The Case against Private Universities: A Response to a Growing Conversation

Photo courtesy News First

Sri Lanka’s tertiary education sector and its resistance to the private sector has become a topic of gleeful conversation over the past week on social media. Some of these conversations have taken the form of a critical talk show (such as this piece on Yamu) and there was also a editorial on the need to at least explore some form of private sector involvement in the country’s higher education sector. This attention on State universities reflects a growing demand for the entry of the private sector into the tertiary education sector. However, there has hardly been an attempt to argue the case against private universities, particularly in English media that is most active through social media. Therefore, I want to take the editorial seriously as a reflection of some of the main arguments advanced in favor of the entry of the private sector into the higher education sector. Through this I hope to expose some of the critical assumptions that often get ignored when these positions are advocated.

Mapping what has increasingly become a polemical debate, Himal Kotelawela’s editorial rightly points out that any attempt to introduce some form of privatization in the tertiary sector is likely to be met with stiff resistance. He concludes by noting that it is clear that “tertiary education in Sri Lanka absolutely must undergo a serious restructuring.” While I agree in general with his final comment, in this short article I want to explore the assumptions which undergird his argument in the hope of offering a significantly different terrain on which to engage in the “serious restructuring” that Kotelawela so strenuously argues for.

Assumption 1: The Resistance to Reform

One of first arguments that emerges in the editorial is the need to set aside the “cacophony of anti-capitalist slogans, misinformation, and fear-mongering” that inevitably gets in the way of attempts to reform the country’s tertiary education system. The editorial blames this interference on “radical university students” who with the backing of left-leaning political parties, hope to “capitalize on the ideological and socioeconomic divisions that have arisen and festered in the university system over the years.” Apart from this rather heavy-handed attempt at marking the terrain of opposition, the editorial offers only the grounds of political expediency as a way of understanding why these so called radical university students fight to maintain the status quo in Sri Lanka’s state universities. The first limitation of this editorial analysis therefore, is that it hinges on the assumptions that the major student groups in the universities are radically opposed to any form of reformation of the local university system.

The problem of with this assumption about reform becomes clearer if we start to ask ourselves whether these students are really that resistant to reform? If we leave our classist prejudices at the door what might start to become clearer is not that these “radical university students” are resistant to reform. Rather that they are in fact resistant to the kind of reform that the editorial so strenuously argues is urgently needed. The problem with this assumption about reform resistance is that it casts the debate as a battle between conservative, backwardly radical elements vociferously resisting the march of progress that the progressive, liberal, reformists believe would bring them to a better future. However, I would argue that within this polemic it is impossible to recognize the demands of both students as well as faculty in the State Universities for more resources and funding from the State as a demand for further reform of an already radical system of education.

Assumption 2: The Point of a University Education

Another central assumption of the editorial is the assumption it makes regarding the aim of a university education. Within the framework of this editorial, the point of a university education is the production of “a competent labor force.” Within this logic, the entry of the private sector into the tertiary education sector, which logically places emphasis on employable skills, will finally make the graduates of state universities more attractive to a private sector job market. It will also hopefully address Sri Lanka’s statistical anomaly of having a higher unemployment rate among those with higher levels of education. Even the rather limp effort to include dissenting voices within this article (like those of Prof. Narada Warnasuriya) still accept that the point of a university education is to produce graduates who are attractive to the private sector. To my mind there are two inter-connected strands to this argument which I intend to address separately – the point of a university education and the role of the private sector.

