Education in Sri Lanka

Education in Sri Lanka
Ministry of Education
Ministry of Higher Education
National education budget (2012)
Budget 1.7% of GDP [1]
General details
Primary languages Sinhala, Tamil and English
System type Provincial
Literacy (2015[2])
Total 92.63%
Male 93.63%
Female 91.71%
Total 350,000
Secondary 200,000
Post secondary 14,000 (10-12%)

Education in Sri Lanka has a long history that dates back two millennia. The Constitution of Sri Lanka provides for education as a fundamental right. Sri Lanka's population had an adult literacy rate of 92.63% in 2015, which is above average by world and regional standards.[note 1] Education plays a major part in the life and culture of the country and dates back to 543 BC. Sri Lanka's modern educational system was brought about by its integration into the British Empire in the 19th century. Education currently falls under the control of both the Central Government and the Provincial Councils, with some responsibilities lying with the Central Government and the Provincial Council having autonomy for others.


Primary school to higher education are primarily funded and overseen by three governmental ministries.[3]

Exceptions to this system exist — mostly when it comes to tertiary with several public universities and institutes coming under the purview of different ministries. These divisions have led to a high degree of mismanagement and inefficiency over the years.


Education in Sri Lanka has a history of over 2300 years. It is believed that the Sanskrit language was brought to the island from North India as a result of the establishment of the Buddhism in the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa from the Buddhist monks sent by Emperor Asoka of India. Since then an education system evolved based around the Buddhist temples and pirivenas (monastic colleges), the latter primarily intended for clergy (even to this day) and higher education. Evidence of this system is found on the Mahawamsa and Dipavamsa, the Chronicle of Lanka that deals with the history of the island from the arrival of Prince Vijaya and his followers in the 6th century BC.[4]

With the outset of the colonial expansion on the island, first in the coastal provinces and then interior, Christian missionary societies become active in education. The Anglican Church's monopoly of Government Schools and in education ended following the Colebrooke Commission set up by the British administration.

Primary and secondary schools

A standard system of government schools were begun by the British based on the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission in 1836. This is regarded as the beginning of the government's schooling system in the island. It started with the establishment of the Royal College in Colombo (formerly the Colombo Academy) and lead to the formation of several single sex schools constructed during the colonial period, by the British.[5] Some of these schools were affiliated to the Anglican Church. These included S. Thomas' College in Mount Lavinia and Trinity College in Kandy. The education in vernacular schools was largely free due to government grants to cover the cost of teaching and local philanthropists providing the buildings, equipment and the books.[6] Colebrooke decreed that all government schools be discontinued. The order did not apply to denominational Missionary schools and they continued to function unceasingly.

Royal College Main building

In 1938 the education system in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was made formally free following the granting of universal franchise in 1931. The Minister of Education, late Hon. Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara, and the Executive Committee of Education which included members such as H. W. Amarasuriya took the initiative in establishing free education. Under this initiative the government established Madhya Maha Vidyalayas (MMV, Central Colleges) that were scattered around the island to provide education to all. The medium was either Sinhala or Tamil.

In 1942 a special committee was appointed to observe the education system and, among the suggestions that followed, the following play an important role:

After independence, the number of schools and the literacy rate substantially increased. According to the Ministry of Statistics, today there are approximately 9,830 public schools serving close to 4,030,000 students, all around the island.

During the colonial times, late national heroes like Anagarika Dharmapala with foreigners like Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky of the Buddhist Theosophical Society installed Buddhist schools to foster Sinhala students with an English education rich in Buddhist values and to bring Buddhism to life, at a time when it was slowly fading away. Most of these schools were established in the capitals of the major provinces of Sri Lanka. The first of these were Ananda College, Colombo (formerly English Buddhist School); Dharmaraja College, Kandy (formerly Kandy Buddhist High School); Mahinda College, Galle (formerly Galle Buddhist Theosophical Society School);[7] Musaeus College, Colombo[8] and Maliyadeva College, Kurunegala (formerly Kurunegala Buddhist Institution) which were followed decades later by Visakha Balika Maha Vidyalaya (formerly Buddhist Girls College), Colombo, Nalanda College, Colombo and Mahamaya Vidyalaya, Kandy.

