President Mahinda Rajapaksa has called for high ethical standards and social responsibility from those products of the country`s higher education system.
Delivering the Convocation Address at the conferment of Post Graduate Degrees of the Colombo University on Sunday the President noted that Sri Lanka not only needs well-educated specialists from its higher education system but also expects it to produce individuals with high ethical standards and social responsibility.
The President no doubt was targeting those youth resorting to violent agitation in our universities and others who decamp our shores after making maximum use of our free education system.
This indeed is a curious paradox, for more often than not it is those who were left out of free University education who appear to serve the country with dedication and distinction. As the President noted there were countless number of war heroes who missed a university education under the present system. It is a travesty that while they spilt their blood for the country their more fortunate colleagues were spilling blood in the campuses in violent agitation. Hence the President`s allusion to ethics and responsibility.
What about the financial burden on the Government which has no way of knowing if the country will receive its due returns one day from those who enjoy free education. At what cost are universities maintained?
It goes without saying that prolonged closure of universities is a strain on the financial resources of the State. For, while the campuses remain closed, it has to pay the university staff, the workforce and also meet other overhead expenses. Paradoxically the Government who pays for the education of the university entrants is also called upon to incur additional expenses to cater to their indulgences while a large segment of students who may be more productive and turn out to be assets to the country are left out in the cold. It is time that the Government takes cognizance of the whole picture of our university education and make a cost benefit assessment. Perhaps like many other transformations contemplated in the post war era the country`s higher education system too would come under the microscope of the authorities. The system is lop-sided to say the least.
As the President observed in his speech the Universities can cater to only 20,000 students annually while around 100,000 are left behind due to want of financial resources to enrol the entire cadres who get through their AL examination.
On the face of it this seems a grave injustice given the lengths to which some poor parents go to find the means to educate their off-spring to secure for them a better future. This, the President hinted should weigh on the conscience of those fortunate to gain entry for higher education. He has therefore called on them to lend a helping hand to their colleagues left behind to better their lot. But today any attempt to cater to the needs of those who missed out on university admission is bound to trigger violent protests with accusations of privatizing higher education by mainstream students. The best example was the attempt to commence private medical colleges (NCMC) in the late eighties especially to cater to those who failed to obtain the necessary marks to enter the Medical Faculty.
It is in this backdrop that the President also spoke of the need to find alternative avenues of higher education outside the University system to accommodate those who missed out, to meet the growing social demand for higher education to fit into the modern day labour market.
Even here they are bound to eclipse their University counterparts engaged in certain study streams that do not cater to modern job demands. Here too the State would have spent money in vain with no productive returns from a bulk of our university students who will largely be unemployable.
Therefore steps should be taken to strengthen the vocational sector of higher education which will turn out products which would be productive to themselves and the country at large. As mentioned the higher education sector should be looked at afresh from the point of view of a cost benefit assessment. The large numbers who have left the country for greener pastures after having got the benefit of higher education should warrant such a move.
Hopefully the President`s comments would see a sea change in the country`s higher education set up with the accent on productivity rather than maintaining universities for the sake of it. Those benefiting from free education should be made accountable and worthy recipients of the facility.