Sri Lanka’s education system is widely regarded as among the best in South Asia. A commitment to improving the quality of teaching at all levels and across the country has resulted in impressive outcomes in recent years. In 2015 the country’s literacy rate was 92%, and over 95% of the adult population had completed some level of schooling, according to government and UNESCO data. Research compiled by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) shows that Sri Lankan students attend school for around 10 years on average, which is significantly higher than the six-year average for South Asian countries as a whole. Similarly, as of 2013, approximately 74% of the population had completed primary school education, while the regional average for South Asia was 39%, according to research from the UN Development Programme.

Sri Lanka’s current government, which came to power in early 2015, has announced a series of ambitious new policies aimed at bolstering the nation’s reputation as a high-quality education provider and further improving the government-run primary, secondary and higher education systems.

Overcoming Obstacles

Sri Lanka faces a variety of challenges in reforming its education sector. A lack of capacity in the higher education segment – which consists of 15 state-run institutions and a handful of other specialised public entities – means that only around 6% of students that participate in the public school system from grade one until graduation from secondary school go on to enrol with a university each year. Recent efforts to license private colleges and universities looking to establish themselves in Sri Lanka have been opposed by students and various other vested interests on the basis that education should be accessible to all, not just those who can afford to pay for it. According to ADB research, the percentage of students that pass the grade 13 General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced-Level (A-level) examination – a requirement for study at Sri Lankan universities – has stagnated in recent years, with grades declining in key subjects, such as English, maths and science.

In its first year in office, the government has made plans to address hurdles in Sri Lanka’s education system. For example, the state plans to boost public education spending to 6% of GDP by 2021, up from around 2% in 2015. In a speech delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in late January 2016, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka’s prime minister, linked the government’s education development plans to broader economic goals. “Sri Lanka is upgrading education, training and skills to create a human resource base that supports a competitive and rapidly modernising economy,” he said. “It is my intention to fast-track reform and accelerate our growth to meet the rising aspirations of [the nation’s] well-educated people.”

History & Oversight

Sri Lanka has a long history of formal education dating back more than 2000 years, according to the Ministry of Higher Education and Highways (MHEH). Since the 1950s the operation of schools and universities has fallen to the federal government and provincial councils, which continue to share oversight and management responsibilities today, and education has been listed as a fundamental right since the current Sri Lankan constitution was enacted in 1978.

The government entities involved in the education sector have changed – in name, function and mandate – a considerable number of times over the past four decades. As of early 2016, the sector was overseen by the Ministry of Education (MoE), which regulates and operates the nation’s public pre-primary, primary and secondary school systems, plus a handful of related entities, while the MHEH is responsible for implementing national policy for the nation’s state-run universities. A variety of additional independent and semi-independent authorities are involved in the development and implementation of education policy in Sri Lanka. These include the National Education Commission (NEC), which was established in 1991 with a mandate to serve as the country’s permanent policy development entity; the University grants Commission (UGC), which regulates and coordinates the higher education segment; and the National Institute of Education (NIE), which is responsible for developing national school curricula and overseeing teacher training and staff development.

Regulation & Development

Since the NEC was established under the provisions of Act No. 19 of 1991, the commission has developed and implemented a series of back-to-back, five-year education development plans in Sri Lanka. Under the most recent of these, which covers the period 2011-16, the NEC has made several key changes to Sri Lanka’s education policy. Until 2014, for example, education was compulsory for children aged 5-14. Under the current plan introduced by the NEC, however, this range was extended to include children aged 15 and 16, thereby bringing Sri Lanka’s compulsory schooling in line with international standards.

Other recently introduced policies and proposals in the pipeline include the formalisation of preschool education throughout the nation; the introduction of standardised curricula at all private and international schools; and the ongoing refurbishment, reopening and upgrading of schools located in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where the civil war had a detrimental impact on educational facilities and programmes. More broadly, the state has made efforts to boost training in and access to ICT across the school and university systems in recent years. Similarly, the NEC has worked to increase enrolment in science, maths and languages. Indeed, from 2009 to 2013 the number of students enrolled in A-Level science programmes in public schools in Sri Lanka jumped by more than 47%, from 28,560 to 42,046, according to official data.

