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It has been reported that the government was contemplating whether to give Vice Chancellors more autonomy to administer universities through the proposed new constitution. The idea seems to be to remove the political control and allow them to develop as independent institutions.

Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella had expressed these views, addressing a recent workshop conducted under a World Bank assisted project titled ‘Higher Education for the Twenty First Century.’

This sounds a good idea as most of the best universities in the world are run as autonomous institutions. This is how universities were run even in our country almost till the sixties. Needless to say that during that time universities of Colombo and Peradeniya were regarded as institutions of high standard.

But the crux of the matter today is whether mere autonomy would be sufficient for our universities to get out of the current mess. Years of political interference, low funding and neglect have resulted in bringing down the standards of education in these institutions.
Even the curriculums have not been developed to meet the requirements of a modern country. So much so, there are questions over the employability of some of our graduates particularly those in the arts stream. The reluctance of the country’s private sector to employ them is not without valid reasons.

One of the main problems is the poor quality of English language skills which in reality is one of the most important factors in determining one’s employability today. To face this reality, universities need to redesign their programmes, allocating more time to impart language and such other soft skills that are necessary in today’s context.

Universities  alone  cannot  cope with the issue as students should ideally possess most such skills by the time they gain university entrance. They should be developed at secondary and senior secondary levels in schools, but the truth is that most state sector schools lack resources to do so.

On the  other  hand, there are proposals to have private sector involvement in higher education which means there could be private universities in the future.If that happens without time for state universities to reform themselves and raise the standards, the inevitable result would be two classes of universities in the country.

While accepting the fact that private universities are a must for development of the overall higher education system in any country, we must not ignore the importance of developing the state university network on a parallel basis.

Therefore, it is time to re-examine the relevancy and adequacy of the existing university system and find ways of making them viable and reputable institutions of higher learning capable of meeting the needs of modern Sri Lanka.

This has to be achieved by appointing a University Commission or some kind of a think tank comprising independent academics, sociologists and other relevant professionals of suitable background to make recommendations on how to revamp the state universities.
Currently, the universities are not in a position to revamp themselves even if autonomy is granted. Therefore, the state will have to intervene perhaps with some international funding support for this to happen in a meaningful manner and autonomy will become relevant only thereafter.