22 May, 2022


Educational Reforms: Urgent National Need

By Oliver A. Ileperuma

Prof. Oliver A. Ileperuma

Prof. 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.

Girandurukotte Central College FB - schools studentsSocieties 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:

  1. Restrict GCE (O.L) to two years as in the past by abolishing the present grade 9.
  2. 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..
  3. 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.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Prof Illeperuma,
    Thank you for highlighting the problems in our education system. Most of what you are recommending are also, in addition to others, recommendations that a 9 month Northern Education System Review identified. The Report is in the Website:

    Your last sentence, “Free education is certainly a misnomer and there is no hope for the poorest of the poor to send their children to Universities.” is relevant to us today as the Gap has widened.
    Based on the UGC 1994 annual report statistics, The university enrollment by socio economic status of parents is:
    Rural and Coastal is 16%; Middle Income (Clerical administrators) 29%
    Professional and Business community (high income) 55%.
    The composition of the above groups in the general population is the Reverse of the Enrollment %.

    When in 1995 I asked NIE Secretary General Mr. Udugama, whether NIE can bring about a reform. His answer was, “Ethir, those who make decisions are those who have 55% of their children in the Universities.” The UGC annual report no longer give this statistics now. I wonder why.

    You may have seen the advertisement in the Daily Mirror of Oct 14 A14, by the NIE calling for inputs to form a National Committee on Curricula Reform and restructuring from Grade 1 to Grade 13. This is a move in the right directions, BUT as you know curricula in SL is prepared to suit the National Examinations when it should be the other way around. Now it is a system to FILTER those who can memorise and pass examinations. The form and process of the examination is colonial and educationally archaic.

    The examination and equally importantly the whole Education System including its administration decision making is a relic of the Colonial system. the irony is Britain has effected their changes since the sixties and their higher education system also changed since the Robins Report of 1964. We still cling to the old system like a security blanket.
    I hope NIE intiate a SL Education System Review. World Bank had dome a form of it in many countries and they were to do one in SL too.

    • 2


      The main problem with the education systems is this:

      The teachers don’t teach earnestly in Government-assisted schools; they expect the pupils to attend their tuition classes held outside the class room so that they can make more money.

      Without getting this matter straightened out in the society no reform is going to work.

      It is similar to the attitudes of the politicians in the country, who don’t care for the people’s welfare or the country.

      The whole society is rotten as Kusal Perera has outlined some time ago in the CT.

    • 1

      Professor Ileperuma

      We could probably get sponsorship of Monsanto to educate our kids on the health effects of Glyphosate.

      As you have been saying, Glyphosate is harmless and it can actually replace all our other dietary requirements as the dry zone farmers have been finding out.

      You need food only if you live. Get it?

  • 3

    Yes, I’ve been a teacher for more than forty years, and I have knowledge of a cross-section of Education in the country.

    It’s in a greater mess than most people realise – and I say that although I am aware of the many complaints that one hears. However, there seems little purpose in going in to details, until either the public AS A WHOLE, or the President, or the Prime Minister or the Minister decides that there is something that a humble fellow like me can contribute.

    Articles such as this are most certainly welcome!

  • 3

    Excellent write up.

    We need a complete overhaul.

    Some suggestions:

    1 teaching should be made attractive as a profession. Teaching should not be the last resort when you cannot find any other job as it is the case now. All unemployed graduates are now given teaching appointments.
    2 student centered learning is critical?
    3 extra curricular and co curricular activities should have some weightage in the curriculum.
    4 English medium students require better quality teachers.
    5 principals should be equipped with CEO skills. Principals no longer teach or set papers now and hence the skills required is different.
    6 students should enter UNI when they are 18 years and not at 20 years.
    7 more emphasis on subjects such as English, Maths and Science up to OL
    8 improve teacher training and recognize dedicated teachers
    9 implement student management MIS systems in all schools to monitor performance of all students
    10 provide all schools with basic infrastructure such as clean water, toilets, libraries, etc

    • 2

      “Teaching should not be the last resort when you cannot find any other job as it is the case now. All unemployed graduates are now given teaching appointments.”

