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Local students ill-prepared for real challenges: Priyanka Jayawardena

Local students ill-prepared for real challenges: Priyanka Jayawardena

30 Sep 2023 | By Marianne David

  • Excessively-packed school curriculum can lead to superficial learning
  • Disparities in education quality due to unequal resource distribution
  • Limited availability of A/L science education pushes students to Arts
  • Severe limitation in education opportunities in higher education sector
  • Higher education curricula falls short in scope/relevance in job market
  • Lagging in producing graduates in essential disciplines, especially STEM
  • Modernising education system requires thorough review and revision
  • Govt. should assess PPP potential to improve the quality of education

Sri Lanka’s traditional examination-driven education system prioritises memorisation over practical and applicable skills, potentially leaving students ill-prepared for real-world challenges, said Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) Research Economist Priyanka Jayawardena, in an interview with The Sunday Morning.

According to Jayawardena, IPS research also underscores the challenges faced in delivering quality education, particularly in disadvantaged schools, where shortages of qualified teachers are most pronounced, especially in subjects such as Mathematics, Science, and English.

“Addressing these issues is vital for enhancing the quality and relevance of school education, ensuring that students receive a well-rounded and practical education that equips them with the skills needed for success in the modern world,” she added.

In the course of the interview, Jayawardena also spoke on key challenges facing the higher education sector, education reforms, the potential of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to improve the quality of education, increasing enrollment in Advanced Levels (A/Ls), meeting the growing demand for skilled workers, tackling the brain drain, and addressing learning losses.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

 

While Sri Lanka has made progress in ensuring that education is accessible to all, how would you assess the quality and relevance of the education provided at school level?

Several critical concerns emerge when assessing school education’s quality and relevance issues.

Firstly, an excessively-packed school curriculum can lead to superficial learning, hindering students’ ability to grasp concepts thoroughly. Further, reliance on outdated teaching techniques and rote memorisation does not engage students in imparting practical or promoting critical thinking skills. 

The traditional examination-driven education system prioritises memorisation over practical and applicable skills, potentially leaving students ill-prepared for real-world challenges.

Also, significant disparities in education quality arise from the unequal distribution of human and physical resources. For example, most schools with A/L grades focus on offering only Arts and Commerce streams – as of 2021, only 34% of schools offering A/Ls have facilities for Science and Mathematics streams. The limited availability of A/L science education pushes students towards opting for the Arts stream, resulting in approximately 42% of A/L students in 2021 being compelled to choose the Arts stream. 

Further, IPS research underscores the challenges faced in delivering quality education, particularly in disadvantaged schools, where shortages of qualified teachers are most pronounced, especially in subjects such as Mathematics, Science, and English. 

Addressing these issues is vital for enhancing the quality and relevance of school education, ensuring that students receive a well-rounded and practical education that equips them with the skills needed for success in the modern world.  


What would you list as the key challenges facing the higher education sector and how can they be addressed? How relevant, effective, and necessary is the education provided?

One of the most significant challenges facing the higher education sector is the severe limitation in education opportunities.

For example, in 2020, out of the total students eligible for university entrance (based on their A/L results), only 22.6% were fortunate enough to secure admission to State universities. This scarcity of available placements means that around 130,000-150,000 qualified students cannot pursue higher education yearly. This situation deprives these students of valuable opportunities and represents a potential loss of human capital for our country.

Another critical issue pertains to the responsiveness of Sri Lanka’s public university system to changes in the labour market and global developments. The existing curriculum in higher education falls short in scope and relevance to meet the demands of today’s job market.

Sri Lanka’s higher education system is lagging in producing graduates in disciplines essential for economic growth, particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). It is concerning that nearly one-fourth of university undergraduates study in the less demanded Arts stream. Compared to 97 other countries, Sri Lanka holds second regarding the percentage of students enrolled in Arts and Humanities programmes. However, in STEM, Sri Lanka ranks 59th out of the same countries.


Sri Lanka has been dragging its heels on education reforms, despite the urgency of the issue. What are the key steps that need to be taken to modernise the education system?

