By Laksiri Fernando –
Sri Lanka’s education system is in a deep crisis. That is a major part of economic, social and political crisis. Some symptoms are revealed in high unemployment, more under employment, dis-functional economy, university disturbances, and even youth suicide. It is necessary to conceptualize the need for quality education as a human right, not neglecting the attendant duties and responsibilities of all sections involved/responsible.
This article is presented in two steps. First outlining the interdependence between educational crisis and economic, social and political crises. Then briefly explaining why quality education is a human rights in a global sense, not limiting to Sri Lanka. This may be necessary to understand the proper conceptual and historical context. Article concludes with 8 demands for all presidential candidates to commit and deliver.
A proper quality education can increase human productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship, and contribute immensely to exports, growth, development and living standards. This does not mean that education or human resources should be considered only as ‘instruments’ or just ‘means to the end’ of development. This is a mistaken approach by some.
Quality education means both enhancing skills and values. It also means equal and non-discriminatory education for all irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion, language, class, caste, ability/disability or region. One who is seemingly disable in one area, is definitely able in another area. This is a neglected aspect in educational planning, implementation and practice. Regional and other spatial disparities in schools and also university education are the most damaging to the country and the social fabric. The notions of ‘Colombo schools’ or ‘Colombo universities’ are unacceptable.
If value education is founded on human rights principles, the above disparities cannot happen. If those principles are upheld and followed not as mere slogans, but as practical and operational principles, many of the above disparities and discriminations cannot happen. The rural children are the most discriminated and affected under the present system. We of course should not live in an ideal world. Problems are always there in a developing country. However, when problems are identified, those should be addressed sooner than later.
Some people even get angry when human rights are mentioned. Neglect of human rights is overwhelming. This is both the result, and the cause of poor-quality education in the country. A proper value education can address many of the social crises that are identified as ethnic and religious prejudices, conflicts and extremism. Human rights and value education should be the base of these endeavors, not superficially but in depth and essence. Just discipline, laws or punishments cannot do that.
Education is not only for jobs and upward social mobility. Gainful employment, as a worker or an entrepreneur, is of course primary. But education is also a social commitment/contract to serve the society and the fellow human beings. Not only human beings, but also to look after the other living beings and most importantly the environment. Those should be our values and principles.
The causal link between poor quality education and the political crisis is also prominent and obvious. Education is a lifelong requirement, not limiting to schools or universities. People need education and reeducation. Although the basic literacy in the country is apparently high, basic ‘political literacy’ does not appear to be high. Otherwise, this much of disfunction between political promises and fulfillment or unbelievable election promises themselves cannot happen in the country.
In a democracy, it is not correct to prescribe specific educational qualifications to be a Member of Parliament or a Presidential candidate. However the educational qualifications of MPs, Provincial Councilors and Local Government Members are appalling as well accepted in the country. This is one reason for the poor quality of debates, arguments and pronouncements that we see in political platforms these days. For this matter, not only the politicians should be blamed. Also the people who elect them are responsible. It is also not merely they themselves to be blamed, but their education and its quality, scope and content.
Although the final solutions may appear to be in the long run, a start should be launched immediately. Although the overall or the average situation is depressing, there are enlightened sections within the civil society, alternative political forces and even (little) within the traditional political parties, irrespective of apparent divisions between them.
The academics and professionals in education should take the lead seeking support from the more enlightened youth and civil society sections in the country for change. When I mention ‘civil society,’ some people also can get angry. That is also part of the problem.
How do we perceive education or quality education in life? Mothers undoubtedly were the pioneers of education in society. They still do so on the basics. Then the religious preachers and institutions came in, as moral education was necessary. Perhaps occupational education was obvious or came from the fathers in ancient societies.
Now we have formal education. The State is supposed to supply formal education although it is on and off or partly abrogated to profit making private institutions. Of course there are commendable non-profit making or charity efforts as well. Those are appreciated. However, it is customary and universally accepted that the State has the primary obligation to deliver education in modern society.
While most of the concepts of civil and political rights came from the French Revolution in 1789, some economic and social rights originated in countries like Germany or Prussia during 1848 revolutions. The right to education was a major demand in those revolutions. If our Puran Appu knew them, perhaps he would have fought for them in 1848! Just because something originates in a foreign or a Western country we should not reject them, unless the pressure is coercive or inimical to our sovereignty.
We have our own pioneers in educational struggles. The Theosophists, the nationalists both in Jaffna and Colombo, and the Samasamajists played their respective roles. The giant in free education undoubtedly was well celebrated C. W. W. Kannangara.
The following is what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in Article 26 declared in 1948 on the Right to Education, just 10 months after our independence.
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
The above is quite comprehensive. However, the importance of paragraph (2) could be emphasized to highlight some aspects of this article in relation to human rights education and education that could promote ‘understanding, tolerance and friendship among all ethnic and religious communities in our country for the maintenance of peace and stability.’
Why Right to Quality Education?
Why then the right to ‘quality’ education in the title and emphasis in the article? It is not just ‘right to education’ that people need today. Right to Quality Education. There are countries and states all over the world just deliver education almost as a ritual but without quality or right quality.
It is in the process of this lacunae and the realization of this lacunae that the UN General Assembly in 2015 announced the right to education as the ‘Right to Quality Education,’ among 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Among other things, the SDG 4 says the following applicable to Sri Lanka and our discussion.
“Obtaining a quality education is the foundation to creating sustainable development. In addition to improving quality of life, access to inclusive education can help equip locals with the tools required to develop innovative solutions to the world’s greatest problems.”
“The reasons for lack of quality education are due to lack of adequately trained teachers, poor conditions of schools and equity issues related to opportunities provided to rural children. For quality education to be provided to the children of impoverished families, investment is needed in educational scholarships, teacher training workshops, school building and improvement of water and electricity access to schools.”
Conclusion: Eight Demands
It is in the above context that all presidential candidates should commit and help deliver the right to quality education to all Sri Lankans, whoever wins the election. More bipartisan and joint efforts are necessary for the future of Sri Lanka in this respect.
More specifically, we should ask or demand from all presidential candidates the following or more in fulfilling and ensuring the right to quality education for all.
- Commit 4% to 6% of GDP for education to improve and expand quality.
- Appoint a qualified Educational Reform Commission to propose reforms within 1 year.
- Coordinate properly with Provincial Councils to eradicate centers-periphery and regional disparities in school education.
- Restart proper human rights education in schools including multi-culturalism. Seek funding from UNESCO.
- Make Sri Lanka a trilingual (Sinhala, Tamil, English) country through education.
- Enhance science, skills and technology education in rural schools without neglecting value education.
- Reform university education with emphasis on employability, English and research in natural and social sciences. University medium eventually could be ‘English only.’
- Take immediate measures to eradicate ragging and similar violations in universities and schools.