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Towards a realistic university admission scheme for Sri Lanka

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By Prof. R.P. Gunawardane

It is heartening to read some recent news reports that the University Grants Commission is contemplating changes in the university admission policy. The current system is outdated, against international practices, and, thus, a complete overhaul of the university admission process is long overdue. In my previous articles, on the same subject, I have stressed the urgent need for the review of the current admission policy and the admission process in keeping with the current national context and international practices.

However, it must be stressed that the university admission in Sri Lanka is extremely competitive and, therefore, it is a very sensitive national issue. When there is a change in the selection methodology, one party is affected while another section of the community is benefitted. Therefore, any proposal to change the current system should go through a process of extensive consultation, debate and a thorough study before it is implemented.

 

Defects in the current scheme

Currently, the district quota system is applicable for selection of students to all streams (Commerce, Biological Science, Physical Science and Technology streams) other than the Arts stream, where all-island merit-based admission operates. In the present district quota system, 40% of the available places are filled on all island merit basis while 55% of the places in each course of study are allocated to the students from 25 districts in proportion to the population ratio. In addition, a 5% of the places in each course of study are allocated to the students from16 educationally disadvantaged districts. The distinct feature here is that it gives more weightage to the admission based on district quotas rather than island wide merit. This has affected a large number of students from urban areas who have performed better at the GCE A/L exam.

The current 40-60 quota system has been in operation continuously for over four decades. No serious attempts have been made to improve facilities in the schools in educationally disadvantaged districts during this period. High weightage (60%) given to district quota over the island wide merit in a highly competitive university admission process appears to be excessive and unfair. The quota system has many defects, and it has been extensively abused by many students. The policy is based on the assumption that educational facilities are not uniform throughout the island to adopt the island wide merit scheme. It also assumes that all schools in the same district are equivalent and have equal educational facilities. However, it is important to note that the discrepancy in the facilities is visible even more within a given district. Each district, whether it is Colombo or Anuradhapura has well equipped good schools as well as poorly equipped bad schools. Therefore, it is hard to justify the basis of this scheme.

Only criterion for university admission is the performance of the candidates at the GCE A/L examination, as measured by the Z score. Prior to 2002 aggregate of marks of different subjects was used for this purpose. In fact, Z score is universally accepted to be much more reliable than the aggregate of raw marks of different subjects in determining the merit order. No other student talents and experiences are considered deviating from international practices. Results of aptitude/IQ tests, school reports and other skills, recognitions, achievements, etc., are not evaluated. No additional testing/interviews are held even for professional courses which require specific talents, abilities, attitudes depending on the profession. To my knowledge, this situation does not exist anywhere in the world.

 

Need for major changes

Since there is disparity in the educational facilities within a district, it would be more appropriate to use a quota system based on islandwide school groups classified on the basis of facilities available in the schools for the selection process. In such a scheme, number of places allocated will be determined in proportion to the number of students sitting the A/L exam. However, in the district quota system, admission numbers are determined in proportion to the total population. The former method is more appropriate for the allocation of places for university admission.

It is disheartening to note that 16 out of 25 districts (64%) in Sri Lanka are declared as educationally disadvantaged areas. These 16 districts are Nuwara Eliya, Hambantota, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mulllativu, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticoloa, Ampara, Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Badulla, Monaragala and Ratnapura. Similarly, out of 9 provinces four entire provinces (Northern, Eastern, North Central and Uva) have been declared as educationally disadvantaged. Only the Western province is educationally advantaged. This classification needs re-examination. If this is the reality after 70 years of achieving independence from British rule, there should be something seriously wrong with our national policy.

In fact, this district quota system was introduced nearly 50 years ago as a temporary measure mainly because of the disparities in the facilities for teaching science subjects at the GCE A/L in schools of different districts. Simultaneously, it was also intended to develop the identified schools on a priority basis and to review the status in the districts after every three years to make necessary policy adjustments. Unfortunately, this did not materialise even after a half century!