Current Efforts

In early 2016 the NEC was in the midst of designing a new Education Act, which would replace a raft of existing legislation, some of which dates back to 1939. However, details about the new law – which is expected to be put in place before the end of the 2016 – had yet to be realised as of April 2016. According to the MoE, the new law is being drawn up with the support of a wide range of government representatives, including those from the MoE, the MHEH, the NEC, the UGC and the NIE. Other organisations involved in shaping the act include the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research; the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development; and the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment, among others.

The government’s 2016 budget, which was introduced by Ravi Karunanayake, the minister of finance, in November 2015, included a handful of education-related policies. One of these strategies proposes funding for the establishment of a continuous teacher-training programme, to be developed and implemented by the NIE. In addition, financing has been earmarked to fund improvements to sanitation facilities and provide electricity to all schools, particularly in rural areas. Last, the 2016 budget included a proposal to establish a new university in Colombo’s Malabe area, with a focus on ICT, business skills and English-language instruction. Under a related proposal, the state plans to provide laptops to university students under an interest-free, three-year loan scheme, and boost Wi-Fi coverage on public university campuses.


All levels of education in Sri Lanka, from pre-primary through to university-level training, are free to access for Sri Lankan citizens. This has been the case since 1945, with the primary role of the MoE and the MHEH being to oversee the country’s publicly funded schools and universities, respectively. Public education dominates the sector as a whole at both the school and university level.

In 2013, the most recent year for which comprehensive data was available at the time of writing, Sri Lanka was home to 9905 public schools – 9563 provincial schools and 342 national schools – according to MoE data. Some 4m students were enrolled in the public school system, while around 125,700 students attended the nation’s 98 private schools, and 64,600 students were enrolled in the more than 700 pirivenas (Buddhist monastic schools) managed by the MoE. In total, the public school system employs 223,333 teachers, including 86,751 that hold university teaching degrees and 128,152 that have undergone training by the MoE. As mentioned previously, under a 2016 budget proposal the government plans to finance a new teacher-training programme to boost the number of instructors that have received formal training. As of 2013, Sri Lanka had 18 national colleges of education, nine teacher colleges and 104 teacher centres, all of which offer various kinds of training programmes for teachers.

Higher Education

The UGC operates 15 national universities in Sri Lanka. Four other public higher education institutes are operated by other government entities, including the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka, and the Buddhasravaka Bhiksu University, which are run by the MHEH; the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University, which is under the Ministry of Defence; and the University of Vocational Training, which falls under the Ministry of Skills, Development and Vocational Training (MSDVT). According to a recent ranking of Sri Lanka’s higher education segment by the MHEH, the country’s top-five most highly regarded universities, in descending order, were the University of Colombo, the University of Moratuwa, the University of Peradeniya, the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and the University of Kelaniya. Other well-regarded public institutions in the country include the University of Ruhana, the University of Jaffna and the Open University of Sri Lanka, the latter of which offers distance learning programmes.

Sri Lanka’s higher education system is relatively small in size. Fewer than 30,000 students are granted admission to the nation’s public universities each year, despite some 200,000 students passing the government’s university entrance exams, according to the UGC. “There are no private universities in the country, and all 15 of the public institutions are free, with some 70-80% of students additionally getting a government grant,” Ananda Jayawardane, the vice-chancellor of the University of Moratuwa, told OBG. “Under this system, university education cannot expand in scope strictly based off government funding gaps.”

In an effort to address this shortfall, the UGC and the MHEH have announced plans to encourage private universities to set up shop in Sri Lanka in the coming years, though a specific timeline for this proposal has yet to be announced. Many Sri Lankan students, university faculties and politicians alike have critiqued this plan on the basis that it could result in private universities offering higher salaries to professors, thereby siphoning better-quality staff away from public institutions and creating a two-tiered higher education system. Another concern about the entry of private institutions has to do with ensuring that all Sri Lankan students, regardless of their financial situation, have equal access to university education.

