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Is Open University the Panacea for Higher Education Woes?

Importance of Education
It is a known fact that education is important because it gives people the baseline skills to survive as adults in the world. Education is essential for nearly every type of job or career, and in many cases, education makes the difference between being able to perform a job safely and accurately and being unable to perform a job at all. However, education is also important in life for reasons beyond basic survival skills.
Eleanor Roosevelt, an American politician, diplomat, and activist and the longest-serving first lady of the United States famously said that “education is essential to good citizenship and that education is important to life because it enables people to contribute to their community and their country”.
Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and the former President of South Africa once said,“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.
In any nation, education is a crucial sector making a major investment in human capital development, thus contributing to long-term productivity and growth at all levels.UNESCO considers education as a top priority as it is the foundation on which to build peace and drive sustainable development. UNESCO’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reflects the importance of an appropriate educational response with education explicitly formulated as a stand-alone goal. Numerous education-related targets and indicators are also contained within other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to UNESCO, education is both a goal and a means for attaining all the other SDGs. It is not only an integral part of sustainable development, but also a key enabler for it. That is why UNESCO considers education as an essential strategy in the pursuit of the SDGs.
Sri Lankan scenario
Sri Lanka is a country that considers education as a wealth and offers facilities for higher education and training through number of conventional universities and the only distance education university, the Open University of Sri Lanka. All these institutions play key roles in equipping aspiring students with knowledge and workforce skills needed by the country and thereby contributing towards achieving the national development goals.
Sri Lanka was recently upgraded to be an Upper middle-income country with a GDP per capita of USD 4,102 (2018). However, according to UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics, participation in higher education in Sri Lanka is exceptionally low with only about 20% which is among the lowest of all middle-income countries. The average Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for upper middle-income countries is 53% and in fact, the GER of Sri Lanka at the higher education level is even below the average value for South Asia, which is 24%. Table 1 shows the GER value of some of the countries in the region. These figures indicate that as a country we need to go a long distance to become par with other countries of similar economic status.
According to the available statistics, in Sri Lanka, only 6 percent of young people (up to the age of 24 years) are enrolled in a public university, while another 5 percent are enrolled in other state higher educational institutions, including the Open University of Sri Lanka. Further, another 6 percent of the same age group are enrolled in private sector higher educational institutes and about 3 percent enrolling in external degree programs. Even though, about 30 percent of the young people join Technical and Vocation Institutes, of the programs offered by these institutes, 63 percent target school leavers with less than GCE O-levels, 29 percent require O-levels, and only 8 percent require A-levels.
On top of this, like most developing economies, Sri Lanka faces significant brain drain. As per the figures of Department of Census and Statistics, every year nearly 250,000 Sri Lankans leave the country looking for foreign employment, with over 3.0 million people leaving the country in the last ten years. According to World Bank statistics, Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of brain drain among the South Asian countries with 27.5 per cent of those who received a tertiary education have migrated, with an average annual migration level of 6,000 professionals. Therefore, as a country, we do not have any other choice, but to further expand the supply of shortage professions. Only a supply push can help the existing industry expand and potentially attract further capital investments, including foreign investments in Sri Lanka.
Many countries across the world have set targets to increase their Gross Enrollment Ratios in Higher Education. For example, in Indonesia, the government has a set a target to reach a GER of 50% by 2040, from the current value of about 36%, and has undertaken major initiatives to promote Open and Distance Learning and On-line learning.
The Government of India is aiming to reach a GER of 30% by 2020 and has initiated various measures to achieve this target. These include, issuing of new University Grants Commission (UGC) regulation for Open and Distance Learning that allows entry of reputed institutions to offer education on the distance mode and launching SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds) program by using of ICT technology. This program which is initiated by the Government of India is designed to achieve the three cardinal principles of education policy: Access, Equity and Quality. The objective of this effort is to take the best teaching learning resources to all, including the most disadvantaged. This is done through an indigenously developed IT platform that facilitates hosting of all the courses taught in classrooms to be accessed by anyone, anywhere, at any time. All the courses are interactive, prepared by the best teachers in the country, and are available free of cost to residents in India. In Malaysia, the Ministry of Education aspires to increase access to and enrolment in tertiary education from 36% to 53% and higher education enrolment to 70% by 2025, thus bringing Malaysia on par with the highest enrolment levels in ASEAN today.
