2020 Jul 15
The glorified state university system that year after year makes headlines for its notoriety of deathly ragging incidents, protests and a handful of praiseworthy endeavours are an acclaimed point of pride amongst Sri Lankans. The Lankan Uni system takes in only the highest scorers of Advanced Levels and churns out supposedly the best of the best intellectuals. If so, what lies beneath the protests of unemployed graduates and why isn’t the workforce accommodating their needs?
A Brief History
The modern university system in Sri Lanka dates back to 1921 when a University College (a college institution that provides tertiary education but does not have full or independent university status) was established at the former Royal College premises, known as the “Ceylon University College”. It was affiliated with the University of London and provided courses of study in art and humanities, science and medicine prepared undergraduates for examination at the University of London. The said University was modelled on the Oxbridge formula and was an elite-oriented university. It was dissolved in 1972 to establish the University of Sri Lanka and in 1974 the Jaffna campus was included under it. The university was based at six campuses in Colombo, Peradeniya, Sri Jayewardenepura, Kelaniya, Moratuwa and Jaffna. However, this too was dissolved in 1978 and its six campuses became independent universities.
Higher Education in Sri Lanka and Employability of State Uni Graduates
University education is the core of higher education; and in Sri Lanka, being selected into a local university is not only an academic achievement but also one that determines your societal calibre. Amongst many things, universities are expected to solve social problems as a public service, help modernisation and train students for academic and professional sectors.
As stated in a 2008 study by R.G.Ariyawansa, the target of the university is to encourage the student to explore authenticity. At the end of university education, students should be “productive persons” economically as well as socially.
I find this to be an interesting way of defining the objective of university education given it mentions a graduate’s ability to be a “productive person”, almost as if it is synonymous with the idea of being “employable”.
However, according to Journal of Economic Review, (1997), it has been mentioned that the subjects of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities are not sufficient and relevant to fulfil the demands of the job market or to improve necessary skills. And it goes onto mention that traditional subjects are yet to be modified to suit the current demand in the job market.
“On one hand, thousands of students expect to enter to universities annually to have education in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences stream, which are not directly relevant for their employment aspirations”, says R.G.Ariyawansa.
“This may happen due to limited as well as conventional options available in the higher education institutes of social sciences for such students”. “On the other hand, the modifications to the syllabuses and structures of degree programs to meet the changing needs of the job markets may radically deviate the main objective of university education. For instance, if universities have to give more attention to develop students’ basic IT skills and English proficiency etc, students may have to lose some essential components in their degree programs”.
It is also argued that if universities were to start job-oriented courses, it should only be done as long as it is in line with national development plans. Mr Ariyawansa further elaborates on this, saying, “the starting of job oriented courses creates career expectations among students. However, to provide training and relevant education for particular jobs is a meaningful attempt only if the expected employment opportunities are created in the market”.
The dilemma doesn’t end here. Several factors such as the lack of professional orientation add to the matter. Usually, Medicine, Engineering, Law, Agriculture, Science and Management faculties guide the students towards accurate professions. Degree programmes in Business Administration, Finance, Accounting, Human Resource Management have links with national and some international corporate bodies. And “Through such links, students can develop their future career plans and necessary talents”, continues Mr Ariyawansa.
Notions such as these also play a part in the attitudes of graduates who imagine that they will be handed opportunities in mid to high-level job roles once their education is completed.
It was revealed by the Presidental Committee appointed to identify problems of the University system that “Negative attitudes”, “Lack of communication skills”, and “Lack of English knowledge” also affect the unemployment issue.
Graduates usually expect a government job with a high salary and a high job rank. Pensionable jobs are also within their expectations. Deeply rooted social norms of the country further exacerbate pressure on state university students to secure high-ranking jobs.
Failing to meet such expectations cause unrest amongst the unemployed students who eventually take to the streets, protesting for jobs, and against private universities that could add to the competitiveness of the job market.
A First-Hand Experience
When asked if students are equipped with the knowledge needed to be employable by Dulinda Perera, young CEO of IKON, entrepreneur and undergraduate at the University of Moratuwa, he briefly says “Nope”. “While of course, the current university system attempts through multiple initiatives to increase soft skills (presentability, linguistic skills, etiquette etc.) the mentality of the majority of students are not in the current context to make the maximum use of such initiatives”, he continues.
“Many students believe that after a 3 or 4-year degree that they possess sufficient knowledge to add value to an organisation, whereas in reality, they require a lot of on-the job training”, he says while speaking on his experience on hiring graduates.
“For one reason to another, certain specific universities (through their branding and cultural positioning that has been there for a while) are branded as “THE BEST” in certain fields and graduates produced via these universities believe that it is implied that they are also, in fact, the best of the best. Contrary to popular opinion, this exists in both private and state university undergraduates”.
To conclude our interview, I ask Dulinda – in his opinion – what should ideally change in the local university curriculum to make students be better prepared for the corporate world. He replies, “the current (national) exam system is based in such a way that undergraduates learn things by memory just so that they can get a good grade on the paper and move on. This needs to change. Curriculums need to give more prominence to industry exposure, soft skill development and also help build better interpersonal skills”.
The booming private sector is a treasure trove for graduates in search of job opportunities. However, it requires employees to be self-motivated, possess leadership skills and have a good command of the English language. Be it the private field or the government sector, IT skills, analytical ability, teamwork and interpersonal relations along with a degree should be of utmost importance. If our education system is comprehensively developed and accommodates such facets, “we may likely see “corporate-ready” set of undergraduates coming through”.