Efforts under way in Sri Lanka to expand access and enhance quality in education


In a concerted effort to boost the country’s overall economy, development of the education sector has become a government priority. In recent years it has initiated plans to increase the capacity of institutions, improve the standards of teaching and embrace the technology revolution that is happening globally. The country has also achieved almost universal elementary school attendance, youth literacy rates and gender parity in schools. Despite being a relative success story, it still has low levels of spending on education compared with other countries in the region. In 2015 Sri Lanka’s education spending stood at 2.2% of GDP, according to the latest figures from the World Bank, and in 2014 it accounted for just 7.3% of all government spending. Comparatively, in 2013 India spent 3.8% of GDP on education and Pakistan spent 2.6% in 2015. Additionally, private institutions may have a bigger part to play in the future, with the government looking at new possibilities to alleviate strain on the current system.

Sector Structure 

Several decades after independence, Sri Lanka’s public education system remains heavily modelled on the UK system, including in its use of the General Certificate of Secondary Education O-Levels and A-Levels. Responsibility for the sector’s administration lies with several bodies including the Ministry of Education (MoE), the Ministry of Higher Education and Highways (MHEH), the National Education Commission (NEC), the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the National Institute of Education.

The right to a free education for all was enshrined in Sri Lanka’s 1978 constitution. Despite a 37-year civil war that had a devastating effect on large parts of the country, and which ended in 2009, the country still has some of the highest education indicators in South Asia. The latest figures from the World Bank show Sri Lanka has the highest reported youth literacy rate in the region at 98.8% in 2010, compared to 89.7% in India for 2011 and 92.2% in Bangladesh for 2016. Alongside the Maldives, Sri Lanka is one of only two countries region-wide to be recognised by the UN as achieving high human development. However, there remains a geographical disparity in terms of access to education. A 2014 study by Sri Lanka’s University of Perdeniya found that secondary education enrolment was 86% in urban areas, 81% in rural areas and just 54% in estates (large plantations that produce products such as tea, coconut and rubber). In 2010 secondary education enrolment in the country’s north, an area heavily affected by the civil war, was 70%.


A 2016 education census by the MoE found 353 national schools run by the central government and 9809 provincial schools administered through a decentralised system involving parents, teachers and alumni willing to help improve the system under the direction of the principal. The census found over 800,000 students were being taught at national schools, compared to 3.3m in provincial schools. The provincial schools are overseen by a provincial council and each province has its own education department, which reports directly to the MoE. Decentralised provincial schools have been highlighted as a potential weakness in Sri Lanka’s education system.

A 2014 report by the NEC found major gaps in the provincial school system. The report said: “There is no doubt that the number of tiers at provincial level has to be reduced. There is no justification to have a Provincial Ministry and a Provincial Department of Education at the provincial centre.” The report called for a nationwide school system that ensures quality education for all, focusing heavily on children from rural areas who currently have limited access. The NEC report noted another shortfall of the provincial school system that is based on “sectarian considerations and does not promote social cohesion”, with schools in multi-ethnic communities being “organised on ethnic lines”.

The 2016 census found that of the 10,162 schools in the country, only 47 of those teach in all three nationally recognised languages of Sinhala, Tamil and English. The majority – 6338 in total – teach in Sinhala only, while 2989 teach exclusively in the Tamil language. Additionally, 66 schools teach in Sinhala and Tamil, 554 in Sinhala and English, and 168 in Tamil and English.

Foreign Aid 

Since the civil war ended, Sri Lanka has attracted significant support from international aid agencies for initiatives aimed at improving the education system. In May 2017 the World Bank approved a $100m support package for Sri Lanka’s higher education sector. According to the World Bank, the funding was designed to support an increase in enrolment in priority disciplines, improve the quality of degree programmes, and promote research and innovation in the higher education sector. It suggested that Sri Lanka could boost its economic growth by encouraging student participation in disciplines that are vital to national development, such as the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In October 2017 the Saudi Fund for Development, a Saudi-funded bilateral aid channel, also granted the Sri Lankan government funds to improve higher education. The $28m loan – part of a $73m package – was provided for development of the Wayamba University Township Development, a project to be overseen by the MHEH. It is aimed at developing academic facilities and infrastructure at the university, as well as to improve livelihoods for people living close to the institution.

Higher Education 

While it has managed to achieve high elementary school enrolment, Sri Lanka performs less well in higher education rankings. In 2014 Sri Lanka ranked 88th out of 115 countries for higher education participation. A press release from the World Bank in 2017 noted the country’s higher education enrolment rate of 21% is below the average of 23% for lower-middle-income countries, and significantly below the 44% average for upper-middle-income countries.

