Educational challenges in Sri Lanka

Written by Sara Ahmed

Students report high pressure when attending school – Photo by Groundviews.


Education lays the foundation for political, social and economic development of any country. The literacy rate of Sri Lankans in 2020 was 92.38%. However, Sri Lanka still faces many other challenges in the educational field. The downside of the free educational system of Sri Lanka and the lack of responsiveness of the educational system to the labour market requirements will be discussed below.

The downside of the free educational system in Sri Lanka

Since 1994, the Sri Lankan government, initiated a free education system for the public without any discrimination. The State provides free education at primary, secondary and university levels that is compulsory for children between five and 16 years of age. This had pushed the country forward into a leading position in the South Asian region in terms of literacy rate, gender parity, school enrolment rate and human quality index. However, it has been criticized for not being progressively improved and developed to cope with the changing world.

The Sri Lankan culture is highly education oriented rather than consumption and entertainment oriented. As a result, a significant proportion of the household income is spent by the parents on their children’s education. It has been a long dream of most of the parents to send their children to a state university. However, according to the reports of the Department of Census and Statistics there are about 300,000 students that annually sit for the Advanced Level Examination and approximately only a 60% percent of them are qualified for the university entrance. Nevertheless, out of these qualified students just about 15% are selected to the state universities of Sri Lanka leaving the rest of the people (85%) losing their dream to enter state university education.

Free education does play a key role today but insufficient government spending on education has led to a marked decline in educational standards in the country. Consequently, there is an emerging demand and social pressure for establishing private universities in certain fields of studies. The concept of private universities has been severely criticized and opposed by the majority of state university students’ movements and some of the social pressure groups. A solution for this could be to increase the annual university entrance intake while allocating additional resources to universities to accommodate them.        Due to lack of resources, certain examinations have become so competitive in Sri Lanka. For instance, the first government examination of a student; the Grade five scholarship has become more competitive than other examinations. That is because those who obtain better higher marks are eligible to have a good school and also good funds. Thus, parents force students to work hard for this exam. However, this pressure to take an examination since childhood has a bad impact on the mental stability of the students.

Another downside of the free educational system is the fact that the Sri Lankan government does not always have the resources to update the curriculums, teaching methods, courses, and career paths and the gap between free and quality education becomes bigger and bigger. Proper planning, better resource allocations, and more funds would certainly benefit the education system.

Disparities in access to quality education

Although Sri Lanka has managed to achieve high levels of literacy, it has been unable to provide students with high quality educational services. Sri Lanka ranks poorly in terms of science and math education and internet access in schools. Sri Lanka’s efforts have been primarily concentrated on basic education (particularly secondary), with much less focus on higher levels of education, such as universities. In order to participate successfully in the knowledge economy, the country will have to increase quality inputs such as IT access, constructive and effective teaching, better math and science education, whilst constantly consolidating existing high levels of literacy.          

Children’s access to ICT is low.  Few students and even fewer teachers are IT literate. Even in the elite public schools, access to computer facilities, defined by the student to computer ratio is well over 1:100. Computers alone are not enough to provide students with the comprehensive skills needed to use computers. This training should be supplied by capable teachers who are skilled in not only teaching students how to use them, but also using computers, themselves, in daily lessons and incorporating them into teaching methods.

Another issue is the lack of responsiveness of the educational system to the labour market requirements. While concentrating on exams, the products of this education system are fulfilled with knowledge, but less on practical activities. This is a major problem in the educational system of Sri Lanka. Many people have the theoretical knowledge, but they can’t perform well in their professions because they don’t have much practice on those things. This creates issues in the labour market and leads to a gap between theoretical and practical knowledge.

Covid-19 response

Sri Lanka was very prone to a fast spread of the virus mainly due to its tourism sector. One of the main challenges of the Covid measures in the educational sector in Sri Lanka was the fact that the distance learning modalities could not be uniformly applied across the nation as children have varying levels of access to laptops, mobile phones, TV, radio and the broader infrastructure that supports these systems. Students in remote areas for example, have no to very little access to internet and mobile phones/laptops. Hence, school closures have led to inequity in access to and participation in learning. For teachers in Sri Lanka, there were similar struggles in delivering the curriculum through distance learning modalities.

The teachers interviewed for the case study of UNESCO claimed to not have received any training on information and communications technology (ICT) or distance learning and had often had to teach themselves or find other creative solutions to keep teaching to its students. The UNESCO research shows that a major lack in the educational sector, which also existed before COVID, was the lack of monitoring systems which is needed to ensure and effective system of education. UNESCO, in its report, also recommended Sri Lanka to implement an effective monitoring system in the education field.


Access to education in Sri Lanka is free and has resulted to high literacy rates of the country. However, the education system is extremely competitive and poor physical and mental health of the school students due to heavy workload, competition, and pressure from the parents for getting better results is an issue that has not been cared and concerned for by the policy makers. It is therefore recommended for Sri Lanka to consider the impact of the workload on the students’ physical and mental health and divert the focus from classroom learning to activity-based learning to create better responsiveness from the education system to the labour market requirements. The whole world is changing, and Sri Lanka should always try to move parallelly with everything including facilities, systems, and technologies.



  • Iqbal Ahmad et al, ‘Critical analysis of the problems of education in Pakistan: possible solutions’, IJERE (3:2) June 2014
  • Kingsley Karunaratne Alawattegama, ‘Free Education Policy and it’s Emerging Challenges in Sri Lanka’, University of Sri Jayewardenepurra,
  • Macrotrends, ‘Sri lanka Literacy rate 1981-2023’ <> last accessed on 22 April 2023
  • Rameez et al, Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education Sectors in Sri Lanka: A Study based on South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, Journal of Educatiional and Social Researcg (volume 10, No 6, November 2020).
  • Rev Minuwangoda Gnanawasa, ‘A Study of a few recognised educational issues faced by Sri Lanka at Present’ (APCAR 2017),
  • Social Protection Toolbox, ‘Sri Lanka’s Universal Education System’
  • Team Next Travel Sri Lanka, ‘All About Free Education in Sri Lanka’ (2021),
  • UNESCO, Sri Lanka: Case Study: ‘Situation Analysis on the Effects of and Responses to COVID-19 on the Education Sector in Asia’ (2021)

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