      Sorry Jagath Fernando:-

      Teaching is not the Last Resort, POLITICS IS!

  • 4

    Year need to sack all fake profs and follow international criteria to appoint them: In order to be a real international professor your PhD from world top 100 University, minimum 20 articles in ISI/SCOPUS indexed journals, 10 text books with international publishers and three countries have to appoint you as a Visiting professor. But all these Sri Lankan Professors are jokers and more than 40% University Lecturers are relatives to each others and they give degrees to each other. MY3 clean University system and sack fake professors. Some Dept are family trees. [Edited out]. We well know how they recruits and promoted in University Mafia. First find a person and then advertise according to his/her requirement and send aboard for their friends’ places for PhDs. Go beyond Sri Lankan airport and see International job market. Even in Middle East job market, without PhD from accredited Western University you cannot become even Assistant Lecturer. But in Sri Lanka more than 80% professors do not have PhD. The countries they (University teachers) go to do higher studies, no person is going to studies: China, Malaysia and India.

  • 2

    School education need not be reduced from 13 to 12 to lower the age at graduation as there are developed countries where a student starts schooling at the age of 5 years, undergoes 13 years of school education and still graduates with a 3 year degree at the age of 21. Prof. Illeperuma’s 2nd and the 3rd suggestions are quite appropriate. In the 60s and 70s we had such a system of education where one sits the OLs and immediately starts ALs and then sits the ALs in the middle of the year and enters the University at the end of the same year or the early next year. Thereafter, the University runs smoothly without any disruption and the ones who pass all exams come out with flying colours at a very young age. Prof Illeperuma would have been one of those probably. As such, I do not understand why Professor Illeperuma has only mentioned that 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 and that 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!, without mentioning the proper systems we had in the 60s and 70s. This particular chemistry professor was the secretary to the ministry of education only in 2005.

  • 3

    This is an excellent article on educational reform except suggestion 1.

    I met a doctor recently who opposed private medical university on the ground of quality

    Only few thousand got in to university for medicine in Sri Lanka while even A A B student is not able to get into medicine? Among the other concerns the quality is the major point speak out by current doctors and SLMC

    The Quality can be overcome easily where the UGC can work the syllabus in coordination with SLMC and other concerns. Private Medical University laboratory can also follow the same where committed headed by UGC,SLMC, all medical faculty members and student members and public interest members also can take part to approval and monitoring. The teaching can also to be done systematic monitoring . Specially all exams will be conducted by UGC/or special body and will be marked both by private teaches and state university medical faculty teaches so the quality at least met the same as state.(If you have issues on private quality)

    For example. Colombo University syllabus will be teaching at Private medical universities and the Colombo Univesrity exam paper will be done by both students.. and cross marking also apply.

    The important matter is here to highly regulate such industries …

  • 0

    It gives me great hope that all of the above comments are Spot On. I hope the comments that would follow give the readers more direct experience and advice and in fact form a group to change the system. It is those who are outside the system who need to start the Reform. As all of you know that those in the System follow instruction like a slave would.

    The younger staff whether in the school education system or the University (I only know what happens in the Univ of Jaffna though I never attended any university in Ceylon or Sri Lanka) will never express their ideas for fear of being victimised. They need to be empowered.

    The Northern Education System has started implementing the recommendation from the 2014 study.
    What is suggested by those who commented on Pro Iluperuma’s article is being implemented and the Staff in the system is part of the implementation. The NP Council has approved all the recommendation and theGovernor has approved them too including two major changes but only as a pilot project though it is not on concordance with the National system

    The Present Governor of the NP had his B.Ed. from Univ of Peredeniya and was a teacher. He would be the best person to Chair a SL Education Review.

  • 1

    English must be taught as a second language from Grade I onwards.
    By the time they reach Grade VIII their proficiency will be sufficient to enforce teaching in English in all universities and other higher centres of learning.
    Our tragedy commenced in 1956 with “Sinhala only”.
    India retained English in all universities and Indian graduates in scientific disciplines serve in many countries.

