All of Sri Lanka's universities are government sponsored and attendance is free. Admission is determined by exam. Only about 2 percent of Sri Lanka's children eventually make it into a university but children from wealthy or elite families have much better odds and frequently gain admittance to foreign universities.

Higher education enrollment in 2000: 63,660 Sri Lankan students; 55 foreign students in national universities. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Female university students: 26 percent (2019, percent of gross, which means the value can be over 100 percent): (compared to 68 percent in Germany, 102 percent in the United States and 7 percent in Uzbekistan) [Source: World Bank worldbank.org]

There is a shortage of places for qualified university applicants. Perhaps the biggest problem in Sri Lanka today is finding meaningful work for its educated population. Educated people often have no better luck getting jobs than uneducated people. Unemployment among college graduates was near 30 percent in the 2000s.

Sri Lanka's university system is financed by the central government. Its Board of Governors includes the Vice-Chancellor; the Ministers of Education, Planning, and Finance; and the presidents of all the university campuses. The Board reviews the internal administration of the university system. University senates govern academic affairs, and a university president and board supervise each campus. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

History of Higher Education in Sri Lanka

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “At the time of independence, the Ceylon Medical College, the Ceylon University College, and the science section of the Ceylon Technical College were merged to form the University of Ceylon (later the University of Sri Lanka). To accommodate the national requirements for increased education after the primary and secondary levels, however, new universities became necessary. A rapidly expanding population demanding higher educational opportunities led to the additional construction of university campuses at Peradeniya, Vidalankara, and Vidyodaya. These schools offer majors in languages, art, and Buddhist studies. A building campaign in the 1970s added new universities at Colombo, Katubedde, and Jaffna. The latter university was the first one in a Tamil region of Sri Lanka. In 1980, the Open University was added, along with two new universities at Ruhnne and Batticaloa. Curriculum emphasis is undergraduate education. Technical and teacher-training institutes were built to foster specialized training. In 1999, Sri Lanka added a university at Wayamba, which enrolls 11,324 students, or about 15 percent of the students who meet the minimum requirements for university entrance and 8 percent of the number of students who passed the GCE (A/L) examinations. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Tamils' complaints of preferential treatment in university placement to lower-scoring Sinahalese ended in the 1980s, when more places became available in an expanding higher education program. Tamils received increased opportunities to enter degree programs in general teacher training colleges for primary teacher training and specialist teacher training colleges for secondary teacher training, in addition to university programs leading education degrees, university programs culminating in the Ph.D., and degree programs at a polytechnic or technical institute. Among university admissions into degree programs in the arts, commerce and management, law, physical science, mathematics and statistics, bioscience, medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, agriculture, engineering, architecture, and quantity surveying, 40 percent of acceptances are based exclusively on merit. District quotas select 55 percent of university applicants, and the remaining 5 percent of university entrants are admitted on the basis of educational disadvantages by district.

“Competition for graduate degree programs in one of Sri Lanka's six post-graduate institutes has intensified. Five higher education institutes, the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, Institute of Computer Technology, Institute of Indigenous Medicine, Campaha Wickramarachchi Aayurveda Institute, and the Institute of Workers' Education, provide additional higher education options. The Open University of Sri Lanka enrolled an additional 18,495 students in 1999, offering 10 degree programs and 31 diplomas. Private institutes in cooperation with foreign universities offer higher education programs in the fields of information technology, commerce, and business administration. The University Grants Commission and Sri Lanka universities offered scholarships to 5,700 students in 1999. Students not eligible for scholarships received limited funding from government bursaries.

“Enrollment: During the 1990s, the number of universities in Sri Lanka increased from 9 universities enrolling 29,471 students with a teaching faculty of 2,040 in 1990 to 13 universities in 1999 matriculating 40,174 students with a teaching staff of 3,200. These data do not include higher education enrollments for the Open University. The number of university graduates increased from 4,522 students in 1990 to 6,758 students in 1998. For the year 1998, the 6,758 university graduates included 2,518 in arts and oriental studies, 1,180 in commerce and management, 171 in law, 1,110 in science, 551 in engineering, 812 in medicine, 42 in dental surgery, 250 in agriculture, 50 in veterinary science, 25 in architecture, and 49 in quantity surveying. All degree majors witnessed steady increases in graduates since 1990, except architecture, which demonstrated a steady decline during the 1990s.

