Sri Lanka as more students came from rural areas This kind of pattern was discovered in England in 1963 by the Robbins Report but in Sri Lanka, the historic Free Education Scheme altered the relative percentage of economic classes entering the Universities.

It was this feature which favoured the expansion of the Universities and the policy-makers, out of sheer necessity, were compelled to concentrate on undergraduate education at the expense of post-graduate education. More emphasis was laid on humanities and Social Sciences; the expansion of such sectors took place as a part of the enlarged role of the State in the field of Higher Education.  This kind of Higher Education was not accompanied with a corresponding expansion of   professional  and technical education; number of   profession  several   professional   organizations,  which   operate   outside    the university system provide opportunities for professional education and  some of these organizations are in the public sector, catering primarily to the requirements of the public sector institutions.  In my view, more linkages have to be established with the Universities sector, so that both sectors could benefit from each other. In other worlds, the Universities should not over-concentrate on undergraduate education and move in the direction of both professional and post-graduate education.  It is in this context that one can examine the relationship between the content of education and its relevance to world of work. The education planners, in the last several decades, overlooked the necessity to re-orient policies from the point of employability.  In other words, the University curricula have not been modernized in the last several decades in such a way so as to see that they get linked to the availability of employment opportunities.  The courses, presently taught in the system, both in terms of content and relevance, do not relate to the employment market, and this mismatch between education and training provided by the State and the demand of the market place has created a major crisis in the minds of the educated, primarily the youth who tend to get frustrated as a result of the absence of immediate employment opportunities. This has been the normal pattern, except for such courses as medicine and engineering in the Universities; in other worlds, most University level courses – some of traditional disciplines are necessary to maintain University as a place of learning and research –do not offer prospects of ready access to employment. This, in a way, is the crisis in the Sri Lankan Universities, and the need to introduce changes and transformation to match the changes in a society undergoing transition process is the need of the hour.  It is here that one has thoroughly review and substantially   modify   the   structure,   the content and m the orientation of the Higher   Education  system    which,  in  my  view,  still  suffers   from   certain legacies of   the  colonial  period. Sri Lankan State  has to modernize system at a lower public expense, and the aim is to enhance the efficiency of the system.  Appropriate measures are necessary to improve access, and all institutions of higher education in the country, inspite of their levels of development, need to respond to market signals and to depend more on market demands.  What I am trying to say is that policies and changes have to be made on the basis of the rate of social return of Higher Education.  Today social capital is taken into consideration in assessing the wealth of a nation; the best way of promoting development is to invest in human resources. Our model of education, based on the Free Education Scheme, has been a social demand model for education, through which much of social mobility has been achieved.  But as the economy changes, there is a rising demand for skills; for instance, the growing complexity of the economy requires a complex and diverse range of skills at all levels. It is only through a diversified system of education that this objective could be realized.  Therefore, in my, view, a new Higher Education Policy should address both social demand and economic changes in a given society.