Beyond policy silos –towards a unified education policy framework for Sri Lanka

Posted on January 1, 2015  /  4 Comments

Ethnic issues continue to provide the sub text for a presidential election scheduled for the eighth of January 2015. At this point on the dawn on 2015 it is appropriate to recall that one issue that was pivotal in setting off the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka was access to public higher education. Forty years later, the education landscape has seen much change. Urban youth, irrespective of racial divide seem to be moving on, taking advantage of new opportunities, while our rural youth are still stuck in the “school to government university to government job” paradigm. The real division among us is not about race or about who love this country most, but, it is about those who are able to exploit opportunities of a knowledge economy and those who are unable.

It is easy to blame poverty, attitude etc., but deeper analysis shows that the reason for this division is largely due to the existence of ‘policy silos’ in education in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the manifestos of the incumbent President Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa or the presidential aspirant Mr. Maithripala Sirisena, do not spell out the structural reforms needed to break down these silos.

The Sri Lankan education system has much in common with its peers in the Commonwealth. However, its uniquely rigid and compartmentalized policy making structure with separate ministries for school education, university education and vocational education and training, with little communication among the three, sets Sri Lanka apart. In effect, a ‘silo’ structure that prevents coherent and effective policy making is in place here. In contrast, the education sectors in other countries in the Commonwealth, such as Australia, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Singapore and UK, are led by a single ministry for education and supported by departments, authorities or commissions dedicated to different sectors and/or different functions. This structural difference is manifested in the gap between promise of free-of-charge education and its delivery in the education sector in Sri Lanka.

Take the case of the Higher National Diploma (HND) programs offered by public sector institutions. Recently, students pursuing the HND in accountancy at Advanced Technological Institutes (ATIs) stormed the University Grants Commission (UGC) agitating for degree status. Water cannon and tear gas had to be used to disperse the students. The story behind the story is an instance of education policy making at its silo worst.

All HND programs offered by government are under the purview of Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technical Education (SLIATE) which is identified as the agency responsible for the ‘alternative higher education’ sector. The name itself foretells the necessity of the frequent use of water canon. In fact, in a rush to create alternative opportunities for those who cannot be accommodated within the limited capacity of universities, policymakers have inadvertently created a sub class of students within higher education. The fact that our universities are rigidly structured with no room for lateral entry or exit makes the alternative education sector a silo that traps students, and the ‘authentic’ higher education sector a silo that excludes. To add injury to insult, the HND accountancy curriculum at ATIs requires 128+ credit hours of work spanning over four years when a management degree with accounting specialization too can be completed at a public university with 128 credit hours and the same duration.

A third silo, in regard to transferability across public sector institutions, includes technical and vocational training institutes under the purview of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC).  The sector has achieved much in terms of upward mobility and lateral transfers within the sector thanks to a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) framework in force since 2002. However, there is not much interaction between the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sector and the other two sectors.

Meanwhile, a private sector led by chartered professional institutes and private universities is offering flexibility and transferability which characterizes a truly free education. Take the case of accounting education. According to a LIRNEasia survey, enrolments in the three major accounting bodies – Institute of Chartered Accountant of Sri Lanka (ICASL), Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) and Association of Accounting Technicians of Sri Lanka (AATSL) – totalled more than 100,000 students in 2011. AATSL is a particularly noteworthy organization which is dedicated to vocational training but committed to ensuring multiple pathways of progression, academic or professional, for their trainees, through MOUs signed with a multitude of organizations.

Technically, a national qualification framework is a mechanism for connecting segregated systems of qualifications, but, Sri Lanka is yet to develop a truly comprehensive national qualification framework. The NVQ framework which was introduced by TVEC in 2002 follows the Australian and New Zealand frameworks closely. The NVQ reserves levels 1-6 for certificates, diplomas and higher diplomas, and Levels 7-10 for degrees and above.

The qualification framework developed by the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) in 2012 in all appearance is a framework developed by academics for academics. More concerned with distinctions between a general degree and an honors degree or an MA and an MPhil and other university specific issues, the MOHE framework  limits the range for vocational qualifications to Level 1-4 and sets aside levels 5-10 for degree qualifications and above. Given the current distribution of educational attainment in the population, progression from degree to post-graduate qualifications is relevant to less than 10 percent of a cohort of about 340,000 or more youth who enter the 19-24 year age group every year. It is unfortunate that Sri Lanka does not have national qualification framework that prioritize the other 90% whose progression from NVQ levels 1-6 and beyond is critical for human resource development in the country.

The education market or the job market has no regard for self-imposed silos found in the public sector. A survey of jobs advertised in the newspapers carried out by LIRNEasia in 2012 revealed job openings in 40+ sectors from Accountancy, Architecture, and Aviation to Logistics, to Teaching and Tourism. Whenever degree level qualifications are sought, equivalent non-degree qualifications are also specified. In some sectors, professional qualifications with or without experience is preferred over degrees. A parallel survey of educational opportunities advertised by private sector in 2012 revealed the existence of 600+ education and training programs offered by 200+ plus institutions.