University Entrance Exam in Sri Lanka

“Grade 11 culminates in the award of the General Certificate of Education, Ordinary level (GCE O-Level). Students who pass their exams in their first language, mathematics, and three other subjects at higher or the same level of credit can proceed to the GCE, Advanced level stage. According to a 2013 report by the Ministry of Education, about 60 percent of students pass O-Levels and move on to A-Levels. The rest pursue vocational education or go directly into the labor market. [Source: Wikipedia]

After completing Grade 13 at a Collegiate school students can take the G.C.E Advanced Level Examination. Those that pass this exam technically qualify for tertiary education but many still do not attend university.. The GCE A/Ls (A Levels) is the university entrance exam in Sri Lanka. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to World Education News and Reviews: Sri Lanka’s university admissions process is highly competitive. In 2012, about 60 percent of students passed the GCE A-Level examinations. Of this group, only about 17 percent were admitted into a university-level institution, according to the UGC. Minimum admissions requirements at universities include a minimum mark of 30 percent on the general paper, as well as passing grades in all three stream-related subjects in one test sitting. [Source: World Education News and Reviews]

Students are ranked and admitted in accordance with a standardized scoring system based on their A-Level examination results. For the few students who make it to university in Sri Lanka, the Ministry of Higher Education offers various scholarship opportunities to offset the price of school supplies and other related expenses. Recently, the Ministry implemented a “laptop loan scheme” that provides university students with interest-free loans to purchase laptops up to around USD $500.”

University Degree System in Sri Lanka

According to World Education News and Reviews: “Sri Lankan institutions offer a range of diploma and bachelor’s degree programs that are defined in Sri Lanka’s Qualifications Framework (SLQF). General bachelor’s degrees, such as the Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc), are pegged at level 5 of the SLQF and require three years of full time study (90 credits) after the A-Levels. [Source:World Education News and Reviews]

“Four-year honors degrees, also known as “special degrees”, on the other hand, are pegged at level 6 of the SLQF and require four years of study (120 credits). At least one year of study (30 credits) needs to be completed at advanced level, and the fourth year often involves research or a dissertation. Graduates with a high grade point average may, under certain conditions, be eligible for admission to doctoral programs. Degrees like the BA (Honours) and BSc (Honours) can also be earned via one-year programs following a 3-year general degree.

“Also offered at the undergraduate level are a range of diploma programs, including one-year National Diploma (SLQF level 3) and two-year Higher National Diploma programs (level 4). These programs typically have a more applied focus, but may be transferred into bachelor’s programs, depending on the program.”

Private Higher Education in Sri Lanka

According to World Education News and Reviews: Given the capacity shortages at public universities, the number of private higher education providers in Sri Lanka is growing. The Ministry of Higher Education can grant private institutions degree-awarding authority or program-based recognition, and the UGC currently lists 11 non-state institutions with degree-granting status on its website, as well as 6 non-state institutions with recognized programs. Total enrollments at non-state institutions are said to have reached roughly 69,000 students as of 2014. Admission to private institutions is typically based on A-Level examination results, although admission standards may be less rigorous than at public universities. [Source:World Education News and Reviews]

“In addition to recognized private institutions, there are a number of unregistered providers, which avoid the lengthy and costly recognition procedures stipulated by the government by taking advantage of a regulatory loophole that allows them to operate by seeking affiliation with foreign universities. Under current law, affiliated institutions can freely enter franchising and validation agreements to offer degree programs in partnership with foreign providers, although the UGC does not recognize the final degrees awarded by foreign institutions. In 2015, a reported 4,518 students were enrolled at unregistered higher education institutions, most of them in business-related programs.

“Such tertiary-level private education is controversial. In 2017, thousands of students, trade unions, and government doctors participated in protests against the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM), Sri Lanka’s only private medical school. At the request of the government, SAITM suspended new student enrollment in May while awaiting a Supreme Court decision that will determine if graduates of the institute can be awarded medical degrees.

