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Sri Lanka private universities; do not rush and spoil the soup
25 May, 2010 06:37:55
By W A Wijewardene
May 25, 2010 (LBO) - The announcement by the new Minister of Higher Education, Hon S.B Disssanayake, on assuming office and in subsequent interviews, that the top priority of his Ministry will be to make available more opportunities for the youth to pursue university education in Sri Lanka has echoed a long standing wish of the community.
To attain this goal, he has revealed that the ‘government will invite foreign universities of repute to set up branches in the country and interested private individuals to open private universities’.

The renowned scholar and respected educationist, Rev Professor Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thero, Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, is also reported have advised the Minister that he should strive to attain his goal with an ‘unbending spine’, thereby cautioning the Minister of the need for standing valiantly to the mounting opposition that may come up from various quarters.

Opponents to Private Universities

From past experience, one may surmise that such opposition may come from his own Cabinet colleagues, opposition politicians, academics, student unions and citizens who may sincerely believe that it is the government’s duty to provide education to people at all levels. In fact, the first sign of opposition manifested itself within days of the Minister’s announcement in the form of posters on the city walls criticizing the Minister and one student body openly declaring war with government against its new higher education policy.

The Need for Quality Assurance

However, overcoming the opposition is only a half of the battle which the Minister will have to fight in the pursuit of this goal. The other half of the battle constitutes the establishment of a viable, sustainable and quality assured private university system in the country to function effectively alongside the existing state university system.

A University Degree: A Device for Social Mobility

The demand for higher education arises from the community mainly because it is a sure way for a person to move up in the social ladder which economists call ‘social mobility’. Higher education, especially university education, is believed to enrich the human capital of an individual and that enrichment is said to open up new opportunities enabling him to earn a higher stream of income on a permanent basis. Hence, with the expansion of the middle class which normally takes place with the progressive growth of an economy, the demand for university education too expands phenomenally. But if the local university system cannot satisfy that demand, the unsatisfied parents do not have a choice, but to seek facilities available elsewhere to have their children educated.

When they do so, the experience shows that they do not seem to mind whether it is a private university or a state university or a local university or a foreign university, as long as the institution involved is a recognised university. This is demonstrated by the parents’ choice of higher learning institutions in such countries as Bangladesh, Nepal, China and India which are latecomers to the international higher education business and do not have a proven track record of the standard and quality as the long standing universities in the Western world.

The Crime of Suppressing the Demand for University Education

The plight of the parents who are unable to send their children out for university education is rather pathetic. They have for long been agitating for the expansion of the university education facilities in Sri Lanka and their collective call has been for the government to break the monopoly and allow the private sector to set up universities. For all these years, this demand has been kept in suppressed form by the country’s political leadership which did not dare to face head on the organised opposition, which very often becomes violent, to a private sector participated university education system. Spending Foreign Exchange for University Education is not a Sin

For many, Sri Lanka should open up private universities in order to save foreign exchange which the country is spending in large volumes year after year. They clam that it is a sin to waste the country’s scarce resources. This is nothing but the familiar ‘import substitution argument’. Spending money on education is an investment and in this case, it is an investment in the most desirable and productive capital of the day, namely, investment in human capital.

With the increase in quality graduates who have studied in reputed foreign universities, the country’s human capital stock too enhances improving its capacity to produce more and sustain that production levels. Hence, spending foreign exchange on education is just like importing machinery and equipment that add to the country’s physical capital stock. As such, Sri Lanka should open up its university education system not to preserve foreign exchange, but to improve its human capital stock with quality education available within its own borders.

If quality is not assured, then, the opening up of the university education system does not bring about any perceptible benefit to the country.

The Need for Careful Planning

In the past, private university education was introduced to Sri Lanka in a very ad hoc manner. While the government was bent on expanding the state owned university system, the University Grants Commission or UGC had been empowered to approve the requests for degree awarding status by private institutions at its own discretion on a case by case basis. In the absence of a clearly spelt out policy in this regard, private organisations were groping in the dark; with many state sponsored requests being approved with no difficulty, private institutions too were compelled to seek state assistance for getting recognised.

The inevitable result was that these approved institutions failing to maintain the required quality or standards on the one hand and failing to be financially viable on the other. It in fact gave a bad name for the privately managed universities in the country. There was one occasion where such a privately managed medical school being absorbed by the state sector and attaching it to a state university which did not have experience in running a medical school.

