Demystifying University Colleges as a Modality of Technical Education
Posted on February 2nd, 2020

Prof. Chandana Jayalath

As a matter of way out of the subdued economic growth, the Sri Lankan government recognizes the need to increase the employability rates of the youth. To that end, the ministries in the subject of skills development, vocational training and youth affairs have been tasked with providing technical and vocational training to prepare youth for careers in a wide range of occupational fields. A well-known fact is that Sri Lanka’s university admission process is highly competitive where the students are ranked and admitted in accordance with a standardized scoring system based on their A-Level examination results. In 2018, about 60 percent of students passed the GCE A-Level examinations. Of this group, only about 17 percent were admitted into a university-level institution.

Looking at the technical and vocational education sector, abbreviated TVET sector, the allied education programs range from short-term certificate programs and apprenticeship training to bachelor’s degrees in ‘applied’ disciplines. In 2009, Sri Lanka established a National Vocational Qualifications Framework (NVQF). National Certificates (NVQF 1 to 4 entry-level programs typically have a strong practical focus concentrating in crafts and trade fields). National Diplomas (levels 5 and 6) entail one and two-year programs typically offered in technical fields and trades. Admission is typically based on O-levels or a NVQF level 3 or 4 certificate. The program length is clearly defined at 60 credits (one year) at level 5 and 120 credits (2 years) at level 6. The level 7 Bachelor’s degrees are basically the Vocational Bachelor of Technology degrees (3 years, 180 credits). The programs are designed to be entered on the basis of NVQF level 5, while holders of level 6 may be granted the first two semester exemptions. However, the entering schemes for a NVQ 5 and 6 are many.

The Department of Technical Education and Training (DTET) oversees 38 technical colleges offering various certificate and diploma programs in trades and crafts, such as automotive technology. Students over the age of 17, who have passed their O-level examinations, are eligible for enrollment, though many courses have an age limit of 29. The Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) accredit a number of technical and vocational institutions. The Vocational Training Authority (VTA) comprises 224 rural vocational training centers, 22 district centers, and 7 national training centers. VTA was established in 1995 with the aim to provide TVET in rural parts of the country. The National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA) offers around 150 apprenticeship training courses in 22 vocational fields across 25 district offices and 4 institutes. Apprentices while training at a work place may have the opportunity to sit for national trade tests in a number of occupations. Trainees may also apply to obtain NVQF certificate-level qualifications.

Amidst this backdrop, the University of Vocational Technology (Univotec) was established via the Parliament Act No 31 of 2008 with the functions under then the purview of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development. Subsequently, the university colleges came into being in a gazette notification in the year 2014 under the foregoing Act. It must be clear that although the university colleges are given power to admit students, conduct tertiary education, hold examinations, and determine with the approval of the Univotec the degree, diplomas, certificates, and any other academic distinctions to be awarded, they do not have full or independent university status though it is often part of a larger university.

Quite a few international examples would ease out the misnomer. The Latrobe University College of Northern Victoria is one such famous college that provides academic support such as tutorials. University College, Melbourne, formerly University Women’s College, is one such residential college affiliated with the University of Melbourne. In Belgium, the term University College is used to refer to state-funded institutions of higher education belonging to one of the three Communities of Belgium, that are specifically not universities. They can issue academic or non-academic Bachelor’s degrees or academic Master’s degrees, and they are performing practice oriented and artistic research. Even if they are at the same level, academic degrees issued from University colleges are different from University degrees. In Canada, the case is multi-dimensional. Their “University College” has three meanings: a degree-granting institution; an institution that offers university-level coursework; or a constituent organization (college) of a university, such as University College at University of Toronto or University College Residences at Laurentian University. Some Canadian university colleges are public institutions, some are private; some are regulated by government agencies, others are not. In Ireland, the Queen’s University Belfast initially had no university colleges and the first university college was created in 1985 (St Mary’s) and second in 1999 (Stranmillis), these two institutions previously were associated with the university, offering its degrees since 1968.

The term “University College” in Malaysia denotes institutions that are granted the authority to issue degrees in their own names within specialized fields and disciplines. Nearly all New Zealand universities were originally described as “University Colleges”, and were constituent parts of a Federal body, the University of New Zealand. All of these are now fully independent; for example, the former Canterbury University College is now the University of Canterbury. There is a specific university hall of residence named “University College” at the Otago University. In most cases students at university colleges took the external exams of the University of London, but the colleges of the University of Wales and the Victoria University took degrees of those institutes while the university colleges in Newcastle and Dundee were associated with the universities of Durham and St Andrews respectively. Not all of these university colleges used “University College” in their name. With the exception of colleges in London that remain part of the University of London, all have gone on to become independent civic universities. Examples include the University of Nottingham (which was University College Nottingham when D. H. Lawrence attended), the University of Southampton which was associated with the University of London until 1952, and the University of Exeter, which until 1955 was the University College of the South West of England; Keele University was founded in 1949 as the University College of North Staffordshire until it was granted its royal charter in 1962 and transformed into a university. This was the recognized route for establishing new universities in the United Kingdom during the first half of the 20th century, prior to the founding of the plate glass universities.

It is clear that the ability to offer degrees wholly depends upon how precise it has been worded out in the law. As “University College” is obviously less prominent title than “university”, institutes that meet the (stricter) criteria for university title normally apply for the latter. Historically, the term university college was used to denote colleges (as opposed to universities) that delivered university-level teaching. Unlike in the modern usage of the term, did not hold their own degree awarding powers. Instead, they were associated with universities, thus forming a larger institutional unit while being physically independent. An inference is that it becomes even more difficult with the term university college, which is being used in quite a few countries across the globe, ranging from Australia, Canada and Denmark, to the Netherlands, Norway, UK, the US, and many other countries. Very often it does not refer to the same type of institution.

Leaving aside the question of autonomy for the time being, the demands leveled by the students learning at the existing university colleges must be looked at from a holistic perspective. It must be left to the academics and university administrators to decide upon and come up with a strategic plan of action. Such an action plan must indeed be comprehensive and sustainable as it should not in any way impair the efficacy and equity associated with the overall delivery of technical education and training. Simply put, the efficacy and equity must be revisited in terms of admission criteria, hierarchy of delivery of modules and their curriculums, order of cognitive skills, national competency standards, effective utilization of resources, and most significantly, the potential vocational niches that are marketable in cross frontiers. It is no harm of elevating the colleges as degree awarding institutions, not just sake of producing a graduate on a demand but a true graduate with a spirit of optimism and genuine graciousness, which essentially warrants a carefully thought-out process, in spite of the name it may claim at the end of the day.

Ultimately, the country’s prosperity depends on how many of its people are in work and how productive they are, which in turn rests on the skills they have and how effectively those skills are used. Skills are a foundation of decent work. The cornerstones of a policy framework for developing a suitably skilled workforce are: broad availability of good-quality education as a foundation for future training; a close matching of skills supply to the needs of enterprises and labour markets; enabling workers and enterprises to adjust to changes in technology and markets; and anticipating and preparing for the skills needs of the future. When applied successfully, this approach nurtures a virtuous circle in which more and better education and training fuels innovation, investment, economic diversification and competitiveness, as well as social and occupational mobility – and thus the creation of more but also more productive and more rewarding jobs. Good-quality primary and secondary education, complemented by relevant vocational training and skills development opportunities, prepare future generations for their productive lives, endowing them with the core skills that enable them to continue learning.

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