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Today's JVP undergrads will turn to UNP or SLFP in future “ Dr . Sunil Jayantha Nawaratne

2014 Nov 07

BY Gagani Weerakoon

Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education,

Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawaratne, says his ministry is dedicated to achieving the target of making Sri Lanka Asia's knowledge hub by 2020 and producing globally employable graduates. While arguing that student movements should not be given prominence and treated as a major problem, Dr. Nawaratne also emphasized on the need to protect the right for education, while enhancing free education.
Following are excerpts:
Do you think Budget 2015 has made adequate allocations for the development of the higher education sector and if so, what are the facilities and benefits to be given to the undergraduates?
A: I have to answer that by emphasizing that this budget, more than giving short-term benefits, has concentrated on long-term plans to upgrade and develop the higher education sector. Basically, in accordance with the Mahinda Chinthana programme, it has proposed several short, mid and long-term plans to develop the country into an education and knowledge hub.
Becoming a knowledge hub means, ultimately, we have to develop knowledge based industries. In such industries we have to market knowledge products and knowledge workers have to be developed. That is the key to creating a knowledge hub. Basically, just like we concentrated earlier on developing tea, rubber and garment industries, we have to concentrate on developing knowledge-based industries. If we are going to be the 'Miracle of Asia' we have to develop human capital. Human capital by definition is the knowledge, skills, correct attitudes and values and correct mindset to accept paradigms.
At present, what we do is giving knowledge and when our graduates go to the job market they have no value as the market complains that even though they have the theoretical knowledge they lack skills. For example, if we take journalism, one cannot become a good journalist simply because that individual has knowledge in journalism. He or she must have the writing skills, creativity, ability to work as a team, computer literacy and also at least a little knowledge on page designing and graphics. Not only that, one should be committed to work odd hours and even on holidays. Likewise, other industries also expect certain skills, attitudes and values when employing individuals. Our education system, thus far, has failed to produce skilled employees or creative entrepreneurs to cater to the market needs. In short, we have been producing blank CDs to the market that has lower value and now we are concentrating on producing CDs with value or loaded CDs, which may vary from Rs 500 to Rs 1 billion. Like CDs, humans too have similar face value but different inner values based on their knowledge, skills and values. We don't need to produce common graduates but we must produce unique ones.
This time, the budget has been created keeping this as a main target in mind.
But, what exactly are those projects or programmes that are intended to make Sri Lanka a knowledge hub as suggested in Budget 2015?
A: Sri Lanka has to produce globally employable workers and global entrepreneurs. It is the Higher Education Ministry, through which good teachers, doctors, employers and employees are produced. Not only that, we are the ones who produce researchers who in return will help the country in solving matters by conducting respective researches and studies.

This is not an isolated budget from previous years, but it has invested a lot in achieving the vision of our ministry, that is to become the education hub of Asia by 2020. For example, in Budget 2006 the allocation for higher education was Rs 14 billion and this was increased to Rs 34 billion in 2014. The budgetary allocation for next year has now increased to Rs 40 billion, which is almost a 300% increase as opposed to what was allocated some 10 years ago.
The government is now concentrating on upgrading the quality of graduates and thus, is investing on better teachers. We have realized that developing infrastructure such as buildings and other facilities is not enough and therefore, is investing money to absorb 1,000 PhD holders to the system.

This budget has also increased allocations for the development of infrastructure, as the number of student intake to universities has increased. For instance, in 2006, we selected 17,248 undergraduates and the recent intake includes 24,175 students. Numbers are increasing drastically and we have to improve the infrastructure to accommodate the increasing number of undergraduates. We are heavily investing on infrastructure as it will not become dead money like spending on food, as these graduates will contribute to the economy one day. There are 144 infrastructure development projects in hand. There are lots of new projects and programmes being introduced to each university. Lots of universities will receive new faculties and on the other hand, others will have completely developed into modern faculties. For example, Sri Jayewardenepura University will have a world-class Medical Faculty added to its system in near future.

Are there any projects that will start next year itself?
A: One of the main projects that will start is the introduction of an outcome-based education system that will create a complete graduate in keeping with the target of creating 100% employable graduates by 2020. In addition, work will start on upgrading seven universities in the country to be among top 1,000 universities in the world. Apart from these, five foreign universities will come to Sri Lanka by 2020 and next year will see the beginning of these. We are also expecting to increase foreign student intake of each university to 50.

Basically, most steps we are planning to achieve by 2020 will be started next year. We are also planning on increasing the quality of our teachers and students and make sure the teachers' and students' researches will appear in world-class journals.
This budget has also allocated money to upgrade the efficiency of managing the university system, so that the managerial process from student intake to awarding degrees will be computerized and properly managed.
We must also think about improving livelihood of students.

