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Towers of Learning: Higher Education in Sri Lanka

July 17, 2011

  • Sri Lanka is poised on the crest of two great waves of opportunity.
  • The first wave can transform the nation from a low-income country to a middle-income country
  • The second wave can transform the nation from a country in conflict to a country at peace

Towers of Learning in Sri Lanka details the World Bank's recommendations and approach to further improve higher education and produce world class graduates in Sri Lanka. It recommends that the higher education system should inspire the country’s values, ethics and social institutions so that Sri Lanka becomes celebrated as an enlightened and peaceful multi-ethnic,multi-religious and multi-cultural society.

Sri Lanka's future in the global knowledge economy of the 21st century depends critically on the country's intellectual and human capital. The ability of people to think and act creatively, work industriously and productively, and innovate and adapt available technologies to strengthen economic activities is cardinally important in the modern world.

There are two ways to look at enrollment in the higher education sector: the first one is a comparison with the relevant age group, the second a comparison with the pool of secondary education graduates. In both cases, international comparisons allow a useful perspective. The overall gross enrollment rate (GER) in higher education of about 21 percent of the relevant age group puts Sri Lanka ahead of the South Asia Region.

The quality of higher education is perceived to be unsatisfactory in the public discourse and the media. International experience suggests that all rapidly increasing systems of higher education do lose their initial level of quality, which they tend to recover once the system stabilizes. It is likely that Sri Lanka is exactly at this juncture, characteristic of the transition stage which the country is currently experimenting.

Sri Lanka has recently produced several important policy documents that should influence the future direction of the higher education sector:

-Increasing access by enabling more choices in courses and modes of learning for all prospective students;
-Enhancing quality and upgrade standards with emphasis on employability and to cope with national developmental needs and global competitiveness;
-Fostering a culture of scholarship and research; and
-Ensuring accountability, sound performance and financial sustainability.

In terms of demographic profile, Sri Lanka is still a relatively young country with over 43 percent of the population below 25 years. In overall terms, the current phase of changes indicates that Sri Lanka’s demographic environment is conducive to rapid economic development, subject to the condition that necessary socio-economic policies are in place to realize maximum benefit.

The development of the higher education sector, across all its dimensions of access and coverage, quality, governance and relevance, will require substantial resources as the country spends a substantially smaller portion of its national wealth on education than its comparators, regardless of their level of development.

The higher education system has served Sri Lanka well in some areas, and performed badly in others. The development of the higher education sector will be of immense benefit and value to Sri Lanka.