While Sri Lanka has not specifically legislated against full-fledged private universities, the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) notes that the political economy context of the country makes it impossible to invest in them. As a result, avenues are limited for the estimated 83% of qualified students who are not admitted to universities each year, and an estimated 12,000 Sri Lankans who seek education abroad every year.

To help bridge local supply gaps, the country has opened its doors to a handful of private institutes affiliated with foreign private universities. Until recently, Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment oversaw these institutions; however, in early 2015 the government announced that the MoE would take charge of regulating private and international pre-primary, primary and secondary institutions, so as to boost quality and to ensure that graduates are qualified. Difficulties with regulation in the past arose from costs and the lack of an accreditation system, quality assurance and monitoring mechanism for private education.


Under the MHEH’s Higher Education for the 21st Century (HETC) project, which was launched in 2011 and runs through to June 2016, the government has worked to “enhance the capacity of [the] higher education system and to deliver quality higher education services in line with [the] equitable, social and economic development needs of the country”. The HETC initiative, which was funded with $40m worth of loans from the World Bank, is organised into four components. The first component involved the establishment of the Sri Lanka Qualification Framework and Quality Assurance and Accreditation system, which has implemented various systems since 2011 in an effort to improve the quality of higher education in the country. Second, the state has worked to boost the relevance of university education, largely by ramping up ICT-related and vocational instruction. The third and fourth components of the HETC programme involve expanding the mandate of the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technological Education (SLIATE), which is the country’s primary technical education institution, and bolstering human resources throughout the higher education system.


Skills-based training, which is widely considered to be an increasingly integral part of Sri Lanka’s education mix, is overseen by the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC), which, in turn, falls under MSDVT. The TVEC was established in 1991 through Act No. 20 of 1990, with the aim of boosting vocational education provision throughout the country, particularly in rural areas. The entity was reorganised in 1999, and since then it has served as the primary regulator and accreditation body for vocational institutions in Sri Lanka, while also maintaining and implementing national standards for skills training.

Other key organisations involved in the vocational segment include the Vocational Training Authority of Sri Lanka, a government-run education provider among the largest providers of technical and vocational training in the country; SLIATE; and the National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority, another state-run entity, among others.

In early 2016 Palitha Range Bandara, minister of skills development and vocational training, announced that the federal government had set aside funding to provide training of various sorts to around 110,000 students over the course of the year. “The students who have fallen short of achieving university entrance marks at the GCE-Level examinations should not feel upset,” he told local media. “This is the best time for [these] students to [start] vocational training programmes, having completed their exams.”


A wide variety of issues face Sri Lanka’s education providers and regulators. The rising unemployment the country has seen in recent years, particularly among nationals under the age of 25, is one example of the challenges ahead. The figures point to increased levels of competition in the domestic job market as a growing number of graduates enter the workforce. In addition, ADB data highlights that as many as 33% of Sri Lankans enter the labour force without suitable academic qualifications or skills training.

As has been noted by many local observers recently, there is a pressing need to both broaden access to higher education and improve the quality of instruction at all levels of the school and university systems. “We need to understand and support the students to develop their competencies, prepare and guide them for interviews, and develop entrepreneurial skills through discussion and seminars,” Mangala P B Yapa, former secretary general and CEO of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, told the media in September 2015.

These issues are widely expected to be addressed in the government’s forthcoming education policy statement, which as of April 2016 was set to be issued before the year’s end. “It has been discussed for years, but nothing has been accomplished,” Gunapala Nanayakkara, director-general of the NIE, told local press in mid-2015 in reference to the new act. “From… the nature of the syllabuses to [the] system of governance, role of provincial councils, teacher development, examinations and quality assurance, all areas will be covered by this policy.”