Kath Noble

Come on over, everything’s free in Sri Lanka

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 4, 2013

How the Government is planning to replace free education with Free Education Zones

highwayForeign investors must imagine that this country is a vast, uninhabited wasteland. Because if they are willing to start a business here, they are literally deluged with gifts. They get a conveniently located piece of real estate, hooked up to all of the necessary services, for very little or sometimes nothing, while they are earnestly reassured that the Government is working really hard to ensure that they can come and go smoothly via the most modern of infrastructure – brand new ports and airports, a network of expressways and so on. And no matter how much they make in profits, they won’t be asked to pay so much as a rupee in tax.

No doubt they are delighted to find that the scenery is quite nice too. They can congratulate themselves on their good fortune while reclining on a palm-fringed beach, champagne flute in hand.

This week, it is the future of Sri Lankan youth that they must pretend to care about.

A few days ago, this newspaper carried a report of an announcement by the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education regarding what he described as ‘Free Zones for Education’. The Government is planning to establish five of them – in Gampaha, Hambantota, Puttalam, Trincomalee and Kilinochchi.

Naturally, these are not going to be zones in which education is free but zones in which companies will be free to sell education without any of the normal controls.

They are to be given 100 acres each to set up their campuses.

If the agreement already reached with the University of Central Lancashire is anything to go by, they will also be offered a fifteen year tax holiday, followed by ten years in which they will pay at a concessionary rate. Twenty five years later, they may perhaps be ready to compete with other businesses.

I hardly know where to start.

The Government relies on two arguments to justify bringing private universities to the country. First, it says that it doesn’t have enough money to expand access to the existing state universities, so a lot of young people are missing out on the opportunity to get a degree. Secondly, it says that students whose families can afford to pay for their higher studies are currently sending them abroad, which means that Sri Lanka is losing precious foreign exchange.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that there is absolutely no possibility of increasing the budget allocation for higher education, although this is obviously not the case.

What is the degree that students can expect to get from these private universities?

If it is to be of value to young people, it must help them to get a job. If it is to be of value to the country, it must equip them with the skills needed to develop the economy.

Is it going to do either?

At the moment, there are more degree-holders in Sri Lanka than suitable employment for them. That much is obvious from the fact that there are ‘trade unions’ for unemployed graduates. What happens as the number of young people going to university increases? The University of Central Lancashire is expecting to enrol 10,000 students when it commences operations in Sri Lanka. Since there are currently only 25,000 places to be had in state universities per year, even a single institution in each of the five zones would boost the number of graduates threefold.

The more people have degrees, the less use they are to job seekers as indicators of intelligence and the capacity to work. They have to provide sought after training.

This is also obviously the case with regard to their contribution to the country’s development.

And for training to be sought after, it has to be of good quality. Employers are not stupid – they know what is being taught and how, or they very soon find out.

We may immediately rule out the possibility of standards being guaranteed by regulation, since the state has demonstrated very little interest in managing corporate activities to date and it is not likely to develop the capacity to do so in the near future.

So what is the plan?

The Government seems to believe that quality can be assured simply by offering incentives to good institutions to encourage them to come to Sri Lanka. It says that the freebies referred to above are only for ‘reputed international universities’.

That statement itself is a bit doubtful, given that the first agreement to be signed was with the University of Central Lancashire. The United Kingdom has 48 of the top 400 universities in the world, according to the most respected ranking, but the University of Central Lancashire is not one of them. In fact, I would suggest that even the majority of British people have never heard of it.

But even if it is providing a perfectly reasonable education in the United Kingdom in a few subjects, which is quite possible, why should we assume that it will be able to do the same in Sri Lanka?

There are three problems.

First, doesn’t Sri Lanka have different training needs to the United Kingdom? The curriculum of any programme offered in this country ought to be different if it is going to help its participants to find a job, and also if it is going to contribute to the development of the nation. That is common sense, since the two countries are at very different stages and have very different economies.

In fact, this draws attention to a larger problem. Who is going to decide which courses will be offered in private universities? Their choices will be guided by what young people are willing to pay for now, or at the most what they are likely to be willing to pay for in a few years. They will follow the trajectory of the economy, not play a role in shaping it, as higher education led by state universities should attempt to do.

Secondly, who is going to teach in Sri Lanka? Are Sri Lankans currently working in British universities going to come ‘home’? Are British professors going to move to Sri Lanka? Private universities will more likely face the same recruitment problems as the existing state universities – even if they offer higher salaries, which remains to be seen, the jobs will not be secure.

Finally, what incentive will private universities have to do a good job? Demand from young people for higher education is so strong that they will constitute absolutely no check on the quality of the courses.

There may be many problems with state universities, but at least their objective is education.

If there really is a need to expand access to higher education beyond the capacity of the budget, the next best option is to offer additional places at state universities on a fee-paying basis to students with the next best marks, not to allow companies whose sole motivation is making a profit to decide who gets to study what and how.

Both options have the same close to zero chance of stopping young people going overseas to study – the main reason they go is not to get a degree but to try to settle there permanently.

So much for the Government’s logic.

I am not sure whether even the Minister believes it. More likely is that this entire debate is being conducted because some businessmen see the higher education market as potentially extremely lucrative.

And they are probably Sri Lankan.

While a lot is now being said about the Government’s handouts to foreign investors, especially in the light of the appallingly low level of taxation in the country, one question that is never asked is how many of them are actually Sri Lankans. These days, it is not only the West that has multinational corporations. Sri Lanka too is developing its share, and they are in a prime position to exploit such opportunities. They can send money out of the country today and bring it back to a very warm welcome tomorrow.

This article was published in The Island on 4th September 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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