Modernising the education system requires a thorough review and revision of school curricula. 

One key aspect is to incorporate market-oriented subjects, especially Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Technology, and Languages, as core subjects within the less demanding A/L subject streams, especially for the Arts stream. This adaptation ensures that students are equipped with relevant skills and knowledge that align with the evolving demands of the job market, making them more competitive and adaptable in the workforce.

To bridge disparities and promote equal opportunities for STEM education, prioritising Science and Technology education at all levels is necessary. This includes investing in the necessary resources, infrastructure, and qualified teachers to make STEM subjects more accessible and engaging for students. Through these, we can empower our students to excel in technology-driven industries and contribute to innovation by emphasising these fields.

As highlighted in the forthcoming IPS flagship State of Economy (SOE) 2023 report, improving the quality and economic relevance of higher education in Sri Lanka requires a multifaceted approach.

Traditional academic programmes should be reevaluated and updated to align with the evolving demands of the job market. This involves revising course content, introducing new programmes, and phasing out obsolete ones. The focus should be on creating market-oriented programmes that equip students with practical skills and knowledge relevant to Sri Lanka’s economic needs.

Universities should cultivate a culture of continuous learning among students. This means encouraging critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity rather than relying solely on rote memorisation. Faculty should employ innovative teaching methods and engage students in hands-on projects and research.

To enhance economic relevance, universities should establish strong connections with the business community and provide internships and practical experience opportunities. Encourage entrepreneurship and innovation through specialised programmes and support for student startups. This can help create a more entrepreneurial mindset among graduates and contribute to economic growth.

In addition to technical skills, universities should emphasise developing soft skills such as communication, teamwork, leadership, and adaptability. English proficiency is often a critical skill in today’s global job market. Universities should prioritise the development of English language skills throughout the curriculum. This could include offering English language courses, integrating English into subject-specific programmes, and promoting English-language research and communication. These skills are highly valued in the job market and are essential for career success.

By implementing these measures, Sri Lanka can enhance the quality and economic relevance of the higher education system, producing well-prepared graduates to meet the country’s workforce needs and contribute to its economic growth.


While free education is available and Sri Lanka meets the education sector-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the budgetary allocation for education is dismal. How can this be addressed and which areas should the government prioritise?

As discussed in the forthcoming IPS SOE 2023 report, the Government should actively assess the potential of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to improve the quality of education. 

PPPs can play a pivotal role in addressing resource deficiencies in our educational institutions. For example, philanthropic funds can be leveraged to enhance the provision of basic education. Private partners can contribute to designing practical-oriented curricula and infrastructure development, including constructing Science labs and IT facilities, which would significantly improve the quality of computer education and computer-aided learning. Collaborative efforts in this area can substantially improve basic education quality.

The limited availability of public resources for tertiary education in Sri Lanka presents a significant hurdle. To overcome this, one promising approach is to foster private investment in higher education, provided it operates within well-defined State regulations and standards. This approach can enhance the quality of education through healthy competition, broaden access to university education, and mobilise additional resources. 

However, implementing PPPs in higher education is complex and requires a thorough understanding of constraints, precise planning, and adherence to proper processes to mitigate potential adverse effects. Implementing a comprehensive quality assurance system is critical for enhancing the overall quality of higher education and ensuring that private sector involvement contributes positively to expanding educational opportunities.


Your research shows that despite achieving near-universal basic education, education participation at A/Ls drops significantly, from a net enrolment rate at Grade 10-11 of 85% to 53% at A/Ls. What are the key reasons, and how can this be resolved?

Increasing enrollment in A/Ls is essential and IPS research reveals that participation disparities are due to several factors, primarily financial barriers. Our current universal free education system, while commendable, still leaves room for improvement in accessibility for students from lower-income backgrounds. To address this, it is necessary to create pathways for economically disadvantaged students to access higher grades of education. 

It is necessary to uphold existing welfare measures that provide free textbooks and uniforms, especially for children hailing from economically-impoverished communities. These measures can help alleviate some of the financial burdens associated with education.

