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Purpose of Higher Education and Public Higher Education

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 Education provided through a postsecondary learning institution, which allows the learner to possess a named degree, diploma or certificate of higher study at the end of the learning period is known as higher education . Higher education involves both undergraduate and postgraduate education and paves the path for an individual to gain in depth knowledge regarding a specific area of study, giving them the ability to achieve their career goals in chosen fields. It is also an avenue for many countries to create pathways for economic and sociological development through educated youth. The system for the provision of higher education differs from nation to nation. In Sri Lanka, the higher education system is divided into two main sectors. Namely, education by state universities and education via private institutions.

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 The private higher education system provides tertiary education, at a cost, through private institutions, most of which are affiliated with foreign universities. Public higher education is provided through government-run, national universities and require no fee. It is a system of free education. Higher education at state universities is available for study in three mediums; English, Sinhala and Tamil. Students are given the opportunity to choose the medium in which they prefer to pursue their degrees. Both private as well as public higher educational institutes, starting from the undergraduate courses offered, are geared to provide an individual with thorough academic knowledge and skill which will aid them in achieving their desired career objectives. However, there are still gaps between the demands of the Sri Lankan labour market and the education provided to graduates, evidenced through 34,316 graduates being unemployed in the year 2017. Due to the discrepancy, which occurs largely due to funding methods, between education methods and qualities of private and state universities, divisions between and biases towards graduates occur in the employment sector. These divisions and biases lead to employment issues mainly for state university graduates. There is scope for the Sri Lankan higher education system to be better managed so as to suit the labour market and maximize the chances of a state university graduate being able to secure employment upon completion of a degree. Accordingly, I discuss a few issues which, in my opinion, are prevalent in the education system of Sri Lanka and plausible solutions for them.

Issues are present in any given education system, be it private or public. Nevertheless, drawbacks are more notable in the public education system. Students of varying backgrounds, from all provinces of the nation are accepted into state universities. Accordingly, the knowledge levels and needs of each individual student vary on a much larger scale than they would at a private institution. Many of those who gain admission from rural areas are most often subject to a lack of information regarding their degree choices as well as career options. Influenced by economic difficulties and pressure of elders, they pick a course of study which they believe will afford them successful employment at the end of the study period. Due to language difficulties, many also opt to pursue their degrees in Sinhala or Tamil languages. Such decisions, made with insufficient resources and information prior to the start of study, prevent students from knowing the absorbing capacity of their target field of work and lead to unemployability upon the completion of the degree.

Yet another issue arises where the skill set of graduates do not match the requirements of the corporate sector. Many graduates believe the qualification gained at the end of three or four years of study will be sufficient to secure employment. Traditional university education focuses mainly on academia, giving a student specific knowledge on the chosen course of study. However, the reality is that employers demand much more . This is largely owing to the competitiveness of the modern, fast-paced, globalized world. It is competitive to the extent that, in some instances, individuals who possess undergraduate as well as post-graduate degrees still face difficulties in securing suitable employment. Employers demand personal traits such as adaptability, self-management, presentation, teamwork and quick thinking skills, etiquette etcetera, in addition to knowledge of the relevant degree content. Students mostly enter university with the primary goal of graduating with a qualification and do not prioritize developing personal skills during their university careers. This mindset of many graduates is partly attributable to the lack of information. While academic achievements are of great importance, the employment market awards nearly the same level of importance to personal skills that would make one stand out from the rest.

In addition to, in most instances, inadequate personal skills, deficiencies in English language and computer literacy is another factor which hinders the employment opportunities of graduates. Graduates are left helpless in the face of employers when they are unable to match the required levels of communication and computing proficiency. The level of education demanded by the corporate sector is not limited merely to degree qualifications. By reason of this mismatch, clashes between the career expectations of graduates and job opportunities available to them occur, leading to frustrated and restless youth. Hence, the question arises as to whether the conventional teaching methods followed by Sri Lankan state universities generate graduates who are equipped to satisfy the requirements of a fast-changing, complex work environment.