Open University and Distance Learning in Sri Lanka

According to World Education News and Reviews: In 2003, the Ministry of Higher Education initiated the Distance Education Modernization Project with a $60 million grant from the Asian Development Bank. The project aimed to expand distance education, including online education, and upgrade the capabilities of the Open University of Sri Lanka (see sidebar). Since then, there has been a significant increase in the number of online programs offered in Sri Lanka, even though the resulting gain in tertiary enrollments rates was by 2013 still below the expectations of the ministry, attributable to the fact that online degrees are not yet held in the same regard as traditional degrees. In 2015, 345,744 domestic students were enrolled in distance education programs, while just 125,121 students were enrolled in traditional programs across all universities and institutes under the UGC. [Source:World Education News and Reviews]

The Open University of Sri Lanka is the only university in the country that provides open and distance learning education at all academic levels, from short-term certificate programs to Ph.D. degrees. Spread out across eight regional centers and 18 study centers throughout the entire island, the institution’s programs typically cater to working professionals who may have difficulty attending courses in a traditional setting. In 2015, over 38,000 students were enrolled at the Open University, making it by far the largest higher education institution in Sri Lanka in terms of the number of students. Between 2003 and 2015, the Open University experienced an increase of almost 62 percent in enrolled students, and the UGC plans to further increase enrollments by 5 percent annually.

Sri Lankan University Curriculum and Students

The language of instruction in the medical and engineering faculties at Sri Lankan universities is primarily English. The language of instruction in other faculties can be Sinhala, Tamil or English depending on the university. Facilities include four medical schools. The Institute of Aesthetic Studies is a department of the University of Kelaniya, near Colombo. Instruction includes art, crafts, music, and dance.

Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures” in 2001: Of those who enter the Sri Lankan university system, the majority go into the arts, which includes humanities and social sciences, a course of study taught in the vernacular languages. Unemployment following graduation is high for these students, reflecting a disjuncture between market needs and university education. Those who attend the technical/professional schools, which are taught in English, tend to be more employable. Opportunities for postgraduate education are quite limited within the country. [Source:Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to World Education News and Reviews: In 2015, there was a 40:60 male-female ratio amongst undergraduate students: at Sri Lanka universities. “That same year, 68 percent of university graduates were female. On the graduate level, 56 percent of students enrolled were women, and 49 percent of that year’s graduates were women. While women are more educated than men at the undergraduate level, and almost equally educated at the postgraduate level, this fails to translate into more jobs for women, especially for positions of power. In 2016, 8.5 percent of women were unemployed, compared to 3.4 percent for men. In 2016, only 6 percent of the seats in the national parliament were held by women. [Source: World Education News and Reviews]

Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Protests against authorities are well established among university students at all levels. New entrants to the university student community are routinely subjected to "ragging," a form of collective harassment by the senior students in an effort to create a sense of common identity and an anti-establishment consciousness. [Source:Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The Sri Lankan government has scaled back private education initiatives in response to student protests. When it tried to legitimize private education in 2013, the related legislation faced significant protest from teachers and students. Protesters felt that the government should invest more resources into public education rather than relegating education to the private sector, especially as that might mean an erosion of free education.

Universities and Higher Education Institutions in Sri Lanka

There are about a dozen universities and colleges and about two and half dozen technical schools in Sri Lanka The first university, Peradeniya, was established near Kandy, in 1942. The famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke served as the chancellor of the University of Moratuwa and Patron of the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies. The famed architect Geoffrey Bawa designed Ruhuna University,

The University of Colombo is Sri Lanka most prestigious university. The Open University of Sri Lanka allows students to get their degrees online. Other Sri Lankan universities of note include the University of Moratuwa, the University of Kelaniya and South Eastern University of Sri Lanka. [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