Sri Lanka also has many Catholic schools such as St. Joseph's College, St Bridget's Convent, St Peter's College, St. Anthony's College, Kandy and the Joseph Vaz College named after the Sri Lankan saint Joseph Vaz. The earliest schools such as Richmond College, Galle, Jaffna Central College, Wesley College, Colombo, Kingswood College, Kandy(formerly Boys' High School,Kandy); Girls' High School, Kandy and Methodist College, Colombo were started by the Methodist Church.[9] Zahira College, Colombo is considered to be the oldest Muslim school initiated in the country by Late T.B.Jayah.

Many schools were built in the post-colonial era. However, the established schools who had their origins in the colonial era dominate social life in Sri Lanka mainly due networks of old boys and old girls.

Several superficial changers to the school system took place in the post-independence era. These include the change of the primary medium of education to the national languages, nationalization of private schools and the introduction of national/provisional school system.


Higher education in Sri Lanka has been based on the several prominent pirivenas during the local kingdoms. The origins of the modern university system in Sri Lanka dates back to 1921 when a University College, the Ceylon University College was established at the former premises of Royal College Colombo affiliated to the University of London. However, the beginning of modern higher education in Ceylon was in 1870 when the Ceylon Medical School[10] was established followed by Colombo Law College (1875),[11] School of Agriculture (1884) and the Government Technical College (1893).

Sri Jayewardenepura University, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Building

The University of Ceylon was established on 1 July 1942 by the Ceylon University Ordinance No. 20 of 1942 which was to be unitary, residential and autonomous. The university was in Colombo. Several years later a second campus was built in Peradeniya. The University of Ceylon became the University of Sri Lanka follow in the University of Ceylon Act No. 1 of 1972 resulting in a more centralized administration and more direct government control. This gave way for creation of separate universities after the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978. Even though new universities of independent identities were created, the government maintained its direct control and centralized administration though the University Grants Commission. Late Hon. Lalith Athulathmudali as Minister of Education developed an initiative to develop the higher education of the country in the 1980s, the Mahapola Fund, established by him provided scholarship and much-needed founding to higher education institution to this day. Until amendments to the University Act were made in 1999 only state universities were allowed to grant undergraduate degrees; this has since changed.

Primary and secondary education


Sri Lanka's education structure is divided into five parts: primary, junior secondary, senior secondary, collegiate and tertiary. Primary education lasts five to six years (Grades 1-5) and at the end of this period, the students may elect to write a national exam called the Scholarship exam. This exam allows students with exceptional skills to move on to better schools. After primary education, the junior secondary level (referred to as middle school in some schools) lasts for 4 years (Grades 6-9) followed by 2 years (Grades 10-11) of the senior secondary level which is the preparation for the General Certificate of Education (G.C.E) Ordinary Level (O/Ls). According to the Sri Lankan law, it is compulsory that all children go to school till grade 9 (age 14) at which point they can choose to continue their education or drop out and engage in apprenticeship for a job or farming. However, the Ministry of Education strongly advises all students to continue with their studies at least till the G.C.E Ordinary Level. Students who are pursuing tertiary education must pass the G.C.E O/Ls in order to enter the collegiate level to study for another 2 years (grades 12-13) to sit for the G.C.E Advanced Level. On successful completion of this exam, students can move on to tertiary education, there for the GCE A/Ls is the university entrance exam in Sri Lanka.[12]

Due to the variety of ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, many schools teach only in either Sinhala medium or in Tamil medium and not the English medium. The elite colleges in major cities such as Colombo and Kandy, teach in all three media.

Normal ages

Junior secondary
Senior secondary

NB: In some cases students may be slightly younger.

Government schools

Most of the schools in Sri Lanka are maintained by the government as a part of the free education. Currently there are 9,829 government schools with a student population of 3.8 million and 212,441 teachers, 561 Pirivenas.[12] With the establishment if the provincial council system in the 1980s the central government handed control of most schools to local governments. However the old schools which had been around since the colonial times were retained by the central government, thus creating three types of government schools;

National schools

Main Building of St. Michael's College National School, Batticaloa. It is an example for national schools in Sri Lanka
Iconic Buddist Vihara at Ananda college. One of the leading national schools in Colombo

National schools come under the direct control of the Ministry of Education and therefore have direct funding from the ministry. Most of these schools were established during the colonial period and therefore are established institutions. These few are referred to as famous schools or elite schools since they have a rich history and better maintained facilities than the average public school. This is mainly due the support of their alumni. In recent years newer schools and several central colleges have been upgraded to national schools from time to time, thereby making the total number of national schools 323.[12]

Provincial schools

Provincial Schools consists of the vast majority of schools in Sri Lanka. Funded and controlled by the local governments many suffer from poor facilities and a shortage of teachers.


