Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
10th Oct 2013

Market Snapshot: Sri Lanka

A jewel-like island, Sri Lanka sits in the centre of the Indian Ocean between Africa and East Asia. Their education system is a source of pride, and Sri Lanka has much to offer students – its own as well as foreign. Perhaps this is what drives their ambition to become the education hub of South Asia, hoping to draw thousands of students from India, China, Africa and beyond. But this goal will not be achieved easily or swiftly, and the Sri Lankan government has much work ahead to update their higher education facilities and re-vamp their system. ICEF Monitor presents a thorough market report below, including insights from local experts.

Sri Lanka’s education system

Sri Lanka offers free schooling to all students, starting from primary school at age five through to university. The education system is divided into primary, junior secondary, senior secondary, collegiate and tertiary. There are 9,905 functioning government schools with a total student population of 4,004,086 and 15 universities enrolling 105,127 undergraduate and postgraduate students. Schooling is compulsory up to age 14 (junior secondary Grade 9) and there is a high attendance rate for school-age children, which can be seen in their impressive literacy rate: 91%. In senior secondary school, students take the GCE O Level exams and in the collegiate level, students sit for the GCE A Level exams. Both exams are taken by hundreds of thousands of students each year, many of whom are hoping for a place at university.

Disappointment for some, opportunity for others

Unfortunately for those students, most are not able to attend a state university as places are limited and competition fierce. According to the University World Newsonly 23,000 students are admitted annually out of the 220,000 who sit the university entrance (A-level) examination every year.” This, of course, means opportunity for other education providers. Universities in other countries benefit as up to 12,000 Sri Lankan students go abroad each year to study, meaning Sri Lanka could be a lucrative recruitment market for some. Australia, for example, has identified Sri Lanka as a priority market, recently sending representatives from 19 Australian institutions on a fam trip there. Chris Price, Principal Advisor of student recruitment agency Adventus Education explains that Sri Lankans attending universities overseas fall into two brackets:

  • Elite students who wish to attend the world's top universities and have the qualifications and means to do so;
  • Students who wish to study overseas but are of more limited means.

"These latter students tend to shop around and are more open to ideas on destinations and institutions that suit their financial situations. These are also the students who would consider attending local branch campuses (provided they are of quality and not just franchises). But any such options will be popular with the more price sensitive section of the market that wishes to have an international degree but cannot travel for some reason." The Sri Lankan government wants to curtail this study abroad trend, as upwards of US $400 million goes out of the country along with those students. Therefore, it is taking steps to ensure Sri Lankans have a wider variety of education options to entice them to stay and study at home. Both University World News and Daily News reported on the government’s announcement that 25 new university colleges focusing on technical and vocational education will be established to “cater to students who fail to gain entry to state universities.” Ten of those are supposed to be opening up by the end of this year.

“The ground-breaking move will provide job-oriented courses… with the intention of preparing them for the modern, high-tech employment market.”

Along with offering a more practical, skills-based education to keep students around, the government is intent on luring foreign education providers to Sri Lanka’s shores to set up branch campuses, the idea being that local students will be able to get a foreign education not far from home. To learn more about what the locals think of this, ICEF Monitor spoke to Dr Punarjeeva Karunanayake, CEO of ANC Education, a private higher education institute which provides American, British and Australian education programmes in Sri Lanka. He told us:

"I think Sri Lankan people really like the idea of branch campuses opening up, as long as they are reputable institutions. If the academic delivery, quality and student outcomes will be similar to those of the main campus, then the branch campus will be popular... especially for the ~197,000 Sri Lankan students who don't get into a local university."

Just last month the government announced a plan to set-up ‘free investment zones’ for foreign universities and other education providers, which will provide them with land and tax breaks. The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) is one of the first to take advantage of this inspiring offer, with plans to “finish construction of a new campus by June 2015 and to admit a first intake of students by September 2015.” And apparently, already a number of other interested institutions have been submitting applications to undertake a similar venture. As well as branch campuses, overseas institutions have been aligning with Sri Lankan ones to offer a foreign degree at a home campus. Last year, Plymouth University in the UK partnered with Sri Lanka’s National School of Business Management (NSBM) to deliver programmes in Supply Chain & Operations, Business Management, Tourism & Hospitality, Accounting, Finance, and Marketing – all subjects that are in demand in Sri Lanka. Will more options at home dampen a desire to study overseas? Dr Karunanayake doesn't think so:

"I believe Sri Lankan students will continue to study abroad and this number will continue to increase as Sri Lanka is becoming a middle income country. However, the branch campuses of these foreign universities will capture a group that is presently looking at non-academic professional programmes or vocational programmes as well as students needing financial support to pay for their foreign education. Those students who have been looking at studying in places like India, China or Russia will probably choose to stay at home as more branch campuses open and more foreign degrees become available at home."