Furthermore, it is important to note that practical exams for science subjects at A/L were abolished a long time ago. As a result, practical components of the science subjects are completely ignored in the schools, making laboratory facilities irrelevant. Thus, the need for district quota-based admission even for science streams cannot be justified in the current context. In addition, tuition facilities in science subjects are now widely available in both urban and rural areas.

Thus, in the current context, continuation of an arbitrary district quota system cannot be justified. The effective long-term solution will be to develop the affected schools in the districts on a priority basis with equitable distribution of qualified teachers and get away with the quota system gradually. Furthermore, it is very clear from the above facts that there is no justification for the selection of students to the commerce stream and music, drama and related disciplines using the district basis. It is high time a comprehensive review was done immediately to formulate a more reasonable and a rational admission policy.

Along with policy changes, the admission procedure also needs to be changed. University admission in Sri Lanka is highly centralised at the UGC level with no participation of the universities, except for obtaining number of available places in each course from the universities. This is considered one of the main reasons why a large number of vacancies remain unfilled in the university system every year. It is a waste of resources, in addition to the loss of opportunities for many students seeking university admission.

One group of Sri Lankan students has been eliminated from our university admission process. They are the students who are studying in private/international schools, which do not offer Sri Lankan GCE A/L but instead prepare students for London (UK) A/L exam. These students are in international schools mostly not by choice but by necessity due to unavailability of places in reputed government schools in urban areas like Colombo, Kandy, Galle and even Jaffna. They are also true Sri Lankan citizens who have legitimate expectation to seek admission to state university system. It is very unfair to close the door for these students to our universities. They also should have a pathway for admission to state universities.

Practices in other countries

We have a lot to learn from the experiences of university admission schemes practiced all over the world. Although most countries select students purely on merit, quota systems are operating in a few countries such as China, Venezuela, Brazil, Malaysia and Nigeria for varying reasons. The quota systems are based on criteria such as ethnicity, provincial and territorial identities. These quotas are generally unpopular and heavily criticized in those countries. In India, there are no fixed quotas, but the national universities make sure a fair representation of students from different regions and ensure adequate number of underprivileged sections of the society are admitted.

In almost all the countries in the developed and developing world, the selection of students for university admissions is done entirely by the individual universities based on agreed national, provincial or university policies. In some countries, an independent central body (not the government) does the coordination work while actual admissions are carried out by the universities. This central coordination of university admissions is done to help students apply for several universities in one application form indicating preferences. Since the whole process is done on line using a sophisticated system there is no delay in processing. The individual universities will make sure their additional requirements are satisfied and the interviews will also be conducted as required. Then the offer letters will be mailed and the students will have a deadline for acceptance. This situation prevails in most of the developed world including UK and European countries, Scandinavian countries, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In some countries like USA, the admission is done independently by the individual universities without any central coordination.

In all these countries, many factors are considered for admission. The results of national exams and aptitude tests (e.g., SAT, MCAT), school/teacher reports, work/practical experience, extracurricular activities etc. are all counted in the selection process. The students are subjected to additional testing and interviews depending on the course. The interviews are compulsory for professional degree programs to test their suitability to follow the course and practice the profession. Some of these aspects should be included into our admission policy.

Proposal for changes

As described above, there is an urgent need to change the admission policy and improve our admission procedure in line with international practices. The following proposals are presented for that purpose.

Admission Policy:

The long-term national policy should be to abolish any quota system and achieve island wide merit in all disciplines in the university admissions. Evaluation of merit should also include all other achievements, practical experience, extracurricular activities etc. The following policy guidelines are presented:

1. 100% all island merit should be used for the entire Arts stream (including music and dance) and commerce stream with immediate effect.

2. For the Physical Science, Biological Science and Technology streams all island merit percentage should be increased gradually to reach 100% within a reasonable period with the implementation of a transitional school group-based quota system.