Hence, quality assurance, financial viability and continuous surveillance are essential prerequisites of opening up of the country’s university education to the private sector.

UGC Needs Capacity Enhancement

UGC as the name denotes, is a body that has been set up to allocate state resources among the state universities. Though it has come of age with more than 30 years of existence, it has not been able to assure the quality of the state university system over which it has direct controlling power. There is no system of rating of universities in place and students apply for admission to various universities on hearsay and not by informed knowledge. This has made the matter for the employers more difficult. They go by some ‘rule of thumb criteria’ for evaluating the prospective graduates who seek employment with their institutions.

It is therefore necessary to enhance the capacity of UGC if it is charged with the task of assuring quality, overseeing financial viability and continuous surveillance of the private universities to be set up under the new system.

Continuous financial viability is important because if a private university is mismanaged and becomes bankrupt, the students who go through the system and have not yet completed their degrees cannot be left in the lurch. Then, it will become a liability of the state to take over such institutions and rehabilitate them as has happened in a number of cases in the past.

In such a scenario, a private university will become a liability of the society rather than a value adding asset.

How does the UK Handle it?

The United Kingdom, when it started to open up its higher education system to the private sector, set up a Quality Assurance Agency or QAA to advise the Privy Council which has the power to grant degree awarding status to any private educational institution. QAA is owned and financially supported by its members who are universities, but in order to maintain independence, quality assurance and rating are done by an independent executive board, similar to arrangements found in rating companies with separate rating boards independent from the governing boards. Unlike Sri Lanka’s UGC, QAA has clearly spelt out its policy, requirements which the prospective candidates have to fulfil and the process of evaluating applications etc. The writer is aware of a case in which he had an interest, it took more than three years for the applicant to satisfy all the requirements which QAA had laid down.

The importance of having a QAA type arrangement is that it makes the entire approval and continuous surveillance process free from politics.

Do Not Rush and Spoil the Soup

Hence, Sri Lanka should do careful planning before introducing private universities to its higher education system. Any rush job that does not reckon quality, viability and sustainability of new private universities is doomed to failure. It will simply discredit the private university system as a whole and vindicate those who are opposed to private universities. Above all, the community too will lose a valuable opportunity to enhance its higher education opportunities.

The writer is a retired deputy governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. To read previous columns in the series go to the WatchTower section on the main navigation panel or click on the links below. He can be reached on

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22. Bimbasra Swarnakanthi Welagede Jun 02
Social skills and communication skills: One need to ask is University the place to teach such skills? Or isn't it too late in their lives when students enter university to focus on such skills.

Such skills should have already been inculcated through secondary education by the time one reaches university.

Lateral thinking, inventiveness, creativity and innovation, social skills and English language skills: The starting point is primary education.

What we need is an overhaul of whole education from nursery to postgraduate. Not just university.

21. An Outsider Jun 02
I myself am a graduate of a state university, but passed out some ten years ago.
Mr W was our lecturer in development economics and I still remember that we all enjoyed his lectures and were present in the class in full strength.

It is a pity that after a few years things have changed for the worse. Probably, students today do not value real learning, but are after only certificates. Any private university system will have to correct it and state university system has to follow the suit.

20. W.A Wijewardena Jun 01
I recently attended a brainstorming session at a state university on how we could upgrade the quality of graduates passing out from the university. It had been attended by stakeholders, namely, employers, academic staff, parents and students.

Employers insisted that the graduates should have correct attitudes, competency in communication, ICT literacy, social skills and imbibed in a learning culture. Academic staff complained that they are not given sufficient resources and therefore they cannot try out any improvement programme on a continuous basis.

Parents' position was that they had sent their children to improve their capacity, but when they passed out from the university, they had not learned anything from the university, but from other professional courses they had followed.

Students said that they need facilities to learn English, ICT and social skills.

It was the Vice Chancellor who was present there for a brief period and who made the best comment: students should learn how to learn and if they do not know it, they should ask others how they should set about doing it.

I have been teaching economics at several state universities for more than two decades now and my recent experience is that the students do not want to attend classes, especially when they reach the final year.