According to World Bank publications, Sri Lanka has outperformed nearby country comparators on most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially those related to education and health, with 96 percent of the citizens completing primary school, 87 percent finishing secondary school, and achieving gender parity in school completion at primary and secondary levels.However, it is apparent from the available figures, that Sri Lanka is leaving out hundreds of thousands of young people from obtaining tertiary level higher education and training.
According to a study undertaken by Institute of Policy Studies, a few years ago, some of the constraints in expanding higher education opportunities to increased number of citizens in Sri Lanka are:
Limited capacity of the state university system
Low public investment in education sector
Lack of avenues for higher education
Limited scope and relevance of supply of tertiary education to market needs
The same study, as a solution to tackle these issues, suggests certain ‘way forward’ solutions. These include increasing public investments in higher education and mobilizing private funds for higher education by either promoting private universities and/or by mobilising private funds for public universities. However, considering the present budgetary constraints faced by the government and the plethora of issues related with private universities, there need to be a search for other possible solutions as well.
This is where we believe the Open University of Sri Lanka can play a telling role. In economic terms, the impact the Open University of Sri Lanka can make in providing quality educational opportunities to increased number of students must be very attractive to policy planners. This is because, the amount of investment required to expand the service of OUSL to impact higher number of students is much lesser when compared to that is required for a conventional University. In fact, in the financial year 2018, the expenditure per student at the OUSL was about Rs.78,000.00, which is much less compared to any conventional university.
The case of the Open University of Sri Lanka
The Open University of Sri Lanka, which is completing forty years of existence in 2020, has made significant inroads into higher education field by providing alternative pathways for education to working adults and young adults who had chosen the opportunity we have provided. The Open University of Sri Lanka currently has a student population of about 40,000 on roll, making it the largest higher educational institute in the country. Further, the OUSL is the only university in the country that provides learning opportunities to all its students almost at their doorsteps, through the network of Regional and Study Centres spread throughout the country.
The mission of the University is to enhance access to high quality, affordable and relevant education through ODL methodologies and ensure life-long learning opportunities to face challenges in a knowledge society. To achieve this mission, the university adopts many strategies, always keeping its students as central focus. World over, distance learning continues to grow, demonstrating that institutions remain committed to expanding programmes that meet the needs of today’s students. Distance learning offers flexible, yet rigorous education opportunities that provide individuals with access to the in-demand skills needed to achieve their career goals. In the United States, now nearly 70% of all degree-granting institutions of higher education, are offering distance education courses, primarily online. With more than 100,000 different online courses to choose from, about one-third of American students take at least one such course each term. This is the trend in many countries across the world.
According to many studies, increasing demand for higher education especially in sub-Sahara Africa and South Asian countries cannot be addressed by building or expanding new brick and mortar universities.
According to study for example, over the past two decades, India has created capacity for 30 million students, by increasing the number of universities, from 190 in 1990/91 to 903 in 2017/18, and by establishing 18,000 new colleges between 2008 and 2016 alone. Despite this massive expansion, supply in India keeps trailing demand. With the government’s plan to increase the GER to 30 percent by 2020, which is adding more than 4 million additional university seats within the next two years, an additional 700 universities and 35,000 colleges will need to be built.
In Sri Lanka, if we have to absorb all the students qualifying for university entrance, as of today, we need to build at least 140 more universities of the size of Uva-Wellassa University, which takes in about 750 students a year (2018). However, this expansion is not at all possible due to scarcity of resources, with a very limited pool of intellectual and physical resources and lack of funds.
This is the reason why many countries around the world, including India and Indonesia are considering Distance Education as the viable and affordable option to expand enrollment rates in Higher education. It is our fervent hope that Sri Lanka too would follow this path sooner or later.
Are there issues with Distance Education?
