Hire Education: How Sri Lanka can retain its brains and money

Rohan Pethiyagoda | Published on May 22, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Commencement ceremony at Harvard University, Massachusetts

“the USA attracts fully 20% of the international market for higher education. And many other English-speaking countries, including Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, have been quick to cash in on this lucrative market”

Having left St Thomas’s College after sitting my GCE ‘O’ levels for the second time in 1972 (the 1971 sitting hadn’t gone too well), I neglected to stay in touch with most of the folks with whom I shared my formative years. Recently, however, 40 years after the fact, I was called to order by fellow alumnus Indran Indrakumar and instructed to be present at a dinner he was organizing for those of us living in eastern Australia and New Zealand. Indran has appointed himself class monitor and does an excellent job of keeping us all in contact. Given that he and Peter Vanniasingham were flying all the way from Aukland for the occasion, I felt obliged to make myself available. And I’m glad I did. There were 17 of us in all. Exchanging banter across the table, it occurred to me as passing strange that so many of us live overseas. Most had emigrated from Sri Lanka in their teens or twenties: I was the only pensioner.

Indran maintains a sort of database of our cohort, the Class of ’71 (which was when we sat our ‘O’ levels for the first time) and kindly shared it with me. It turns out that of the 127 who survive and whose whereabouts are known, fully 71 — that’s 56 percent — have migrated. Strangely, almost everyone I talked to who had been to university had been to university overseas. I myself went to university in the UK. Clearly we seem to perceive a western education as superior to that available in Sri Lanka — or at any rate our parents did. I wanted to know whether this is still the trend (after all, my own children went to university in the UK and US), and what the implications are for Sri Lanka. What I found astonished me, and I bet it will surprise and disappoint you, too.

A bit of background

Two generations have passed since Sri Lanka introduced universal free education. The country can now boast of doctors, engineers and other professionals as well trained as any in the world. The ready international demand for this talent pool is proof, if proof were needed, that at least in some fields Sri Lanka’s education system works. And it works regardless of the enormous disparity that persists between rich and poor, urban schools and rural schools, and those who do and do not benefit from English as a home language.

Yet, despite all this, there is a substantial body of discontent. The parents of schoolchildren continually grumble about the poor quality of teaching and the need for private tuition. University students gripe about under-stocked libraries and poorly equipped laboratories. And at the end of it all there is frustration that jobs befitting the educated masses are few.

For its part, the market has responded to these challenges. International schools, having established themselves in Colombo more than two decades ago, have sprung up everywhere. They teach an international syllabus, grooming children for tertiary education in the US or the UK. Foreign recruitment agencies too, have made it easier for those educated in Sri Lanka to find jobs overseas. We seem to have become a global supplier of intellectual prowess.

A degree foreign

The trend noted above is, of course, not unique to Sri Lanka: it applies to the developing world at large. For its part, the developed world has been quick to cash in on this demand. The better universities in the West charge undergraduate international students upwards of $30,000 per year for science & technology courses, in addition to which students contribute to their economies also by simply living there: renting accommodation, using public transport, buying their food, and so on.  The contribution of the higher education sector to the UK’s GDP in 2008 was £ 33.4 billion1. That is only slightly less than the cost of Britain’s health and veterinary care system, and actually more than the national cost of public administration1. About a quarter of all students at Oxford and Cambridge are now from overseas. Indeed, Oxford is on record as having welcomed its first overseas student, Emo of Friesland (which, if you didn’t happen to study geography at Oxford, is a northern province of the Netherlands), way back in 11902. Growing from that modest beginning, the UK is host to 12% of the three million students globally who are now at university in a country other than their own. By comparison, the USA attracts fully 20% of the international market for higher education. And many other English-speaking countries, including Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, have been quick to cash in on this lucrative market.

Within the UK itself, many leading institutions now host almost as many international students as British ones. Thirty-five percent of the scholars at London’s prestigious Imperial College, for example, are from overseas, whereas fully 44% of those at the London School of Economics are foreign.  Leading the pack is the University of Buckingham, which fully lives up to its post-code abbreviation ‘Bucks’: no less than 75% of its students are internationals3. These figures, of course, include students from the European Union, who until recently were eligible to pay only the modest fees levied from British domestic students. But all that is changing with the British government’s decision to charge domestic and EU students the same fees while giving their own youngsters loans to cover costs.

Little Sri Lanka ranks 14th in the league table of countries with students in British universities. China heads the list, with 47,000, followed by India, with 34,000. Although apparently modest by comparison, Sri Lanka’s 3,500 students in British universities represent a substantially higher per capita presence (175 per million population) than China’s (35) or India’s (29). Unfortunately comparable statistics are unavailable for the USA (or at any rate I could not find any), but one might guess, given that the US attracts more overseas students from other countries than the UK does, that an even greater number of Sri Lankan students go to university in America. And that is not counting Australia, India, Malaysia and Singapore, all of which now attract growing numbers of Sri Lankan university students.

