World-Class Universities & Universal Higher Education: Can We Have It All?

Posted by on August 21, 2020  /  5 Comments

Prepared by Niresh Eliatamby and Dr. Ruwan Dias, Cogitaro

The important contemporary topic of ‘World Class Universities & Universal Higher Education: Can We Have It All?’ was the theme of the latest Education Policy Dialogue, organized by Education Forum Sri Lanka and held on Saturday 15th August 2020.

The webinar provided insights and discussed challenges that would of much use to policymakers, university administrators and academics in charting the future of the Sri Lankan university system. It examined challenges to the competitiveness of Sri Lanka’s universities in the world of tertiary education and the way forward for Sri Lanka to enhance the quality of its universities in order to achieve the twin targets of widening the reach of university education throughout Sri Lanka and making the country a regional hub for knowledge.

Dr. Tara de Mel moderated a panel of educators consisting of Mr. Anura Dissanayake, Secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education; Dr. Nicholas Ruwan Dias and Mr. Niresh Eliatamby, Managing Partners of the think tank; and Prof. Veranja Karunarathna, University of Peradeniya / SLINTEC Academy. Dr. Sujata Gamage provided a synopsis of the webinar. A number of academics and senior officials from Sri Lanka’s state universities and other institutions, including overseas persons, participated in the lively 2.5-hour online discussion.

Mr. Dissanayake provided insights into the challenges of funding and management of Sri Lanka’s university system and gave a key point of discussion for the forum by describing the Government’s plans for the setting up of an International University Zone in Horana, where up to 10 international universities would be encouraged to commence franchise operations to serve foreign university student in the South Asian region, with specific reference to the increased market demand from Bangladeshi students. He also spoke on plans to establish ten more universities in various provinces in order to reach a wider swathe of the population.

Mr. Eliatamby provided a description of the global university rankings system and its important role in the reputation of universities and countries, including the opportunities for universities to generate their own revenue rather than depend on state funding. Particular emphasis was placed on the dramatic rise of Asian universities into the top 100 of global rankings over the last decade, with the advancement of each university displayed.

Dr. Dias, speaking from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he is based, provided a case study of the manner in which the University of Malaya, which is similar in size to the University of Peradeniya, improved its global rankings over the last several years to become consistently ranked in the global top 100. He included a detailed description of the various criteria that are utilized by ranking systems and the weightage of each criterion in determining the final ranking. His presentation included a synopsis of the current rankings of Sri Lankan universities and insights into how Sri Lankan universities could rapidly advance up the global rankings.

Prof. Veranja Karunarathna noted in his presentation that there has been a definite reduction in quality of graduate education over the years due to many factors, but showed that Sri Lanka does produce a high number of academic papers by graduate students and researchers per dollar invested in comparison to many countries. He also spoke on the negative impact of irregular appointments and promotions within universities; and the need for the appointment of Vice Chancellors to be on a merit based system. The small number of PhDs conferred by Sri Lankan universities and the corresponding low amount of research was also a matter of concern in the global reputation of Sri Lankan universities.

A number of important elements were discussed with questions posed by the audience on the Government’s focus long-time focus on transforming Sri Lanka into a Knowledge Hub; the challenges of Plagiarism; revenue opportunities for universities through research; the importance of Sri Lankan universities to adopt Online and Distance Learning methods, especially in the COVID era; and the need for each Sri Lankan university to have a comprehensive structured programme whose target would be to improve its respective global ranking.

A key aspect of the discussion focused on the need to improve quality of university education and the challenges that may be encountered in this regard with a rapid increase in the number of provincial universities and the proposed international university zone.

Education Forum Sri Lanka comprises many eminent Sri Lankan academics who are dedicated to advancing the quality of education at all levels in Sri Lanka and regularly hosts discussion forums on a variety of topics related to education.

PDF available here.


  1. SriLankan politicians have been talking about the ‘’terrorist problem’’ but not about the causes, viz. the discrimination of ethnic minorities, leading to the armed conflict.

    i. When UNICEF and the govt of Netherlands carried out a
    project, Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy Programme (PBEA) in 2012-
    2016 with 14 countries long afflicted with conflicts(Burundi, Chad, Cote d’ivore, Dem. Rep. of Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, State of Palestine, Uganda and Yemen), Sri Lanka did not join them.
    The central idea in the programme is teaching the children about the conflicts in their countries.
    Very encouraging results have been coming out from the participant countries:
    Learning for Peace: Lessons Learned from UNICEF’s Peacebuilding, Education, and Advocacy in Conflict-Affected Context Programme, Friedrich W. Affolter and Anna Azaryeva Valente, 20/12/2019,

    ii.Civic Education – Grade 10:
    Chapter 5, Conflict Resolution in a Democratic Society, mentions reasons for conflicts in eight countries, viz Rwanda, South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Russia and Somalia/Ethiopia, but not about the one in Sri Lanka: academic researchers refer to this as Passive War Education –
    (printed in 2014 and reprinted in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019) – accessed 22 August 2020)

    iii. **Vanner et al 2016 gives the following on p21 (pages 17-21 are on Sri Lanka):
    ”In a review of 90 Grade 1-11 textbooks related to language, history, citizenship and life competencies, *Perera(2009) found that 48 contained no references to history, ethnicity and conflict. Conflict is addressed in textbooks but with reference to other contexts such as East Timor, Ireland, Rwanda and Kashmir(ibid). The omission of the historical roots of the war is described by Davies(2006) and Cardozo(2008) as passive war education.”
    *Perera 2009, ”Creating ”Selves”and Expelling ”Others”: Politics of Citizenship in the context of Sri Lankan School Textbooks”, Paper presented at International Conference on Citizenship and Civic Education: Perspectives, Policy and Practice, University of Delhi, India.
    ** Vanner, C., Akseer, S. and Kovinthan, T. 2016. Learning Peace (and Conflict): The Role of Primary Learning Materials in Peacebuilding in Post-War Afghanistan, South Sudan and Sri Lanka

  2. Dear Educators
    Hope you ill pay urgent attention to my comment.

  3. Dear educators
    Sri Lanka school textbooks must embrace multiculturalism for peacebuilding,

  4. Dear educators
    Please remedy the faults in our system:
    Sri Lanka – School Textbooks, Ethno-religious Conflict and Education for Peacebuilding,
    Conscientious Sinhalese told LLRC:
    Tamils are dying to see an impovement.

    1. Sujata Gamage, Co-Coordinator EFSL

      Thank you for your comments. Cultural or ethnic bias in our curricula is an issue but EFSL does not have the capacity at this point to give the topic the attention it deserves. We need to use our mostly volunteer labor to push for reforms on dialogues we have already had. However, with the government having announced an overhaul of curricula, I wish organizations dedicated to peace and rebuilding would take up the issue with the MoE and NIE.

Leave a Reply

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