Firstly, the point of a university education. For many of those who argue for private universities, the ultimate aim of a university education is to produce workers for the labor force. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the lowest common denominator of social value is employability and that therefore employability is the ultimate arbiter of the value of a tertiary education system. This perspective erroneously serves to homogenize all fields of study within the university. Whether we would like to admit it or not, there are some fields of study that are more attractive to the private sector and those that ultimately cannot be judged from the purely utilitarian value of employability. Understood in this way, we can see that whereas STEM and Management fields may have direct relevance to the private sector, the value of graduates from fields in the humanities and social sciences cannot be measured from a purely utilitarian perspective only. In fact, there may even be certain fields of study within STEM that are more closely aligned to the humanities and social sciences than they are to the STEM field (a good example of this is the Philosophy of Mathematics department at the Open University). To assume that employability in the private sector should be the ultimate arbiter of value is to fail to see the diverse aims of fields of study that a university should provide a space for.

In other words, the problem with the editorial’s framing of the conversation is that it attempts to frame the only terrain of debate over tertiary education in the country as being that of employability. This perspective is at best, short-sighted and at worst, flawed because it aims to limit the horizon of thought through which this issue can be understood. If we start to recognize the fallacy of this perspective, we could maybe shift the tenor of our debate away from a one-size-fits-all metric of value to a more nuanced conversation about how best to develop and promote different measures of value for different fields of study.

Assumption 3: The Role of the Private Sector

Secondly, the role of the private sector in promoting employability and stimulating the tertiary education sector. The problem with this view is that by promoting the private sector as the final arbiter of value, it conveniently sidesteps the fact that most university students aspire for employment in the public rather than the private sector. Many critics of the state university system attribute this aspiration to the fact that graduates have been spoilt by years of free education and now expect to continue to enjoy a free ride in the public sector. However, as Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda points out in an excellent analysis of the youth involved in the JVP uprisings, the problem of youth employment is rooted in the realization that free education can provide a ticket to social mobility but cannot guarantee that a young person can actually arrive at this destination.[i] If those who argue for more private investment in universities are serious about promoting private sector employment as the ultimate solution to the reformation of the tertiary education sector, they perhaps need to ask themselves as to whether the private sector has a better capacity to deliver on this radical promise of social mobility.

The fact of the matter is that within the profit-oriented logic espoused by these critics, social mobility is in the hands of market forces. As many close observers of the Sri Lankan political economy understand, the market forces in Sri Lanka rarely, if ever, actually operate freely. Rather the investment priorities of the private sector are more often than not shaped heavily by proximity to centers of political power, access to patronage networks, and by extension the ability to leverage the flow of government resources to increasing profits. As the bond scandal, the manipulation of the stock market under the previous regime, and the recent drama over the purchase of Agalawatte plantations indicates, it is perhaps better to err on the side of caution when stringently advocating for the unimpeded flow of private capital in Sri Lanka. Therefore, before demanding that the universities adapt themselves to the function of the market, these writers may spend their time more productively by demanding for a more transparent private sector that is truly responsive to the vagaries of a free market. To call for the reformation of the universities in the direction of the private sector in the absence of this consistent advocacy for a more accountable and transparent market, smacks of a patronizing do-as-I-say-but-not-as-I-do attitude. At the end of the day, it is short-sighted to assume that employability (particularly within the private sector) translates into or is the equivalent of social mobility. Therefore, instead of advocating employability as a measure of the success of an undergraduate education, let us think more broadly and value the capacity to achieve social mobility as the ultimate indicator of the success of a university education.

Assumption 4: The Direction of Reform

But can all of this be taken to mean that there is no need for reform of the tertiary education sector in the country? Most assuredly, not. There is a definite need for urgent reform of the tertiary education sector within the country. My difficulty however is in seeing how the entry of the private sector into the university system would be the most productive strategy for reform. Therefore, let me deal with some of the issues raised by the roar editorial and suggest some alternative directions for reform. For me personally, these directions would broadly cover the expansion of state investment in the tertiary education sector and an increased emphasis on democratization within the broader education system.