The UGC is responsible for the country’s 15 public universities as well as its 20 colleges and specialist institutions eligible to issue degrees. Furthermore, the UGC website says it functions to “plan and coordinate university education, allocate funds to higher education institutions (HEIs), maintain academic standards, and regulate the administration of, and admission of, students to HEIs”. The tertiary facilities under the UGC’s administration are required to adhere to a quota system for enrolment in which 55% of students at most institutions must have spent the last three years studying in the district in which the institution is located; 40% of seats are set aside for students from around the island and those who have studied in another of Sri Lanka’s districts; and another 5% are reserved for students from one of the country’s 16 underserved districts.

Admission to higher education is highly competitive in Sri Lanka. According to the UGC, there were 150,000 eligible students for the 2014/15 academic year, but of this number only 17% were actually admitted into higher education programmes at universities in the country. This shortage of capacity at public universities has created opportunities for private higher education providers, and the number of institutions is growing. The UGC currently recognises 16 non-state institutions with degree-granting status, and four public institutions with recognised programmes.

Unregistered Bodies 

A major challenge for private education in Sri Lanka has been the emergence of unregistered HEIs, which are able to avoid often lengthy and expensive licensing procedures enforced by the government by taking advantage of a regulatory loophole that allows them to operate through affiliations with foreign universities. These affiliated institutions are able to offer degree programmes in partnership with foreign universities, although the final degrees are often not recognised by the UGC. However, this does not appear to significantly affect their popularity. In 2015 there were a reported 4510 students registered in such HEIs, mostly in business-related programmes.

The primary reason for the growth of HEIs is the limited capacity offered by public education institutions. Dr Veranja Kaunaratne, vice-chancellor at the Academy of the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC), a private, not-for-profit post graduate institute, told OBG that private education providers would play a crucial role in increasing the amount of higher education courses available to potential students.

There has been controversy in recent years regarding private higher education institutions. In 2012 the government withdrew a proposed bill regarding private universities after large-scale protests broke out at multiple universities in opposition to the move, with protesters arguing that the bill should first be discussed with all stakeholders, including students. At the time the government argued that the bill – which it had named the Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Qualification Framework Act – would empower the state to monitor private institutions in order to ensure quality in the institutions. However, protesters said they would rather see the government focus its resources on improving the quality of public institutions.

In 2017 the spotlight regarding the quality of private provision fell on the status of the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM). Protests were held against the university early that year, with students saying it offered poor quality education, and accusing it of undermining the medical profession, resulting in the closure of the institute (see Health overview).

Distance Learning & ICT Education 

Recognising a rise in demand for distance and online education, in 2003 Sri Lanka’s government initiated the Distance Education Modernisation Project through a $60m grant from the Asian Development Bank, an international institute aimed at reducing poverty in the Asia Pacific region. The project aimed to increase education opportunities for people around the country, promote private sector participation in post-secondary education and ease the pressure on public sector enrolment through the provision of distance-learning programmes. It was also tasked with modernising the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) to international standards in distance education by improving facilities, educational content, methodology and staff. OUSL is the only institution in the country offering open and distance learning education at all academic levels, from short-term certificates to PhD degrees.

Distance education has seen significant growth in Sri Lanka in recent years. In 2016, 347,000 students were enrolled in distance-learning programmes, compared with 86,900 students enrolled in traditional programmes at universities and institutes under the UGC.

The government has recognised the growing need for ICT education for both students and teachers alike. A 2017 press release from the country’s Export Development Board reported that the urban population of Sri Lanka has a computer literacy rate of 39.2%, but away from the cities the figure is significantly lower: 25.5% in rural areas and 9% in estates. As part of attempts to increase computer literacy, 4500 schools have been provided with infrastructure to help provide student-centred ICT learning. An estimated 22,500 teachers, about 10% of those working in the profession, have been provided with basic ICT training and courses in how to offer computer-aided learning.

The Information and Communications Technology branch of the MoE has also collaborated with the University of Vocational Technology to introduce three graduate programmes for teachers to be eligible to receive a Bachelor’s of Technology degree. The programmes, related to software technology, multimedia and web technology, and network technology, aim to provide teachers with the skills to empower a future generation with the relevant ICT education.

Private Sector Potential 

Each year an estimated 220,000 students sit university entrance exams, but the country’s 15 state universities can only admit about 23,000 annually. Many others thus choose to conduct their further studies at private sector institutions.

Speaking at an event in February 2017 Dr Saman Kelegama, former executive-director of the Institute of Policy Studies, said that each year an estimated 120,000 students who qualify for university admission have to abandon their ambitions to enter universities because of a lack of spaces. “This is mainly due to the higher education system catering only to a very small proportion of the population of the country,” he said. “The expansion of higher education opportunities in Sri Lanka via non-state actors has enabled many students, some of whom would otherwise have studied abroad, to graduate locally at a considerably lower cost and saving foreign exchange,” he said.

