Presidential Secretariat of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka must keep pace with global changes – President reiterates

  • Private sector, State Universities and other Higher Education Institutions should work together 
  • IT and computer knowledge for all students, regardless of field of study….
  • Universities should compete to attract high achievers….
  • Freedom for Universities to plan their studies and manage….

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has reiterated that Sri Lanka must keep pace with transformative changes taking place globally.

“We cannot afford to lag behind. Our higher education system must adapt swiftly. It has to offer our students an education that will remain relevant despite fast changing circumstances and help them find gainful employment in future. Unfortunately, this is an area in which our universities and other higher education institutions need considerable improvement” the President said.

The President made these remarks presiding over the final session of the 31st General Convocation of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University held at the BMICH, today (16).

Degrees were awarded to 1379 graduants covering the fields of Defence Studies, Management, Business Management, Law, Medicine, Engineering, Promotional Management, Industrial Science and Sociology. Among them were five doctoral students, 263 postgraduate and postgraduate diploma holders. The number of First Degree holders was 1111.

President Rajapaksa presented special awards to Second Lieutenant R.M.T.E.P. Rathnayake as the Best Army Officer , Lieutenant V.S. Palihawadana as the Best Naval Officer, Flying Officer R.G.S.D. Gamage as the Best Air Force Officer and Second Lieutenant R.M.T.G.P. Ratnayake as the Superior Officer.

The General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University was established in 1981 to meet the educational needs of the officers of the three Armed Forces. It was elevated into a fully-fledged University in 2009 by then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In 2009, civilian students were granted the opportunity to study there. At present, members of the three Armed Forces and local and foreign students can pursue doctoral, postgraduate and postgraduate diploma courses at the University.

The President commended General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University for becoming a fully-fledged University within a short span of time. The President further stated that the University’s expansion was a great success due to its ability to produce outstanding graduates in fields as diverse as Medicine, Engineering and Law. The private sector should have more opportunities to work with public universities and other institutions of higher education in finding solutions to current problems. ‘At minimum, all graduates from our university system need to have some knowledge about new technologies and at least a functional familiarity with computers if they are to have a chance to build successful futures for themselves’ the President said. The President urged the Vice Chancellors of all universities to introduce information technology and computer science to all students, regardless of the field of study.

‘Irrespective of their chosen field of study, all students selected for university education are intelligent. Any lack of exposure they have to these subjects when they enter university is due to a failure in the education system rather than due to their own weaknesses’ the President said.

‘Enhancing focus on research and development will also have a beneficial impact on the rankings of Sri Lankan universities internationally. Improving these rankings is important if we are to attract more foreign students as well as attract and retain talented faculty members at our universities’, the President added.

The governing body, Vice Chancellor, Faculties and staff of each university should have more freedom to determine, design, manage, and deliver their programmes of study. They should also be able to select the students they feel are best suited to learn at their institutions. Talented students, too, should have more freedom to choose their universities. These changes will increase the competition that exists amongst the universities at every level, leading to significant overall improvements across the entire higher education system. Through this, it is also likely that the rankings of our national universities will improve, President Rajapaksa further said.

Members of the Parliament, Madam Shiranthi Rajapaksa, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, General (retired) Kamal Gunaratne,  Secretaries to Ministries, Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Army General Shavendra Silva, Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne, Commander of the Air Force Air Marshal S.K. Pathirana, IGP C.D. Wickramaratne, Chancellor of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University, General Gerard de Silva, Vice Chancellor Major General Milinda Pieris, Ambassadors, High Commissioners and academic and non-academic staff of Kotelawala Defence University and others participated on this occasion.

Speech at the Convocation of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University

Chancellor of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University, General Gerard de Silva

Vice Chancellor Major General Milinda Pieris

Deputy Vice Chancellors, Deans, Faculty Members, Staff Members

Graduands

Parents

Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

I am delighted to have been invited to preside over the final session of the General Convocation of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University this afternoon. At the outset, I convey my congratulations to all the students graduating during the course of today’s ceremony. You have all worked hard over the course of your studies at this prestigious institution. Today’s ceremony is a worthy celebration of your hard work and your accomplishments. As you embark on the next phase of your lives and your careers, I wish you every success.