Firstly, state investment in external degrees or distance learning is one possible way to expand the existing state university system and simultaneously create opportunities for those who are unable to enter the university system through the A/L examination. One of the major strategies that the tertiary education system has been focusing on with the aid of funding from numerous external agencies is the development of a number of external and long distance learning based degree programs throughout the country. The external degree programs offer some (though not all) options for students who wish to pursue a university education in the country. Rather than simply diverting money from state universities to regulate and subsidize private universities (as roar suggests), the state could use this funding to invest in better external degree programs in all state universities. In fact, successive governments have adopted this approach in a bid to mitigate some of the criticisms regarding the lack of access to the university system. However, the existing external degree programs are extremely haphazard and often given step-motherly treatment by internal departments. One way of addressing this trend is for the state to utilize the allocation that would anyway be spent on both regulation as well as subsidies for private universities, and invest it in the state university system’s external degree/ distance learning programs. As a corollary I think there is a need for the continued expansion of State investment in both education as well as higher education. Not simply because I believe that education is a right (and not a commodity as the roar suggests) but because I also believe that it is a fundamental duty of the state to spend more of its money on educating rather than defending its citizens.

It is also important to note that entry into the university system does not necessarily translate into the freedom to pursue any course of study. Even for those who enter the state university system, only a precious few have the privilege of pursuing the line of study that they had aimed for during their A/L exams. One possible (though admittedly inadequate) solution is to invest in career guidance counselling at the school level ideally while students are still doing their Ordinary Level examinations. Very few students in schools today have a real sense of what a university education can offer and their views are often shaped by the aspirations of their parents or teachers. The early identification of career pathways can be leveraged to develop alternative professional options for students such as teacher training colleges, vocational training, and other skills-based, specific courses for employment within particular sectors. This however, still does not account for the perennial argument raised by proponents of private universities which can be summarized as, “I have the capacity to pay for it, so why not have access?” I think the answer to this question requires far more complex and nuanced analysis than I am capable of dealing with effectively in this short space. My preliminary response would be to return to the basis on which I pursue my critique – the capacity to deliver equitable social mobility as the final arbiter of the value of an education system. Understood in this way, the argument about the capacity to pay while individually valid, would be detrimental to the value of promoting equitable social mobility through the education system.

Let me conclude by also stressing the need for increased democratization of our higher education system. While I am personally sympathetic to the struggles of university students, I see no plausible defense for the relevance of the rag to the university system today. The rag may have worked as a mobilizing tool a few decades ago but in the aftermath of what has taken place since 1971, the reliance on the rag for mobilization is an expression of the failure of the political imagination of student unions in universities today. Similarly, although I am not a part of the university system, I strongly believe in the importance of intellectual reedom and proper remuneration for academic staff of the university (and non-academic staff too, but I digress). However, my support for the grievances of the academic staff hasn’t and shouldn’t preclude me from calling for more concrete action by groups such as the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) to combat discrepancies and the lack of transparency in recruitment of staff, address the sexual harassment of women in many university departments, and be as vociferous in their demands for more government allocations for education as they are on the need for better pay for academic staff. Concomitantly, I can see the value of ensuring that the salaries of non-academic staff are increased but I’m also equally invested in ensuring that measures are put in to avoid a repeat performance of incidents similar to what the Auditor General says has taken at the University of Jaffna. In short, where these private sector proponents and I do agree is on the need to urgently reform not just our tertiary education system but our entire education system. The point though is that the terrain that has been sketched for this task is too narrow and self-serving. In the interests of a better future for our country, we must, and indeed, should, do better.[ii]


Andi Schubert is a Senior Researcher attached to the Social Scientists’ Association, Sri Lanka. He can be contacted via email –

[i] Uyangoda, J., 2003. Social Conflict, Radical Resistance and Projects of State Power in Southern Sri Lanka: The Case of the JVP. In: M. Mayer, D. Rajasingham-Senanayake & Y. Thangarajah, eds. Building Local Capacities for Peace: Rethinking Conflict and Development in Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Macmillan India, pp. 37-64.

[ii] An early draft of this article was sent to The editors declined to publish it.