Tuesday, February 26, 2008

S.B, the Higher Ed. Reformer?

Former Sri Lankan Minister, and the national organizer of the main opposition UNP, S.B. Dissanayake seems to 'get it' when it comes to Higher Education reform. Here's S.B. from an Interview with the Colombo Post :

During 1960 to 70, our main five universities were included in the world’s best 500 universities. There were only two universities from India among the 500. Today ours are not even in the first 1000 universities. But even today we have a huge demand in this sector. When our students lose the opportunity of getting admission to our Medical College by a few marks, they go to medical colleges in Nepal which is a donation to the army, or to the Bangladesh Medical College for higher studies.

Last year 150,000 students were eligible for university admission, 17,000 were selected. About 25,000 leave this country every year. If they are permitted to pay and study here, then our universities need not depend on government funds to build libraries, to purchase books or for research, they can earn by themselves. In the world today there aren’t any universities that depend on their governments. Those universities earn by themselves. If we improve and market these universities to Asian countries we may get down students from China and India and make this a good service country. [link]

I've so far met no reasonable person who's against higher education reform. Yes, there are few insecure undergraduates in local universities who are against it, but they don't quite make
cut as 'reasonable' in my book.

I've chatted about this with various folks, including government ministers and MPs about the need for reform. All of them get it. They know Higher ed. in this country, sucks, that's why most of the ministerial offspring (including His Excellency's sons) are studying abroad.

The great tragedy is the incentives are arranged such that it doesn't make sense for any politician to invest political capital in higher ed. reform and disturb the apple cart. The ruling party don't want to give any more reasons for the JVP to mobilize its left-wing student unions, there are no other pressure groups at work - including the Colombo civil society, who's primarily obsessed with peace.

It's a tragedy because higher ed. reform is essentially a middle-class project. Most people in the affluent class, if I'm to use that word, don't usually have their children studying in Sri Lanka at the undergraduate level. It's the middle to lower income earners who will benefit the most from reform with increased access with lower costs to undergraduate degrees.

How do you reform? I'm no higher ed. expert, but I can offer some clues. One option as I've said before, is to grant the university autonomy as to it's administration and make them accredition bodies for potential private colleges, so you go to College Xyz, but get your degree from University of Colombo, the university sets the papers, the curriculum maybe even offer access to expensive labs and that sort of thing. This is what kind of happens in India, and Sri Lankan colleges like APIIT or ANC except they are affiliated to foreign universities. It would bring in competition in the sector, bring down costs, increase access to higher education, diversify options beyond just IT and business in the private sector and can potential bring in more revenue for the University which they can invest in paying their lectures, scholarships or improving their facilities. You can keep some (or all) of the universities in government hands privatize the rest and authorize setting up universities (not just colleges) by the private sector.

Another possibility is to privatize all universities, except for maybe one and offer educational vouchers on merit-basis , the students can reimburse the voucher at any college of his/her choosing and can add-value to it if he/she is able to afford it.

I think all these, especially a variation of the first option is entirely possible and even politically feasible, if more people start advocating it.

Previously, What's free in free education?

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