Sri Lanka has strong potential to be an education exporter– Prof. Mohamed Loutfi
By Kavindya Chris Thomas
Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) of the Cardiff Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom, Professor Mohamed Loutfi, during a recent visit to Sri Lanka, met a number of government officials to discuss several important matters pertaining to education. The possibility of transforming Sri Lanka into an education hub was also discussed at these meetings, he told Ceylon Today in an interview.
Following are excerpts:
? What exactly is an education hub? How have countries gone about developing one?
A: There is a move across the world where the countries who were traditionally the importers of education would become the exporters of education; taking into consideration the resources and the ambition of the said country, of course. Sri Lanka has a very strong potential in moving from being an education importer to an exporter.
Importing was about sending students abroad and teaching them in different countries across the world, but when it comes to exporting, most countries are now trying to move towards setting up an education hub. I understand that there is an appetite to do this in Sri Lanka, but the thing about the education hub is that one model does not fit all.
A model which is adopted in one country cannot be implemented in the same way in another. A universal model will not work for an education hub in any country. Therefore some countries look at it from the perspective of income generation while others see it as a soft power. Bringing students from across the region, countries have adopted acceptable models that are specific to them.
Some countries see it as modernizing the existing higher education system of the country. Some countries want to develop knowledge and have a service economy and an education hub would help them to do it. Each of these scenarios is different and the models used are also different. Therefore, no singular model can be applied.
? Could you please give us a few examples of success stories and failures?
A: Qatar decided to develop an education hub to train the workforce, but when they chose the partners for the education hub, they chose from the top universities in the United States, which have very high entry requirements. I'm pretty sure that not even one Qatari met the entry requirements of these universities.
Therefore, it's not fit for purpose. Other countries like Mauritius decided they wanted to have an education hub. The idea alone is not enough. You also need a country strategy for it. I am pretty sure that the Government of Sri Lanka is interested in taking the country to the next stage of exporting higher education by setting up an education hub.
It is important that the government backing allows us to have a full country strategic plan to do so. This plan could be in the sense of making sure the quality assurance process and procedures are in place. Mechanisms to monitor this hub, so rogue institutions are not given the opportunity to take advantage of the system, should be in place. Otherwise it would not attract foreign investors, it will be harmful for the soft diplomacy agenda of the government, nor would it develop the workforce. It is important that you have proper quality assurance and a communication channel between the necessary mechanisms and the authorities of the host country and the home country. It could be localized within the education hub itself. You see this being implemented in Dubai.
Their quality assurance is different from the others. If you're going to have an education hub with the purpose of developing the country's level of education, you have to allow foreign universities to open next to home universities. For this, it needs a reliable quality assurance mechanism. Depending on the country's strategy you can set up a knowledge and education hub, but it is important to have a reliable strategy on a country level. Another aspect that you have to look at is the visa system. If you're aiming to attract international students, the visa system has to go hand in hand with what you're offering. A State cannot have disparities between the two.
It's all about the government's understanding on the matter; why do we want an education hub? And to obviously build up the strategy based on the needs.
Oman wanted to have one which never materialized. They have now decided to have a parallel where they would have collages linked to international universities. It is the law in Oman that a college would have to have a link with an international education provider. This has to be approved by the government itself. The Ministry of Higher Education in Oman acts as a regulator in this scenario. This is needed in order to develop the Omani workforce.
This model is working very well, and of course, every system in the world needs updating and upgrading, but I think we are on the right track.
For Sri Lanka, it can be implemented in a way that the affiliations are approved by the University Grants Commission. This is not just about quality assurance and protecting the students, it is about the right education and the service being provided for the value of the money they're paying. Think about this on another level regarding capacity building.
You're pushing the quality of the local colleges with the affiliation with the international provider; it's upgrading the national system because it's more exposed. It's a win-win situation for everyone.
? Tensions between State universities and private universities are the hype in the country now. How do you respond to that?
A: It has been a touchy subject around the world, like private service provider against public universities, and you would find a lot of papers about the commercialization of higher education.
This is discussed around the world, but you cannot find a country that stopped private service providers from offering their services.
The important thing is making sure that they are of equivalent standard or of even better standard than the public sector. There are countries like Morocco, which is a hub that attracts students from Europe.
The government regulations say that every private service provider has to be monitored by a public university. This is another model which has been adopted according to their specifics. If you don't have a strong central body, a regulatory and a quality assurance body, you allow the public universities to adopt those responsibilities.
This process of monitoring makes it easier, but the public service provision would only cover part of the demand made in the country. We have to recognise the fact that education is a public good. This is something that everybody needs to recognize.
There are, however, students that need specialised training and students who are looking for the kind of education the public sector cannot provide. This would be a way of modernizing not only the workforce, but also the public sector. This is something the government should support.
? How long do you think Sri Lanka would take to get to this level?
A: There are countries that achieved this in a maximum of five years, but you need to start with a strategy which is not there in Sri Lanka. Willingness to carry out this programme has to come from the public as well as the government. There's massive potential in Sri Lanka.
It wouldn't be just a tourist hub, but also an education hub. There is the willingness to create this and attract international communities. The strategy has to be developed and it needs to be comprehensive.
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