Sri Lanka’s Brain Drain
By Anushka Saelen
Growing uncertainty over the future of the university students in Sri Lanka have forced parents to look for alternatives overseas. This is despite promises made by the government last year to open foreign universities here to give more students an opportunity of higher education.
While the government remains divided over the Quality Assurance Accreditation and Qualification Framework Bill, students are being forced to go abroad in order to pursue university degrees as the local universities can accommodate only a small percentage of students who are qualified for university entrance.
Even those who enter local universities are forced to deal with university closures for various reasons. In 2009 less than 4 percent of students were accepted into the public universities. Those who were not accepted nor had the finances to go abroad are forced to take up vocational training or enter the workforce as unskilled labor.
The state universities also face major obstacles due to a lack of funding as the government continues to allocate only a small percentage of the annual budget to higher education. In 2012 the allocated budget for education is a lowly Rs. 33.25 billion. Of which only 18 percent is to be spent on higher education.
The shortcomings in Sri Lanka’s education system are highlighted by the shortages of locally trained professionals. In the government and private hospitals doctors from countries such as India and Bangladesh are being hired as there is a shortage of local doctors.
Despite the apparent shortcomings in the universities in the country, local student groups continue to oppose the opening of international universities in the country.
Inter-university Student Center Convener, Asanka Bulegoda, explained that “the private universities that the government are attracting to the country are low quality. The medical college in Malabe (South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine) follows a poorly designed curriculum and does not match the standards that are expected of medical professionals. However, the government has allowed it and now they will be producing second rate doctors. Sri Lanka has always provided free education to the people; if private universities are to be introduced they will threaten this.”
Bulegoda admitted that there are numerous shortcomings in the university system in the country but did not accept the opening of private universities would solve them.
Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education, Dr Sunil Jayantha Nawarathna, refuted these allegations. “All universities that the government is hoping to invite to the country are of the highest quality”, he said.
Dr Nawarathna refused to comment on what universities Sri Lanka was looking to attract to the country, but confirmed that they were willing to open branches here.
Dileesha Fernando, mother of Sanjeeva Fernando, is being forced to look at other options for her son’s future as he has not been accepted to a local university and she cannot afford to send him overseas.
“Those who are opposing the private universities are doing so because they do not truly understand the benefits it would bring the country. My son has not been accepted to any of the local universities, while the Ministry has not given any proper explanation. We feel that this is due to a lack of available spots. My husband and I can afford the tuition fees of a private university, but it is not possible to support him living overseas. If he was to go to England or Australia we would have to not only have to pay the fees but also his living expenses. In today’s economic climate that is not an easy thing to do. If the private universities were opened here, we would be able to send him to one of those,” she said.
With the growing concerns over their future, parents are turning to education programs affiliated to overseas universities.
On July 26 a press conference was held by ANZ Education to announce that twenty Sri Lankan students would be offered scholarships worth Rs. 50 million to go and study at the New Generations College (NGC) in Melbourne, Australia. Co-founder of NGC, Dr Neil Lennie, said that they planned to give full scholarships worth Rs. 2.5 million each to promising students from the country.
According to Dr Lennie they are offering the scholarships because they want to “take a few students who do not have the finances to pay for a proper college education themselves.”
The college is specially designed for ‘A’ Level students, with a wide range of subject choices. Those who graduate from the college will receive the Victorian Certificate of Education which is equivalent of an ‘A’ Level. With this qualification these students will have access to different universities in the US, UK and Australia.
Often when students go overseas for higher studies they choose to remain in those countries as the job opportunities are greater there. If this trend continues, Sri Lanka will find itself with a depleted skilled workforce.