Yet they sit the exams because the universities at the end yield to their pressure and waive the compulsory attendance requirements To the credit of the students, some of them pass with first classes though they are not regular in attending lectures.

There appears to be something wrong about the whole university business: either the assessment system is wrong or lectures are irrelevant or both.

When I inquired from the studetns why they do not attend lectures, they had a perfectly rational answer: they have to attend during weekends professional classes for which they have paid out of their own pockets!

19. Sunil R May 30
Whilst I agree with Mr. Dalpadado that we lack good technicians, the lack of opportunities for our bright youngsters is also a serious problem.

Our degrees are also archaic and does not bring about rounded personalities. This is evident if one sits through meetings of the OPA where the cream of our professionals meet. Private Universities would therefore force the Government Universities to do some re-thinking.

By the way, one of the most sought after qualification is the NDT from the Moratuwa University. If the NDT course is expanded it will solve much of Mr. Dalpadado's problems.

The tragedy is that for a long time, there exists a concerted effort by some people in the Moratuwa University to undermine this course and to remove it from the University.

The equivalent course-the HND from the SLIATE is a non starter due to lack of funding, infra-structure and teaching staff. If the Technical Institutes of SLIATE could be affliated to the University system and the UGC, in the same manner as the NDT, then these Institutes could be turned round for the benefit of the community.

18. An Outsider May 28
The quotation by Mr W below is a testimony of the erudition and uprightness of the central bankers of yesteryear.

It is a pity that they are all gone now. It is pitier that the university authorities had failed to read the message which had been presented so succinctly and cogently.

I hope that the new Minister of Higher Education will read it in the proper sense.

17. W.A Wijewardena May 27
A great debate has sprung up regarding the issue of private universities and such public discussion of important issues is a good sign.

For those who feel that the state university system could be rescued for the benefit of both Sri Lankan and would be foreign students, a policy recommendation has been given by the Central Bank in its Annual Report for 2002 (p 53) as follows:

‘Sri Lanka’s public university system, which has failed to provide opportunities for all those who aspire to receive a university education, is severely constrained by a chronic shortage of funding, an ailment emanating from the wider budgetary difficulties of the country. The consequence has been disastrous: a gradual deterioration in the educational standards compelling prospective employers to suspect whether to hire the throughput of the university system; continuous agitation by both students and staff for better facilities and failure to attract and retain quality staff to maintain the educational standards.

Valuable lessons could be learned by Sri Lanka in this regard from the experiences of the California State Public University System in the 1960s and the British University System in 1980s when there was a general cut in public funding due to similar budgetary constraints. The University system in both cases responded positively to the new problem by competitively restructuring their universities as private companies would do in similar situations by progressively reducing their reliance on public funding. Income sources were diversified, new income sources were identified and exploited, substantive ancillary products such as research output were developed and marketed and a competitive environment within the universities was created using entrepreneurial rather than academic skills. Courses were rated and then rationalised on the basis of demand for same.

It appears that university authorities in Sri Lanka are sitting idly on a vast resource base which could be developed for the betterment of the university system. Both students and staff must appreciate this need and work together towards saving the system as otherwise a critical stage would be reached when the entire system would face the threat of a general collapse. It is of utmost importance to infuse entrepreneurial skills into running the public universities’

16. Mitrapala Waduthanthri May 26
Give me one good reason why foreign students enroll in Sri Lankan universities? Just one. Except that you are native of a micro atol in polynesia. Let's admit, except for the beautiful campus of Peredeniya our universities have no competitive edge over internationally sought Universities elsewhere in Asia (AIT, NUS, IIT, IIM, Hongkong Polytechnic etc).

One way to improve the quality of local higher education is break the government monopoly. Let each University run independently making their own academic and commercial decisions not being dictated to by UGC. and compete to get best talent locally and internationally.

15. anura May 26
My openion is to develop the governemnt universities and absorb more studends locally internationally. Then government can earn more money on that and further develop the existing universities release the burden. Ask international studends to come and enrill firt to local universities.

The second is that, assure the all governemnt university students the job security.

If you do not do this, the following will happen in near future.

Mr S.B. will loose his ministership or his MP,ship.

The next time the government will loose their power even though they won the war.

Therefore Mr. Namal Rajapaksha Please interfere this matter and protect the governemnt from S.B. as Sri Lankan parents are very much interesting to send their children to Government.