3. Z Scores should continue to be used to measure the merit order of their GCE A/L performance.

4. A transitional quota system based on all-island school groups should be formulated and implemented replacing the district quota system. All schools offering A/L science classes should be classified into 3 or 4 groups on a rational basis depending on the educational/ laboratory facilities, quality of teachers, previous A/L results etc. This should be undertaken as early as possible and completed within a year. After testing this scheme, it should be implemented until such time the selected poorly equipped schools are developed to an acceptable level within about 3 years. At this stage all admissions will be based purely (100%) on merit conforming international norms.

5. There should be a pathway for students (SL citizens only) with equivalent foreign qualifications such as GCE A/L London from local private/ international schools to apply for admission to state universities.

Admission Procedure:

It is necessary that the university faculties are given a specific role in the university admission procedure based on the national policy. The coordination and the monitoring of the admission procedure should be done by the UGC. Highly sophisticated computer system/programme should be employed for this procedure at the UGC with links to universities. The students should have access to this site for application on line indicating their preferences. Universities are expected to select students based on the agreed national policy after any additional testing, interviews etc. This procedure will expedite the admission process and avoid the difficulty in filling vacancies in the faculties currently experienced by the university system.

(The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka)

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Herd immunity and vaccination

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HERD IMMUNITY: A good analogy is protection of calves in a herd of wild buffalos from predation by leopards. A sizeable number of adult bulls and cows in the herd attack and repulse leopards. Once in a way, a leopard would succeed dragging a calf, but a large majority of calves survive to ensure the continuation of the species. (Picture courtesy HAP Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igx_pr6ptAg&ab_channel=HAPChannel)

By Prof.Kirthi Tennakone,
National Institute of Fundamental Studies
(ktenna@yahoo.co.uk)

With the advent of coronavirus vaccines, the idea of herd immunity is gaining ground – but often misunderstood or considered something hard to fathom. Herd immunity means the resistance a community develops against an infectious disease, when a fraction of its residents above a threshold acquires immunity either by exposure to the pathogen or vaccination. Thus, achieving herd immunity could safeguard individuals who cannot be immunized for reasons of being too young, convalescent or because of inadvertent inaccessibility.

A good analogy is protection of calves in a herd of wild buffalos from predation by leopards. A sizeable number of adult bulls and cows in the herd attack and repulse leopards. Once in a way, a leopard would succeed dragging a calf, but a large majority of calves survive to ensure the continuation of the species. If leopards prey exclusively on buffalos, they might be starved into extinction. Buffalos and leopards live in the jungle because the latter also hunt other animals. Similarly, in absence of non-human reservoirs of the pathogen, herd immunity provides a way of controlling an infection causing an epidemic or a pandemic and the elimination of the causative agent.

 

History and theory of herd immunity

Epidemics originate when a pathogen invades a population devoid of immunity. Science fiction writer H.G. Wells in his novel, “The War of the Worlds”, says Martian invaders were not immune to earthly microbes and all died due to an infection. We are not so alien to viruses here and the ability to make antibody machinery to fight them are genetically imprinted in our bodies.

Even in olden days when precautionary measures remained completely unknown or misunderstood, maladies ended before everyone caught the infection. Those days, epidemics were considered divine punishments or expressions of anger of deities. The cause that receded them; attributed to prayers, rituals or offerings to the demons, has been in fact the natural herd immunity.

The Mahavamsa and the Elu Athanagalu Vamsa refer to a catastrophe during the reign of King Sri Sanga Bodhi (252-254 CE). According to the legend in the latter script; a demon named Ratharaksha came to Sri Lanka and cast a spell reddening the eyes of people who stared at it in fear. Many who looked at the eyes of those afflicted also developed red eyes and contracted the illness. Very high mortality thinned the population of the land and the distressed king, ritualistically confronted the demon driving it to exile. The version of the story in Mahavamsa is similar but implicate a female demon Ratarakshi. What is the infectious agent behind this outbreak? From the symptoms described and the extreme contagiousness implied, the illness that ravaged the kingdom seems to be measles. The herd immunity threshold of measles exceeds 95%. There was also a famine accompanying the epidemic. Presumably, malnutrition and absence of immunity greatly increased the measles death toll.

