Everything else.. The District Quota System: A Relic of the Past?

The District Quota System: A Relic of the Past?

2017 Sep 10

The primary role of any state is the protection of its citizens and their best interests. This duty often involves making tough decisions and taking hard stances on certain issues, which in Sri Lanka has always been the case for the government in terms of its position on state education. In a utopian world, every government would possess  the necessary resources to fund an efficient and high quality tertiary education system with the capacity to accommodate a sizeable portion of the country’s youth. Needless to say, reality falls miserably short with the result of conflict amongst our youth on issues that have proved to be deeply divisive. Among these issues, the supposed divide between the quality of state and private education, as well as the fairness of the university entry system in Sri Lanka remain volatile and sensitive areas. This article will focus on the latter, and in particular the District Quota System which plays a decisive role in the process of entry into state universities.

Some of the more salient features of the present admission system is as follows:

  • The policy of district based admission was introduced in the 1972, which retained a small component of all-island merit based admission
  • The quotas are applicable to all subject streams, except the arts stream where a merit based admission system is in place
  • As it presently is, the quota works through the allocation of 40% of available university placements  on an all-island merit basis, 55% of places in each course of study allocated to students in each district in proportion to population ratio (i.e. placements are given to the district on the basis of population percentage), and the remaining 5% allocated to students from 16 districts deemed to be educationally disadvantaged

The government made minor amendments to the overall system in the early 2000s, by introducing the Z-score, a standardised measurement, as a way of eliminating inconsistencies arising out of difficulty in scoring marks in different subjects. Additionally, the Common General Test was also put in place, which was intended to act as an aptitude test for university admission. However this too is strife with issues, and has not proved to be as effective as intended in bettering the admissions process.

Over the years the quota system has seemingly proved to be a problematic policy, failing to achieve its objective of providing equal access to state sponsored education to deserving students in educationally disadvantaged districts. What takes place in reality only highlights the weaknesses of the system and serves to exacerbate an already dismal state of local tertiary education. The fact remains that in each district there are always relatively better resourced schools and those that lack the same facilities. It is those students that can afford to go to better equipped schools are those that end up securing places in local universities through the quota. Critics are therefore concerned that all the quota does is simply concentrate opportunity among the rural upperclass and not the intended beneficiaries within poorer districts. The system is also vulnerable to abuse, with students from better resourced districts registering for exams in under-resourced areas in order to circumvent the high cut-off marks and thereby secure university placement, or students who simply register for the examination in their home district but study in a more educationally advantaged area. Further, nothing in the present system does anything to address the root cause of the problem, which is the lack of educational facilities and expertise in most districts. Instead the policy only aims at addressing the invariable consequences of a lack of funding and priority to an issue that has spanned several decades. There are also concerns that the quota may still be operating on outdated demographic information that does not reflect the population growth/decline in the districts over the years, resulting in discrepancies in admission numbers.

However despite the deep misgivings many share over the current policy, it would be misleading to say there is no support for it. Proponents point to the greater representation of youth around the country at the tertiary education level. They also argue in support of the equity of the system, giving seriously underprivileged youth the same opportunity to advance their careers and achieve their aspirations. Statistics show that quota based admission has balanced unequal geographical representation in universities, with data showing that in the immediate pre-quota period the percentage of youth from the northern province was at 27.5% for science based courses, even though the province carried only 7% of the total population of the country. This was the same for the Western Province as well, with representation of 67.5% in science based courses in 1969, in comparison to its population percentage of 26%. Following the introduction of the present admission policy, representation of youth from the Western Province dipped to 27% in 1974, very much proportional to its population percentage.

Considering the above, one would certainly wonder whether taking a completely meritocratic approach to university admission would lead to injustice, or if continuing to compensate the inequality between districts through a quota at the cost of deserving students is sustainable. The most ideal way forward would undoubtedly be greater budgetary allocation for education and thereby investing in better resources and facilities for rural schools, in addition to creating greater capacity to accommodate more students in state universities. Unfortunately it seems that band aid solutions such as the district quota system is all we can afford.