Crisis-induced recession throws universities into turmoil – University World News | Team Cansler


Although Sri Lanka is a lower-middle income country, there have been significant concerns about higher education since independence in 1948, along with significant advances.

The Sri Lankan higher education system includes 17 state universities, 20 university affiliated institutes, five other state universities, 11 advanced technology institutes, seven departments of advanced technology institutes and 10 private universities and institutes.

Sri Lanka devotes a significant part of its budget to education. The education budget for 2022 is over LKR 157.6 billion (about US$429 million), a significant increase from LKR 126.5 billion in 2020.

Planning activities to improve the higher education system at the national level failed with the recent economic collapse. Sri Lanka’s economy is facing acute foreign exchange shortages, impending debt repayments, high inflation and food, fuel and medicine shortages.

This pressure led to nationwide protests and an unstable political system that triggered an economic recession. As a result, the country’s universities, teacher training colleges, technical colleges, advanced technological institutes and vocational training centers are being hit in an unprecedented way.

Academic interruptions

Sri Lanka has temporarily closed state universities and other higher education institutions in the capital Colombo and other major cities due to a prevailing fuel crisis and collapsing economy.

Even after the president and prime minister were ousted and an interim government installed, the University Grants Commission required universities to hold in-person activities only three days a week due to fuel costs.

These disruptions to academic activity at most universities are contributing to the learning losses as a result of the pandemic. Around 70% of the academic activities of all higher education institutions remain online.

These closures and the partial reopening have impacted enrollments for the new academic year. Students who have passed the upper level examination for university admission are assigned to other fields of study than those they have chosen.

Sri Lanka has had a free education policy since 1945. However, due to the economic crisis, access to higher education is limited due to a lack of physical facilities or internet access for online learning. In addition, unprecedented increases in the price of petrol (up 33.1%) and diesel (up 64.2%) have made transportation unaffordable for most academics and students.

The Sri Lankan government halted foreign import and export transactions to address the country’s stifling trade deficit. As a result, institutions face shortages of materials and equipment for academic activities. For example, printing paper is rationed.

Impact on students

Students are severely affected by rising prices for food, medicine, housing and transportation. Students pursuing higher education at the country’s few private higher education institutions face many challenges given the steep rise in tuition fees.

While the number of Sri Lankan students abroad had risen sharply in recent years, roughly doubling in the five years before the pandemic and reaching more than 30,000 in 2019, the shortage of foreign exchange and the devaluation of the Sri Lankan rupee (by over 30% as of April 2022 ) have also had a negative impact on these students.

These problems are threatening some private universities with closure due to a lack of enrollment and international mobility is becoming unaffordable.

After being closed for over a year during the COVID-19 pandemic, universities have resumed learning on a limited basis, dependent on compliance with health guidelines. However, the economic crisis forced all universities, schools and colleges to close again and continue their activities online.

For a lower-middle-income country, this is a major disadvantage as many students living far away do not have access to online teaching and learning. Poor internet connections, unstable power grids and lack of access to devices are some of the main obstacles.

In a country where more than 70% of students have no access to the internet or electronic devices, studying online is not a viable solution. In addition, due to fuel shortages, the networks temporarily stopped working and network access was frequently interrupted.

foreign aid and an ongoing college crisis

More than 5.7 million people in Sri Lanka are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to UNICEF. While the economic crisis made foreign aid more necessary than ever, the ensuing protests and social unrest forced the closure of many humanitarian programs.

The World Bank, in coordination with the International Monetary Fund and other development partners, is advising the government on appropriate measures to restore economic stability, but is not planning any new funds for Sri Lanka until an appropriate macroeconomic policy framework is in place.

Amid the severe economic crisis and political instability, large sections of Sri Lankan society, including teachers and students, took to the streets and overthrew the government. With a new president and caretaker government elected, it remains to be seen what steps will be taken to help the country recover from the cascading effects of the pandemic and economic crisis.

In this new context, private higher education is at risk along with other segments of the economy and the outflow of Sri Lankan students is likely to stop, except for the most privileged. New strategies for university management will be the key to tackling the root causes of the economic, social and political crises in the long term.

Raveenthiran Vivekanantharasa is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Open University of Sri Lanka. E-mail: [email protected] Gerardo Blanco is Associate Professor and Academic Director of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, USA. E-mail: [email protected] This article first appeared in the current issue of International Higher Education.

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