Ages ago people lived in isolated communities. Therefore, an infectious disease which decelerated and vanished after reaching herd immunity did not remerge until the immunized percentage was lowered by people born subsequently. Many epidemics, notably small pox and plague followed cyclic patterns for this reason. Later on, the establishment of vast human settlements and extensive migration, turned epidemics into pandemics and many diseases remained endemic. Historians have also argued that the consequent wider dispersion of diseases, boosted the immunity of the global human herd thereby escalating the population growth.

The idea of herd immunity was first introduced by the American veterinarian George Potter in 1917; he noted a cattle disease disappeared on its own when animals were not introduced to the herd from outside. He said disease resembled a fire which extinguished when all fuel has been consumed.

In 1919 bacteriologist W. Topley infected a few mice in a large colony with a germ. He observed the infection expanded, subdued and stopped after infecting only a certain percentage of mice. Further clarification of difference between individual immunity and herd immunity followed from the work of American statistician A.W. Hedrick. He studied the epidemiology of measles in United States 1900-1911 and concluded measles epidemics ceased when 68% of children under 15 years became immunised after contraction of the illness.

The idea of herd immunity was firmly established after invoking mathematics into epidemiology – mathematician turned physician Sir Ronald Ross pioneered the theme.

Ronald Ross, born in India 1857, received his education in the United Kingdom and returned to his country of birth after qualifying as a doctor. He joined the Indian Medical Service 1880 and worked in Bangalore badly infested with mosquitoes. At the time malaria was suspected to be associated with mosquitoes. Curious, Ronald strived hard to understand how it was transmitted. Mosquitoes in the place he lived has been a nuisance; he closed all stagnant pools in the vicinity of his residence and found the mosquito number falling drastically, but realized complete elimination would be an impossibility. When Ronald Ross was transferred to a station free of malaria, he declined to work in a locality free of malaria!

In 1895, Ronald Ross identified the malarial parasite in stomach of anopheles mosquitoes proving its mode of transmission. He was awarded 1902 Nobel Prize in Physiology for this work done in India.

Having found the cause of malaria; Ronald Ross determined to find a way to eradicate it and resorted to mathematics in attempting to find an answer. His remarkably insightful mathematical analysis revealed malaria could be eradicated by reducing the mosquito population below a threshold dependent on human population density, and the impossible task of destroying every anopheles mosquito was unnecessary. Following work of Ronald Ross, another physician A.G. Kendrick and biochemist W.O. Karnack both well versed in mathematics generalized Ronald Ross’s hypothesis, concluding the progress of infectious disease in a community depends on the average number of infected persons reproduced by one single carrier of the pathogen. If this number referred to as basic reproduction number (R) exceeds unity, the infection could expand into an epidemic whereas when the number is less than one the disease subsides after infecting a few. From statistics pertaining to the growth of an infection, the basic reproduction number can be estimated.

It is easy to see how an infection evolves depending on whether R is greater or less than one. Suppose 10 persons contracted with an infection with R=2 enters a susceptible population. On average, they pass sickness to 20 individuals and this 20 in return reproduce 40 cases – an endless series of ascending numbers. If R is less than one you obtain a descending sequence – implying cases die down.

