Sri Lanka: Learning from India

  “True education must correspond to the surrounding circumstances, or it is not a healthy growth.” What surrounds us?

by Austin Fernando

There is an ongoing discussion on higher education ‘reforms’ in Sri Lanka. Our higher education issues are similar to those in India. We may learn from India though its issues are different in some respects. 

Indian education approaches

In India, higher education is administered by the University Grants Commission of India, which enforces the standards, advises the government, and enables co-ordination between the centre and the States.  

India’s emphasis is on science and technology in tertiary education. Indian education sector has many technology institutes, and distance learning and open education programmes. Some of the institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, are globally acclaimed. Their alumni have contributed to the growth of the Indian private and public sectors and some foreign organisations.

Indians also have the capacity to cooperate. Incidentally, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could request PM Narendra Modi as he did the Chinese dignitary Yang Jiechi, to invest in a specialised university/ institutes of technology in Sri Lanka.  

Institutional approaches

Even under the British, India remained focused on higher education. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has control over universities. The States also administer universities. The Central Universities are maintained by the Union government. As for access higher education opportunities in India, there is a triple-track approach involving the Union government, State governments, and the private sector.  As for access to higher education in the Indian states, Sri Lanka could have done something similar under Item 4 of the Concurrent List- 13th Amendment, but it never happened.

 Apart from the several hundred state universities, in India, there are research institutions providing opportunities for advanced learning and research in branches of science, technology, and agriculture. Several of these have won international recognition. The Swaminathan Institute in Chennai is an example Sri Lanka could emulate. Higher-level involvement with them could develop knowledge and research standards, especially to supplement our development efforts in the agricultural sector, etc.

 In India, technical education has developed fast during recent years, and the enrolled numbers show that about 20% join the engineering field. There is also a corresponding increase in high-standard computer scientists.

There are 371 State Private Universities and 304 State Public Universities in India. Private sector involvement in higher education is satisfactory. Our education authorities can learn from India how this can be achieved. In Sri Lanka, pressure is brought to bear on governments whenever an attempt is made to open a private university. Governments cave in to pressure. Private sector higher education involvement is at a very satisfactory level in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. Being a large country, this is not surprising. In our provinces, a few branches of private sector University Campuses have been established.  

The Bangalore Urban District tops the list in the number of colleges numbering 880, followed by Jaipur with 566. Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have about 88% private-unaided Colleges, and Tamil Nadu has 87% Private-unaided Colleges, whereas Assam has only 16.0%. Assam deserves more investment as it lacks facilities for gaining knowledge, skills, development, connectivity, proper attitudes, but it is ignored by investors. Sri Lankan investors have a similar attitude towards the underdeveloped districts.  If the private sector is reluctant to invest, the State should contribute to the development of universities.  

The Indian experience in private sector engagement in higher education could be a guide for us. Within a decade, different State Assemblies have passed statutes for private universities. Well-known business houses have invested in this field. The Birla Institute of Technology and Science and the Jindal Global University may serve as examples. Dealing with them will enhance business for them and local counterparts, and supplement the knowledge hub intentions of the President.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, some of our educational arrangements with Australia, the US, and the west have been disturbed. Due to positive publicity for our COVID-19 management, opportunities may present themselves for Sri Lankan educational organisations. They could prepare students here for graduation at developed country universities. Sri Lankan authorities may approach these universities to conduct specific courses of study locally. 

However, the government must create an environment for these interventions that have been opposed by some professional associations. This attitude could be a constraint, especially in the fields of Medicine, Engineering, and Information Technology. In all three sectors, the performance of Indians has been outstanding.     

Graduate unemployment is an issue in both India and Sri Lanka. If our graduates are not attractive to the private sector, it could be they do not hold marketable, quality degrees. There could be other considerations (e. g. English knowledge, school connections, social standing, etc.), restricting ordinary persons’ entry to the private sector. In India, these social constraints are much heavier. However, if the need is to produce quality graduates attractive in the job market, university authorities and the government should work towards that goal.

Education and economic development

  Strategising higher education through universities to reinforce emerging economies is an area that has attracted the attention of several countries, and we can learn about such developments from India. In this regard, we may pay attention to the United Nations Academic Initiatives (UNAI) guidance. The UNAI promotes ten basic principles and commitment to human rights, equal chances, sustainability, global citizenship, and intercultural dialogue, etc. Institutional cooperation extends to a scientific exchange of thoughts, and collaborative research that should exhibit collective higher education impact on society.

