Sri Lankan government to address educational disparity and increase access to tertiary education


Sri Lanka, like many developing markets, sees education as a crucial part of building up the country, and does so by providing free schooling and tertiary education to all citizens. Parents place enormous value on education as well. This joint commitment has helped create an education system that is widely regarded as the best in South Asia, with more children completing primary and secondary school, and achieving higher literacy rates than elsewhere in the region.

The administration of President Maithripala Sirisena has planned a series of reforms that it hopes will better equip Sri Lankans for the more competitive economic activities of the future. It aims not only to increase the number of years spent in school, but also to raise the standards of teaching, and emphasise a curriculum of critical thinking and problem solving.

Regulation & Policy

The administration of education in Sri Lanka is spread over a number of ministries and agencies led by the Ministry of Education (MoE): the Ministry of Higher Education and Highways (MHEH), the National Education Commission (NEC), the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the National Institute of Education.

The NEC was established in 1991 to guide national education policy and advise the president on key issues relating to the country’s education system. It has developed a series of five-year development plans, the most recent of which ended in 2016 and included the extension of compulsory schooling. The commission is also working on long-awaited revisions to the Education Act, which is due to replace legislation dating back to 1939.

Provincial education departments are responsible for the administration of schools in their area, with the central government overseeing 352 national schools that were mostly established prior to independence. The national schools are now regarded as “elite” schools with better facilities and teachers, and together make up only 3% of the country’s schools.

Sri Lanka has a dedicated Department of Technical Education and Training under the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) tasked with setting standards and regulating providers. Those students undertaking such studies have the option of a number of vocational training routes leading to qualifications from Level 1-7. Levels 1-4 represent a national certification for skilled craftsmen while Level 7 is a bachelor degree.

The School System

Sri Lanka has a history of formal education going back some 2000 years, and education is considered a fundamental right under the country’s 1978 constitution. Since 2014 education has been compulsory for all children aged five to 16, bringing Sri Lanka in line with international standards. The school year follows the calendar year and is divided into three equal terms.

The island had approximately 10,150 government-run schools catering to 4.1m students at the end of 2015, according to the Ministry of Finance. Around 63% of schools teach in the Sinhala language, 30% in Tamil, 5% in Sinhala and English, and 2% in Tamil and English. There were 237,000 teachers in public schools in 2015 compared to 214,600 the year before. The majority of teachers – 56.1% – are classified as “trained teachers” who have been educated to A-level standards and received teacher training, while some 41.8% are classified as “graduate teachers”.

The MoE is also responsible for pirivenas (monastic colleges for the education of Buddhist priests). There were 749 pirivena schools in 2015 versus 719 in 2014. Enrolment in this type of education totalled 65,000 students with about 6800 teachers.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka has a small private sector that includes international schools and schools that offer the national curriculum in English language. There were 104 private schools in 2015, attracting 136,000 students and employing 7075 teachers. International schools are registered through the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka (BOI), although the MoE signalled back in 2013 that it wanted to take over responsibility for the sector.

Key assessments are modelled on the old British system with Sri Lankan children sitting for Ordinary Level (O Level) examinations at the age of 16 – with English as a compulsory subject – and Advanced Level (A Level) exams two years later. For the A Level exam, students follow either the science (bio-science or physical science), commerce or arts stream, and their performance on the examination determines their ability to enter university.

Addressing Disparities

Sri Lanka’s longstanding commitment to education has resulted in high literacy rates of 97.8% among young males (ages 18 to 24) and 98.6% among young women, ensuring gender parity in basic education. For the country as a whole the literacy rate is 92%, and around 80% of the population aged 25 years and older has been through some form of secondary schooling.

The high literacy rate masks wide disparities, however. Children in the regions, particularly in former conflict zones and on plantation estates, are not performing as well in languages or maths, according to UNESCO. There are also sharp differences between Sinhala and Tamil middle schools. The students living on plantations are half as likely to complete compulsory secondary school and just one-tenth as likely to continue to post-secondary education as their counterparts in the best performing provinces. In the former war zone, some schools remain in need of repair and improvement even though the conflict ended in 2009. In the estates, schools are often housed in dilapidated buildings or even outside.

