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Regulating pvt. sector education for quality assurance: Balancing a Universal Basic Right vs. Ir-Rational Prejudices

  • Regulation, a need of the hour; but should be done properly: FUTA

  • Under no circumstance should the Govt. legalise pvt. higher educational institutions: IUSF

  • By permitting pvt. universities, Govt. is trying to get rid of the responsibility of ensuring free edu: SSU

 

Education, among other aspects of a country’s development, plays an extremely important role, as it is proper education that shapes a country’s citizens to contribute to the country’s development.

According to activists, Sri Lanka’s existing education system, even though it has been subjected to certain reforms over the years, needs to be further augmented in order for it to be able to compete with evolving international standards and the job market, and also to produce intelligent people rather than educated people. Both the private and state education sector plays a big role in this process.

It was reported recently that the University Grants Commission (UGC) is planning to introduce laws with the aim of assuring the quality of private higher educational institutions. The Morning reported yesterday (31) that necessary provisions to regulate such educational institutions would be introduced through a proposed new Higher Education Act.

According to UGC Chairman Prof. Sampath Amaratunge, the lack of regulation in the private higher education sector is a pressing issue, and quality assurance, therefore, is a timely need. When contacted by The Morning, he further said that the UGC will not be interfering in the monetary aspects of the private higher education sector, adding, however, that regulations will be introduced through the proposed Act.

At present, the UGC has recognised the degree and diploma courses awarded by 20 private higher educational institutions which have been established under the Companies Act No. 7 of 2007. Out of these institutions, 18 have been permitted to award degrees by the Ministry of Education. The UGC is the country’s leading state institution tasked with handling matters pertaining to universities, and it was established under the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978.

Its tasks include, but are not limited to, the planning and co-ordination of university education, allocation of funds to higher educational institutions, maintenance of academic standards, regulation of the administration of higher educational institutions, and regulation of the admission of students to higher educational institutions.

Today’s Spotlight focuses on whether regulating private higher educational institutions is a timely move by the authorities.

 

“The existing law does not permit the establishment of private universities nor refer to them as private universities, and it only recognises institutions that award degrees. In this context, according to the laws and regulations, the use of the term private universities is not quite accurate” Federation of University Teachers’ Associations President Prof. S. Banneheka

Need of a new act

Speaking of the proposed Act, Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) President Prof. S. Banneheka said that without a doubt, private higher educational institutions including universities should be regulated. He said that it has to be implemented with careful consideration as to how it should be done and who (what institutions) should take the initiative to do that. Furthermore, he added that even though attempts were made on several occasions to regulate private universities, some of these attempts failed due to the manner the authorities tried to do that.

Prof. Banneheka told The Morning: “If Sri Lanka is going to regulate private universities, it should be done in accordance with an act, in an acceptable manner. If done without transparency, it would not yield any positive results.”

He also said that under the existing Universities Act No. 16 of 1978, there are no provisions to regulate such private educational institutions. He said that he was of the opinion that the education authorities are planning to amend the Universities Act as well, as they had gathered opinions about it.

“Our stance is that steps should be taken by a recognised body such as the UGC, and that the process of regulating should also be carried out by such a recognised institution through a proper Act. The Act should specifically mention what type of institutions would come under it. Also, this Act should focus on the quality assurance aspect, which is currently applicable to state universities. Essentially, it should ensure accountability in all aspects. We cannot just introduce such an Act hastily, and it should be implemented after an in-depth discourse with the involvement of all the responsible parties,” he said.

“The FUTA would extend its appreciation if this move is implemented in a way that is acceptable to all concerned parties and according to the law. The priority should be the quality assurance of the courses, and it should be conducted by an independent institution. It is also important that this institution be accountable to the country. At the end of the day, if a quality assurance certificate is given based on individual agendas, it will not serve its purpose,” Prof. Banneheka added.

He also raised concerns over the legal recognition of private higher educational institutions, adding that according to the existing Universities Act, most private universities cannot be recognised as private universities and that private universities cannot exist in the country.

“The existing law does not permit the establishment of private universities nor refer to them as private universities, and it only recognises institutions that award degrees. In this context, according to the laws and regulations, the use of the term private universities is not quite accurate,” he noted.

According to Prof. Banneheka, in order to regulate private higher educational institutions, the Universities Act should identify such institutions and legalise them before taking further steps. He added that educational institutions Sri Lanka identifies as private universities are merely degree-awarding institutions, and that those institutions are merely licensed to award degrees by the authorities. “Hence, the term ‘upadi kada’ (degree selling stores),” he opined.

Moreover, he added: “Most such institutions that claim to have been recognised by the UGC are, in fact, educational institutions that have obtained permission to conduct the degree courses. Therefore, this endeavour should start from the very beginning by introducing proper criteria to identify such educational institutions legally. This should be the first step. If they come to an acceptable level, it can be beneficial to students, and we would support it.”