 In poor societies, entrepreneurship is backward due to shortage of financial resources, knowledge, skills, and attitudinal factors. Issues like collaterals dissuade borrowings. The challenge for universities is to strategise avenues for resource mobilisation, entrepreneurship development and convince financiers, bureaucrats, and politicians to tag along with evolved strategies. 

Potential focus areas and higher education

Interventions to advance peace and conflict resolution through education are important. The expertise to inquire, advise and report to the UN on member country for ‘bad behavior’ as regards human rights, etc., is possessed mostly by the West, where it is developed in universities. Therefore, domestic universities could contribute to international conflict resolution as well. Commitment of universities in emerging economies to conducting courses on peace and conflict resolution, in keeping with the UNAI Principles, is less.

Right now, the world has evinced and interest in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Universities can contribute to achieving these goals by promoting SDGs through education, research and documentation. For example, health/education/agriculture/environment can be researched, and universities can share promotional and management inputs.

Since SDGs are about improving lives, they are essential to everyone. Therefore, any commitment or use of resource will serve the communities universally. This is how the global citizenship aspect of UNAI will work. The intellectual and international dialogues will be the modus operandi for universality. If citizen-serving universities’ final output is producing book worms, then they will fail. Appropriate research publications come out from many Indian universities, which is a good sign.

The commitment to promoting inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and the ‘unlearning’ of intolerance through higher education bring solace. India’s culture, history, and civilisation are unique. Therefore, the Indian universities can have a cultural dialogue. It can be done through international students and scholars entering Indian universities to share knowledge. Sri Lankans can have a share of it. It will lead to the strengthening of political and economic ties created through these scholars.

One crucial issue is whether private schools/universities focus on peoples’ needs or on preparing affluent students for foreign education. If it is the latter, social responsibility expected of a university will be lacking. In Sri Lanka, international schools mostly cater to the rich and focus on foreign higher education. It is crucial that universities serve the common man in emerging economies through interventions and inventions to reach higher technology or knowledge hubs or connectivity to value chains. Operationalising those systems will be the responsibility of government/state functionaries, and related private educational institutions. Offering scholarships for the needy is one way to achieve this objective.

The provision of higher education in the underdeveloped Indian States is aimed at promoting equality. It is applicable to Sri Lanka too. College density, i. e., the number of colleges per 100,000 eligible persons (in the age-group 18-23 years) varies from seven in Bihar to 53 in Karnataka. The all-India average is 28. Does not Bihar deserve better facilities?

Wasn’t this the reason for coining the slogan, kolombata kiri, gamata kekiri (milk for Colombo and kekiri or melon for the village), in the late 1980s, in this country?

The latest from India in the field of education is most encouraging. India with international tech giants headed by Indians the world over is planning to bring some of the best universities to India. This will provide Indian students with world-class exposure. According to the latest reporting (, “the Indian government is pushing to overhaul the nation’s heavily regulated education sector to attract nearly 750,000 students who spend about $15 billion each year pursuing degrees overseas.” Although there is a mismatch as regards “internationally acclaimed tech giants,” numbers, and the expense, are not we facing the same problem? Nevertheless, the solution is the same. Reports say that ‘it represents a change of heart on the part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has for long resisted opening up the country’s education sector. India needs to boost its education sector to become more competitive and close the growing gap between college curriculum and market demands’. Every Sri Lankan government has sought this ‘boost’ for the same reasons but baulked due to protests. Now, we are waiting for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to make a difference.

Some Indian universities have already set up partnerships, allowing students to complete the preliminary levels of their foreign degree programmes in India before going overseas for graduation. This happens in Sri Lanka as regards a few private sector Campuses/ Institutions, supported by some British, American, and Canadian universities. For us approaching Indians for appropriate higher education will be less costly.

The current Indian move encourages the overseas institutions to set up campuses without local partners. This approach will suit our needs too since the demand for and the supply of suitable graduates for employment, thirst for appropriate education, lack of finances for heavy infrastructure development required for higher education, etc. could thereby be met. It is the will to break away from the grip of conservatism that is needed. We will fail if we fear protests. Additionally, our Birlas, Jindhals also should volunteer to undertake this human resource development effort. 

