By Lakmali Hemachandra –
Free education was introduced to the country in 1947, after the second world war ended, when European and American bourgeoisie were recovering from political and economic chaos, that included war, fascism, many attempted proletarian revolutions that failed and one that succeeded. It was not without a struggle that the Free Education Act was passed into law, even if it was the most favourable time for the welfare state, with Keynesian economic reforms revitalizing the British and American economies with the New Deal and the Soviet Russia threatening the liberty of capitalism. Education was a privilege of the few before free education; it was the privilege of the rich and the privilege of men. What free education did for the country sets Sri Lanka apart from India in the social progress it reached post-independence. In Indi a the literacy rates never reached more than a mere 50%, education was not made accessible for discriminated sections of the society such as women and low castes and therefore education as a social mobilizing force and a force of modernization was never actualized in India. Contrarily, Sri Lanka has a very high rate of literacy and whatever the discriminations women might suffer in this country, education opportunities has never been one of them since the introduction of the Free Education Act in 1947.
Unfortunately, some, especially the sons and daughters of those who rose to such heights with the help of free education now call it a part of the mentality of entitlement that the people of this country suffer from, and claim that it will only be cured when they are made to pay for their education. Minister S.B.Dissanayake might be the loudest among them but in a country where privilege wins over the rights of the people, he is certainly not alone.
The fundamental question with regards to privatizing education is whether it is a right or a privilege? If it is a right then any discrimination against accessing education should be abolished by the state and it should be ensured that every child and every citizen of this country is entitled to an equal right to education that is not based on their race, religion, sex or their parents’ wealth and that mentality of entitlement that is chided by most will come in handy in the protection of the right to education. If it is a privilege then the state is relieved of this responsibility and education is thrown into our private spheres, to be handled according to our capabilities, which would inevitably mean that education will be the privilege of the rich. How does this happen? A large number of the Sri Lankan population are underpaid and low income earners. Paying tuition for schools and universities will leave them with no other option than not sending their children to a school or not getting a higher education for their children even if they want to. Privatization of education would mean that opportunities in education are sold at a price to only those who can pay, because money, rather profit, is the only concern of private institutions. If restricting education opportunities based on sex is wrong, if restricting education opportunities based on race and religion is wrong, then why is it acceptable that education opportunities will be restricted based on wealth? What is so good about money that it can encroach the rights of millions of people? Why does money always feel entitled when we the people are made to doubt our rights and beaten up when we demand better living conditions?
In the evening if one goes to the Independence Square, there are people running and walking up and down the newly built jogging paths that must have cost a fortune. If you take a slow walk down one of these paths, you are bound to get pushed by a walker or a runner because for them, that path is not made for the pedestrians who are walking about the city, trying to get to wherever they want to go, not for the students who are dressed in long kurthas and t-shirts, not for those who want to take a slow walk like we all used to around the independence square. The new Independence Square, the one that has new paths and new tiles, is reserved for the joggers and power walkers and they use it with such an air of entitlement. There was a time when the square welcomed both joggers and wanderers but these days, after the renovations the wanderers have disappeared from the scene.
A better metaphor cannot be used to speak of the consequences of privatizing education. In spite of the deluded promises of the Higher Education Minister and opportunistic arguments of a privileged few, nowhere on earth has privatization resulted in better opportunities for the people, the story always ends with a win for the rich, the free market and capital. The existing free education system itself is plagued with privilege, with the tuition industry taking its toll on school education. It has become necessary to pay thousands in tuition fees to pass the A/L exam with good enough results to make it to a university and as the competition tightens, more and more students with good grades are finding themselves on the wrong side of the cut off marks. The government without taking measure to upgrade the quality of school education in order to protect equal rights in education is busy selling what is left of the free education system and the more we pay for education at the school level, more we start believing that money should be able to buy us a higher education as well. The more privilege we attach to education, the more people lose out on the benefits of education. It is not true that privatization opens up opportunities for everyone; it only opens up opportunities for those who can pay, for the ones who already enjoy many forms of privilege in the society.
Social welfare like education and health are already paid for by the people, that is why the government charges tax on everything we eat and drink, to educate people, to treat them when they’re sick, to help the poor, to improve our living conditions. However, the government while engaged in a process of creating and furthering privilege for a few using the same money that is charged from the working class throws the accusation of entitlement back at the people when they demand that the taxes charged from them will be spent on what benefits them. Instead, the whole of Colombo is renovated for the Commonwealth Summit; the Independence Square is renovated for the joggers, highways are built for those who can afford the speed, restaurants are built for those with a taste for fine dining. Not only are the people cheated off the benefits they pay for, their rights to dissent is usurped. The same roads that are closed down for night races, so that the President’s sons can live their fantasies of formula 1 racing, are denied to the students who want to hold protest marches against privatization of education.
Those who shamelessly defend privilege in a country of despots must remember that every cent not spent on the people is being spent on widening the power of a tyrannical regime, every cent not spent on education is funding the enormous defense budget, that tightens the noose around democracy in this country, every cent not spent on protecting the rights of the people is spent on creating privileges that will necessarily violate the rights of the people. It is important that we feel entitled, not just to education, but to so much more, to healthcare, employment, housing, environment, food, water, public space, justice, love and dignity. It is only through feeling entitled that we will find the strength to claim these rights and to make the government work for the people, instead of the people shouldering the weight of the government as it happens now. It is important that we fight for our rights and against privilege, or else, much like the wanderers and young students who have disappeared from the Independence Square, the poor the underprivileged and the vulnerable will simply disappear from the scene.