Piriven are monastic colleges (similar to a seminary) for the education of Buddhist priests. These have been the centers of secondary and higher education in ancient times for lay people as well. Today 561 Piriven are funded and maintained by the Ministry of Education. Young priests undergo training at these pirivenas prior to being their Ordination and study for GCE O/L and A/L examinations. They may gain entrance to State Universities for higher religious studies.

Non-government schools

Private schools

C.M.S Ladies College one of Sri Lanka's private girls' school as seen from its grounds

There has been a considerable increase in the number of private schools in Sri Lanka, due to the emergence of the upper-middle class during the colonial era. These private schools follow the local curriculum set up by the Ministry of Education in the local language mediums of Sinhala, Tamil or English. Many of the private schools have access to newer facilities than state run schools. Currently there are 66 Private schools (registered before 1960 and not since then) of these, 33 non-fee-levying Assisted Private Schools (also known as semi-government schools) and 33 fee levying autonomous Private Schools, in addition to the Government Schools.[12]

International schools

International schools in Sri Lanka are not restricted to the expatriate community, anyone with the ability and willingness to pay can join these schools. Starting in the late 1980s these schools have no regulation or control by the Ministry of Education as it comes under the Board of Investment (BOI),[12] due to this the standard of education varies greatly between schools and with lesser levels of student discipline compared with other types of schools. The schools are mainly for the children of the expatriate community, charge high tuition fees and can therefore provide good facilities and high standards.

The majority of International schools prepares students for the Edexcel General Certificate of Education (IGCSE) Ordinary, Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and Advanced (A2) Level examinations, which is the most popular qualification. Preparation for Cambridge International Examinations is also offered by a few schools but it is less popular. Both exams are offered under the supervision of the British Council, whereas some schools offer a direct partnership with the examination body in order to improve standards.


Due to the high competitive nature of exams such as year 5, GCE O/L and GCE A/L as well as London O/Ls and A/Ls; parents seek additional help at home and at group/mass classes to improve their children's grades and performance. In recent years this has become a lucrative enterprise, which has resulted in successive governments attempting to regulate it. Many scholars have also accused tution classes of robbing the childhood and having a negative impact on the child's health.

Tertiary education

Undergraduate education in state universities is free but extremely competitive, limited and standardized. Fewer than 16% (less than 16,000 students) of those who qualify get admission to state universities[13] and of that only half graduate.[14] Admission to the university system is based on the highly competitive GCE Advanced Level examination. Selection of students is done on the basis of rank order on average Z Scores obtained by candidates at the GCE Advanced Level under a transparent national policy to replicate a district basis representation. Only the top students from each district get admissions.

The top students from urban and rural districts get the chances of having tertiary education. However, top students who got qualified under the minimum Z Scores requirements for admissions from remote districts may get in with relatively lower marks than those from urban districts. As a result, many students who are not granted admission find other means of higher education. Around 8% those qualified but could not get admission for higher education go abroad to pursue their studies,[15] others enroll themselves at the Open University of Sri Lanka or at the few state-owned autonomous degree awarding institutes (such as the SLIIT, ITS), or study as external students of traditional universities or at private institutes (such as the IIT) that conduct classes and exams on behalf of foreign universities (such as the ULEP).

Some study for entrance/membership for professional bodies both foreign (such as CIMA, BCS, ACCA, etc.) and local (such as ICASL, SLIM) or do studies at vocational technical colleges that specialize in mechanical and electronic subjects. Government has schemes to provides financial aid in addition to free education to financially support to those qualified to get admission to state universities.[16]

There are only 15 state universities in Sri Lanka. The prominent ones are University of Colombo, University of Peradeniya, University of Ruhuna, University of Kelaniya, University of Sri Jayawardhenapura and University of Moratuwa. In recent years, with changes to the University Act, a few institutes have been given permission to grant their own degrees: The most prominent is the government-owned Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology.[17]

Still, there are unemployed graduates in Sri Lanka, except in the fields of medicine, information technology, commerce, law and engineering disciplines. Many claim that if state university graduates are unemployed or causes brain drain that is because of limited exposure in the country for the degrees they have.

Many intellectuals express the need for private universities in the country, where students who chose not to attend or do not gain admission to state universities could study in their home country at a lower cost. The North Colombo Medical College (NCMC) was one such institute. Before its nationalization, it produced some of the best doctors in Sri Lanka. But efforts to establish private universities have been blocked due to protests conducted by many parties claiming that it would create more competition for state university students. In recent years this has become a reason for students who do not attend state universities to prefer going abroad or study at other institutes and professional bodies.