Lanka’s loss

Britain’s gain is, of course, Lanka’s loss. Almost all Sri Lankan undergraduates in British universities pay their own way. Of the postgraduates, however, 290 (36%) benefit from financial assistance from their academic institution4; undergraduate scholarships are vanishingly rare. Let’s do the math. Take the median undergraduate university fees in the UK (£12,000) and multiply that by the population of Sri Lankan students there (3,500). It turns out then that the annual spend by Sri Lankan students in the UK is a staggering £42 million. And that’s just by way of fees. Add a minimal £8,000 per year for living expenses and you have a total £70 million outflow from Sri Lanka —just to Britain alone. Add to that the students going to universities in the US, Australia and elsewhere, and the annual figure will very likely top £100 million. But let us be conservative and consider only the UK. Convert the £70 million to rupees, and you get 12.6 billion.

Now compare this Rs 12.6 billion with Sri Lanka’s total expenditure on higher education (i.e. the cost of running all the country’s universities and their administrative infrastructure): Rs 11.9 billion5. Think about that for a moment: the cost of educating the 3,500 Sri Lankan students in British universities exceeds Sri Lanka’s total higher education spend on 15 universities educating 47,000 students. The actual outflow of funds for overseas education is, of course, much greater and difficult to quantify. The Controller of Immigration and Emigration is on record as stating that around 20,000 passports are issued annually for those leaving the country purportedly for higher education6.

An opportunity lost

Higher education is now a big, global business and universities vie with one another to get up in the world rankings. Clearly Sri Lanka cannot aim to have its own Cambridge (despite that university having been the model for Peradeniya  in the vision of its founder, Ivor Jennings), presently ranked No. 1 internationally by QS World University Rankings. But it can perhaps use the University of Sydney, ranked 37th internationally, as a model (my son, previously at Cambridge and now at Sydney, insists that the latter is ‘streets better in every way, up to and including the beer’, than the former). The University of Sydney teaches just about everything that matters, and its annual budget is just over a billion Australian dollars, about Rs 120 billion. It educates about 47,000 students (the same as all 15 Sri Lankan universities put together), which works out to about Rs 2.5 million per year per student. Modest, when you consider the Rs 3.6 million each Sri Lankan student spends in the UK annually.

My argument here is that Sri Lanka can afford to have a world-class university if operated on competitive market principles. The country has a rich intellectual resource to staff such an institution and the wealth to fund it. The fact that science, engineering and medicine are already taught in English in Sri Lankan universities will also be to its advantage, as will the country’s lower cost of living. The infrastructure for research and development needs to be enhanced, however, but that is another story (stay tuned). For the present, suffice it to say that the staff of the University of Sydney publish, on average, 5,000 learned papers in international journals annually, compared with 750 for the whole of Sri Lanka.

There has been talk recently of China setting up a university in Sri Lanka8. The quality of a Chinese education, however, is moot — at least in the opinion of the 47,000 Chinese students now studying in British Universities. Elsewhere in the Asian region, educators seem to be realising that the British must be doing something right. The government of Malaysia, for example, has lured both Newcastle University and Southampton University to establish campuses in Nusajaya9, strategically located at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula, within commuting reach of Asia’s best-connected airport: Singapore Changi. In addition to offering Malaysians and Singaporeans a British education right on their doorstep, they hope to lure large numbers of overseas students to their shores. Being a Muslim country that is superficially liberal, Malaysia hopes to offer conservative Arabs who want their children educated overseas but not exposed to western permissiveness a safe educational hub. What is more, Marlborough College, one of England’s most ‘exclusive’ public schools (read ‘posh private school’), is also setting up in Nusajaya9, hoping to catch them young.

I doubt if a Chinese university will help stem the outflow of brains and cash from Sri Lanka. After all, the ranking of world universities by China’s own Shanghai Jiao Tong University10 does not include a single Chinese institution in the top 100. From across the English-speaking world, that august roll includes 68 American, 11 British, 4 Canadian, 3 Australian universities (i.e. 86 of the top 100). It is to those that Sri Lanka would do better to look in seeking international  higher education partnerships, than China. Until then, Sri Lanka’s loss — of both brains and cash — will continue to be the world’s gain.


