Linking Education to Jobs in Sri Lanka

Article | 13 January 2015

Sri Lanka is introducing technology education to secondary students to give them a better chance at entering university or the job market.

In a gleaming, new lab building at Mahinda Rajapakse College, a secondary school on the outskirts of Sri Lanka's capital city Colombo, a science experiment is taking place. Student Rashmi Koushalya observes closely as her teacher creates a microbial-free environment and inserts plant tissues into a growth medium using new, specialized equipment. It has been only a few months since Rashmi transferred to the school to join the first batch of students enrolled in Sri Lanka’s new technology education stream.

“My ambition is to be a nanotechnology scientist, or work in the weather department,” she says. “I think this subject is very important for my future.”

So does the government. Sri Lanka’s economy has been growing rapidly since the end of a long and bitter civil conflict in 2009. That growth is creating new jobs and the government wants to ensure its schools are producing graduates that can meet the needs of private industry and support sustainable economic growth.

Modernizing secondary education

A strong national commitment to education has already paid off. Universal primary education and literacy rates are over 95% in the country. But there is still a need to improve secondary education. The government estimates that about a third of students still leave secondary school without sufficient academic qualification or skills training to enter the labor market. So while the recent economic boom has pushed overall unemployment lower, about 18% in the 15-24 age group still can’t find work, almost five times higher than the overall rate.

The new technology stream is one part of the government’s response. The wide-ranging Education Sector Development Framework and Program for 2013-2017, or ESDFP, aims to modernize secondary education by deepening curriculums; improving learning outcomes in core subjects such as science, math, and English, and pass rates at both ordinary and advanced levels; improving school facilities, especially in rural areas; and developing a national student assessment framework, which integrates school assessments with external exams.

ADB is supporting the ESDFP through a $200 million loan to the Government of Sri Lanka approved in 2013.

Until last year, students interested in engineering or technical sciences would choose the traditional arts and science stream at secondary school. That stream focuses on preparing them to enter the nation’s elite universities. However, only a small percentage of students are admitted to universities. Those who don’t often leave school without the skills needed in the market.

The new technology stream emphasizes job-relevant training and the development of career path connections to further vocational training and employment. There is a strong focus on practical learning with students joining frequent lab sessions and visiting local technical colleges and vocational schools to get first-hand experience with mechanical equipment.

Still, when the new stream was introduced some students and teachers questioned if the practical approach would really lead to better opportunities.

Focus on practical skills

“Frankly speaking, in the beginning, the teachers weren’t confident in what was going to happen,” says Diroshan Gunawardana, one of the first teachers to join the technology stream faculty at Mahinda Rajapakse College. A particular concern was whether there would be suitable university degree programs or certification prospects available to graduates of the program.

The Ministry of Education has acted to address this concern and ensure pathways for future study and qualification. Several national universities are now introducing a Bachelor of Technology degree that will be open to students from the technical stream. These students can also pursue nationally recognized vocational qualification certificates, even while completing their secondary studies. These certificates open doors to higher-level vocational certification upon graduation or entry-level jobs.

The ministry is working to raise awareness of the new stream. It has produced training materials for guidance counselors and is developing a campaign to inform teachers, parents, and students about various career options and how the technology stream will prepare students for them.

“I feel that with the interventions made by the Ministry of Education and by other sectors, the gaps are being bridged,” says Diroshan. “Now teachers feel confident encouraging students to take up this stream.”

As for Rashmi and her classmates, they feel lucky to be pioneers. Rusiruan Thasara has always wanted to be an engineer and says he likes the technology stream’s focus on practical skills. Kushan Thihagga thinks the program widens his options: If he does well on the advanced level exam, he can take the traditional route to university; if that doesn’t work out he will have useful skills to find a technical job.

It is that added flexibility that led R. Damayanthi to enroll her son in the new program too. “From an early age, he has been doing experiments,” she says of her son Sachitha. “This stream will give him the support to do what he most prefers. It will give him some skills and the hands-on experience needed to do something on his own in the future. Even though he may not be able to go on to greater heights in education, he will still be able to find opportunities in the job market or through self-employment.”