I also take this opportunity to extend my warm wishes to the management, faculty, and staff of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University for their hard work and dedication in teaching and moulding these students during the course of their education, and for upholding this institution’s high standards and fostering its growth.

The Kotelawala Defence University has evolved in a remarkably short span of time from a Defence Academy catering to the higher educational and training needs of the Armed Forces to a fully-fledged university offering qualifications in many fields to both Officer Cadets and civilian students.

Doubts were raised in certain quarters about the viability of this institution as a fully-fledged university during its initial expansion. However, the KDU was able to attract highly qualified and capable staff, maintain excellent standards of teaching, and consistently produce outstanding graduates in fields as diverse as Engineering, Law, Management, and Medicine. It is now very clear that the KDU’s expansion was a great success.

Not only are the graduates who emerge from the KDU highly proficient in their specialisms, but they also have the reputation of being highly disciplined, possessing great integrity, and demonstrating strong leadership qualities as well as teamwork skills. These features are all very much in demand amongst employers.

The high demand for KDU graduates by such employers in both the private and the public sector, and the high demand from students all over the country to enter the KDU for both undergraduate and postgraduate study, speaks volumes. The fact that the university already has nearly 300 international students, including close to 40 in the Medical Faculty alone, is also a laudable achievement.

In this context, the ongoing expansion of the university with the opening of its Southern Campus is encouraging, as is the expansion in its programmes of study through the inauguration of new faculties in Technology and in Criminal Justice. We will look at further options for the expansion of this university in the future as well. This will allow a larger number of students to benefit from the unique features and culture of this institution.

In considering the future of higher education in Sri Lanka holistically, however, it must be said that there are several issues which need to be addressed.

The world is currently in the midst of what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Building on the digital revolution that took place in the second half of the twentieth century, rapid technological innovations in a number of fields are converging to create transformative changes around the world.

These changes are taking place at exponential speed, and are impacting almost every single industry in every single country.  The ongoing global pandemic has only accelerated the pace of these changes further.  Every country, every government, and every institution involved in education should therefore take note of these important evolving changes.

Sri Lanka must keep pace with these disruptions and transformations taking place globally. We cannot afford to lag behind. Our higher education system must adapt swiftly. It has to offer our students an education that will remain relevant despite fast changing circumstances and help them find gainful employment in future. Unfortunately, this is an area in which our universities and other higher education institutions need considerable improvement.

During the past year, the Government employed a large number of unemployed graduates through a special scheme initiated under the Ministry of Public Administration. Of the nearly 60,000 who gained employment through this scheme, close to half were graduates in the Arts. Many had obtained their qualifications through the Open University and through external degree programmes offered by other state universities.

It is good that such individuals had a desire to learn at the tertiary level and were able to obtain their qualifications without having to attend university full time. However, there are doubts as to whether their education has equipped them with the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to contribute productively towards fulfilling the needs of the public. This is an essential requirement if the outcome of their studies is for them to be employed by the Government and paid using public funds.

The skills that are most in demand in today’s job market are technology related. There are so many opportunities for graduates in information technology not only in terms of employment at private sector companies, but also in terms of potential self-employment and in launching new start-ups.

Technology will play a key role in every single economic sector in the future. At minimum, all graduates from our university system need to have some knowledge about new technologies and at least a functional familiarity with computers if they are to have a chance to build successful futures for themselves.

That is why I have requested all the Vice Chancellors to immediately introduce IT and Computer Studies as subjects for all of their students, irrespective of their field of study. This will give them much better prospects of finding lucrative employment or succeeding in their own businesses after they graduate.

Alongside familiarity with technology, possessing a knowledge of English is another critical requirement for our youth. If any young person has a sound knowledge of English and has access to the internet, there is no limitation on what they can learn because there are so many resources available to them online, free of charge.

Globally, thousands of young entrepreneurs have used the skills they acquired through such online resources to launch innovative start-ups or become successfully self-employed. This is happening in Sri Lanka too, and it is a trend that needs to be supported and encouraged.