  1. Kelly, U., McLellan, D. & McNicol, I. 2009. The impact of universities on the UK economy: fourth report. Universities UK, 25 pp. ISBN 978 1 84036 219. Available from: http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/Publications/Documents/EconomicImpact4Full.pdf
  2. Anonymous. 2010. Will they still come? A fast-growing industry in which Britain is a world beater: what could go wrong? Sadly, rather a lot. The Economist, August 5, 2010. Available from: http://www.economist.com/node/16743639
  3. Anonymous. 2011. The complete university guide. Available from: http://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/international/breakdown/by-university/
  4. Kemp, N., Archer, W., Gilligan, C. & Humfrey, C. 2008. The UK’s competitive advantage: the market for international research students. UK Higher Education International Unit, London. Available from: http://www.international.ac.uk/resources/The%20UK’s%20Competitive%20Advantage.The%20Market%20for%20International%20Research%20Students.pdf
  5. Revised budgetary estimates for 2010, available from: http://www.treasury.gov.lk/BOM/nbd/pdfdocs/nationalsum2011/governmentbyMinistry&Ins.pdf
  6. See: http://www.island.lk/2008/03/21/news3.html
  7. http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2010
  8. Sirimanna, B. 2011. Sri Lanka to get a Chinese International Medical University. Sunday Times, May 1, 2011. Available from: http://sundaytimes.lk/110501/BusinessTimes/bt18.html
  9. Anonymous. 2011. A reverse brain drain: Ambitious plans to become an Asian hub for Western education. The Economist, May 5, 2011. Available from: http://www.economist.com/node/18652195?story_id=18652195
  10. Shanghai Jiao Tong University. 2011. Academic Ranking of World Universities, 2010. Graduate School of Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_Ranking_of_World_Universities

Rohan Pethiyagoda (1955-) is a biomedical engineer turned biologist now based at the Australian Museum in Sydney. In addition to leading several exploration and conservation initiatives in Sri Lanka, he is the author of several books and some 70 research papers on the biodiversity of Sri Lanka and the history of its natural history. He has served in several management positions in industry and the government of Sri Lanka, and on numerous conservation specialist groups (including a period as deputy chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission); his work has also been recognized by the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.


12 Comments to “Hire Education: How Sri Lanka can retain its brains and money”

  • Yeah Rohan you’ve got a point

  • wow the best education of sri lankan education


  • point missed.
    their is a shortage of jobs for university graduates in sri lanka.
    goverments solution – make university entrance difficult. and label most students as failures at the age of 18.
    students with wealthy parents send them overseas. but rarely comeback to a country which offers them no or limited jobs. and try to recover the money they paid to rich countries and help their parents.
    those who like to learn in universities but cant afford it basically rot and are in misery.
    this is the simple logic.

    • This comment is etxcaly right.Neither of my parents were academics. Neither attended university (except some night classes my father took at Sir George Williams). But in our household, academic virtues were celebrated and practiced:- the radio was tuned to CBC (Canadian public broadcasting) and so we would hear world news, scientific programs, ‘Ideas’, and more…- there were always newspapers in the house – we all ended up delivering newspapers – and articles of importance, such as the current membership of the Cabinet (in the Canadian government) were posed on the wall. There was always a big map of the world on the wall.- my mother bought a complete set of the classic works of literature for the house (these were very specifically my mothers, and I had to ask to read them), very cheap Pelican’s (low-cost Penguins) that fell apart when you read them. Everything from Shakespeare to Butler to Thoreau to Twain. I read about half the 120 book collection before the middle years of high school (talk about an advantage!)- I joined the Book of the Month Club with my father, through which I learned a lot of history – Pierre Berton, William L. Shirer, and Albert Speer all stand out, as do my Complete Sherlock Holmes – there was also technology, and an evident interest in technology, in the house (we weren’t just about academics). Our house radio was built from a kit. Bits and pieces of telephones were always about, as my father worked for Bell. We had telescopes and microscopes (much to the distress of the local bug and amphibian population). My younger brothers benefited from my father’s interest in computers, but by then (1980s) I had left home. Still, I got my first model, a big 300 baud box, from my father.- somehow I came into possession of an old Underwood typewriter (the reason I can’t type to this day, because the keys took too much force to push) and a limitless supply of paper.- I also somehow had access to tools – hammers, saws, screwdrivers, the works – to build things (and we built numerous things, including clubhouses, tree houses, go-karts and even a stage coach).- we had a (large) garden and learned how to grow food. We were involved in preserving and canning the food (I can still remember piles of beans, a supply that would last the entire winter). We could cook basically whenever we wanted, so I took the opportunity to bake some cakes and pies.Things like this – which, really, began with my first set of blocks, which had letters stamped on the sides, characterized my childhood. Knowledge and learning were always valued and supported.At the same time, though, none of it was forced on me. These things were always in my environment, but I wasn’t required to read the books (though the garden work was not voluntary – everybody helped because everybody ate). It was all about the environment, and not some rigorous academic regime.

