Birth Control for Higher Ed?

Posted on August 21, 2006  /  10 Comments

If you thought graduate unemployment is a big problem here in Sri Lanka think again. In China, 40% of new graduates are expected to be unemployed in 2006 translating to an astounding 2.5 million new graduates without jobs. Similar rates are reported from the Philippines. We don’t have statistics for other countries but, generally, unemployment of graduates seems to be a severe problem all over the developing world.

In Sri Lanka our birth rate for public university graduates seem to be just about what we can afford. In 2005/6 China and Philippines produced 3 and 5 graduates per capita, respectively. In Sri Lanka the number barely reached 1, even when we included a guesstimate of about additional 5000 graduates from private institutions. There is no reason to catch up with China or Philippines because we already know they are in trouble. Just how many graduates capita can Sri Lanka absorb?

Last year, the ‘Sandhana’ government said they absorbed a backlog of 40,000 unemployed graduates. Will these graduates would have found employment if they had the right attitude, skills etc.? Probably not, if they were expecting jobs that paid them a graduate’s salary.

In 2004, public universities put out 10,477 graduates ( In the same year there were about 1046 advertised positions for graduates. (These demand data do not include the bulk number of jobs that the government may create at its pleasure) It is said that many jobs are offered and accepted by word of mouth, but it very likely that these jobs, particularly jobs requiring a degree or more, will go to foreign educated Sri Lankans from well-to-do families who are already wired to these networks. Therefore it is safe to assume that the advertised jobs are the only ones that are available to a graduate from a public university.

Even the few advertised jobs almost always require prior experience. 2005, the year following the Tsunami, was an unusual year with 3503 job ads with 90% of those requiring prior job experience (Labour Market Information Bulletins, Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission). Our own analysis of newspaper advertisements for the month of June in 2006 shows that the situation may have not changed significantly from 2004 and that the percent of advertised jobs for graduates but requiring experience can be as high as 90%..

The message is clear. If you must, go get a degree but unless you ‘work-while-you-study’ or ‘study-while-you-work’ your chances of ‘real’ employment are slim. (The government may still whip up some government jobs and bail you out).

The Chinese government was able to estimate supply and demand for graduates, and initiate at least an awareness campaign ( Not so in Sri Lanka. The University Grants commisison (UGC) is still unable to tell the public the real picture about the demand and supply. Big bucks have been allocated for a labour market observatory at the UGC. Let us hope the observatory can help us move beyond pipe dreams.


Public sector output in 2004 was 10,477. Private sector outputs is a guesstimate


GDP and Population:

World Bank, 2004

Graduates per year:


  1. Can I ask a question?

    The number of graduates coming out of universities to the job market per year is in the range of 10,000.

    On the other hand, the number of A/L dropouts is in the range of 100,000s. The number of O/L dropouts might be much more than that. (Sorry, I do not have the correct figures.)

    The question is why we worry about that 10,000 while there are so many hundreds of thousands of youth out there looking for a job? (Many of them might have got enough marks to enter the universities, but the doors were closed to them in the name of standardisation. Lot many people out of that 10,000 would have scored LESS than them.)

    Why both the government and the society at large never bothers about the unemployment problem among A/L and O/L dropouts? Why nobody bothers about the “higer education” of the A/L and O/L dropouts?

    Why this 10,000 so important? Why only focus on this tine fraction of the population?

    If I remember correctly Ranil Wickremesinghe was the only politician ever spoke about the A/L and O/L dropouts. He said in 1999, if UNP comes to power they plan to issue “vouchers” to everyone who completes A/Ls. Those vouchers could be used to gain admission to a higher education institute of one’s choice. However, the successive UNP govt. never implemented this plan.

    If given a choice, I will always take the side of the A/L and O/L dropouts, rather than that of local graduates for two good reasons.

    (a) A/L and O/L dropouts are much higher in number

    (b) In case of graduates, the government has already invested public money more than Rs. 500,000 plus for their university education. Compared to that the investment govt. has done for A/L and O/L dropouts is very little. So it is very fair to focus on those who have got less.

  2. Chanuka is absolutely right. Our concern should really be the O/L and A/L dropouts because for a given cohort of 400,000 or so children entering school system every year, only 2% go to university, 12% will have an A/L certificate, 22% an O/L certificate, and a whopping 64% with nothing but completion of Grade 9 or less.