When you talk about improving livelihood of students, it was proposed to increase the Mahapola allowance of students to Rs 4,000. Is it practical to increase and continuously pay that amount when there are irregularities in paying the current amount?
A: President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that Mahapola, which is Rs 2,500 at present, needs to be increased by 60%, so the amount will be Rs 4,000. This is the first time we increased Mahapola by such a big amount. In addition, we are providing 60 hostels for students.

But, Dr. Nawaratne, do you have enough funds to do all these?
A: Yes of course we have enough funds.

How much do you spend annually on Mahapola?
A: All students are not entitled to receive Mahapola, only those who deserve it receive. A student receives Rs 10,000 per year. The ministry is spending Rs 1,100 million annually on Mahapola for students of all four years of study and with the increase it will be Rs 1,900 million. Generally, there are about 45,000 Mahapola recipients every year. This is without the students who receive bursary and other allowances.
On the other hand, to resolve the hostel matter, we are providing 60 hostels that can accommodate 400 students each. Basically, 24,000 students will be benefited.

Even though you say lots of students will be benefited, Minister S.B. Dissanayake recently said in Parliament that the second and third year students will not be given hostel facilities no matter how many demonstrations they organize. Is there such policy?
A: Yes. It is globally accepted practice that only first and final year students are provided with hostel facilities. It's a good thing for neighbours also as they can earn an income by providing accommodation to students. In future we are planning on giving soft loans for neighbouring residents under 'home stay' programme so they will be able to develop their houses to provide accommodation for undergraduates.

You said the government is planning on bringing in five foreign universities to the country. Have you signed any MoUs so far in this regard?
A: So far, we have signed an agreement with Central Lancashire University of the UK. Several other world-class universities have expressed their willingness and we are doing the groundwork for entering into MoUs. I am not in a position to declare further details of these universities, but I can assure that these universities not only plan on recruiting local students but foreign students as well. And all these universities will bring university township concept, paving the way for lots of other employment opportunities.

Have any other private universities applied to be operated in the country like SAITM?
A: We do not refer to them as private universities. We identify them as non-State universities. SAITM is doing a great job by paving the way for students who drop from State medical faculties by whisk of a mark to pursue their dreams. Just imagine the plight of the patients if there were no private hospitals in the country. Likewise, let those who have money to pay and learn, isn't it better that we can prevent our money going to foreign countries as a large number of students who cannot enter our universities go to foreign universities. Also, it is a right. We have international schools in this country to accommodate those who cannot get qualified to enter local schools. While, we protect and enhance free education we must protect the freedom to education. Now there is no freedom for education and due to this protest and everything those who want to invest in non-State universities are scared to come forward.

If your ministry is dedicated to the wellbeing of the students and to upgrade the university system, why there are so many protests and unrest among students?
A: These protests and demonstrations are part of the day-to-day activities of the university system and students' lives. When we were students back in the past we were also like that. So we must not treat these things as major problems. If these youngsters don't do such things, I think there's something wrong with them. This is nature and you must take it as part of youth. When in universities, they are part of the leftist movement and want to challenge the status quo. But, once they come out and become part of the real world they no longer adhere to those radical policies. You think all these graduates end up being fulltime members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna? No. They all end up being either UNPers or SLFPers.
Mostly these students are not taking part in those protests and demonstrations willingly, but they have to give into peer pressure.

If it is so normal and part of youth, why do you think your Minister S.B. Dissanayake takes such an arrogant approach and wants to suppress the student movement and their protests like he did recently at the Sabaragamuwa University?
A: I always believe that student matters should be amicably handled. We can discuss with them and if their demands are fair enough, we can take those into consideration. Now we have built a three-star class hostel in Sabaragamuwa University and the minister went to declare it open. Those who agitated for hostel facilities are the ones who attempted to block the minister from opening those. What is the meaning of that? They want publicity. If they gave him a red carpet welcome – which I believe the minister rightfully deserve – will any of you media people will carry the story? That is why these students oppose anything and everything in order to keep their movement alive. Media also should think twice before giving them unnecessary publicity and instead help them change their attitudes and values.
On the other hand, these students are giving the wrong message to the world and the private sector that they should not hire any of the graduates in their companies as they could be nothing but trouble.

Do you endorse the minister's arrogant behaviour and remarks made following the Sabaragamuwa incident?
A: Not the arrogance, but see when you go to gift them something and if you are blocked and hooted at, what should be the approach he should adopt? Should he have invited the students to come and hammer him?

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