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Surprise Sri Lankan election result promises new education ties and investment

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • All of the indicators for population, economics, income levels, and education capacity point to Sri Lanka as an emerging market of growing importance
  • As it continues to expand, the market is increasingly open to new destinations including Canada and the US but also those in Europe and emerging hubs in Asia as well
  • Demand is heavily skewed to undergraduate programmes
  • Transnational education is also an important feature of the market, and stands to play a significant role going forward as Sri Lanka continues to struggle with limited capacity in local universities

The surprise victory of Maithripala Sirisena in Sri Lanka’s presidential election last month, along with early indications of pending reforms, have raised high expectations among students, education leaders, and international partners. Mr Sirisena had the backing of much of Sri Lanka’s powerful student movement and had made explicit pledges during the campaign to raise investments in education and further open the education sector to private providers as a way to meet domestic demand.

The election result ended incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid for a third term. Mr Rajapaksa won the last election in 2010, surfing a wave of popularity months after the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels. With the war over, the economy strong, and his popularity riding high, Mr Rajapaksa called a snap election. As the result of a late surge of support among younger voters and others discontented with Mr Rajapaksa’s growing authoritarianism, Mr Sirisena squeaked to victory with 51.3% of the vote. He has since assembled a governing coalition of ethnic, religious, Marxist and centre-right parties.

Like his predecessor, Mr Sirisena is from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community, but he has notably reached out to ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims in the country. In his acceptance speech, he promised to “maintain a close relationship with all countries and organisations.” In practise, however, his allies say he will rebalance the country’s foreign policy, which tilted heavily towards China in recent years and cold-shouldered India.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in Colombo, said the new president has pledged to re-engage with Western countries.

“He did make the point that the foreign policy was skewed in favor of the Chinese, over reliance and dependent on them and it needed to be recalibrated to restore balance,” Dr Saravanamuttu told Voice of America.

Students played key role in elections

Students, university lecturers, and others in the education sector played a key role in the election of Mr Sirisena. These factions were reliably among the most vocal critics of the previous government, due in part to former President Rajapaksa’s hard line against repeated calls by students for increased government investment into universities. A 2012 Economist article, for example, described a major strike by over 5,000 academics who protested the former government’s slim investment in schools and universities – a paltry 1.9% of total GDP.

The former education minister, S.B. Dissanayake, responded to the lengthy strike by shutting down the country’s state universities and institutes. Students and academics were also angered by the former higher education ministry’s decree in 2011 that all universities must hire security from the defence ministry, which was headed by the former president’s brother. More ominously, University World News reported last year on the widespread suppression of students by the former government, including tactics such as attacking protests and threatening and targeting student leaders, according to the 69-page report State Suppression Against Students’ Movement of Sri Lanka. The report detailed of suspension of student funding, banning student councils, suppressing classes and other action such as law suits, arrests, assaults, threats, assassinations, and abductions involving students.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, students backed Mr Sirisena in large numbers. The overall participation rate in last month’s presidential election was 81%, a record for Sri Lanka. Mr Sirisena made campaign promises to address the grievances of students and lecturers, including a promise that higher education would be completely restructured to develop the human resources necessary for an “inventive economy” and a pledge to raise spending on education to 6% of GDP.

The new government has already moved forward with several key reforms. The higher education minister, Dr Rajiva Wijesinha, has given the green light to allow private universities to be established, saying private universities are essential in order to provide education opportunities for all students. University World News also reported recently that the new minister has suspended the controversial three-week compulsory military-led University Leadership Training Programme, or MLTP, for university students. The army training had resulted in at least three deaths in recent years and was deeply unpopular among student and teacher unions.

UK, Australia, India eye new opportunities

International partners have been quick to praise the new government. Last month, US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal visited Colombo to meet with Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who repeated a message from his government since its surprise victory January 8.

“We want to raise the relationship between our two countries to a new level of cordiality,” Mr Samaraweera said, in a report by Voice of America. Ms Biswal said Sri Lanka could count on the US to be a partner and friend “in the way forward.”

The United States continues to be a key study destination for Sri Lankan students. Of the 16,204 Sri Lanka students who studied abroad in 2012, UNESCO reports that 2,811 studied in the United States (largely at the graduate level, according to World Education News and Reviews). However, the UK (3,516 students in 2012) and Australia (3,423) remain the top destinations for Sri Lankans, partly due to colonial ties, in the case of the UK, and proximity for Australia, but also because both countries are consistently active in recruiting in the country and offer scholarship programmes targeted to Sri Lanka students.

Australia sees Sri Lanka as a small but important market, with whom it shares a strong bilateral relationship. A number of Australian tertiary providers currently operate distance education facilities in Sri Lanka, including Monash College, an affiliate of Monash University, and the Australian College of Business and Technology, an affiliate of Edith Cowan University. Austrade, the Australian government’s trade and development arm, has highlighted growing recruitment opportunities in Sri Lankan schools for Australian providers. In a recent trade visit to Colombo International School organised by Austrade, 19 institutions were briefed about the Sri Lankan market and met with local students, parents, and teachers.

India, which hosts the fourth-largest number of Sri Lankan students abroad (1,115 in 2012) and is keen to develop stronger ties with its strategically located neighbour, is now offering 185 scholarships to promising Sri Lankans to study undergraduate, postgraduate, and Ph.D degrees in a variety of fields. With the Nehru Memorial Scholarship Scheme, Maulana Azad Scholarship Scheme, Rajiv Gandhi Scholarship Scheme, and the Commonwealth Scholarships, the South Asian giant aims to further deepen relations between top Sri Lankan students and India.

As we reported earlier, with only 23,000 of 220,000 Sri Lankan students who sit university entrance examinations admitted to state universities each year, many of those who can afford to do so have traditionally looked further afield for study. With a new government sending strong signals about increased government investments in the education sector, and the ease of restrictions on new private providers, the country’s higher education capacity looks likely to increase in the years ahead. The signs are encouraging for outbound mobility as well, particularly if Sri Lanka is successful in building stronger international ties and in promoting greater harmony at home.

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