14. avinda May 26
I believe Mr. Dalpadado seems to have an archaic view of higher education like the system itself. Going to university and earning a degree means learning the fundamentals required to apply the skills to solve issues that others cannot.

This process shall create a thinking society, a society that creates entrepreneurs and opportunities and consequently create an adequate reserve where the existing system could fall back for emergency needs, all of which Sri Lanka lacks. i.e. If you want me to elaborate further, a computer software graduate setting up a software company, needs software engineers and a reserve of software engineers for urgent recruitment or expansion.

The problem with unemployed and under-employed graduates in Sri Lanka is due to archaic education view where the students are brain washed to believe that getting a degree will earn them a job automatically, a higher social status and to reach hierarchy. So the state system produces graduates who think they have the priority over others without having to produce results.

As you rightfully mentioned Sri Lanka also lacks people with good technical skills and knowledge and there is a need to build more technical institutes. However, the individual has the choice to choose the University or the Technical school. There are greater needs for technical level jobs in countries like Germany, Korea and Japan, since the system produced enough graduates and some of them eventually endeavoured to create opportunities. In places like Germany butchers are also certified.

13. HADNA May 26
Why any overseas parent wants to enrol his/her child in a local university as a fee paying student, when none of a SL university ranks within top 500 in the world (2009 ranking). A simple Google search revealed that fact. SL’s only sandstone Uni, university of Peradeniya not even in top 600 !! You need less rhetoric and more substance to attract foreign students.

It is disheartening to see still many Sri Lankans believe obtaining a degree is a path way to economic enlightenment. I though those days are gone by and now, we are a progressive society. If all are going to be degree holders who is going a fix a vehicle when its break down. Do not we need trade qualified mechanic for that job, not a degree qualified mechanical engineer? we are pre-occupying with university education at the expense of trade qualification (majority of school leavers end up in this sector, not at universities).

Based on my experience, most developed countries has become developed countries because they have ethics, less corruption (not no corruption!), social justice (we need not only engineers, doctors, but cooks, plumbers, hairdressers so on for a functional economy), rule of law, strong institutions (independent judiciary, independent central bank etc.), cheques and balances so on and so forth, not because they produce myriad of degree holders.

In those countries students with higher IQ’s goes to universities, other still has a comparable quality life even though they do not hold a degree.

Our education system should produce citizens with such attributes not merely degree holders.

There are many myths in Sri Lanka, one is most people believe if you have a degree you can concur whole world. All depend on individual abilities and personal attributes.

After living and working in few advanced nations for few decades, I can tell you that developed countries do not offer jobs to people, just because they have a degree, you have to demonstrate you are competent enough and productive. That is the exact reason why some engineering degree holders driving taxis in developed countries and in the same city others are more successful in their chosen profession.

End of the day obtaining a degree is not a big deal anyway!! How many people do not complete their degree once you enrolled in, not many.

I echo Niro’s comments we need all facets of professional, trade people, farmers, unskilled workers to have a healthy and a productive economy. Reality is some end up as professionals, some as trade people and others as low skill workers, but we need all of them without discrimination for a functional society.

Unfortunately, at this moment of time, my opinion is SL is not a functional society. Biggest problem is we all wants to become elites, getting a degree is a passport to achieve that (however, SL is not alon, common to most third world developing countries).

12. Lakshman Dalpadado May 26
Sri Lanka needs productive people- basically technical people like graduates from Polytechnics. People who can build and repair things like a refrigerator, car, computer, a printer or wiring. And not people with obscure degrees that are not worth the paper thats printed on. At present most of these jobs are done by unqualified people who learn on the job with , at times , quite disastrous consequences. We all pay a high price for our poor services because of this.

Private universities may reverse the trend of students going abroad,mostly from middle class Colombo and suburbs, and may improve the standard of graduates but the fact remains that it would not solve the problems we face as I have discussed above.

For example 90% split type home air-conditioners are installed improperly because none of the technicians have understood the rationale behind a split type A/C. The main reason for buying a split type A/C , which is far more expensive than a ' window ' type, is to isolate the compressor which is noisy and vibrate, as far away as possible from the bedroom. To achieve this every split A/C comes with at least 5 meters of conduit- and the compressor filled with the correct amount of gas to obtain the optimum pressure. But invariably what happens is that the technician will cut the conduit and cut a hole in the the window and take the gas and electrical conduit through the glass and fix the compressor just outside, on the bedroom wall-- Only 1-2 meters away from the internal unit( the evaporator).

