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Session: Education and Empowerment Date: 20th January, 2012 Time: 10.15am-11.30am
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The Young Researchers’ Forum 2012 A Degree for Sale (?): Can Private Higher Education (Dis-) Empower the Sri Lankan Youth? Rusiru Kalpagee Chitrasena firstname.lastname@example.org Introduction: A significant majority of academics, professionals, students and members of the public severely condemns the use of higher education as a commercial product and the legitimization of a trade-oriented definition vis-à-vis the government’s intention to strengthen private universities/ higher education industry in Sri Lanka. This paper intends to examine, from the perspective of the Sri Lankan youth, whether and how private higher education could empower or disempower the Sri Lankan youth as claimed by parties who strongly advocate and condemn it. Although private educational and higher educational institutes are not a new phenomenon in the country and has been a controversial subject throughout, the government plans to increase support for the establishment of private universities and the reluctance of the professional medical bodies to grant approval for the newly established private medical college in Sri Lanka has given rise to a great deal of heated debate. However, there is an explanatory gap in the discourses advocating and
opposing private higher education in Sri Lanka for they seem to be obsessed with logistical and monetary aspects of the problem. The present study advocates a philosophy of empowerment through education and taking ‘empowerment’ as the basis for analysis; it intends to answer the question posed in the title: Can private higher education (dis-) empower the Sri Lankan Youth?
However, my concern is not singular based on the understanding that what could empower one segment in any community could dis-empower another segment of the same community. To suggest this, in my title, I add the prefix ‘dis’ within brackets before the word ‘empower’ and a question mark is added within brackets to the phrase,
The Young Researchers’ Forum 2012 ‘a degree for sale’, a reflection of the popular Sri Lankan ideology of perceiving private higher educational institutes as upadhi kada. The present research comes under the sub-theme of ‘Education and Empowerment’ of the conference and while seeking to give voice to the youth perspectives, it examines challenges, preoccupations, aspirations and opportunities put forward to the Sri Lankan youth by private higher education. Methodology: The methodology of the present research features a series of semi-structured interviews with 60 randomly-selected young Sri Lankans between 16-30, of which 37 were female and 23 were male. Most of the respondents were from urban and semi-urban areas of the western province although other provinces were also represented. The framework for the interview was compiled in English and the interview was originally meant to be conducted in English. However, since some respondents had problems in their English language proficiency, I had to conduct some interviews in Sinhalese as well. The
research sample seeks to represent a cross-section of the Sri Lankan youth including school students, undergraduates/graduates and post-graduate students from
state/private higher education institutes in Sri Lanka, professionals without university qualifications, unemployed school leavers and graduates, prospective entrants to Sri Lankan universities, and prospective clients of private higher educational institutes. In addition, as a secondary research option, reference will be made to a selection of published statistics and articles from popular and academic sources. As far as research limitations are concerned, it was strongly felt that, that the rural youth was not adequately represented, and due to my limited proficiency in Tamil, I was not able to interview any monolingual Tamil speakers. As a researcher who believes in
methodological pluralism, I will present and analyse my data both quantative-ly and qualitatively in an attempt to remain the ‘best’ of both approaches. However, there is a natural bias for qualitative analysis especially because my sample is relatively small.
The Young Researchers’ Forum 2012 Results: Although the research is ongoing and this extended abstract is based on an unfinished analysis, there is a clear indication that private higher education has a considerable potential to empower the Sri Lankan youth especially given the extremely limited opportunities available at the state universities. Among my informants, those who were students/products of the state university system were hostile towards the opening/legitimizing/strengthening of private higher education system mainly on the understanding that it could result in the deterioration of the quality and the standard of education provided by the state universities thereby disempowering the students of those establishments who enter them though an extremely rigorous and competitive process. A fear as to the loss of privileged status enjoyed by the Sri Lankan university graduate community is also implicit. While some of the criticisms of private higher education remain unwarranted, others remain valid especially the doubt as to whether the commercialisation of education resulting from privatization could lower the overall academic standards of the Sri Lankan higher educational qualifications. Discussion: The discussion segment of the research will feature further analysis of the various perspectives. The core argument will be that the private higher education will empower the Sri Lankan youth as long as quality in teaching and research is maintained and as long as there is close monitoring of how these institutions operate. At the same time, the government should address the danger of a feasible decline in the academic standards of government universities resulting from the strengthening of the private higher education industry. Interestingly, various informants, throughout the course of interviews, asserted their disillusionment with the deficiencies in the public administration of the country including the higher education and doubted the extent to which ‘quality assurance’ would work in the Sri Lankan context. However, on the whole, the findings of my research can be used in future policy making in Sri Lankan higher education especially because it seeks to document the perspective of the students
The Young Researchers’ Forum 2012 which seems to have been largely ignored at the moment in planning higher education policy. In other words, the preoccupations and the constructive criticism of the parties concerned can be made use not only in policy making for private higher education but also in educational policy making in general.