There is a general perception among many people that distance education programmes are somewhat inferior to face to face programmes. The people who have this notion generally argue on two counts. Firstly, they point out that one of the most important aspects of an effective learning process is the need to have a two-way (teacher and student) communication and naturally by its inherent nature teacher-student interaction is minimal in a distance education setting. However, this inadequacy is more than compensated by many other interventions, including carefully designed self-instructional materials and technology supported discussion forums. Due to this aspect of the distance education, many argue that science based programs cannot be taught through distance mode. Based on this argument many professional organisations have not allowed the Open University of Sri Lanka to offer programmes in certain fields of study. However, the fact remains that these programs are being offered through distance mode in many international universities and in fact, the Open University of Sri Lanka has been offering a fully-fledged engineering program accredited by the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka for the last so many years and also a complete Science degree program from its inception.
The second issue that is being questioned in distance learning system is the absence of student to student interaction. In a traditional classroom setting, students are grouped with other students to share and contradict ideas. They argue subjects such as philosophy, language, and debate require a peer-to-peer communication for effective learning. They assume that with the lack of this kind of interaction, distance learning may just be defined as a mere transfer of information, without the true learning experience. However, the truth is that the programmes offered by the OUSL have many aspects that allows for exchange of ideas between peers and tutors.
Research conducted across continents and countries have proved that these are mere false perceptions with the results demonstrating that no clear decline in educational effectiveness when using distance education technology.
Based on the experience of the Open University of Sri Lanka, I would like to address four other concerns that many people often raise with us.
All the programs offered by the Open University of Sri Lanka undergo the same vigorous processes that are adopted by other conventional universities in Sri Lanka. The programs are offered only after obtaining the approval of the Quality Assurance and Accreditation Council (QAAC) of the University Grants Commission. Further, the institute and the programs are periodically evaluated by the QACC and the reports are available in the website of the university and the UGC. In fact, among the six programs evaluated during the year 2018 two programmes received A grade and three programs B grade.
The credit ratings of our courses and programmes are in line with the Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework (SLQF) and are comparable to any course or programme offered by the conventional universities. Further, based on the tracer studies conducted during every convocation it has been found that approximately 80 percent of the graduates of the OUSL continue to be gainfully employed. At the OUSL students are given a ladder of opportunity to advance their education and achieve their educational and career advancement goals to become responsible citizens who could contribute towards national development. We have heard many positive remarks from employers of our graduates, especially with reference to the auxiliary skills such as self-motivation, independence in problem solving, etc. Many of our graduates have excelled in their chosen fields and have made significant contributions to their communities and the world around them. We have numerous stories of our students going on to excel in their postgraduate studies at top universities of the world. These stories prove that the OUSL has achieved its mission of providing access to high quality, affordable and relevant education through ODL methodologies and ensuring life-long learning opportunities to our citizens to face challenges in a knowledge society.
The university has many international partnerships, resulting in many of our programs having input from overseas experts. We are now exploring the possibilities of developing a study programme with our European partners to provide micro-credentials. In the current professional scenario, it has been found that an average working person is ready to devote only 1% of his time to additional professional training. In addition, young professionals from the millennial generation (that is those born in the 1980s and 1990s) have short attention and motivation spans. Therefore, institutes are now discussing about giving micro-credentials or micro-degrees, whereby a student is awarded a certificate after completing a small chunk of the program. This way the student can build brick by brick to reach the target he or she has set at his or her own pace.
Learning environment
The Open University of Sri Lanka being a dynamic university, have adopted many initiatives that are currently being practised in overseas universities. The OUSL has been recognising prior learning by granting credit exemptions and transfers for students who have obtained qualifications from other recognised institutes. Adaptation of existing contents is now part and parcel of our University policy. In the last two years, we have started many initiatives to facilitate adoption of high quality Open Educational Resources as learning resources to our students.
Keeping par with the technological developments that are taking place in the education sector, the University is always looking at avenues to provide our students with increased learner support through modern day technology, including providing online support through our Learner Management System, Video conferencing by linking the main campus to number of regional and study centres, state of the art library facilities with modern day technology and e-services, with access to numerous journals online and other world class e-resources, including Open Educational Resources.