Before the change of leadership in early 2015, the government had already been working to improve the quality of secondary and tertiary education – particularly in rural and disadvantaged areas – with a focus on technology. The $95m Education for Knowledge Society Project (EKSP) with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) was designed to make later-stage education more relevant to the labour market and improve students’ employability.

Upon completion in 2016 the ADB noted that the project remained relevant to the government’s education priorities and had led to physical improvements at 100 secondary schools in rural areas, including improvements to the buildings themselves as well as inputting modern computer labs equipped with stable and reliable internet connections. Consequently, these schools were able to increase enrolment rates – by 10.8% in 2012 and 11.9% in 2014 – and reduce the number of students who drop out.

The EKSP provided nearly 73,700 need-based scholarships compared to an initial projection of 30,000, which included technical skills training to students in former conflict areas. Another measure was introducing curriculum initiatives for the teaching of math, science, technology and languages, and support centres designed to improve teacher training in English and technology to post-secondary students.

In light of the project, the government has initiated the 1000 Schools Programme to ensure that every student in every province in the country can attend a decent secondary school. “It is necessary to ensure that students in disadvantaged and rural areas have equitable access to quality secondary education, that sufficient training is given to teachers, and that the needed resources are provided,” the ADB observed in its final assessment of the project.

Sector Spending

With the end of the war, the government has repeatedly stressed its commitment to spending on education. In 2013 the Special Parliamentary Advisory Committee of Education recommended that the government devote 5% of GDP to education; between 2005 and 2014 spending was only an average of 1.7% of GDP. In the 2017 budget the government promised adequate funding, but noted the “severe financial constraints” inherited from the previous administration. However, despite the pledge for more money being devoted to education in 2015 and 2016, allocations for the two main education ministries were cut in 2017. In the budget speech, Ravi Karunanayake, then-minister of finance and current minister of foreign affairs, noted that the reduced spending for 2017 partly reflected the fact that the previous year’s allocation had not been fully utilised. According to a budget overview published by local media in November 2016, the allocation for schools dropped to LKR76.9bn ($524.4m) for 2017 from LKR186bn ($1.3bn) in the previous year’s budget. The MHEH, which is responsible for tertiary education, received some LKR163bn ($1.1bn), but three-quarters of that sum is earmarked for roads, where the state is investing the most money overall.

According to the budget, money will be channelled towards improving crucial infrastructure, such as the provision of water, electricity and sanitation, and also towards improving facilities such as classrooms and scientific laboratories. Funds will be directed towards the development of “smart classrooms” with the provision of free tablets for around 175,000 students starting A-Level courses, and schools are encouraged to lease up to 50 computers each.

Higher Education

UGC statistics show that Sri Lanka hosted 17 public universities with around 86,300 undergraduate students and academic staff of 6000 in 2015; a year prior there were approximately 81,200 students working towards degrees and academic staff of 5600. The annual intake to state universities was 25,700 students in 2015 for a gross enrolment rate of 17%, which was noted to be lower than peer countries. Meanwhile, 37,100 students graduated from bachelor or master’s programmes.

The vast majority of students continue to follow popular arts and legal courses, with more than 8000 admitted to these faculties for undergraduate degrees in the 2014/15 school year. The next most popular courses were management and commerce, and science with around 5000 admissions in 2014/15.

The government estimated spending LKR47.1bn ($321.2m) on higher education for 2017, compared with a revised LKR62.3bn ($424.9m) in 2016. Despite that reduction, higher education funding has risen significantly in recent years, benefiting from the reduction in defence spending that followed the end of the civil war. The 2010 allocation, by comparison, was only LKR18.1bn ($123.4m).

The country’s universities are funded through direct payments from the UGC. The University of Peradeniya received the highest amount – LKR4.1m ($28,000) in 2017 – followed by the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and the University of Colombo. The UGC also funds a university dedicated to the visual and performing arts, as well as the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine. In addition, the government is investing in new infrastructure across the country’s university campuses, including the building of 24 student hostels and 26 faculty buildings with a focus on scientific and technical disciplines.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka has a number of institutions that fall beyond the purview of the UGC. The MHEH is responsible for the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka, and the Buddhasravaka Bhiksu University; the Ministry of Defence oversees the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University; and the Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Training oversees the University of Vocational Technology. Legislation exists that allows for private institutions, but there are relatively few options on this front.