For a complete list, see Sri Lankan universities

Classification of tertiary qualifications

Vocational education and training

Vocational education and training in Sri Lanka is managed by the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission of the Ministry of Vocational & Technical Training. Training includes course based curriculum at vocational technical training centres and apprenticeship at private or public organisations. Higher education in vocational fields could be archived though several universities. The National Vocational Qualifications Systems in Sri Lanka (NVQSL) provides a structured seven levels of qualifications from Level 1 to Level 7. Vocational education and training is carried out for degree level at the Open University, Sri Lanka and the University of Vocational Technology, as well as at diploma level at 37 technical colleges, Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technical Education and the Sri Lanka School of Agriculture.

Apart from these, the Ministry of Education has launched a non-formal vocational education program which allows school drop-outs and adults who did not complete their school education, to earn a living, through self-employment. Most of these courses are held at community centres and they cover a wide range of fields such as dressmaking, beauty culture, hairdressing, stitching, carpentry, plumbing, painting and so on.

Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission monitors the registration of private course providers in the development of the sector. A number of private course providers have propped up in this qualification segment. Hospitality courses, basic accounting and management courses has been offered.


Critics of the education system, including academics and parents, state that the education system is too competitive and rigid unlike education systems in other societies.[18]

Efforts to establish private universities have been blocked, resulting in only state universities awarding local degrees. Opponents of private universities claim that private universities as privatization of education and damaging the standard of the education. However the demand for higher education has created several private institutions that conduct courses for degrees in foreign universities, these are not regulated or evaluated for proper standards by the government or independent organizations.

Compulsory leadership training for undergraduates

In 2011, the government made it mandatory for all students selected for undergraduate courses in state universities to undergo Compulsory leadership training for undergraduates at military and police bases. The government sited the need for residential three week training to increase employability thus reducing the high graduate unemployment in state universities. This move has drawn criticisms from the opposition, student groups and human rights groups as the nature of compulsory military type training seen in conscription.[19][20][21] However, shortly after the 2015 presidential election, the newly elected president Maithripala Sirisena along with the Sri Lankan Parliament put an end to this training in 2015.[22]


  1. In 2013 South Asia's literacy rate was 67.55, Asia 84.32% and the world 85.20%.[2]


  1. "Public spending on education, total (% of GDP)". The World Bank.
  2. 1 2 "Adult literacy rate, population 15+ years (both sexes, female, male)". UIS Data Centre. UNESCO. August 2015. Retrieved 19 November 2015.
  3. Historical Overview of Education in Sri Lanka, Ministry of Education
  4. Historical Overview of Education in Sri Lanka - Ancient Period (543 BC - 1500 AD), Ministry of Education
  5. "Historical Overview of Education in Sri Lanka - The British Period: (1796 - 1948)". Ministry of Education. Archived from the original on 11 April 2011. Retrieved 20 November 2008.
  6. Jayawardena, Kumari (17 December 2000). "When the 'nobodies'made their mark". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  7. Kulatilaka, Justice P.H.K. (12 May 2013). "Ushering in the Buddhist Revival in Ceylon". Sunday Observer. Retrieved 5 September 2013.
  8. "Historical Context". Embassy of Sri Lanka-Washington DC. Retrieved 7 September 2013.
  9. Mendis, Rev. Nimal (9 July 2012). "Methodists serve the people at all times". Sri Lanka. Daily News. Retrieved 1 October 2013.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Present Education System and Management Structure, Ministry of Education
  13. Jagdish Hathiramani. "8% of Sri Lankan students study abroad – University don".
  14. Undergraduate statistics 2000-2007
  15. Lakshmi de Silva. "Over 7,000 go overseas annually for studies, Island".
  16. "Mahapola Scholarship".
  17. කමලදාස, නිශාන්ත (15 November 2015). "පුද්ගලික විශ්වවිද්යාල නිදහස් අධ්යාපනයේ මළගමද?". Ravaya (in Sinhala). Retrieved 29 November 2015.
  18. Free Education vs. Freedom of Education
  19. Leadership training for university undergrads at 28 centres
  20. Consider postponement of leadership training - SC
  21. University students get marching orders for leadership programme
  22. "Sri Lanka terminates military leadership training in education sector". Sri Lanka. Colombo Page. 24 January 2015. Retrieved 7 August 2015.

External links

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