In order to increase peer to peer interactions the university has undertaken many new initiatives that are being experimented and would be implemented university wide in the future.
One of the issues related to study at the OUSL is the fact it is a fee-levying university. Because of this, many people are of the opinion that it is a private university. But the fact remains that the University is 100% state,which even today funds almost 60% of the university budget. Thus, the programmes offered by the university are given at a subsidized rate. Further, the university offers many scholarships, including the Mahapola scholarship, for low-income students so that money will not become a barrier for education.
The regional network and the facilities provided by the OUSL has not only helped to overcome the physical distance between the teacher and the student but also has removed language, ethnic, social and cultural barriers to higher education. It has also considerably reduced the incidental cost of education to our students. The development of the regional network has created an ambiance to improve social equity across the country.
Learner motivation
Learning at a distance has many advantages. Students have near-total flexibility over their learning hours, learning place, learning time, and more importantly, they can even pursue other ventures like work or travel.This requires an active role of student in relation to their knowledge construction and autonomy. The student needs to “learn to learn” through distance education. Because of this flexibility the system brings in the associated drawbacks. As a distance learner, unless the student is dedicated, focused and committed he or she would not succeed in studies. Therefore, a distance learner should have plenty of self-motivation. This is the reason why compared to the face-to-face mode of learning the attrition rates of distance learning programs are much higher. The University is aware of these issues and takes great pains to make sure the learners remain motivated to complete their course or programme of study by introducing several learner support mechanisms into the system.
The way forward
It is important that we demolish the barriers to access to higher education such as excessive costs, restrictive eligibility criteria and historical elitism. We have to become new generation educational institutes who will recognize the need to provide largely unrestricted access to high-quality education for all, through a deliberate focus shift to inclusivity and affordability. We need to be highly proactive in contributing significantly to economic growth, the reduction of socioeconomic imbalances, and the production of socially-minded future business leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians and civic champions.
There can be no question that the time has come for urgent conversations and action around reshaping higher education in Sri Lanka, into this type of adaptable, flexible and relevant model that ensures access to life-long learning opportunities that prepare people to fully and effectively serve society going forward.
By use of distance education, there is enormous potential for widening access to higher education and increasing the diversity of student population, since online technologies provide opportunities to learn from anywhere, at anytime, from anyone, at any pace. The Open University of Sri Lanka has demonstrated that with certain interventions from the state with reference to upgrading of the infra-structure facilities and provision of human resources,we would be able to cater to a student population in the excess of 100,000 in five years’ time, most of them being from the Regions – away from Colombo. Students are able to pursue study programs while being employed and in locations near their own home. This will allow them to contribute to the economy as well as enjoy family lives. The amount of investment required for this expansion would be much less in comparison to expanding the conventional university system.
Further, launching a project similar to the SWAYAM project in India, which is a free online education system developed by the Government of India which offers hundreds of courses with transferable credits, too is not that difficult. The National Online Distance Education Service (NODES) which was started through the ADB-DEMP project and handed over the Open University of Sri Lanka by the Ministry of Higher Education has the necessary infra-structure and mechanisms to commence such a project.
It is our fervent hope that the authorities who are interested in increasing the Gross

Enrollment Ratio (GER) in tertiary education in our country would look at the Open University of Sri Lanka as a viable and important constituent to provide opportunities for the rural population of our country to pursue higher education at an affordable rate, and bring about a social transformation that would take our nation to higher levels.
Meanwhile, though the university has many constraints, as a national institute, we will continue with our efforts to enhance access to high quality, affordable and relevant education through the ODL mode to address the educational challenges of societies in Sri Lanka and overseas.It is our resolute believe that the Open University of Sri Lanka has the capabilities and the system to implement the vision of the Government of Sri Lanka to provide university education to all qualified GCE (A/L) students using the affordable and flexible Open and Distance Learning model. John Dewy the American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform, once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”. The Open University of Sri Lanka is truly a life-long partner for Sri Lankans to meet their educational needs!

Senior Professor S. A. Ariadurai
Open University of Sri Lanka

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