Sri Lanka: Developing Students with Practical Skills for Employability and Competitiveness

August 10, 2016


The graduating class of the University of Moratuwa’s Department of Textile and Clothing Technology which has an employment rate of 100% upon graduation.

Photo Credit: Isuru Udara

The Higher Education for 21st Century (HETC) has helped universities enrich their curricula to strengthen English and IT skills and soft skills desired by employers. It is transforming how and what students learn in universities to increase the employability of their graduates. All 15 universities are now seeking to provide these skills and also linking students with internships and research opportunities with relevant industries.

Sri Lanka’s growth and competitiveness has catalyzed its economy’s growth toward services and high value industries. However, the higher education sector had not kept up with these shifts and were not producing sufficient graduates with holistic skills that employers were seeking. Although providing good theoretical knowledge, universities rarely emphasized soft skills such as industriousness, team work, leadership skills, creativity, and communication skills. There was also a gap in the quality of higher education in lagging regions such as the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

" The ability of people to think and act creatively, work industriously and productively, innovate and evolve new technologies, and adapt available technologies to improve economic performance is of central importance for Sri Lanka to develop from a lower middle-income country to a high-income economy.  "

Harsha Atarupane

Project Leader

HETC is designed to enhance the capacity of Sri Lanka’s higher education system, institutions, and human resources to deliver quality higher education services. The HETC helped the government develop a National Qualification Framework and strengthen conduct quality assurance reviews in all universities. Besides providing grants to enable students to learn English and ICT and develop soft skills, the project provided competitive quality and innovation grants to enhance teaching and learning and research and innovation, as including connecting university departments with industries. For instance, the department of food science and technology at Wayamba University partnered with food industries, providing opportunities for students to learn from industry experts in high-tech laboratories on actual research projects, such as tuna flesh color development. ­

HETC is also strengthening and modernizing alternative higher education, such as at the Sri Lanka Institute for Advanced Technological Education and its network through curriculum and management reforms, while expanding coverage to under-served areas to provide more equitable access to job-oriented higher education

" The program taught me how to deal with people, along with communications and problem solving skills that I used during my internship. As a result, finding a job was quite easy. "

Malaka Perera

Graduate of University of Moratuwa’s Department of Textile and Clothing Technology


Winners of the soft skills video competition sponsored under a grant supported by HETC. 

Sandya Salgado/World Bank

The Higher Education project has thus far helped to support the development of the higher education sector in several key outcomes:

  • External quality assurance reviews covering have been implemented in all universities to date.
  • University Development Grants have been improving English, information technology and soft skills in all universities.
  • Quality and Innovation Grants were implemented in 55 study programs, exceeding the project target of 51.
  • Over 150 university and Sri Lanka Institute for Advanced Technological Education academics completed Masters or Ph.D. degree programs.
  • Short-term professional development activities have benefited about 4,500 university administrators and managers, academics, and technical and support staff.
  • Studies conducted under the project show improvement in the employability of graduates, and that employers provide positive feedback about many types of graduates.

" I plan to become a CEO within 10 years. "


Program Graduate


26-year old Gihan Dissanayake works as a Research Assistant at the University of Colombo Science and Technology Cell, an innovative research and development unit. 


Sandya Salgado/World Bank

Bank Group Contribution    
IDA has been the largest education donor in Sri Lanka, accounting for a major share of foreign assistance to the country’s education sector during the last 15 years. For instance, between 2003 and 2010, IDA financed $51 million for Improving Relevance and Quality of Undergraduate Education for Sri Lanka project. This project supported the Government's long-term tertiary education reform program by enhancing institutional capacities to achieve greater relevance and quality in undergraduate programs.

With HETC’s support, there are increasing examples of formal research and development partnerships between companies and universities that are strategic and of mutual long-term benefits. An example includes Veterinary Business Center at University of Peradeniya, which partnered with private sector and veterinarians to provide consultation services, such as conservation of Jaffna sheep and herd fertility investigation. Some of the innovations fostered by these partnerships also have a strong potential for being scaled up and commercialized such as the simulations project, which developed the Vessel Traffic Monitoring System, which now operational at Colombo Harbour.
Moving Forward
The HETC Project was designed with continuity, in which the University Grants Commission will seek to sustain after the project closes at the end of June 2016.  Project implementation was decentralized to 15 public universities and 12 advanced technological institutes, with support from a set of senior academics working in the Ministry of Higher Education and Highways. As a result, the country now has the intellectual expertise and technical capacity to continue working towards the project’s goals. Several universities have already built on the projects’ foundations and established university-industry partnerships with national and international firms.

of Universities in Sri Lanka have been covered under the higher education program