  • I like to touch on another aspect of so the called higher education. Referring to Sri lanka, about eighty years ago university education was set up with public funds to see a return for public benefits in terms of modernizing economy. Unfortunately that has not happened and except for some professional programs like doctors (who unfortunately due to very inward interests have reduced the recognition of medical degrees from very respectable standings several decades ago to very low level now due the failure of developing a concurrent healthcare industry and research in Sri Lanka)is a liability to public because they are forced to find them employment (often non productive)using funds generated by poor blue collar workers toiling in and outside Sri Lanka. The foreign money, the writer sighted, the Sri Lankan students spend on foreign education is also earned by these poor people. It is awkward that the country spend this money on few individuals who go abroad to study (with almost no benefit to Sri Lanka) rather than spending on the development projects in the country. At least I hope those who benefit from foreign education use their exposure to modernize Sri Lankan economy so that people can see some benefits in their investment in higher education.

  • As with many debates, I feel both perspectives represented in these comments on China are somewhat correct. China has some similarities to Sri Lanka with respect to university entrance. Lots of potential applicants, but few available places in good local universities. Those 47000 Chinese students in the UK aren’t necessarily there because they think Chinese universities are useless. It’s because they could not get into one of the better local Chinese universities. Many Chinese students also want to experience the world outside China. Having lots of savings in the relatively strong Chinese yuan, middle-class Chinese parents increasingly have the option of sending their children abroad to study.

    Some of the best undergrad and postgrad university students in the world bar none are in China. Many Tsing Hua university engineering students will probably put the average MIT engineering student to shame. However at the same time there is a lot of bureaucracy and a repressive hierarchy in Chinese universities (and outside academia!) which is quite negative – spawning plauguarism in this publish or perish world. Of course many Chinese universities are also way below the standard of their better peers (the same holds true for US and British universities – especially those that target foreign students!)

    • Superior tihnking demonstrated above. Thanks!

  • most of the facts given in this article are correct, except for few things. one of them is the opinion on chinese universities, which is groundless. if you carefully check the number of publications made in grade I conferences and journals especially in science and engineering disciplines, names of many chinese universities can be seen. In fact, the numbers are so overwhelming even surpassing those of research education oriented countries such as USA, Japan, Germany or Sweden. Then, it is true that the UK has many well-known institutions of higher learning in a general sense, but when it comes to science and technology, USA, Japan and Germany lead the rest including UK. Traditionally, UK and Australia are known for conventional disciplines which can be categorized under the general term, “Arts and Humanities”. What we really need as a country now are professionals in science and engineering, rather than lawyers or social scientists. So, in that respect, either we have to produce them ourselves or create opportunities for them to develop overseas. The latter cannot be expected from our governments at least for few generations from now.

    • Reply by author
      I did not offer an opinion on Chinese universities: I merely cited the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s ranking of world universities (and provided the reference). Any opinion implied in this ranking is theirs, not mine. It is evidently also the opinion of the 47,000 Chinese students now studying in British Universities and several tens of thousands more than that number in American ones. There is no doubt Chinese scientists are publishing prolifically in the international scientific media: whether or not such publication is correlated with the quality of science practised in a country is another matter and will be discussed in a separate article (I mentioned this and wrote “watch this space” for a reason). In any case, this has no bearing on the point I was making: that Sri Lanka is exporting huge amounts of brains and money and would do well to adopt a model similar to the Malaysian one, which aims to retain both by using market forces rather than regulation. I searched for data that support the writer’s remark “Traditionally, UK and Australia are known for conventional disciplines which can be categorized under the general term, “Arts and Humanities”” but was unable to find any. I would be interested to know whether the writer can substantiate this claim. In any case this has no bearing on my argument, which did not discriminate between students going overseas for science and technology degrees as opposed to arts and humanities degrees: I suspect the former represent the vast majority, but in the absence of data, see no point in speculating.

      Anyone starry-eyed about Chinese science would do well to read recent articles on this subject in Nature (among other leading international journals) which quote Chinese scientists and politicians themselves (hence Chinese opinion): e.g., “Strong medicine for China’s journals” Nature 467, 261-261 (15 September 2010) doi:10.1038/467261a News; “Chinese journal finds 31% of submissions plagiarised” Nature 467, 153-153 (8 September 2010) doi:10.1038/467153d Correspondence; “Do metrics matter?” Nature 465, 860-862 (16 June 2010) doi:10.1038/465860a News Feature; and “University rankings smarten up” Nature 464, 16-17 (3 March 2010) doi:10.1038/464016a News – Rohan Pethiyagoda

      • That kind of thniknig shows you’re on top of your game

    • Your artcile was excellent and erudite.

  • this is a great article

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Hire Education: How Sri Lanka can retain its brains and money

Commencement ceremony at Harvard University, Massachusetts “the USA attracts fully 20% of the international market for higher education. And many other English-speaking countries, including Australia, Malaysia ...