The Education Ministry has implemented, ‘Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development’ (AHEAD) a programme funded by the World Bank in order to improve the quality of higher education, increase enrollment in disciplines required for economic development and the promotion of research, development, innovation, and commercialisation (RDIC). The Ministry and the University Grants Commission (UGC) are expanding the enrollment of state universities with a special focus on STEM degree programmes, through a combination of demand-and supply-side initiatives. AHEAD has allocated funds to purchase the equipment necessary for such degree programmes and has funded the construction of many technology, engineering and medical laboratories and lecture theatres at many local universities and the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technological Education (SLIATE).
The AHEAD operation would utilise four initiatives to improve the quality of higher education. The Enriching Learning, Teaching, and Assessment (ELTA) and English Language Skills Enhancement (ELSE) grants are a system of competitive grants that was established to support innovative approaches for the combined development of academic excellence and socio-emotional skills. Thirty-six faculties and forty-four departments had implemented these development projects and introduced modern curriculum approaches, teaching-learning methods and assessment approaches.
Universities had also used the project to expand the use of digital resources and blended learning, promote industry placements and workplace exposure for students, enhance the English language skills of students, promote entrepreneurship skills of students and facilitate international linkages between domestic and overseas universities to strengthen teaching and learning. AHEAD had supported university academics to obtain PhD qualifications and SLIATE academic staff to obtain master’s degrees and professional doctorates from reputed universities. Two hundred PhD scholarships had been awarded for university academics and six Master’s degrees had been awarded to SLIATE academics.
The AHEAD operation had also facilitated the Quality Assurance (QA) initiatives of the QA Council of the UGC by helping develop an internationally benchmarked scorecard for Internal Quality Assurance Units of all fifteen universities and providing the funding necessary to hire international reviewers for the Institutional Reviews conducted at the state universities. The Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework (SLQF) was also being developed by AHEAD as an initiative to better orient the outcomes of degree programs to the economic needs of the country. The RDIC aspect of the project awarded over 100 competitive, performance-based research programmes for Development-Oriented Research (DOR), Research and Innovation Commercialisation (RIC), and Innovation Commercialisation Enhancement (ICE) projects.
All research disciplines were divided into two broad categories: science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and humanities, education, management, social sciences (HEMS). Both STEM and HEMS research are encouraged under AHEAD RDIC. There were two rounds of funding. The evaluation was done under the stages of, desk evaluation and discussions. Online proposal submissions and evaluation systems were used for the first time in Sri Lanka when awarding these research projects. A total of eighty-nine projects were awarded to state universities and twelve RDIC projects were awarded to participating non-state higher education institutions. The university teams that had won these ICE, RIC, and DOR projects are producing innovations to promote the knowledge-based industries and services and technology-intensive agriculture for Sri Lanka to develop as an upper-middle-income country.