Admittance to the country’s universities is extremely competitive, with no more than 20% of applicants getting a spot each year. The vast majority of students “do not have a clear path to continue their formal education due to limited opportunities in the public universities, and limited access to private sector universities due to considerations of both affordability and quality,” says researcher I M Kamala Liyanage from her study of the Sir Lankan education system. Only the country’s wealthy can hope to afford an education overseas, leaving many people with no option to further their education and with skills of limited viability in the job market.

Reformation Measures

Like many developing countries in the region, Sri Lanka is working on reforming its education system. The goal is to move away from an exam-focussed, rote-learning system to instead inculcate soft skills, and improve the environment for teaching and learning.

Although the overall student-to-teacher ratio is fairly high – at 17.4:1 in 2015 – Sri Lanka has long suffered a teacher shortage in key subjects such as math, science and English, which are all seen as crucial to Sri Lanka’s economic development plans. Consequently, few schools have the ability to teach the A-Level science stream.

Nationwide, 92 provincial schools have the necessary staffing and facilities to teach bio-science, 20 can teach physical science and 892 can teach both – this is compared to 9140 schools that do not have a science stream. Around 118,900 students were in the science stream in 2015, while 42,500 were in the A-Level technology stream.

Some rural areas have too few staff because many teachers are not willing to live in remote locations. While recruitment through the National Colleges of Education and university-based Departments of Education is quite stringent and reflective of some of the world’s best performing school systems, the government often resorts to ad-hoc measures to plug teacher shortages, lowering overall standards.

“The key is teachers,” Nisha Arunatilake, a research fellow and head of labour, employment and human resources development research at the Institute of Policy Studies, told OBG. “We need to professionalise the teaching service and be more stringent [about recruitment]. We have to get the most suitable [ people] and make the process very competitive.” Arunatilake would like to see the government introduce a fast-track training programme for the most qualified candidates and aim to make teaching as respected and coveted as the medical profession.

Meanwhile, the government has been improving the provision of technology in schools through initiatives such as the previously mentioned smart classrooms and the ADB-backed EKSP. The hope is that some money from the programme can now be used to allow more schools to benefit.

Private Schools

Sri Lanka’s small amount of fee-paying private and international schools has increased as rising incomes have allowed more parents the means to pay for an education.

International schools were initially established to cater to the children of expatriates, but the needs of local children are the driving reason for the augmentation of the sector. According to The International Schools of Sri Lanka (TISSL), which was formed as an industry body in 2013, there are more than 40,000 children studying in international schools and at least 90% of them are Sri Lankan.

A separate organisation, the Association of International Schools in Sri Lanka, represents private schools that teach Sri Lanka’s national curriculum in English, with many of them in the provinces outside Colombo. Most upper-middle-class families send their children to schools that teach the international curriculum because they tend to value an English-language-based education and want a curriculum that puts a greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving, according to the TISSL.

The sector’s expansion has attracted greater interest from the government, which initially took a hands-off approach to the regulation of international schools and left the industry in the hands of the BOI. Many schools were set up as businesses and registered only under the Companies Act, while a smaller number were non-profits or trusts.

In 2013 the administration at the time announced that international schools would be brought under the purview of the MoE due to concerns over uneven standards between schools, and a lack of data on the number of institutions and the children who study at them. Under the regulations, schools would be required to employ trained teachers, and meet certain requirements in the provision of classrooms and school facilities to secure a licence to operate. The schools would also have to teach local pupils their mother tongue language, religion and history.

The government is now developing legislation to establish an independent Accreditation, Regulation, Monitoring and Quality Assurance Authority under the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs to oversee the private sector. During the 2017 budget speech, Karunanayake noted that private schools were currently not liable for tax, resulting in a loss of revenue of more than LKR10bn ($68.2m).

“The quality of the teachers, the physical infrastructure and the curricula varies across the board,” Karunanayake told Parliament while outlining his spending plans. “While the government has no desire to stymie the operations of private educational institutions, we have a responsibility to ensure that all students have access to a quality education.”