Directing the education provided by state universities in a manner that would bridge these deficiencies will have a vastly positive impact on the experiences of graduates in the work world. The administration authorities of many local universities have already recognized some of the issues which impact graduates in their search for employment. One such recognized issue is the deficiency in English language and Information Technology skills. Measures have been taken to improve computer literacy through the use of ICT in daily coursework and establishment of computer laboratories for educational purposes. The departments in charge of English language teaching at most state universities conduct programs and courses with a view to improve the English language skills of students and have established compulsory English exams which a student has to pass in order to obtain his/her degree. However, the response of students to these programs vary. While some recognize their inadequacies and make an effort to learn, there are some who prefer to focus on their core degree subject and opt out of receiving the help provided by the universities, although both groups are well aware that proficiency in the English language is a prerequisite of any employer, especially in the private sector. According to a study conducted at the Faculty of Applied Sciences at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, a majority of students who admitted that they were lacking in English language skills still opted to refrain from participating in the English lessons provided, instead choosing to focus primarily on their main degree subjects . This behaviour demonstrates the need for attitudinal changes to be encouraged in students.

The lack of information proves to be yet another issue hindering employment opportunities of graduates. In comparison to students entering university from urban areas, it is the students who enter from rural areas who are most often subject to information gaps. This can be due to these students often not receiving proper insight from their parents or teachers. They are frequently pushed towards usual, generic degrees with no thought being given to the realistic scope of job opportunities that might be available at the end of the degree. In the current world there are many job opportunities being created in various modern fields. Steps should be taken to educate both students as well as their parents regarding these avenues of study. Informative programs conducted by universities for students in Advanced Level classes and their parents, where details regarding modern employment opportunities and degrees which correspond with these opportunities are discussed, will aid in students making decisions which suit them better personally while also suiting the needs of the labour market. The presence of career guidance counsellors at these programs will be greatly beneficial as it creates the possibility for students to clarify doubts and gain insight regarding the available options.

Implementation of measures within the university which highlight the requirements of the labour market in addition to the degree qualification would serve as an opportunity for students to receive a realistic view of the high demands of employers. This would enable students to better prepare themselves by working on skills such as leadership, communication and quick thinking et cetera. Such preparation will provide graduates with a higher chance of securing employment as personal skills are highly valued by employers. Engaging the services of career guidance counsellors to better enlighten students will be advantageous in managing this issue as well. Career workshops conducted by organizations and firms of the government as well as the private sector will be highly favourable to students as it would allow them to gather in depth knowledge regarding both sectors and thereby widen their scope of employment. Conducting the aforementioned workshops not only for students in the final year but for students at all levels of study will result in them having a longer period of time to work on their skills, enabling them to be better prepared to face the job market by the end of their university careers. Internship programs provided for by universities will be highly valuable to students as most employers, especially in the private sector, value job experience. To achieve this objective, measures can be taken to create links between the private sector and state universities. The creation of such links, which lead to university-industry collaboration, will also have a positive impact on the university itself. As state universities largely rely on government funding to function, essential university activities, such as, research activities, academic and development activities are carried out through government funding. However, the funds released by the government oftentimes is insufficient to fulfill the extensive needs of universities and this creates many difficulties. In such a situation, university-industry collaborations will enable universities to obtain the means needed to conduct research and development activities, together with the private sector, in fields which have not been prior ventured into. Such measures will both enhance the reputation of the university as well as enable students to gather subject-related knowledge while also interacting with various national and multinational companies and organizations. At present, the results of such collaborations can be seen through the first industry-sponsored laboratory, ‘Dialog Mobile Communication Laboratory’, being established at the Department of Electronic and Telecommunication Engineering at the University of Moratuwa.

As a further measure of resolving employment issues, attention could be focused on innovative changes such as self-employment. While there is uncertainty surrounding entrepreneurship as a choice for study and ultimately a career, it is a career option which will benefit the economic growth and development of a developing country such as Sri Lanka. Educating society and raising awareness regarding the benefits and possibilities of self-employment will factor in a reduction of the uncertainty and weariness associated with the subject. At present, the Department of Entrepreneurship at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura, established in the year 2010 with the view of generating ‘job creators’ rather than ‘job seekers’, facilitates studies in entrepreneurship at both postgraduate and undergraduate levels. This initiative by the Jayawardenapura University, if taken up by other state universities as well, will prove to be extremely valuable to students and the nation alike.

In conclusion, through the implementation of measures such as those stated above, state universities will be able to better structure the education provided and add elements to it in a manner which will enhance the availability of career opportunities for graduates. While it would be beneficial to both undergraduates and postgraduates, I am of the opinion that the fine-tuning of education at the undergraduate level will prove to be more impactful on the career opportunities of a graduate. The steps taken by universities to recognize and address certain issues and deficiencies in the education system are indeed commendable. If the remaining issues, some of which are stated above, are awarded the same recognition and measures such as those suggested are taken by all national universities to amend them, local graduates will be recipients of a well-rounded, holistic education and be much more competent in facing the challenges of the employment market.  

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