Private education is filling a market gap at the basic level as well. Karunaratne told OBG that he believes rising incomes, coupled with a culture of people willing to spend money on quality education, means that private education will thrive in the country in the future. “There is this mindset that parents are willing to make sacrifices in order for their children to have the best education. In Sri Lanka, many parents are willing to fall into debt in order for their children to be educated.”

Key to this is English-language provision, which is widely viewed as a path to “upward mobility”. According to a 2013 report from Australia’s University of Sydney, “English education is the most significant avenue of upward social mobility irrespective of one’s class position and has come under the influence of competitive market that naturally favours the well-to-do.” The study noted that in Sri Lanka, international schools can downplay ethnic differences by welcoming students from all backgrounds; however high fees can limit enrolment of students from lower socio-economic classes.

Outbound Mobility 

Like most developing countries, and in particular a nation with limited higher education opportunities, a significant number of Sri Lankan students go abroad to pursue further studies. This contributes to the popularity of international schools in Sri Lanka, because they are regarded as opportunities to prepare students for studying abroad.

Sri Lanka has a strong diaspora tradition in younger generations. In addition to those going abroad to pursue an education, there are large numbers living and working abroad in countries including Canada, France, India, Australia and the Middle East. Of the 18,500 Sri Lankan students who studied abroad in 2017, the highest number went to Australia, where 6120 students studied, according to the latest figures from UNESCO. The second highest was the US, which attracted 2800 Sri Lankan students, followed by the UK (1810) and Malaysia (1490). “There has long been a tradition of Sri Lankan students going abroad for their studies. Many students and their families believe it will give them a considerable advantage in getting a job when they return to the country,” Ananda Jayawardane, vice-chancellor of the University of Moratuwa, told OBG. This interest in studying abroad is encouraged by the government and the MHEH supports it through programme- and country-specific scholarship opportunities for students to study abroad, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, in countries including China, Russia and Japan.

In line with economic growth, continued capacity constraints in public higher education institutions and the demographic make-up of the country (40% of the population is under 24 years of age), the trend of students from Sri Lanka going abroad is expected to increase in the future. However, further government support for private higher education providers is likely to improve capacity issues and may lead to some students choosing to remain in-country for their further studies, rather than travelling abroad.

Karunaratne told OBG that “brain drain” is almost impossible to stop, but said that Sri Lanka should look to develop its own PhD programmes in order to keep hold of the best talent. “Some will continue to go abroad, but if we are able to offer them the opportunity to conduct their PhD inside the country, then there is a reasonable chance some will stay behind, as they will be empowered to get good jobs,” he said.

Inbound Mobility

In contrast to outbound mobility, Sri Lanka’s inbound mobility is relatively small, with just 1260 foreign students studying in the country in 2017, according to UNESCO figures. The majority came from Myanmar (385), followed by the Maldives (295) and Bhutan (173). The government has initiated plans to try and make the country more attractive as an education destination. A news report in 2014 said the government aims to attract 50,000 international students and 10 foreign university campuses by 2020.

Individual universities have also made efforts to attract foreign students. In 2014 the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s oldest university, joined the newly formed Asian Universities Alliance, which aims to keep in the region students who would typically travel to Western countries to further their studies.

However, it remains to be seen how successful domestic growth will be in this area. In 2012 the World Bank said that the advantages of Sri Lanka’s education system included the opportunity to study in English, modest prices and positive government policies towards attracting foreign talent. Weaknesses highlighted included limited academic research opportunities, frequent strikes and other factors that should be addressed in order to boost the number of foreign students choosing to study in Sri Lanka.


Capacity constraints in the public education sector, coupled with high motivation for people to spend money for higher-quality education, creates a space with large potential for growth for the private education sector if it can overcome the considerable social barriers that remain present. Many Sri Lankans – although certainly not all – are suspicious of private education providers, and would prefer to see their government invest its resources in developing the capacity of the public education system, rather than attracting foreign investment and establishing institutions where fees are out of reach for many people inside the country. Additionally, despite some high-scoring education indicators, the country does not enjoy a worldwide reputation for strong teaching standards – particularly for tertiary education. While the government continues to invest in public education, there remains significant room for private education providers to fill gaps in funding and availability, helping to contribute much needed improvements in the growing education sector.

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The Report: Sri Lanka 2018

Health & Education chapter from The Report: Sri Lanka 2018

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The Report

This article is from the Health & Education chapter of The Report: Sri Lanka 2018. Explore other chapters from this report.

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