Another report on India in the public domain is worth paying attention to. It is from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). It states that India’s unemployment rate hit a three-year-high of 8.4% in August 2019. It notes that the unemployment rate has been the highest level since September 2016. If unemployment increases with the expansion of higher education, it is a challenge to India. Although I lack statistics, the situation is similar in Sri Lanka as well. I recall that some graduates who staged fasts, demanding jobs, in the East in 2017, told me as Governor that they had advised their brothers not to pursue higher education, and to join the state service as clerks instead.

Literature reviews show that unemployment levels in India increase with the rise in educational standards. It has also happened in Sri Lanka, which has a large numbers of arts graduates. Most of them lack knowledge of English, and the private sector businesses expect proficiency of English of graduates. The graduates stage demonstrations, demanding jobs, especially during election times. We have seen how the Kumaratunga, Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa governments succumbed to pressure from protesters and offered jobs, and how the Ranil Wickremesinghe government partially succumbed and totally failed politically!  

In India, it is believed that unemployment is negligible among the uneducated. But it stands at 15%, roughly twice the national average of unemployment rate among graduates. Further, they say that unemployment is insignificant among those who have not gone beyond primary education, mainly because they cannot afford to be unemployed, if they want to survive.

According to CMIE, there are a little over ten crore graduates in India, and 6.3 are in the labour force waiting to be employed-willing and available for work. Of these, 5.35 crore have some employment, leaving 0.95 crore, mostly youth with a basic degree or even a higher degree, unemployed. The same survey says that while more women are getting some education, the unemployment rate among them is 17.6%, more than double the rate for men. Although it is not so severe in Sri Lanka if we do not handle it carefully, we will be reaching the same level, albeit with fewer numbers. This will counter to the UNAI’s gender disparity and poverty alleviation principles. Educationists should ask themselves whether universities address these disparities.


Firstly, it is suggested that foundations for a successful career-oriented graduate preparation be laid at primary and post-primary schools. For instance, language competency, modern ‘machine use’ like computers, mathematical and scientific tools in education should commence there. Private schools in Sri Lanka do this, like in India. However, rural schools should follow suit. The State and Provincial Council budgets should provide resources.

Secondly, education to facilitate economic development should receive priority. In emerging economies, the agricultural and industrial potential has to be tapped fully. Curriculum development should focus on areas these sectors are interested in. Having many arts graduates is good for bloating statistics but not for development—it is 36% in India and high in Sri Lanka as well.

Thirdly, do we need a contented graduate population to develop the economy? Do the universities help the farmers, who need access to scientific and technical know-how, or the factory owners who want updated, efficient, and adequate technical/technological knowhow?  Universities must give the society and the economy what the current and next generations require. Therefore, they say that ‘education is the passport to the future; for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today’.

We must create cells for skill development and technological transformation in keeping with the production mechanisms and management milieu.  University Senates and the Treasury may say this is expensive. If so we have to respond saying, “If you think education is expensive, marry ignorance.” Which would we prefer? Having a former Vice-Chancellor at the helm of Education we expect positive responses. These must be addressed to produce graduates needed by the emerging economies. Otherwise, our universities will continue to be only ‘graduate producing factories’.

Fourthly, it is necessary to prepare the educated for self-employment. The standard banking lending systems, demanding collaterals for borrowing, etc. from the poor, who are dispossessed, must be reconsidered. New lending tools must be formulated by the Central Bank and the commercial banks in tandem. Combining transfer of produce to markets, product integration, institutional upgrading, and supporting graduates to take to small and medium enterprises must receive priority.

Fifthly, university education cannot be a standalone function of static existence. The academics should be continuously trained in new methodologies, and they must keep abreast of international standards and developments. 

Learning from Gandhi Ji

Finally, with great reverence to Gandhi Ji, I quote what he said about education” “True education must correspond to the surrounding circumstances, or it is not a healthy growth.” What surrounds us? It may be poverty, or lack of entrepreneurship or productivity, sharing knowledge or appropriate technology or business skills or product research, and marketing. There could be more.

These issues should be addressed by universities. Developed countries addressed them even before we dreamt of doing so because they understood that university education had to correspond to the surrounding circumstances. They apparently learned from Gandhi Ji before we did. We are late learners and learn from second-hand sources!

(The writer, Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India)

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