Tech development

At the FutureGov Forum in 2010, the Sri Lankan government announced a target of e-literacy for 75% of the population by 2016. In particular, the government said it aimed to bring Information and Communication Technology (ICT) capability to rural areas. The Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga stated that “bridging the rural-urban divide was one of four priority areas where ICT is being deployed to spur growth and propel socio-economic development.” Fast forward to summer 2013, and Daily News reports: “Technical education is expanding to rural areas” and “a technology stream was launched in 200 schools.” It is hoped that these efforts will help bolster the goal of 75% e-literacy by 2016. Foreign providers could see this as an opportunity to help Sri Lanka achieve its ICT goals by providing assistance, and at the same time gain an in-road into the Sri Lankan market. Japan has already spotted its chance - Sri Lanka’s Minister of Mass Media and Information Keheliya Rambukwella stated in August, “The Japanese government has extended assistance to establish an ICT network converting the whole country.” Like many other nations, Sri Lanka sees the development of the ICT and technology-related sectors as a way to achieve economic growth. To that end, they have created new vocational degrees “aimed at producing students with high quality skills in science and technology that focus on new industries.” And it’s not a moment too soon according to a new report by the British Council titled “Skills development in South Asia: Trends in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.” The report alarmingly states that the region in question is “lacking 96 million of the 100 million trainees currently required to meet the requirements for continued economic growth.” Mr Price concurs: "The new vocational and technical university college programmes will prove popular. Sri Lanka has a booming economy and there is a significant requirement for technical and vocational skills development." He further added:

"A key opportunity for educational providers overseas revolves around joint programming and pathway models with local institutions along the lines of 2+2 arrangements and top-up degrees."

More opportunities for language providers

Another area for development which foreign providers can look toward is English language teaching. Along with the focus on developing ICT and vocational education to produce more employable graduates, the Sri Lankan government is keen to promote the development of trilingual skills (Singhala, Tamil, English) for undergraduates. They have said they recognise the importance “of strengthening English teaching and providing facilities for students to learn foreign languages in secondary schools.” Following a pledge made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, India is assisting its neighbour - “the Indian High Commission in Colombo, in January, announced plans for language labs to be set in each of Sri Lanka’s nine provinces.” The ‘English for All’ programme hopes to establish language learning centres in 1,000 schools nationwide in a bid to make English the country’s lingua franca and help narrow the divide between the Singhala majority and the Tamil minority.

English is to be the link-language across all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka.

The British Council is active there, promoting English language teaching and learning via a number of projects such as teacher training and materials development. With the current focus on becoming an education hub, other EFL providers might want to get in there now while there is still a chance.

Challenges around the education hub goal

The government of Sri Lanka has been vocal about its desire to become an education hub for South Asia. In January 2012, a report titled “Sri Lanka as an Education Hub for International Students: the Road Ahead” was released by The World Bank and authored by distinguished international education experts John Fielden, Jane Knight and others.

The report is quite clear: it can be done, but they have a long road ahead.

Areas that need work include: updating accommodation and facilities, creating a Code of Good Practice for institutions to adhere to, and building a coherent, unified marketing strategy. Mr Price explains:

"The better universities in Sri Lanka are ready to welcome international students into certain academic programmes now. But there is much to do across the board in terms of preparing and delivering the kind of services required for international students. The world's most advanced nations in this field do a lot of extra work and spend considerable resources on ensuring internationalisation is a reality, not just something written into a mission statement."

Dr Karunanayake agreed that certain local universities are already ready for international students, but he stressed:

"I believe that they need to understand the requirements of a fee-paying international student and his or her expectations. It is known that Sri Lankan universities are not very student centric, and this change will have to take place at the core of an institution before it can attract foreign students."

The government has already begun its move to attract foreigners by offering 100 scholarships to students from certain countries. They’ve also increased the quota of foreign students allowed on local campuses from .5% to 5% of the total student intake. They aren’t shy about why they are doing it either. As reported by University World News: “We're doing our best to promote our country and bring in foreign income. We hope about 1,000 Chinese undergraduates will arrive here to pursue higher studies later this year,” Deputy Higher Education Minister Nandimithra Ekanayake said. Work is underway to build ‘international standard’ accommodation to house the hoped-for foreign students. Daily News reported the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education Dr Sunil Jayantha Navaratne saying international students who study in Sri Lanka all live in various locations, and the new aim was to get them all living together “under one roof.” It’s going to take more than scholarships and space to get international students enrolled. A workshop which took place last summer (with the rather ponderous title “Re-creating and re-positioning of Sri Lankan universities to meet emerging opportunities and challenges in a globalised environment”) made a good number of recommendations for actions needed before Sri Lanka has any hope of becoming an education hub. Some of these include:

  • Increased, sustained funding to the quality of teaching, research culture, and physical environment of HEIs;
  • Coordinated strategy to promote Sri Lanka between the Ministry of Tourism, the Board of Investment and the Department of Emigration & Immigration to make the country student-friendly;
  • Outdated financial rules and regulations which have become a hindrance to entrepreneurial activity should be reviewed and revised;
  • Introduction of appropriate multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary degree programmes with national and international appeal;
  • Mode of delivery of courses should be shifted from teacher-centred education to student-centred education;
  • Recruitment of overseas academics on a fixed term or indefinite basis should be encouraged;
  • Websites of the HEIs should cater to the needs and interests of prospective foreign students and faculty;
  • Each HEI should establish a Centre for International Affairs (CINTA) with properly trained staff and adequate resources to encourage and facilitate admission of foreign students, and to provide requisite student services.

With its beautiful countryside, friendly people and low cost of living, Sri Lanka may well become a destination for international students. And Sri Lankans themselves, highly literate and valuing education, may to stay to study if foreign degrees are offered locally. But first, there is work to be done.

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