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Speech delivered by Prof. Wiswa Warnapala Minister of Higher Education at the inauguration of the Experts Meeting on ‘Development of Policies in Higher Education' on 11 August, 2007 at the BMICH.
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Before making use of this opportunity to speak a couple of words on the need to formulate a new policy on Higher Education, I would like to extend a warm welcome to the distinguished members of both the Task Force and Panels of Experts, whose expertise would be used to formulate a development - oriented Higher Education Policy for our country. In the selection of the distinguished members of the Task Force and the Panels of Experts, we were guided, primarily, by their experience and knowledge in the respective fields of specialization, and they, in my view, constitute a representative cross-section of the country's intellectual and professional enterprise in Sri Lanka. It is my fervent and sincere hope that the distinguished members of these two think-tanks, making use of their vast experience and knowledge, would help the Ministry of Higher Education to formulate a realistic new policy to re-orient the system of Higher Education in such a way so as to see that the system becomes an integral partner in development. It can make a tremendous contribution to the process of economic and social development.

Today the existing Universities structure consists of fifteen Universities, and the system, which was initially confined to Colombo and suburban Colombo, is now spread out all over the country, and this change took place as a result of the need to break away from the colonial mould of the traditional University, and the establishment of the new Universities was based on the experience of the Red Bricks in Britain. With the establishment of Universities in the provinces, the system consisted of two sectors; the traditional sector, with Peradeniya and Colombo at its apex, consists of the Universities which came into existence in the three decades after 1942.

The University of Ceylon admitted 904 students in 1942, and the University of Ceylon, according to Sir Ivor Jennings, was to accommodate 5,000 students in 1955, and this number, according to his own estimate, was to increase up to 10,000 in 1965. He wanted the University to remain exclusively residential and it was his view that 10,000 graduates would be sufficient to meet the educated manpower needs of the country. Since he thought that the University intake would remain elitist, he never anticipated that the Free Education Scheme of 1944 would bring about a radical change in the country's primary and secondary education system. With the introduction of the Free Education Scheme in 1944, the social demand model of education system came into existence, and its impact is still seen within the system; Free Education has become a vital element of the political culture of the country. This scheme, with its social impact, altered the percentage of economic classes entering the Universities and the system, in response to this change, had to be expanded; today it caters to nearly 100,000 students, including those making use of the Distance Mode.

The demand for education is based upon the size of the child population and the child population has risen in the last three decades. Under this scheme, Sri Lanka enjoyed maximum educational opportunity and equality. Yet another theory was the attitude to education, and the parents, purely because of the social impact of the Free Education Scheme, are keen to give the child a better education. In this way, the demand for both secondary and tertiary education began to increase, and this was primarily due to the impact of the social demand model of education. The question of social mobility came to the forefront; education came to be recognized as a form of social and economic emancipation. The social demand has been met and the challenge is to construct a model that is capable of assisting the development of the country.

The system of Higher Education, primarily the Universities system, though it made a contribution to the intellectual and professional enterprise of this country, began to expand in response to popular pressures; the changes took place in the form ad hoc arrangements. New policy initiatives are necessary to overhaul the entire system with a view to making it more responsive to development efforts of the country. The need today is to mobilize higher education as an instrument for national, social and economic renewal, for which new policies need to be formulated to build the institutional capacity of the system, improve the relevance and quality of higher education and the management of the higher educational institutions. Most important requirement, in my view, is the need to convert the University into the focal point of intellectual activity. Through higher education, the younger generation needs to be provided with knowledge, skills and ideals. Therefore Higher Education, in the present context, is faced with a series of challenge related to equity, access, financing, management, enhancement of quality, relevance of programmes and the employability of graduates. Issues relating to student welfare and discipline too need to be addressed as these things have become the forces of de-stabilization of the entire system. The most important of is the challenge relating to the ways in which knowledge can be produced, managed and disseminated for the benefit of the country. Since we are going through a period in which we witness the impact of the expansion of the system- which took place primarily as a result of the social demand model of education - we need to provide more access and resources for higher learning, and this, in my view, could be achieved only through a development - oriented model of Higher Education. The formulation of such a Higher Education Policy is necessary as scope and pace of changes in society has become increasingly knowledge-based, and today both higher learning and research function as essential components of the socio-economic transformation of a society. It is with this perception that policy makers need to formulate a set of new policies to make the Sri Lankan Higher Education more relevant to the process of development in the country.

There are certain objectives to which we, as policy makers, need to give thought. I would like to enumerate them.

1.To fulfil the historical purpose of a University through the pursuit of excellence in teaching, research and scholarship.

2.To advance national development through the application of learning and research.

3.To promote learning by offering opportunities for advanced education to achieve these objectives, the following steps have to be taken.

Consolidation of undergraduate education and strengthen and develop the capacity for post-graduate education. Take measures to achieve the highest standards among staff and students, and direct all these policies to this end. Promote good practice in teaching, promote the development of post graduate studies and encourage improvement in research performance. Design teaching and research programmes to help supply national needs and contribute to social and economic growth by dissemination of its research results. Enlarge the international perspective of academic activities and foster a network of relationships with other tertiary institutions engaged in higher education and promote the programmes of excellence in national institutions engaged in education. I have identified the areas where policy initiatives are immediately necessary. They are: Undergraduate Education, Post Graduate Education, Staff Development, Training and Retention, Curriculum Development, Rehabilitation of Infra Structure, Management of Resources, Management, Mobilization of Financial Resources. I hope that you would give due consideration to these issues.