During the night, when most people have the bedroom a/c on, noise and vibration of the compressor is transmitted through the wall and the glass window. If you do not mind the noise you could be far better off with a window type a/c, which is by far cheaper and easier to install.

None of the A/c technicians I questioned knew the rationale behind a split type, and I had to write to several company heads( Singer, Soft logic,) to inform and educate them. This is just one example- I can give you hundreds of similar examples.

The problem is every parent in Sri Lanka think that their child is a budding Einstein and wants them to go to a university, even if the degree certificate is not worth the paper thats written on, and even when they know that the child is not going to succeed. This fascination with University Degrees is pathetic. Streets in Colombo, and the suburbs, are littered with unemployed graduates from various universities.

I personally know of three families where one parent had committed suicide, because of financial difficulties as a result of sending their children abroad for studies - And many more are in debt.

In technically advance countries like germany( also Korea and Japan) most students elect to go to a Polytechnic rather than a university knowing that they are assured of a job on graduation and can join a world famous company with good pay- a company like Siemans, Bosch, Mercedes or BMW. Students are selected after primary education by the school and the most promising ones are directed towards a University education and others are steered towards a Polytechnic. Judging by the success of companies like LG, Samsung and Hyundai, this policy seem to have served these countries well.

We need more technical institutions like Polytechnics so that most A/level students who fail to gain access to a university can graduate in something useful and serve the country well - instead of hankering after a degree from a obscure university in Latvia.

11. Lecturer May 26
Its like the proverbial "devil and the deep blue sea". Youth due to lack of proper education and employment turned to violence. What would happen if all these youth get degrees and join the masses without jobs (both unemployment and under-employment)? We have a good system that at many stages of schooling chooses the best from the rest and allow them to proceed to the highest levels.

What is needed is a system that takes care of the REST who fail to win the race to the limited university slots available. Having more universities is the cure?

People seem to think that just because foreign universities have the image they are better. It may not be the case; the best example being the Harvard grads who managed to screw uo the US financial system ( am quoting from an article from Newsweek no less!)

It is well documented that we need to follow the example of Singapore for ALL aspects of development of the country. Ditto for education as well, where even our Professors are teaching defense studies to many who pay the fees! The problem is people who come up with suggestions seem to pluck them from air rather than researched-analyzed propositions. Hence the failure of the education system !

10. rice pudding May 26
Great move. What we fail to account for as well is that many students who go abroad to study never return to Sri Lanka: they find jobs abroad and stay on. This brain drain needs to be reversed.
9. Academic May 25
A nice timely article. As an academic myself I have always felt that Sri Lanka should open the doors for private universities. I agree fully with Avinda “that the higher education system in Sri Lanka is archaic” . Having private universities will improve the quality of state universities, through competition.
8. Kawdaboy May 25
More education opportunities, more people will go overseas for work and remitt money back to Sri Lanka. This is the govt. defacto economic plan 101.
7. olubakka May 25
External degrees affiliated to top universities in the world or the existing universities is another way to increase the opportunities for the youth care full selection of degree programmes to suit the i economy and the local demand as well as to suit the international job market has to be done before setting up these. continues upgrade or changes to suit these should also be available in the mean time we have to change the secondary education to suit the demands. production of arts graduates with no job demand is continuing to make unemployment among the youth which is a good base for the JVP or LTTE.
6. Avinda May 25
I cannot understand the reasons for declaring war against the minister, since private higher education already exists in the Sri Lanka. However, there is currently no mechanism in the country to monitor the quality of these systems.

What people have not realised in Sri Lanka is that higher education is a necessity. I do agree with the author that many parents in desperation send their children to Bangladesh, China for their higher education studies, the quality and the recognition of these institutes are questionable. I have my doubts that any decent university in a developed country would accept these degrees for their post graduate studies.

It is not difficult to evaluate the standard of the education institutes around the world. There are systems available which rank the relative standard of the institutes, which illustrates the quality of education you get. One could find this information through a simple internet search. Therefore what is required is a mechanism to have a bench mark for minimum standard of a higher education institute and educate the prospective students prior to enrolment.

