Unemployed Unrest: Why Can’t Sri Lankan University Graduates Find Jobs?

The streets of Colombo often host the tumultuous protests of unemployed university graduates. The government sometimes responds by giving the protesters positions in the state sector. At other times, they are met with water cannons and tear gas. But neither of these responses address the root causes that result in abnormally high graduate unemployment in the country. 

A protest by unemployed graduates before the election in 2015—not an uncommon sight in Colombo. Photo Credit: Daily FT

Universities are expected to, among other things, conduct pure and applied research, offer solutions to social problems and train students for the academic and professional sectors. 

In his 2008 study, R. G. Ariyawansa, a researcher at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, noted that the students who graduate university have an expectation that they are guaranteed a top or mid-level job in a professional position. “Almost all Sri Lankan families believe that higher education is a secure path to higher employability for their children,” he said.

But out of the roughly 300,000 students that sit for the Advanced Level General Certificate of Examination every year, only 27, 600 receive admissions in universities in an average year. And even the fortunate few who make it into university soon find that their qualifications aren’t enough to secure employment. 

“Therefore, some graduates engage in unskilled jobs with low salaries while others remain unemployed until the government provides opportunities.” Ariyawansa said. This manifests in frustration and unrest, as students protest for public sector jobs, or against private universities, which they fear will bring more competition to an already competitive job market. 

These problems are not new, having been reported on since the academic year of 1959/60, and as a solution, the United Front Government recruited the first batch of unemployed graduates in 1970, and most recently, between July 2018 and July 2019, the government issued 21, 800 appointment letters to unemployed graduates. 

A Mismatch Of Skills And Education

The problem begins with the different degrees offered at universities, which offer students different job prospects. “Generally, the graduates who followed job-oriented courses, such as law, medicine, engineering, architecture, accountancy etc. can find jobs…” Ariyawansa explained. 

These faculties guide their students towards properly defined jobs and often have links with professional bodies. But although they promise stable career paths, it is usually limited to one field. 

Degrees in the social sciences and humanities, on the other hand, offer many options for study, but cannot guarantee jobs. 

Most contemporary research has also highlighted that the skills of educated youth, especially those of Sri Lankan graduates, are not suited to private sector employment opportunities and job requirements. In 2009 the National Education Commission identified three main reasons for this: “negative attitudes”, “lack of communication skills”, and “lack of English knowledge.” 

The battle between state university students and private institutions has been long. Already struggling to find work, unemployed graduates fear private institutions will increase competition for jobs. Photo Credit: Lanka News

According to Kanaga Singam, a researcher at the Eastern University in Batticaloa, this is the result of a disparity between what is taught in universities and what is required by employers. “There is a mismatch between employers’ expectations and the quality of graduates. Therefore, there is a need to match the skills of graduates with the needs of the industry, he told Roar Media

Singam said it was imperative that graduates develop not just skills, but also practical experience. “Graduates would have a competitive advantage where universities incorporate employability skills in their curricula,” he said 

This skills mismatch—also identified in a previous study by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka—can lead to unemployment for many years after graduation. Convenor of the Unemployed Graduates Association, Venerable Tenne Gnananda Thera has said that some of the graduates in the organisation are over 35 years, but still unable to effectively face an interview. Singam also noted that university students had argued that it was the ethical responsibility of the university to providing young people with these essential employability skills.

Education mismatch is another dimension of this problem. When a person is educationally mismatched, he or she is unable to utilise the skills acquired through learning, and is also unable to gain real output from the investment made on education. “Vertical mismatch occurs when the level of education that an individual has is not suitable for his or her job,” Singam said.

Vocational training programs offer an alternative route to employment by giving graduates the specific skills needed to work in various industries. Photo credit: tamiltrust.com

A vertical mismatch can occur in two ways: over education or under-education. Over education is when an individual is recruited for a job that requires a lower level of education than that possessed by the person in question. Under education, on the other hand, is when the individual has an education lower than that expected for the job. 

“The result of vertical mismatch is either the presence of over-educated workers who bring skills in excess of the skills required for that job, or under-educated workers, whose skills are inferior compared to those required for that particular job,” Singam said. “And both these situations may result in negative consequences for the job market.”

An Inability To Find Work 

The formal economy in Sri Lanka, too, has failed to generate enough jobs to absorb the graduates of local universities, creating an excess. And while recruiting graduates into the government service does help expand socio-economic, political and technological public development programmes, the public sector is unable to absorb all of the undergraduates unemployed every year. 

To address this, various vocation training programmes—such as the ‘Tharuna Aruna’ programme—have been launched to give graduates the skills necessary to obtain jobs in the private sector. But not even these guarantee employment and graduates continue to protest because they are unable to find work.  

The solution, Singam believes, lies with  reform in coordination—“the act of organising different people or things to work together for a goal or effect.” He noted that universities had less and less connectivity with other stakeholders, and suggested developing networking and connectivity in order to improve the employability among graduates. “This involves developing academic networking with global and national academia and industries, stronger and proactive alumni to provide financial support to bright and needy students, placement guidance, personality grooming, and industry exposure, ” he said. 

Cover Image Credit: sithayanews.lk

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