Recent budget announcement by President Rajapakse places high value on increasing higher education enrollments. Is this the right approach as Sri Lanka aspires to be a hub in the knowledge economy which requires an information savvy society?
Information society indicators are limited by the type and quality of data that international agencies can collect. Not surprisingly, enrollment rates at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education take the center place in knowledge society /economy indicators. There are at least three big gaps in these indicators. First, they don’t tell us anything about quality of education. Second, they don’t take into account the fact that different levels of development require different types of human capital inputs. Second they miss a big chunk of the population-i.e. those that leave the school system from the time they enter secondary education in year-6 and culminating in a massive dropout after junior secondary or at about year-10, leaving school with varying levels of competence.
Take the case of Sri Lanka. Our primary and secondary enrollment rates at greater than 90% are the pride of developing world. Our tertiary rates are not too bad either, if you add those enrolled for external degrees to the mix. According to World Bank estimates, the gross enrollment rate in higher education is 22% with 58% of that number comprised of those enrolled in external degree programs. If we take enrollments in vocational and professional programs the gross enrollment rate in tertiary education is 30% or more.
What is quality of the output of education in Sri Lanka?
We have known for a long time that the employability of our youth decreases with their level of education. Counter-intuitive, but true. We have also heard often enough about the poor quality of our tertiary graduates and diplomates. However, there is really no hard evidence to support these claims except for anecdotes from the ‘old boys’ who dominate the private sector. What is the real story behind the unemployability of our graduates and diplomates? We need more evidence.
How about an alternative argument from the demand side? According to 2004 labor force data from the ILO that we collected few years back, Sri Lanka’s labor force is made up of 27% of workers in Elementary occupations while Malaysia has only 11% in elementary occupation. Further, Sri Lanka has 5% at the associate professional level and Malaysia has 13% (For brevity, I am not presenting data for the intermediate skilled categories). At first sight, the problem is clear. Our economy is operating at low efficiency and/or we don’t have the skills to drive operate at optimum efficiency. Leaving the chicken or egg question aside, it is clear that we need to enable the workers in elementary occupations to move to more skilled occupational levels and those in intermediate levels to associate professional level. Should our knowledge society indicators incorporate some of these nuances in the labor market demands? We need to explore.
The third issue is the lack of attention paid to more than 50% of any given cohort of 18-year olds in our society who have left school at varying points form Year 6 to year 11 with nothing to show for the time they spent in school. In terms of pass rate for all age groups or the full population of Sri Lanka, the 2012 HIES survey reports 27% pass rate. Passing the GCE O/L nowadays requires seven passes including passes for math and language. If we use the present day requirement as the benchmark, 50% of the youth and the 27% of our population do not have the language and math skills as measured by the GCE (O/L) . Is the GCE O/L pass rate a useful indicator for an information society? We need to explore.
A recent study from Malaysia is in the right direction. They miss the mark on the quality issue, but, make the interesting point that the communication skills and competency in both inter and intra-personal behaviors need to be taken into account in an information society indicator. Measuring such soft skills is another story. The UNSECO Framework for Measuring Learning lists soft skills as a priority, but, again they lament about the measurement aspect. Sri Lanka Ministry of Higher Education is also making a valiant attempt to inculcate and track soft skills in university students and the author feels fortunate to be able to contribute to that effort.
In terms international measures, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) or and other international tests present some of the opportunities for countries to assess information society readiness of their human resource pipelines, but, unfortunately developing countries are not represented well in those studies. For example, Indonesia is the only participant from participates in the TISS.
An alternative is to pursue a regional approach. For example, one might identify set of essential competencies using the proposed UNESCO learning metrics, and select a set of countries with data that might lend themselves to a mapping with the selected learning metrics.
Whatever the approach, it is critical to make available better set of indicators for readiness of societies for an information/knowledge intensive future.