International Focus

Building on the Higher Education for the 21st Century project, which was supported by approximately $40m in loans from the World Bank over five years from 2011-16 to help establish an accreditation framework and lift standards, the government aims to set up an independent Quality Assurance and Accreditation Council. By raising educational standards, it hopes to take a step towards opening more private institutions, despite political opposition to such moves. The government also wants to attract more international students and from 2017 will offer five-year multiple-entry visas to those arriving to study in the country.

However, Sri Lankan universities have yet to make much impact on international rankings. The University of Colombo, the country’s oldest, was placed at 701+ in the QS World University Rankings 2016-17 and 172nd in the Asia 2016 rankings, down from 151st in 2015. The next best in the country was the University of Peradeniya, which was placed in the 251-300 band.

The University of Moratuwa is Sri Lanka’s leading technological university, offering courses in architecture, engineering and IT. The institution encourages students and academics to work more closely with industry through its specialised research and development labs, where researchers collaborate with some of Sri Lanka’s largest companies like telecommunications giant Dialog.

However, as a state university, it can offer only a limited number of places to international students (a government-imposed 5% limit) and cannot afford to fund local students during long stints overseas. Instead, it encourages exchange programmes and internships. As all students are required to complete six-months’ industrial training to graduate and they are urged to take up positions in countries such as Germany and Singapore. The university has also agreed on partnerships with institutions in Latvia and Australia. “We need to have an international outlook,” Ananda Jayawardane, vice chancellor of the University of Moratuwa, told OBG. “If we want to rise up the rankings, we need to have these kinds of opportunities. We must make our graduates job creators rather than job seekers.”

Foreign & Industry Partnerships

Sri Lanka is looking to foreign partners to expand its vocational skills segment and provide training that is more closely aligned with industry needs.

The TVEC oversees skills-based training and is further responsible for accreditation and setting national standards. The government-run Vocational Training Authority of Sri Lanka is the largest training provider. Others include the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technological Education, as well as a number of private operators and NGOs.

In addition, the government has worked closely with international agencies such as the ADB on its skills-training initiatives and has tapped expertise from overseas. The 2017 budget included a proposal to provide scholarships to all those wishing to follow a vocational training programme at a state-run vocational training centre, with the government noting that the tourism sector needs almost 100,000 trained workers, the textile industry around 60,000 and the construction industry around 400,000.

In November 2016 South Korea announced plans to fund the construction of two vocational training centres in Sri Lanka: one in Colombo and the other at the College of Technology in Gampaha. South Korea will provide the institutes with the necessary infrastructure and facilities, as well as providing consultancy and training to instructors and policymakers.

The vocational training segment is not the only area looking to expand and provide better opportunities for its students. State universities, which generally do not charge tuition fees, have begun seeking alternative sources of income – from offering postgraduate courses for a nominal fee to consultancy services, foreign partnerships and industry collaborations. “One of our goals is to create a more seamless flow of students between academia and the professional world. Too often in the past students didn’t possess the adequate skills to thrive professionally, more quickly,” Lakshman Dissanayake, vice chancellor at the University of Colombo, told OBG.


Behind the programmes and initiatives for the educational sector is rising youth unemployment – measured in terms of graduates as well as school drop-outs – which has added a sense of urgency to the country’s reform plans. While the overall unemployment rate was 4.2% in the first quarter of 2016, the rate was 21.5% among those aged 15-24, the highest of any age group bracket.

The problem is magnified by the unbalanced equation of the approximate 150,000 students who qualify for state university each year but must end their education, and the scant number of spots available at higher educational institutions. Although some of the students who find themselves on the outside instead attend one of the limited number of private institutes or, if they are sufficiently wealthy, universities overseas, many others are simply left behind.

It is a positive step for the government to increase its focus on technical and vocational training to and identify options to broaden access to universities. The authorities aim to double the number of annual intake to higher education facilities, including universities, to 50,000 students by 2020.

Amendments to the Education Act should also provide a firm basis for Sri Lanka to move forward with its goals once the changes are presented to Parliament, covering updates to the curriculum that include the way in which schools are run and the standards of teaching and examination.

The primary challenge for the government will be to implement further changes without compromising the long-cherished ideal of providing a quality education that is accessible to all of the country’s citizens.


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The Report: Sri Lanka 2017

Education & Health chapter from The Report: Sri Lanka 2017

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