  • 1

    Prof. Oliver Ilemperuma: Thank you. You have dealt with this question of our education system to somewhat great extent. My attention was drawn to one of of your proposals viz. “ban the Tuition Classes during school hours and get 80% attendance…..” Indeed this “Tuition Mafia” has become a plague in the country. The economic side of this system has brought immense hardships to the parents and it has become a “Style” or a “Way of Life” of the student population. The main culprits in this whole gang of the “Mafia” are the very teachers from the Principals downwards to the teachers. They don’t perform their entrusted duties that a paid for during the school hours; but discharged very obediently at the “Tuition Classes”. The other day when the GCE “A” level results were out, I saw an advertising “Leaflet” put out by one “Mega” Tuition class in Galle, with pictures of students who have excelled well stating that they attended his classes to achieve such results. But in actual fact she was a student from a reputed school in the district. The other “Gimmick” was to get the students who passed well to address the next class of students and give a briefing as to how they succeeded in attending those classes. What a “Lucrative Business” this has become. That is why I call this is another “MAFIA” that the parents have no ESCAPE.

    So the question is how to ESCAPE the “Bondage” of this “MAFIA”. One solution: BAN THE TUITION CLASSES TOTALLY. What is next to be done: Set the standards for all schools for SUCCESS RATES of students at public examinations and make it mandatory for the grading and promotional criteria for all the teachers and principals. Such standards would be based purely on “Performance Ratings” meeting the target expectations and if any exceed the target remunerate them “handsomely” by way of promotions and salary increments.

    As regards this writers proposal of 80% attendance, I have a very interesting story to share with the readers. I had a nephew who was sitting for his GCE “A” Level in the year 2014 as a school candidate. I knew he did not have the required 60% attendance, because he was most of his school time attended Tuition Classes. So I asked him how he is going to get his attendance certified by the the Principal to say that he attended the school required attendance percentage. His reply to me was amazing and raised my eye brows. Here it is: He said; THERE ARE WAYS AND MEANS OF GETTING THAT CERTIFIED. I leave it to you to GUESS what he was up to and what the principal was up to. Anyway in the end he got it DONE. Don’t let me tell you how he did it. To that level this whole system is CORRUPTED. When will we get out of it? That is the day when someone is ready to BELL THE CAT without FEAR and FAVOR. Will the teachers’ TUITION MAFIA allow it to happen? I doubt it.

  • 0

    Thank You Prof Illeperuma.

    we need reforms from Grade 1 to University. Schools need to be upgraded(even without costs) to hold values. SALARIES of TEACHERS have to be addressed and those who want o have it there way may be removed from system. No teacher wants to have only tuition. If the school belts up, tuition could be controlled. There is also need to develop alternate education, vocational and technical education ( not the way they wish to link it to the University again) so that the children have avenues to move and the country has ways to develop.

  • 1

    In where ever and whatever government and politicians put their hands, in the name of people’s welfare, all gone to dogs – education, health, industries, business etc. whatever. Government should not do all these things, it should set policies, rules and regulations and be a strong monitor and mentor and see to it private sector run the show and bring the good results. When there is strong competition people should get the best.

    There is nothing called free meal,if it’s free for some but some else should pay for it, like a magic, it wouldn’t come out from the thin air. Some one should to do the sweating for it.

    Take note of the state of the free education and health care, government spends huge sums but the results are very poor. In schools they are not teaching, students are going to tuition centers for their studies. Universities are producing unemployable graduates. Hospitals and doctors not treating the patients well and they are going to the privates hospital but to maintain all these government is taxing every one indirectly in many ways, all are paying huge taxes, and going to wast.

    If you give some thing free, people wouldn’t appreciate it but if they pay, they know the real value of it, at least charge some thing, a Rs. 100/- per student or a patient, this sum is nothing in these days, it’s a pocket change but for the government in total amount to be a big sum. Also, when they pay, people take it, very seriously about life. Now it’s all suma, and don’t care attitude.

    It’s high time for all to wake up and do some thing about it before the country goes to dog.

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