 

Herd immunity threshold

Suppose a population of N persons includes a number M of individuals immune to a disease. The fraction of immunes in the population is M/N (M divided by N). From simple school arithmetic, it follows that the fraction of persons not immune (susceptible) is (1- M/N). In the presence of immunes, the basic reproduction number scale down proportionately to the fraction of the susceptible population so that the effective reproduction number is (1 –M/N) times R, written as (1-M/N) R. The threshold happens when the effective reproduction number is exactly equal to unity, implying (1 –M/N) R = 1 or equivalently M/N = 1 – 1/R. The fraction M/N given by the above formula, referred to as herd immunity threshold is normally expressed as a percentage. For example, measles being highly contagious, the basic reproduction number can take values close to 20. Setting R = 20 in the formula, we obtain M/N = 0.95. Expressed as a percentage, the herd immunity threshold for measles is 95. To protect a community against measles, over 95 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated.

Vaccinating a community to exceed the herd immunity threshold would not abruptly halt an epidemic. Although the incidence of the disease gradually decreases, vaccinations and containment measures have to be continued until positive cases disappear completely – smallpox was eradicated this way.

 

Can we achieve herd immunity to COVID-19?

Coronavirus vaccines have arrived sooner than expected – many countries including Sri Lanka expeditiously commissioning inoculation campaigns.

Vaccinations and continuous adherence to precautionary measures will undoubtedly tame the virus. However, it is premature to assume global herd immunity would follow and the pandemic will soon end.

According to some estimates an upper bound to basic reproduction number for COVID -19 is around 2.5. Formula M/N = 1- 1/R explained previously, imply that the herd immunity threshold corresponding to R = 2.5 is 60 percent. Vaccines may not be 100 percent efficacious. For an 80 percent effective vaccine, the above thresholds increase to 75 percent. The other question is how long the vaccine induced immunity would last. At the moment sufficient information is not available to decide how the duration of immunity will interfere with the herd immunity threshold and how often vaccinations need to be repeated.

If faster spreading variants of the virus take over, the basic reproduction number and therefore the herd immunity threshold will also increase. The variants may turn out to be more resistant to vaccines. Remodeling of vaccines to make them effective towards variants is technically feasible but would delay the immunisation protocols. The answer to the problem of variants and temporary immunity is speedy vaccination – obviously constrained by real world practicalities.

 

Decreasing trends of COVID -19 incidence

Many regions of the world have begun to see a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths – plausibly a combined outcome of preventive safeguards and immunity derived from exposure to the virus or vaccination.

Israel has given more coronavirus vaccinations per capita than any other country – around 50 percent given one dose and 35 percent both doses. Covid-19 cases are declining and the world is awaiting see the outcome of the Israel experiment.

The United Kingdom has vaccinated more than 30 percent of over 80s and noticed a dramatic reduction in COVID-19 related deaths in this group.

Prompt inoculation of a sizeable fraction of a community is not an easy task. We need to await patiently to see the effectuality of the vaccines.

Dependence of herd immunity threshold on preventive measures

The preventive strategies or so-called non-pharmacological interventions significantly reduce viral transmission thereby lowering basic reproduction number and therefore the herd immunity threshold. Wearing masks, social distancing, hand-sanitizing and ventilation are proven safeguards. There is some evidence and theoretical arguments to the effect that preventive measures not only reduce the risk of contracting the disease but those who catch the disease under such circumstances develop milder symptoms or recover soon, adding to the pool of immunes. Argument rest on inoculum theory of viral transmission, according which the intensity of the infection a patient develops depends on the number of virus particles to which he or she was exposed. Emphasizing this point authors of a recent article published in the prestigious medical journal Lancet appeal to the world to continue strict adherence to preventive measures. This is most prudent method to safeguard against new strains until vaccines are remodeled.

Vaccination priorities

Vaccine production, procurement and organization of immunization campaigns decide the rate at which a community could be vaccinated. These limitations necessitate imposition of priorities. The World Health Organization and individual nations have laid down priority categories. Everyone agree the first priority should be frontline health care workers. The second category the older persons (generally above 65) more vulnerable and at the risk of death after contracting the sickness. Those living under conditions of extreme congestion and poverty are also a priority group identified by WHO. The younger working class, although they are less susceptible to danger of COVID-19, needs to be vaccinated. The policy of neglecting the older group in favour of younger working class is not only unethical but also epidemiologically flawed. In modern societies the percentage older persons (above 65) and socially active are significant. They, being most vulnerable to contracting the sickness because of impaired immunity, if infected, could also be the super spreaders. Recent studies have confirmed the presence of super spreaders, who are mostly elderly patients carrying larger viral loads.

