The Sri Lankan government has announced bold plans to reform the country’s university sector, including granting special status to a select group of private institutions and opening the country to campuses of international branches, in a move that critics, “will intensify the commercialization of higher education.” “
Policy changes include the creation of an “investment zone for free education” which will provide tax breaks to international universities setting up outposts abroad, provided that their academic staff also support local universities .
However, student places on these campuses would be reserved for “foreign students and non-resident Sri Lankan students who are able to pay in foreign currency”, students in other parts of South Asia and the east being the main targets, the government said. Only 5% of Sri Lankan students would be offered scholarships to study there.
A 700-acre area in Horana, near the capital Colombo, has already been identified for this area, but progress has stalled due to public protests.
The government has also committed to increasing the number of students in existing institutions by 7,500, or 25%, and to convert several higher education institutes into universities. Less than 20% of students eligible for university attend due to a seating limit. However, the government has stated that it will not provide any additional funding for any of these policies.
The country is also proposing to grant certain private non-profit establishments, which do not have full powers to issue diplomas, the “charter university status”. Five institutions have already been recommended for this, which would require that any degree program be approved by the University Grants Commission and that the governing board include the secretary of higher education as a member.
Harshana Rambukwella, director of the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka, said that successive governments had tried to implement similar changes but that the current administration, formed in November, was more likely to succeed. .
He added that “the commercialization and privatization of higher education” in Sri Lanka has been underway for 20 years, but that this “should accelerate and progress much more aggressively” in the context of the proposals.
“The proposed changes represent a fundamental reorientation of higher education in the country, where it will be largely driven by market forces,” he said.
However, Rambukwella wondered if the country would be able to attract universities and international students and expressed concern that the quality of higher education in Sri Lanka would decline “quite severely”, given that the government will provide only “minimal investment” for new policies.
“All of this has been presented as expanding access to higher education in Sri Lanka, but in reality the creation of a free education zone will not do anything like this, as it will not meet local demand” , he added.
John Rogers, director of the Colombo-based American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies, was also “skeptical” about whether the Sri Lankan branch campus model could “provide the standards and compete with the Gulf and Malaysia”.
He added that the proposal to grant charter status to private institutions that charge tuition fees was likely to face “intense political opposition”.
“For the moment, full-fledged universities under the UGC cannot charge fees for undergraduate courses … although political opposition will assume this is the government’s ultimate goal, because the government wants to increase the number of undergraduates by 25 percent and not spend more money, ”he said.