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The Sri Lankan government has announced bold plans to reform the country’s university sector, including giving special status to a select group of private institutions and opening up the country to international branch campuses, in a move that critics say will “escalate the marketization of higher education.”

The policy changes include establishing a “free education investment zone” that will provide tax breaks for international universities setting up overseas outposts, under the condition that their academic staff will also support local universities.

However, student places at these campuses would be reserved for “overseas students and nonresident Sri Lankan students who are able to pay in foreign currency,” with students in other parts of South and East Asia the main targets, the government said. Just 5 percent of Sri Lankan students would be offered scholarships to study there.

A 700-acre area in Horana, near the capital of Colombo, has already been identified for this zone, but progress has stalled because of public protests.

The government has also pledged to increase student places in existing institutions by 7,500, or 25 percent, and convert several higher education institutes into universities. Less than 20 percent of students who qualify for university attend due to a cap on places. However, the government said that it would not provide any additional funding for either of these policies.

The country also proposes to grant some private, not-for-profit institutions, which do not have full degree-awarding powers, “chartered university status.” Five institutions have already been recommended for this, which would require any degree programs offered to be approved by the University Grants Commission and for the governing board to include the secretary of higher education as a member.

Harshana Rambukwella, director of the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka, said that successive governments had tried to implement similar changes but the current administration, formed in November, was more likely to succeed.

He added that “the marketization and privatization of higher education” in Sri Lanka had been ongoing for 20 years, but this was “likely to accelerate and progress much more aggressively” under the proposals.

“The changes that are proposed represent a fundamental reorientation of higher education in the country, where it will essentially be determined by market forces,” he said.

However, Rambukwella questioned whether the country would be able to attract international universities and students and said that he was concerned that the quality of higher education in Sri Lanka would diminish “quite severely,” given that the government will provide only “minimal investment” for the new policies.

“All of this has been packaged as broadening access to higher education in Sri Lanka, but in reality the establishment of a free education zone will achieve nothing of the sort, because it’s not going to cater to local demand,” he added.

John Rogers, director of the Colombo-based American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies, was also “skeptical” of whether Sri Lanka’s branch campus model could “deliver the standards and compete with the Gulf and Malaysia.”

He added that the proposal to grant chartered status to private institutions that charge tuition fees was likely to face “intense political opposition."

“At the moment, fully fledged universities under the UGC can’t charge fees for undergraduate courses … although the political opposition will assume that that is the ultimate aim of the government, because the government wants to increase the number of undergraduates by 25 percent and not spend any more money,” he said.

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