My experience in Sri Lanka (2009) showed that the higher education system in Sri Lanka is archaic and most graduates including engineering are under-employed. It is not un-common to find graduate engineers with a job title “Engineer” and doing jobs related to a technicians. How could this be improved?? Look up to Sri Lanka’s big neighbour “India”.

a) work out how India managed to create IIT using her own resources,

b) expand the state universities to private fee paying students, use this resource to enhance the human, infrastructure and study materials. I believe there are more other avenues.

5. Niro May 25
It is essential to separate higher education institutions who award ‘degrees’ and those who provide quality education for those who have the drive, ambition and the ability to learn.

Many higher education institutions (specially in UK and Australia) are profit driven and they offer ‘degrees’ to anyone who is willing to pay the course fee and spend 2-3 years at their campus. Those who enroll at such universities end up with ‘degrees’ with little ability grasp what they were taught and what education is all about. It’s common to see ‘engineering degree’ holders driving taxis in Australia.

There is no point having educational institutions in Sri Lanka just let as many people to get ‘degrees’ and to save foreign exchange spent on higher education. If we do, we too would end up with a myriad of ‘degree holders’ unable to be productive participants of the economy.

Although it is a basic human right, the harsh reality is ‘higher education is not for everyone’ (not everyone can become expert musicians just because you have money and institutions who are willing to teach music!). There are limits to what you can achieve educationally no matter how wealthy or driven you are.

4. Channa May 25
Excellent article.
Competition stimulates research. Hence to attract a student as a 'customer' private universities have to offer better laboratory facilities, good libraries, competitive exams, IT, best teachers, ensure high standards in thesis evaluation etc. The profit motive does bode well to that of the social motive of state universities.

This happens largely with local private sector teaming with established universities abroad. Joint ventures.

I at all, there is suspicion of private degree courses, it's to be blamed on external or long distance courses offered by some foreign universities. As WA says, quality rating is a must.

3. Kolitha Fernando May 25
What I believe is allowing government Universities to enroll International students will be the first step that government need to follow before they invite the Private Universities to open branches in Sri Lanka.

I think standards of Government Universities in Sri Lanka is higher than most of the universities in subcontinent

2. Aj May 25
State universities have had a monopoly to increase their research capacities for decades. They have not done it. They need to not be give extensions to mess up people's lives some more.

It is unlikely that they will do suddenly do so now. Research universities come up through a long process and are perhaps the top of the pyramid. In the meantime delays will mean that another generation of children will be denied a quality affordable tertiary education. The rights of these children take precedent over any 'state university'.

Therefore the process of setting up a regulatory system should be started on now, knowing that the delay of each year affects the liberty of maybe 200,000 children coming out of grade 12 to get into a university.

In any case it will take several years for the process to gather momentum. We already know that some state degrees have failed - i,.e external degrees for example. Their failure has proved costly to the nation as 40,000 or more degree holders had to be given state jobs in 2004. That is perhaps the biggest failure of state tertiary education anywhere in the world given the size of our population and their ability to pay to give free jobs to people.

How long does it take to set up a regulatory law anyway? This is not rocket science. A year? Two years?

People cannot wait until state universities wake up and reach 'international standardds'. This is the same old import substitution/infant industry argument (as pointed out by the writer) pushed by vested interests for decades to give them an unjust grip on the people.

1. Dr. Rupananda Widanage May 25
This is an excellent summary of factors that should be taken into account by policy makers in educational sector in Sri Lanka. In addition to these factors, policy makers should consider the quality of education in state universities, if they (Policy makers including Hon. Minister) really want to protect the free education in Sri Lanka.

According to my experience as a University lecturer, quality of teaching and research in some faculties (particularly arts, social sciences and humanities, and Management and Finance)of many universities in SL at a very low level compared to the international standards. Given this, it is very difficult to attract reputed foriegn universities to establish branches in SL as sri lankan policy makers expect. Thus, I sincerely believe that it is very important to improve the qyality of teaching and research in state universities before establishing private universities in SL.

Thus,I would suggest policy makers to maintain internationally recognised teaching and research standards in state universities and then consider the establishment of private universities. I belive that this will lead to improve the quality of both state and private sector universities through the competion.