Sri Lankan universities and their websites: Open University of Sri Lanka (http://www.ou.ac.lk); The University of Peradeniya (http://www.pdn.ac.lk); University of Colombo (http://www.cmb.ac.lk); University of Moratuwa (http://www.mrt.ac.lk); University of Ruhuna (http://www.ac.lk/ruhuna); University of Kelaniya (http://www.kln.ac.lk); Univrsity of Jayawardanapura (www.sjp.ac.lk Sri Lankan Schools Web Sites); Ananda College Colombo (http://www.anandanet.org); Maliyadeva College Kurunegala (http://www.lk/Schools/Maliyadeva); Trinity College Kandy (http://www.geocities.com/thrithva); Colombo International School (http://www.cis.lk); Dharmaraja College Kandy (http://www.rajans.co.uk); St. Thomas College Colombo (http://www.lanka.net/stc); Hindu college Colombo (http://www.hcc.4mg.com); Hindu College Jaffna (http://www.jhc.lk)

The Ministry of Education operates 21 teacher training colleges; of these, four train instructors to teach English as a second language and 17 cover other areas. The Ministry of Higher Education directs 13 polytechnics and eight junior technical institutes. [Source: ”Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Technical Education and Vocational Training

Those who are not admitted to the universities can either enter vocational technical schools or be employed in companies or in government departments as apprentice or trainees. They can also pursue higher education as external students of traditional universities or at the Open University of Sri Lanka. The open university of Sri Lanka was established in early 1980’s with the idea of conferring degrees and diplomas to the working population who can study part-time and pay tuition fees. [Source: My Sri Lanka mysrilanka.com ]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Technical and vocational education includes the fields of engineering, commerce, business studies, and agriculture. Prevocational programs at the secondary level of education are designed to train students for acceptance into higher education in the above-identified fields. The number of technical institutes has increased to 20. Minimum age for admission is 17 years. Diploma and certificate courses from one to four years qualify graduates to certificates from craftsman to technician. Admission to these advanced programs requires the completion of the Higher National Certificate of Education or the GCE (A/L). Engineering, commerce, and business degree programs are offered at Sri Lanka's polytechnic institutes. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Recognizing the increased demand for graduates in technical and vocational fields, the government of Sri Lanka approved the creation of the Tertiary and Vocation Education Commission to prepare and publish plans for five priority industry sectors: gems and jewelry, construction, printing, textiles and garments, and hotel and tourism. Government funds were allocated to promote skill training at private sector industrial establishments at 33 locations. The Department of Technical Education and Training, a major provider of technical education and vocational training, increased its services to 36 technical colleges enrolling 16,170 students in 1999. The Sri Lankan Institute of Advanced Technical Education conducted higher-level courses in engineering, accounting, commerce, and agriculture for an additional 2,839 students. In rural areas the Vocational Training Authority (VTA) enrolled 21,092 students in different curricula programs.

“It is expected that the VTA will expand its training facilities to 36 new sites and establish 6 new special vocational training centers. An additional 20,118 students were enrolled in the National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority, studying over 180 courses. The National Institute of Technical Education was re-established in 1999 as an autonomous institute to effect teacher training and curriculum development in the technical and vocational fields. Over the next five years development funds from foreign governments will increase technical and vocational skill-development programs of study among the nation's population. The government of Sri Lanka intends to encourage the private sector to do more in the education and training of students in vocational fields.

Reform of Higher Education in Sri Lanka

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Government-directed university reforms focus on the expansion of the university system, curriculum reform, quality assurance, staff development, career guidance, counseling, and finance. All Sri Lankan universities have initiated action to reform existing curricula to accommodate a modular course unit system, which provides students with greater flexibility in selecting degree programs and individual courses. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Continuous assessment will replace the final examination system traditionally used to evaluate academic progress. New academic faculty at the university level will be required to attend an induction course at staff development centers established at the Universities of Colombo, Peradeniya, Kelaniya, Jaffna, Sabaragamuwa, and Sri Jayawardanapura. Six universities have already set up Career Guidance Units to link potential graduates with private-sector careers. The Sri Lankan government plans to increase the number of dormitories on university campuses to accommodate up to 75 percent of the student population.

“Even though the central government is responsible for review of the university system, the adoption of reforms and the pace of reform are left to the individual school. Students are required to accept the reforms. The government is intent on improving the overall quality of the higher education system. In particular, the government plans to increase the number of university-industry links, with the hope of intensifying the study of advanced applied research with foreign universities, in order to challenge both the teaching staff and the students. An increased number of student exchange programs are being offered to expose students to university programs in other countries.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.