Recognising the lower enrollment rates for A/Ls, it may be worth exploring the introduction of more targeted financial assistance programmes tailored to the specific needs of students aiming to pursue A/Ls. Scholarships should be available to deserving students from less privileged families to support their educational journey beyond Ordinary Levels (O/Ls). These scholarships would serve as a critical lifeline, ensuring financial constraints do not hinder a student’s pursuit of A/L education. This could significantly boost participation in this crucial stage of education.

Simultaneously, it is necessary to address the issue of excessive reliance on private tuition by enhancing the quality of education at the secondary level. Creating a more robust educational foundation can reduce the need for supplementary private tuition. Additionally, efforts to make the A/L examination less competitive and more reflective of a student’s overall growth and potential can help alleviate the pressure associated with these exams.


Sri Lanka is falling short in meeting the growing demand for skilled workers, with only 4.5% of the population aged 25 years and above holding a degree-level qualification. What does this mean for the country and what should be done to address this?

As mentioned, the Government should consider introducing strategic private financing mechanisms for higher education to accommodate students passing their A/Ls.

Encouraging non-State Higher Education Institution (HEI) authorities to offer scholarships or fee subsidies for economically-disadvantaged students would be a valuable step towards expanding educational opportunities and promoting equity. Additionally, facilitating the introduction of student loans can empower students to pursue higher education without financial constraints. These measures will diversify educational options and foster healthy competition, ultimately raising the quality standards of both State and non-State HEIs.

Establishing a robust system for monitoring and evaluating their impact and effectiveness is crucial to ensure the successful implementation of these measures and achieving the desired outcomes. Continuous assessment will enable necessary adjustments and improvements, ensuring that the primary goal of recognising non-State HEIs and enhancing overall educational quality is achieved.

A cornerstone of success in this endeavour is prioritising a rigorous quality assurance and accreditation system within the higher education sector. State universities must undergo a transformative process to stay competitive with non-State HEIs and remain relevant in a rapidly-changing educational landscape.

By implementing these strategies, we can effectively meet the growing demand for skilled workers, broaden access to higher education, and improve the quality of tertiary education in Sri Lanka. These measures will benefit our students and contribute to the nation’s economic development and global competitiveness.


Sri Lanka is seeing an exodus of its skilled workforce. What kind of impact do you anticipate due to the brain drain and how can this be tackled?

The out-migration of skilled workers results in a ‘brain drain’ and the country loses our talented workforce, including essential services like doctors, engineers, and other skilled professionals. This leads to crucial bottlenecks in meeting the demand for skilled workers domestically. 

The challenge becomes more pronounced due to current fiscal constraints, which limit the capacity to expand investments in human capital. Hiring skilled workers and experts from abroad, even temporarily, can entail substantial professional fees and resource allocation.

To address this complex issue, it is essential to balance fiscal prudence and strategic investments in education and training programmes that cultivate the skills required by the domestic job market. By doing so, we can take steps toward bridging the gaps created by the brain drain and ensure that our country has a steady supply of skilled professionals. This approach mitigates the immediate impact and serves as a long-term solution to address the challenges associated with the brain drain.


Pandemic-related closures resulted in immense learning losses in Sri Lanka and the economic crisis has also led to children dropping out of school. How should Sri Lanka address learning losses and ensure that children stay in school?

To prevent learning losses and encourage continued school attendance, education authorities should consider adapting the curriculum to meet the evolving needs of students better. Failure to adjust the curriculum and teaching methods to align with students’ learning requirements can exacerbate learning losses over time.

Proven strategies for promoting foundational learning include streamlining the curriculum, extending instructional time, and enhancing learning efficiency through targeted instruction, structured pedagogy, small-group tutoring, and self-directed learning programmes. These approaches not only help recover lost learning but also contribute to improved educational outcomes in the long term.

Further, it is crucial to provide children who have missed school due to pandemic-related situations with opportunities to catch up and continue their education alongside their peers. Special catch-up programmes and teacher support can play a key role in bridging educational gaps and enabling these students to attain the same competencies as previous generations who did not face disruptions due to the pandemic.


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