    [The data are for those sitting the A/L in 2000/2001; original source is regaining Sri Lanka document, p.11. The precentages could not changed significantly since then]

    Yes, Ranil was the only politician to recognize the reality and he pushed as hard as he can during his brief time as PM.

    Why are we hung up on graduates then?

    The reasons are emotional, I think. University entrance is a big deal. From what I have seen, students who gain entry to university carry the hopes and dreams of not only their families but of those of the larger community that they come from. Their failure is a downer for all, I think.

    We should stop the expansion of public universities but put more money per student. But the biggest push should be to get 90% or more of our students pass the GCE (O/L). They can do it, if there is enough help.

  3. In some states in India, students who pass the equivalent of O/Ls and do not intend to pursue to enter universities can enter diploma programmes in technical education. So they do not have to waste two additional years at A/Ls. They start their education early, so by the time their class mates complete university education after 5 years, they have already worked for few years.

    I find this system is good because;
    (a) then nobody will have high expectations that they cannot fulfill
    (b) any country needs mechanics, carpenters, plumbers and electricians.
    (c) they do not have to waste time looking for white collar jobs

    True, everyone like a white collar job. But not everyone can get it. Directing everyone towards white collar jobs in not a viable solution, specially for a developing country.

    It is much better to introduce standards to blue collar jobs and give some status to the technical people rather than looking down upon blue collar jobs.

  4. Sri Lanka has such a system too.
    One can start working towards a professional qualification in accountancy, marketing, banking or information technology, among other fields, immediately after O/Ls and work your way up to an MBA, skipping A/L and undergraduate studies.

  5. Yes, but most of these options are available to youth from English educated upper middle class and above. What about the rest? Either they do no have money to invest in obtaining a professional qualifications or they simply do not have any guidance.

    Why not have more technical education centres for these o/L dropouts?

    If the govt spends Rs. 500,000 or above to produce a graduate in Buddhist Civilisation or Archeology the country does not need, I think it is very fair it spends much less amount to produce an electrician, technician, mechanics or carpenters the country do need.

    Not that I say we do not have such education institutions today, but the supply is very low when you consider the demand.

  6. You’re right about whom they are accessible to. I thought I should’ve mentioned it, along with the fact that such options are unavailable outside of the city.

  7. We have more than enough technical and vocational education opportunities. DTETs, VTCs and NAITA centers are spread across the country. The quality is poor across the board. Naita graduates have better chance of employment because they are 100% apprenticeship-based programs. The government has spent and continues to spend a LOT of money. ADB funded skills development project (US$50, 5-yrar) is just ending. Quite a few new initiates have been made but much is wasted on a dysfunctional bureaucracy. This is not the first time. Both ADB and World Bank have pumped money into this system previously. The issue is not lack of initiatives or the lack of money.

    The issue is a public monopoly that does not work and a population that refuses to accept the reality. A population that believes in thinking up ways to spend non existent public funds to create absolute social equity when they let inequalities exist within their own spheres of influence. How many of us have maids whose children do not have the same access to quality education that our own children have? Does that stop us from using old-boy old-girl connections to get our children into popular public schools? Why not share poor quality with all until at least the people in one’s sphere of influence have equal access to education? Finding somebody who believes and practices equality in education would be like kisa Gotami getting her handful of Aba (mustard).

    Only way out is to build up enough private sector providers that can compete with government institutions. If the government technical colleges are not delivering students should be able to choose an alternate college, private or public, and the government subsidy should follow the student not institutions or tenured staff.

    Right now the private sector (in nursing, catering, tailoring etc.)is developing in spite of government and the poor are paying taxes through every packet of milk and cylinder of gas and also paying out of pocket for private opportunities.

  8. My question is why double standards?

    Let me repeat my argument.

    If the government can spend enough money to produce graduates, obviously the country does not need, it has all the reasons in the world to spend money producing technicians the country need.

    Yes, private technical collages are always welcome (some do exist even now) but so are private universities. I am sure we need more private universities at this point than private technical colleges.

    There is no point maintaining the government monopoly on the university education and ask private sector to provide technical education.

    TWO C
    FIVE S

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *