Higher education in Sri Lanka would benefit from a more systematic partnership with government, rather than the current dependence on links among individuals, the country's ambassador to France has said.
Senake Bandaranayake, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Kelaniya, said government was an obvious partner for higher education as universities become more involved in tackling issues such as social and economic transformation.
Speaking at the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference, "Converting Linkages to Partnerships", at Strathclyde University, Professor Bandaranayake described links between universities and Sri Lankan government agencies in disciplines from archaeology and marine studies to politics and agriculture.
But there was no clear perception of a significant partnership developing between the two sectors. The links sprang from political rather than institutional decisions and were tolerated rather than encouraged by government agencies.
Some government bodies remained fundamentally hostile to the "creative and innovatory vision" that researchers often brought, which undermined the potential value of academic input.
But Professor Bandaranayake accused higher education of failing to capitalise on connections with government agencies. Most departments and staff were reluctant to change their curricula to enable students to make "serious and significant" work experience an important part of their studies.
The Sri Lankan university system had inherited a deeply entrenched mass education tradition in the humanities. While these disciplines were important in their ability to "free the creative imagination of the individual", the teaching and learning methods being used scarcely managed to achieve this, let alone to steer the disciplines to meet the needs of the world of work.
The crucial change in attitudes in higher education was most difficult for senior staff and students, especially in countries that had a standardised educational tradition, with innovation and change treated with great suspicion.
"This is particularly true in developing countries such as Sri Lanka, where a significantly high degree of educational development has been achieved by means of a highly centralised system and a dominant welfarist ethic and where a university education was an almost automatic gateway to government employment."
Professor Bandaranayake said south-south university cooperation was virtually non-existent in South Asia. But there was an outflow of students from smaller countries such as Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal to the well-developed and largely privatised Indian universities, as well as to some institutions in Pakistan and Southeast Asia.
"The ACU is an ideal theatre for discussing the importance of genuine cooperation and partnership between developing countries. It is clear that this cooperation must take the form of sharing experience and studying models and experiments in university-based education and research programmes."