 

Private universities and free education

However, certain students’ unions (of state universities) opposed the idea of regulating private higher educational institutions, adding that instead of promoting and welcoming private universities, the Government should focus on expanding the existing state university system.

Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) Convener Wasantha Mudalige told The Morning that under no circumstances should education be dependent on money.

“If the country’s citizens pay their taxes as they should, regardless of what taxes the government imposes, every person should be entitled to educational opportunities as a right and a benefit (of paying taxes), irrespective of ethnic, caste, and religious differences. A person’s financial status should also not be a factor in this connection. What the Government should actually do is increase the number of students enrolled in state universities, and take steps to allocate adequate funds,” Mudalige said.

“Even if it means establishing new universities, the Government has a responsibility to increase the number of students and thereby widen free education opportunities within state universities. However, what the Government is doing is supporting and legalising private higher educational institutions, and establishing a legal foundation for the existing ones. We are of the opinion that the Government should not regulate private higher educational institutions,” he added.

Speaking of issues concerning private universities, he added that they are not necessary as they focus more on the monetary aspect, rather than quality education. He alleged that one can easily get a degree from private universities, and that it unavoidably begets an issue of quality (of the degree courses). “Once someone gets a degree after paying money, they do what they do with a focus on profits in order to cover the money they spent. Therefore, private universities cannot create a knowledgeable human being,” he further opined.

 

Expanding the state university system

Speaking to The Morning, Socialist Students’ Union (SSU) National Organiser Rangana Devapriya said that all Sri Lankan governments aimed to build private universities instead of expanding the state university network and, to make matters worse, every year Sri Lanka cuts funds allocated for education through the budget. He alleged that the last budget did not allocate at least 1% to uplift the country’s higher education.

Adding that even though a considerable number of students get good results through the government school education, the government has failed to provide adequate higher education opportunities, Devapriya noted, adding further that in this context, the government attempts to allow the establishment of private higher educational institutions and to thereby get rid of the responsibility.

“In most cases, however, private universities offer degree programmes which are of less quality, and it became a topic of discussion after the issues pertaining to the private education institution in Malabe came to light recently, especially due to matters such as medical education, causing a considerable impact on the people. But not only medical education, any form of education should receive attention. If a person who has a degree cannot put into action what he/she learnt, it is clearly an issue,” he noted.

Expressing sentiments similar to those expressed by Mudalige, he added that what the Government should do is expand the state university system.

He added: “Instead, governments that ruled the country established various institutions to regulate private higher educational institutions. What those governments tried to do was to give legal recognition to higher educational institutions that had been established without such recognition. But creating such a legal background also entails issues, because in Sri Lanka, there are issues concerning how institutions meant to look into the quality aspect have worked with large-scale institutions.

“In the recent past, certain groups that were appointed to look into the quality aspect of certain private higher educational institutions issued reports that said that the courses conducted by those institutions were up to the standards, even though in reality there were many issues. A large number of private higher educational institutions rob the country’s poor people of their money using the names of various degree awarding institutions. Therefore, the government should not encourage such institutions, and instead should expand the state higher education system.”

He further said that in order to do that, the government does not necessarily have to build universities, and instead the government can create other higher educational institutions such as institutions offering higher national diplomas, which have the potential to make available courses on subjects that are not covered by degree programmes.

Speaking of the issue of unemployed graduates, he said that it has more to do with the country’s economy than private higher educational institutions. “This issue has persisted for a long time and worsened when the authorities considerably cut down on the number of students enrolled in external degree programmes given by state universities. On the one hand, the government encourages getting degrees from private universities, and on the other hand, it does not provide enough jobs for degree-holders. In the country’s economy, there is no specific system to give them jobs. Sri Lanka has an advanced human resource, but they leave the country due to the lack of jobs,” he further expressed.

 

Private higher edu institutions’ contribution

When The Morning spoke to several persons who had obtained educational qualifications from private higher educational institutions including universities, they said that if private educational institutions did not exist in the country, a large number of students who do not get the opportunity to study at a state university, despite having passed the GCE Advanced Level (A/L) examination, would have been a burden to the country.

While one of them said that regulating private higher educational institutions should focus on improving them, another person said that there is no need to introduce such measures.

In addition, they emphasised that obtaining a degree or another type of educational qualification from a private university requires a great deal of time and effort, and that having or spending money is not a qualification to obtain educational qualifications from those institutions. According to them, some private higher educational institutions maintain stricter, international-level standards.

At the end of the day, what matters most is ensuring that the country’s future generation receives proper education, regardless of the nature of the education institution they obtain it from. Also, as one person who spoke with The Morning said that such major decisions should be taken after considering the opinions of all relevant parties, as it involves numerous parties. Also, the public’s right to obtain free education should not be subdued by paid educational opportunities.