Social reaction to vaccination

Societies react to vaccinations within confines of two extremes: vaccine hesitancy and vaccine overconfidence. The former has prevented eradication measles in localities where the herd immunity threshold stands inordinately high. In some parts of the world, vaccine hesitancy confuses mass COVID-19 inoculation. The latter misconception equally undermines the control effort. Not wearing a mask or not adhering to social distancing because you got the jab is not right. Vaccines are not 100 percent effective and immunity sometimes slacken. People not wearing masks, believing assurance of safety after the jab creates social stigma for those not vaccinated to abandon the precautions.

Vaccines and non-pharmacological interventions will certainly suppress the virus. Rapid decline in reported cases in some parts of the world may be a sign of a distant herd immunity in that region – but what we want is a global effect. As WHO Director Tedros said, “Until we end the pandemic everywhere, we will not end it anywhere “

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Unforgettable memories…

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The memorable meetup – Imran and Alston

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was in town last week. He has been here, before, as a cricketer, and also has a head of a charity organisation.

Meeting a personality, like Imran Khan, is almost an impossibility, one would say, but it became a reality for ‘Disco Lady’ hitmaker, Alston Koch.

On a trip to Sri Lanka, many years ago, as head of a Charity Organisation, Alston had the opportunity of meeting this flamboyant personality – Imran Khan.

According to Alston, meeting and chatting with Imran was a wonderful experience.

Imran was keen to know from Alston as to how he got the name Koch, and Alston had to explain about the Anglo Asian connection, etc.

Describing Imran, as a person, Alston said he was very pleasant and down-to-earth.

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Manilal does it with ‘Island In The Sun’

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We all know Manilal Perera as a singer, and with a voice that generally captivates…the fair sex, especially. But, what about his talents – as a composer!

I never knew about his ability to create songs…to produce originals, until I was told that Manilal had worked on a song, for an online Independence Day event, organised by the Sri Lanka American Association of Southern California.

And, yes, Manilal did indicate to us that he has been working on originals, during the days when he was associated with bands, and has about 15 creations to his credit.

This online Independence Day celebrations highlighted Sri Lanka in various formats – singing, dancing, etc.

The President of the Association, Sondra Wise Kumaraperu, was in touch with Manilal and requested him to do a popular English song, composed by another local artiste, for their online event

Manilal, however, convinced her to do something new and volunteered to create the song, himself.

Within a few days, with the help of fellow musician Kevin Almeida, the singer came up with ‘Island In The Sun.’

Manilal says he worked on the lyrics, while Kevin did the music.

The finished product, which took the form of a video, was shown during the telecast of the Association’s Independence Day celebrations, which was seen by many, via YouTube.

The Association’s President, Sondra, expressing her views, said that ‘Island In The Sun’ is a beautiful song and quite appropriate in glorifying the beauty of our paradise island.

Sondra has been associated with the Sri Lanka American Association of South California for many years. Her term 2020-2021 ends in April. Although she has been asked to stay on, she has declined to do so because of pressure of work, from other sectors, she is involved in.

Sondra runs a montessori school, and has a beauty salon, as well. So, the work load is heavy for her.

In Sri Lanka, Sondra had success, coming her way, as a singer, and even performed with Manilal, on a few occasion – not only in Colombo, but in California, as well.

She also won the Miss Working Girl contest, held in Colombo.

Due to the pandemic, Manilal does a duo scene now, performing at a five star venue, in the city, Sunday evenings.

He says he plans to hand- over the video of the song ‘Island In The Sun’ to the tourism authorities with the hope that his creation would do justice to their promotion of Sri Lanka.

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