Future Education Policy Must Follow Economic Realities Not Sympathy
Posted on June 2nd, 2010

Dilrook Kannangara

Everyone has a right to education, as it is a globally accepted fundamental right. However, there is no such accepted fundamental right to free education at tertiary level. This clearly spells out the path government should take. Opening up private universities and other higher education institutions is necessary because taxpayers can only finance the higher education needs of 1%-2% of Sri Lankans and the remaining 98%-99% have a right to educate themselves. Even richer governments like Australia, USA, etc. do not spend on university education that is completely free of charge. Students of free university education are required to pay it back after graduation. Obviously, Sri Lanka need not do that but the strong investor-investee focus should be maintained. Free university education should be seen as an investment made by taxpayers/government. 

The democratic socialist republic of Sri Lanka has adopted the open economy. Uplifting the poor at the expense of the others is not the focus anymore. The new focus is uplifting Sri Lanka with the participation of all without segregating people into rich, poor and other categories. People have accepted this policy; voters have overwhelmingly approved it since 1977 and national policy must be based on the market economy for all matters.

From the time of introducing free education, Sri Lankan policy makers looked at tertiary education from the point of view of students or recipients of free education. This is the root cause of all the problems associated with it. It is absolutely wrong to look at tertiary education from the point of view of students or recipients of free education. Instead, it should be look at from the point of view of the nation, taxpayers and the national economy. Recipients must not see free education as a privilege, but as an obligation to pay it back. National policy must change to see them as obligatory and not as a privileged lot. 

Students of private universities and other private institutions are a less burden to taxpayers/state. They pay for their education and each of them save the following amounts to the nation “”…” Sri Lanka. This is the cost of producing one graduate. Amounts are in 2007 terms and exclude monthly payments and other concessions.

Dental – Rs. 2.2 million

Veterinary science – Rs. 1.8 million

Medicine – Rs. 1.5 million

Agriculture – Rs. 1.2 million

Others range from Rs. 300,000 to Rs 1 million

Sri Lankan taxpayers must get a return from their colossal investments. Otherwise it is a waste.

One argument against private universities is that a larger percentage of their graduates tend to go abroad and therefore there is no benefit for the country. However, even with that, they are still a less burden to the nation than the very large number of unemployed graduates of free education who are a double burden!

Private universities and other institutions should be made tax-free. Otherwise, they will pass on the cost to their students. Policy makers must bear in mind that these students and their parents too pay taxes even though they do not get free university education. Further taxing them is not moral or economically productive.

Giving preference to local graduates over others in giving jobs is a violation of equal rights. It should not happen. Most qualified and skilled persons should get the job. A graduate of a private institution applying for a local job means a person is willing to do well for the country who has not costed a cent to produce at the important university level. Further penalising them and elevating free education graduates over them does not make any economic or moral sense. Industry should not change according to graduates. Graduates must change according to what is required in the market place.

The country needs more open universities. Existing state universities should also carry distance-learning courses. This can rapidly expand the skill level across all industries as it benefits a wide section of the population. It perfectly matches skills with requirements. Private English and computer academies should be given all the incentives to expand across the country. A wider section of the population will benefit boosting their opportunities in the service sector. 

There is no argument that university graduates must be given more English, computer, interpersonal, leadership, economic, business and other necessary skills. Government must invest in these but with a mechanism to get the returns back to those who finance free education “”…” taxpayers. Otherwise, it will be a black hole or another form of corruption. In order to ensure Sri Lanka gets back what it spends on free tertiary education, a method should be in place to recover the cost of producing a graduate. For instance if a dental graduate of free education leaves country after graduation, he/she should be asked to pay back the cost of producing him which is Rs. 2.2 million. All graduates from taxpayer-funded universities must be made to either serve the country before leaving country or proportionately pocket out the residual amount they owe. They may be considered to have fully paid back after serving Sri Lanka for 5-10 years after graduation. Those who go abroad to earn but are still based in Sri Lanka should have an intermediary arrangement benefiting them. In calculating it, only tertiary education cost should be taken into account as it specifically relates to the profession. In addition, tertiary education costs much more than primary or secondary education. That is why fewer opportunities. It is a fair system for students, taxpayers and Sri Lanka.

However, giving additional skills to graduates by itself cannot make them employable. There should be opportunities first! The most important thing to give jobs to graduates and others is to help businessmen not graduates. If businessmen cannot profitably run their businesses, they will not give any jobs to anyone. Over-employment into the already overcrowded state sector is disastrous and it is not an option. To create opportunities, government should allow tax incentives and other incentives to businesses. This means more government expenses and less revenue. This should be set-off to some extent by getting back what was spent in free education on graduates who leave the country without giving it back to taxpayers. 

University students using terror tactics to force their way on governments is a common thing in Sri Lanka. Tough action must be taken against them. Expelling them from universities and replacing them with the next in rank should be done without mollycoddling them. It must be emphasised that they are just the recipients of free education, not investors which means they can be easily replaced.

Standardisation with essential changes must continue as it offers an equitable distribution of taxpayer funds across the country. A requirements based standardisation formula should be adopted. For instance, Sri Lanka needs at least 75% Sinhala fluent doctors and at least 18% Tamil fluent doctors. These thresholds must be incorporated into admission to faculties based on the language of sitting the GCE A/L exam. One may argue that this can lead to problems with Tamil students. It is not so because once the above mentioned “ƒ”¹…”pay back’ scheme is in operation and when many private universities exist, the mad rush to free universities will reduce especially from Tamil areas. It is a fair system by poor taxpayers, who expect doctors at their village hospital when they part with their tax money. Further, it provides a foolproof expellant of discrimination allegations made against the government since it is a fair and equitable system for all. Above everything, it is essential to view free education from the point of view of taxpayers and the nation (investors) than from the point of view of recipients. Only this can re-establish the long lost spirit of free education “”…” serving the nation, giving back what was given free with appreciation and gratitude. Parasitic behaviour headed by politically motivated elements has erased the spirit of free education that was prevalent when it was introduced. As the saying goes, no free lunches.

One Response to “Future Education Policy Must Follow Economic Realities Not Sympathy”

  1. PRIYAN WIJEYERATNE Says:

    Allowing foreign Universities in Sri Lanka is a fantastic idea. It certainly can supplement the much needed graduates in various demand fields. At the same time we may lose some of them to foreign countries. Foreign Universities must be check for their quality, reputation and relevance to Sri Lanka. When they are here in Sri Lanka, their cost of producing a graduate may fall below that back in their home country due to the low cost of doing business in Sri Lanka. This may provide the edge over going abroad for studies to our students who could not enter our local Universities. At the same time due to low cost, these reputed foreign Universities may attract foreign students from the Middle-East, Bangladesh, Brunei etc and perhaps Malaysia, which may be a good foreign exchange spinner for Sri Lanka. However, the Government of Sri Lank must make sure that the Universities maintain their quality and good work. At the same time the Government must make sure our local Universities continue to improve by taking good examples from the foreigners and engaging in competition.
    The fear of profit grabbing and drain on funds to foreign land must be carefully studies, although the margins may not be very high in the education industry.

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