By Oliver A. Ileperuma –
“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”- Robert Orben
Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya’s letter on the incompetent education system in our country should be an eye-opener to those in the education administration. The entire system is corrupt to the core and it is worthwhile to examine the reasons for this deterioration. The colonial educational system which we inherited from the British has not been reformed to suit our own needs and has not changed according to the global changes in education. Instead of completely overhauling this system we have simply tinkered with it in an ad hoc manner at different times during the post-colonial period.
Part of the blame for the sorry state of affairs should go to the so called educationists who have been at the helm of matters in the past. One particular instance is the removal of the practical examinations from the GCE (A.L.) science stream by a former secretary who had a Ph.D. in education. As a result, we are producing school leavers in sciences who cannot even fix a wire to a plug base. Our education from the kindergarden to A.L. is teacher centred and there is no role for active student learning. Teachers hate been questioned in class by students because of their own sheer incompetency and exceptional students are not identified and excellence not promoted. Selection of students as school prefects and for other extracurricular activities is not based on merit but by favouratism. Children of parents who reward the teachers with gifts are selected over others. Students do not even attend classes regularly when they come to A.L. and they get all their education at tuition classes. May be the government can consider abolishing A.L. classes from such schools if this trend continues. Also, tuition classes should be banned during school hours and 80% attendance should be made mandatory for giving admission to sit the examination. Attending tuition classes during school hours leads to other sociological problems such as these students loitering in parks and other nefarious activities.
Societies are shifting to knowledge based systems in the globalised economies and there is an urgent need to restructure our educational system to suit this trend. India has successfully achieved these goals through its higher education system which has risen to this challenge and the main driving force behind India’s recent economic boom can be attributed to the system which provides relevant trained manpower such as engineers and scientists. We are far behind getting bogged down mainly due to shutting the doors behind a lot of educated youths who qualify to enter a university. Furthermore, our archaic and rigid school education is responsible for not producing marketable graduates.
While students graduate at an average age of around 21 years in most foreign countries, here the average age of a graduate is around 25 years for a three year degree and much longer for other courses. Sri Lanka’s universities probably have the oldest undergraduates in the whole world! This is due to several reasons and my suggestions to reduce this duration are:
- Restrict GCE (O.L) to two years as in the past by abolishing the present grade 9.
- Conduct the GCE (O.L) Examination in December and commence the A.L. programmes in January. Now students idle for at least eight months waiting for the release of the results at the O.L. examination to commence their A.L. work..
- Conduct the GCE (A.L.) examination in April and finalise admissions to the Universities by October as done a few years back.
The result of all these unnecessary and avoidable delays is that the most productive years of a young person are lost to the nation. Most countries including our neighbour India have only 12 years of school education while we have 13 years. Above suggestions will ensure a more productive group of young people who will have a head start in their professions later on.
This year’s cut-off marks of the GCE A.L. examination were just out but it will take at least six more months to finalise University admissions. The lethargic attitudes of both the Examinations Department and the University Grants Commission are unpardonable and the ministers in charge of these institutions have done little to expedite this process. Students who did the GCE (A.L.) in August 2014 will enter the Universities earliest by March 2016, wasting nearly 1 year and 7 months! When this examination was held in August, marking was completed by the end of September and the Examination Department took nearly four months to release the results. With all modern IT facilities at their disposal, it defies logic to understand why the Examinations Department takes so long to enter the marks and release the results. The final results after the recorrections went to the UGC in March this year and it is difficult to understand why the UGC took six months before deciding on the cut-off marks. This is either sheer incompetency or a lackadaisical attitude of those at the top. No other country in the whole world has such kind of delays before students are admitted to higher educational Institutions after they sit the entrance school examinations. Obviously something has to be done fast about these delays. There was a time several years back when the A.L. examinations were held in April and the students were admitted to the Universities in November. This was due to the initiative and persistence of the then secretary to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education who was a Professor of Chemistry! This amply illustrates that lazy bodies can be moved given effective leadership. If there is a will there is a way and I blame those at the very top including administrative heads and even the subject ministers for not paying adequate attention to this national problem.
The biggest obstacle to the implementation of educational reforms is the proliferation of state agencies responsible for their implementation. The ministry of education has a policy unit and National Institute of Education was set up in 1985 and the National Educational Commission (NEC) in 1991. NEC has the mandate to propose educational policy reforms to the Government and although it has submitted some reports none have been implemented. Most of our political leaders only paid lip service to education with the exception of President Chandrika Kumaratunga who took a personal interest in uplifting our education system. When nothing tangible came out of the NEC, she appointed a presidential task force which introduced some reforms such as the introduction of the English medium as the medium of instruction which was a step in the right direction. However, the reduction of subjects at the GCE (A.L.) from four to three was an ill-conceived change carried out without adequate dialogue with the academic community from Universities. At least in the sciences, all Faculties of Science resolved on two occasions to amalgamate the physical and biological science streams and have four subjects in the science stream, viz. Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Biology. These proposals never received any attention but instead she listened to a few handpicked experts to effect this change in the number of subjects.
Our educational system needs a complete overhaul and not ad hoc patchy revisions. Successful educational systems such as those of USA and Japan emphasise broad based education in schools leaving specialisation to Universities. In Sri Lanka, students are segregated to Arts and Science streams with further division into biological and physical sciences. In USA, high school seniors (equivalent level to our A.L.), have to offer the following compulsory courses: English ( 4 credits), science (3 credits) , Sociology (3 credits), sports ( 1 credit) and health education (½ credit). Here a credit implies 15 hours of instruction. Of course, implementation of such a major revision will receive objections from many quarters. Some of the sections in the current A.L. syllabi in Chemistry and Biology are best taught in the universities and not schools. There is a significant portion of the biology syllabus dealing with human biology which is more relevant to Faculties of Medicine.
Restricting students at the A.L. to a narrow area of subjects has disadvantages in their search for jobs, since only 10% of the students who sit A.L. gain admission to Universities. While there are jobs in the private sector, particularly the IT sector, 90% of the students who have not done mathematics will not be competent to achieve higher levels of attainment in the IT sector. If mathematics is made compulsory even for Arts students, it will open the doors of computer science for them. Similarly, it is possible for an undergraduate in Economics to follow Mathematics as a degree subject in the science faculty. Actually, such combinations were possible several decades ago and there was a Professor of English at the Colombo University who offered Mathematics as a degree subject. During my undergraduate days, there were students doing combined degrees such as Economics and Mathematics. This is another example where we have in the reverse gear from a good system to a worse one.
English plays a vital role when we are rapidly moving towards a global village through advances in Information Technology. Unlike India which praised the inheritance of English from the British as a gift from God Saraswathi, Sri Lanka abolished the English medium in the Science stream in the 1970’s and neglected English teaching in schools for cheap political reasons in the name of pseudo-nationalism. Even though every rural school has an English teacher most students do not learn anything beyond the alphabet. I have personally seen this in Science undergraduates and some of them even leave the Universities unable to cope up with English which is the medium of instruction in the Universities.
There is no proper supervision of teaching in schools. During my school days in the 1960’s there used to be a team of school inspectors who virtually “raided” the schools without prior notice . They went straight to classrooms, tested the knowledge of students even going to the extent of examining teachers’ class notes. These inspectors were competent teachers who got promotions according to merit and not due to political connections as happening now. Today when the education officers visit schools they simply sign the log book, talk to the principal and leave. No wonder that the teaching in schools has deteriorated and those who can afford send their children to tuition classes. Free education is certainly a misnomer and there is no hope for the poorest of the poor to send their children to Universities.