Unfortunately, our education policymakers are structurally inhibited from viewing tertiary education sector from the vantage point of employers or the 340,000 youth who join the  19-24 year old demographic group every year.

Dr. Sunil Nawaratne, the present secretary for the MOHE along with the minister in charge are rare individuals who have made the courageous declaration that they hold themselves accountable for the employability of the graduates produced by the institutions under their purview. Present MOHE is also the first educational authority to make the tracking of graduate employability a priority. Unfortunately, the ministry is faced with the phenomenal challenge of reviving a dysfunctional public higher education system catering to 25,000 or so new entrants each year. This group of entrants is but only a fraction of the 340,000 plus full cohort of youth in question here. Needed is a unified education authority, not so much to create more public sector institutions but to regulate and orchestrate a thriving tertiary education sector in order to align it to the development needs of the country and provide a level playing field for those who are disadvantaged.

Three wishes for 2015:

  • One ministry for all human resource needs

It If we are to see the education system truly serving the human resource needs of the country, the president for the term beginning January 9th 2015 will have to make a tough decision to consolidate education policy-making through one ministry dedicated to education and align appropriate regulatory bodies for each underlying sector of education. Such a move would be in line with tried and tested practices world over.  This would also help keep the size of the Cabinet small.

An alternative scenario, a more realistic one perhaps, is to have one ministry for school education and a second ministry to oversee a consolidated tertiary education sector.

There was indeed one such experiment from December 2001 December–April 2004 period during the UNF government, with one Cabinet Minister in charge of education as a whole and two non-Cabinet ministers, one in charge of school education and another in charge of tertiary education. Unfortunately, the reorganization of political authorities was not matched by a restructuring of supporting institutions. In a new scenario, the National Education Commission, National Institute of Education, Ministry of Education, Department of Examinations, UGC and TVEC will have to be restructured or realigned, and new entities for financial aid and other established as well.

  • One qualifications authority

A major function of a consolidated ministry of education would be to establish one single qualifications authority to establish and enforce qualifications, from GCE (O/L) to diplomas, higher diplomas or professional charters or PhDs, within a truly comprehensive national qualifications framework. Such a qualifications authority would be responsible for informing and educating students at all levels about the full range of educational opportunities, be they public/private, technical/vocational/professional or academic, and facilitating smooth articulation and transfer from one qualification to another. The Office for Qualifications in UK is an excellent example. Sharing the results of graduate tracer studies too could be made mandatory for all qualification awarding bodies providing market signals to both the awarding bodies and prospective enrolees.

  • Many providers

If a strong policy framework is made available through one policy making body served by multiple regulatory bodies and one qualifications authority, provision of education can be taken up by any number of provider institutions, including private universities and colleges, chartered institutes, local authorities, provincial authorities, religious bodies and others to increase opportunities for all concerned. A centralized financial support system would be an essential component that ensures equity in access to economically disadvantaged students.


Sujata Gamage, PhD MPA; Former Director General, TVEC and Team Leader, Human Capital Research @ LIRNEasia


  1. The silo based education system is the present reality and no doubt a system free of silos should become the practical reality for effective delivery of human capital for the knowledge economy and this element of truth is the core principle behind the knowledge hub. The National Education Commission reporting to the Executive President and the three Standing Committees on General Education, Higher Education and Tertiary and Technical Education are the most virulent platforms for cutting across the silo driven system at present. I am at present engaged in the process of restructuring the TVEC and integrating the silos within to serve national needs such as catering to the rapidly rising demand for skilled people needed to support and sustain the economic growth. On the other hand I have successfully illustrated how to disintegrate higher education silos within the university system when I founded the Uva Wellassa University. This has generated the highly employable graduates from Uva Wellassa University produced by multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary programs. Sujatha has entered the debate on the politics of education to rationalize the ministries engaged with education. My humble opinion is that unfortunately it is not the Ministries that need rationalizing but integration through a plethora of mechanics (processes) in the system that would facilitate the interoperability to deliver the outcomes desired by government policy and people expectations. That is a timely discussion we need to engage.

  2. Dear Chandra:
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, particularly as the current chairman of TVEC and former VC of University of Sabaragamuawa.

    Two responses to your comments;
    1. Current set up of the National Education Commission reporting to the president is a problem. One of the reasons for the ineffectiveness of the commission is its distance from the line ministry. If we can have one single ministry of education and a strengthened NEC (Fewer academics, more industry, more professionals and more money) that would be the ideal set up to break down silos.
    2. Yes, restructuring ministries and NEC etc is is ‘big picture policy’ in the hands of higher powers. Let us talk more about ‘small policies’ or the plethora of the mechanisms that you talk about. The qualifications framework is one such. I like to hear more from you about the my take that the current SLQF is misnomer. The HEQF done by academic for academics and we need to align it with the older and ‘better’ NVQ.

  3. Dear Sujatha
    I was Founder, Vice Chancellor Uva Wellassa 2004-2011 and not Sabaragamuwa as you mention.