Friday 14 June 2013


Millions of well-wishers around the world have been praying this week for one of the world’s most remarkable human beings, Nelson Mandela. I count myself among those who have been touched down the years by this supreme statesman’s humility, humanity and simple, yet profound wisdom. During my time with the British Council in South Africa back in the nineties, I had the unique honour and privilege of meeting Madiba in person on two separate occasions. His physical presence and the aura around him has stayed with me since then – as have some of his wise words. 

Education sits at the heart of our work in the British Council. Creating opportunities for people worldwide and education go hand in hand. Mandela’s own personal journey enabled him to capture and communicate the transformative power of education:

"Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine that a child of farm workers can become the President of a nation.” – Nelson Mandela

His wise words have been whirring through my busy brain this week as my team and I prepare to kick off the inaugural session of the Global Education Dialogues: South Asia Series. The opener in this six-part series of discussions between governments, universities and industry, welcomes 100 delegates from 10 countries to Colombo to engage in debates on critical Higher Education issues and policy.

In meeting new challenges, universities globally are becoming increasingly innovative about where and how they operate and respond to demand. From a UK perspective, last year saw 517,000 international students enrolled on UK Degree Programmes being delivered wholly outside the UK, as opposed to 435,000 students that studied at home campuses. The rapid expansion in what we call Transnational Education (TNE) throws up a range of challenges for host governments, higher education providers, students and their parents who recognise the doors a good education can open up for their children. 

So, what’s going to be on the agenda in Colombo next week? The theme of the inaugural session of the South Asia Series is ‘Transforming Higher Education in South Asia’; a timely discussion for Sri Lanka and the region with the increase in TNE provision. For me, there are some really nuggety questions and tensions that need to be unpicked and unpacked. Among some of the hot topics, I’m particularly interested in:

Access Vs. Quality: TNE increases access and affordability to internationally recognised higher education programmes, but how is quality monitored and maintained?

Same degree, same student experience?: Many TNE providers market their programmes with attractive blurbs stating that students will finish up with the same internationally recognised degree as students studying on home campuses. However, what about the entire student experience? How does this differ and does it really matter?

Private Vs. Public: As private higher education expands exponentially what impact does this have on public universities? Is a two-tier system an inevitability in many countries? Can the privatisation of higher education raise overall standards?  

Many of these questions will be surfaced, debated, and challenged in Colombo on 18 and 19 June. In addition to the 100 delegates from South Asia and the UK taking part in these timely face-to-face discussions, there are ample opportunities for people around the world to follow, engage in and actively contribute to the series of educational policy dialogues taking place in South Asia and the UK. The second session of the South Asia Series will be held in London, followed by subsequent sessions in Dubai, Mumbai, Dhaka, and finally in Lahore. 

By Tony Reilly, Country Director, British Council Sri Lanka

Please join the conversation online in turning this into a genuinely global debate:



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