In this context, the resource constraints in our overall education system are a cause for concern. I have seen at first hand that particularly at the rural level, there is a dearth of teachers in subjects such as Information Technology, Science, Mathematics, and English.

We must immediately focus on training teachers and improving the quality of teaching in these essential subjects throughout the country. While this is underway, we must also seek new resources and find innovative means to teach these subjects at a high standard at secondary schools island wide, so that all our students will be better able to face their future with confidence.

Until such time as these initiatives are fully implemented, however, there will be students who qualify for university despite having limited proficiency in subjects such as English, science, mathematics, and IT. Irrespective of their chosen field of study, all students selected for university education are intelligent. Any lack of exposure they have to these subjects when they enter university is due to a failure in the education system rather than due to their own weaknesses.

Once they reach university level, however, these students must work hard and make use of all the facilities and opportunities available to them to acquire the skills that they lack. Universities must assist them in this process and create more productive avenues of study for them to follow. This will enable students at university level to have better prospects after graduating.

Instead of finding themselves at a loss after leaving university, which is sometimes the case at present, it is my vision that every single university graduate in future should be able to support themselves and contribute positively towards the country’s economy. The changes that we seek in our higher education system are with this purpose in mind.

Increasing the research and development activities that take place in Sri Lankan universities is another important improvement that our higher education system needs. Research should be made a priority especially at the postgraduate level in all our universities. Many of the very real problems we face nationally can be addressed through our universities if talented students are empowered with appropriate facilities and encouraged by their institutions to work towards solving them.

The findings of our research students should be highlighted through regular symposia and publications so that they receive the recognition they deserve. This will also contribute to fostering a vibrant intellectual culture in our country. Any research outcomes that have commercial viability should be licensed to industry, as is the case in other parts of the world, so that they can be best made use of.

There should also be more scope for the private sector to work with state universities and other higher education institutions in designing solutions for current problems. By helping to  protect new inventions emerging from original research through the global patents system, we can also use research and development activities as a means of generating income for the universities and for those directly involved in such research, as well as for the country overall.

Enhancing focus on research and development will also have a beneficial impact on the rankings of Sri Lankan universities internationally. Improving these rankings is important if we are to attract more foreign students as well as attract and retain talented faculty members at our universities. Therefore, improving these rankings at a fast pace must be prioritised.

Another factor that universities should consider is bringing in fresh thinking to their faculties by attracting qualified professors, lecturers and researchers from other institutions. There is a tendency at present for those who obtain PhDs and other higher degrees from a particular university to stay on at that university, rather than seeking opportunities elsewhere in the country. This needs to change.

Universities should engage in greater competition with each other to attract and retain the best talent. Ideally, this competition should not be limited to faculty and staff, but also to students. The current university entrance system, which was designed around resource limitations at the university level, must change as the capacity of our universities expand.

As outlined in the Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour policy document, enhancing the capacity of our higher education system through investment in infrastructure, technology, and human resources is a key aim of my Government. By increasing the capacity of universities, there will be opportunities for more students to access higher education. They should be able to do so without having their future determined purely by the Z-score they obtain through their performance at the Advanced Level examinations.

In the future, while the University Grants Commission must still play a key role in ensuring that the quality and standard of education at universities remains high, individual institutions should be granted greater autonomy in their operations.

The governing body, Vice Chancellor, Faculties and staff of each university should have more freedom to determine, design, manage, and deliver their programmes of study. They should also be able to select the students they feel are best suited to learn at their institutions. Talented students, too, should have more freedom to choose their universities.

These changes will increase the competition that exists amongst the universities at every level, leading to significant overall improvements across the entire higher education system. Through this, it is also likely that the rankings of our national universities will improve.

Sri Lanka is fortunate to have many extremely talented, competent and highly qualified individuals involved in the running of its state universities. I am confident that if all of you put in your best efforts, we can achieve the improvements our universities need to become globally competitive, high-quality institutions that will uplift our youth and help strengthen our economy in the future, despite the rapid changes taking place in the world at large today.

In concluding, I urge all of you to contribute creatively, positively and wholeheartedly towards this endeavour for the betterment of our country and our future generations.

Thank you.