Unemployed graduates Cry for jobs

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By 2017-06-17

by Lakshman I. Keerthisinghe

A man willing to work, and unable to find work, is perhaps the saddest sight that fortune's inequality exhibits under this sun.

-Thomas Carlyle (Chartism)

It is common knowledge that several thousands of unemployed graduates from Sri Lanka's universities have taken to the streets of Colombo from time to time to stage protests urging the government to provide jobs for them. It is also known that it is the usual tactic of the Police to fire tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters especially when they attempt to march towards the Presidential Secretariat. Sometimes the protesters gather near the Fort Railway Station and stage a fast. The issue of unemployed graduates still continues unresolved and to date the graduates have no alternative than protesting. During the past two years alone there have been many protests organized by the unemployed graduates and two were large scale protests. The current good governance regime has taken some measures to provide employment for the unemployed graduates. However, it is apparent that there is no sustainable plan in order to ensure employment opportunities for the unemployed graduates in the future.

Provision of jobs

The Minister of Public Administration and Management has observed that measures are being taken to address the issue. In response to the graduates' issues pertaining to the provision of jobs, he said as a whole, the entire education system in the country should be revised. He pointed out that there is a dearth of candidates with technical knowledge and as such there is a huge shortage of candidates to fill these positions. Hence, he highlighted the need to tailor the education system in order to create educated candidates for the ever changing job market. Meanwhile, according to the Minister of Education, there had not been a proper mechanism in the past to deal with such issues and the government is in the process of implementing a mechanism to deal with the requirements of both the job market and the candidates. The Minister of Higher Education was reported as saying that one reason that the unemployed graduates cannot find employment is their lack of knowledge of the English language.

Further, plans are afoot to gather all graduates' unions of the Uva Province and the Joint Unemployed Graduates' Unions for a discussion on what measures should be taken to resolve the issues faced by the unemployed graduates. The aesthetics graduates took to the streets demanding a proper national mechanism to grant degrees to graduates. The Aesthetics University, Sripali forum, Jayewardenepura and Kelaniya are some of the institutes that produce aesthetics graduates. At present there are around 43,000 unemployed graduates while there are around 60,000 vacancies. However, according to the unions, the vacancies are being filled based on political grounds and providing such temporary solutions will not suffice. The unions claim that there should be a proper national policy in order to address the issue of unemployment. The unions say their intention in staging protests is to force the government to intervene in such issues and take decisions to resolve the matter by streamlining the system. Moreover the authorities have no idea of how many unemployed graduates exist, especially in the rural areas and finding solutions is problematic. It is clear that the country needs a proper national policy in order to resolve this matter.


Many factors lead to the graduate unemployment problem. It has had its roots in some aspects of the educational reforms introduced to the country since the early 1950's. At the beginning of this period the medium of instruction in the primary classes, i e. up to standard five was in the mother tongue of the pupil. A start had also been made at that time in instructing students in their mother tongue in post primary classes as well. This gradual process of introducing the national languages as the medium of instruction up to university level was completed by the early 1960s.

Although the switch over to the medium of instruction to national languages may have had its advantages, the rigid and inward looking policy pursued by successive governments gave no choice to the students to select the medium of instruction they preferred. Thus, the medium of instruction based on ethnicity resulted in the denial of opportunities for employment of most students and made them less attractive in the employment market here and abroad. Even the private sector preferred workers proficient in English. Consequently, both graduates and non-graduates not proficient in English were compelled to seek employment in the State sector which as a matter of rule conducted all business communications in the national languages. The establishment of several new universities with student enrolment predominantly in the Arts stream with lectures in national languages further aggravated the problem.

Commenting on unemployment in the country former Finance Minister (1971) Dr. N.M. Perera said there were two reasons for it.

The primary cause he asserted was the low rate of economic growth. The secondary cause was attributed to the adherence to a conventional system of education which according to him needed to be reformed in the context of planned economic growth.
After four decades the same old education system still remains intact but ironically politicians still speak of the need for educational reforms with no worthwhile follow up action.

Economic policies

The change of government in 1977 brought about a complete turnaround of the economy. It changed the inward looking economic policies which had prevailed since the 1950s to that of an outward looking economic strategy and declared the private sector as the engine of economic growth. The open economic policy coupled with the opening of free trade zones for export processing industries were intended to liberalize the economy.

According to available data there are 3,500 unemployed graduates in the North, 2,500 in Uva, 6,500 in the East, 2,500 in Sabaragamuwa, 6,000 in the Central Province, 3,000 in the west, 1,500 in the North Central, 8,600 in the South, 6,000 in Wayamba. These data do not include the graduates who passed out in 2016.The government, as a temporary solution, took measures to appoint some of the graduates to fill the teacher vacancies. However, the unions point out that money should be allocated even through the budget for this purpose. Further, they point out that unless the unemployment issue is resolved there could be no social transformation in the country

It would hence, be seen that successive governments have adopted an inflexible approach to educational policy formulation and implementation which deprived generations of students the right to independently choose the media of study at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education. Likewise an overwhelming majority of students who competitively obtained the available limited university places were compelled to follow lectures in the Arts stream in the national media as the only available option. Successive governments were fully aware that Arts graduates, proficient only in the national media had no chance of obtaining employment here or abroad except in the public sector of Sri Lanka.

However, they continued to invest in the system. Some of our brilliant civil servants of a bygone era were arts graduates. They indeed had wider communication abilities. Further they excelled in their respective vocations because they were absorbed into an efficient system which shaped them well in their careers.

In conclusion it must be noted that traditionally the objective of a university is not to train students for a job. Universities generally impart theories and concepts which broaden the outlook of students enabling them to use their imagination and foresight in the problem solving process. It is time that universities in Sri Lanka deviate from the traditional approach and re-orient their educational courses to meet the demands of the local job market if the unemployment problem of Sri Lanka's graduates is to be finally resolved. The government has a duty to introduce a new national education policy covering the primary, secondary and tertiary education levels of Sri Lankan students in order to achieve this end.

The writer is an Attorney-at-Law with LLB, LLM, MPhil (Colombo)



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