Colombo Telegraph

Manifesto-Notes For Presidential Hopefuls: Education Reforms

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

If anyone doubts that the entire education system should be reformed, a quick listen to statements made by the Minister of Higher Education Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe (WR) would force a re-think. On the one hand he extols the virtues of private education and insists that this way lies the future. Then he submits a Cabinet Paper to take over the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT).

The reasons offered are hilarious. WR tells us that SLIIT was initially managed by a private company although owned by the Government (he probably meant ‘state’) with money being released from the Mahapola Trust Fund (MTF) to construct the first building. Three years ago, WR claims, SLIIT had paid some 400 million rupees to the MTF and purchased a new lease for the property.

WR is concerned that there are no government officials on the SLIIT board now. He believes that less than half a million rupees is a gross under-valuation considering the worth of SLIIT assets, which by the way were not paid for by the Government. He’s most concerned about the fate of SLIIT students since ‘there is no rightful owner to this institution’!

That’s WR’s SLIIT story. Another version would give a more comprehensive and detailed picture. It would speak of SLIIT being established in 1999 by a group of eminent academics and professionals as a Company Limited by Guarantee in order to address the demand for IT professionals. It would mention how SLIIT expanded, establishing centers in Matara, Kandy, Jaffna and Kurunegala, while creating opportunities for the study of other fields. It is a success story, by and large. If an ‘ownerless’ institution can offer graduate and postgraduate degrees in multiple disciplines, secure accreditation from renowned international certifying authorities in a country where the ‘owned’ universities have little to brag about, it is clear that ownership is not an issue. Perhaps WR should study how not-for-profit entities operate, assess the track record of SLIIT, compare it with institutions such as the one he wishes to turn SLIIT, and check his tongue before making statements if only to curb contradiction and obtain coherence.

It’s more than an issue of private versus public (or a mixture). It is about institutional and programmatic coherence and it is also about quality. Let’s consider the current situation.

The state spends billions on education and yet the end product clearly indicates that the return on investment is low. It appears that the relevant authorities have not updated themselves about the objectives of education, new methodologies and the need for synergy.

At present the public education system lags behind private systems by as much as two years. It is an exam-oriented system and one which effectively pushes a 15-16 year old into a particular stream. A student that young cannot know what he/she is good at or what would sustain his/her interests. Moreover it makes it impossible for him/her to shift streams in the event it is discovered that he/she chose poorly. Blinders are imposed early and a student cannot explore other areas of study. For example, the course-rigidity does not allow a mathematics student to learn biology, commerce or literature.

This needs to be corrected. It cannot be impossible to come up with a system which gives students more flexibility in the combination of subjects, especially at the tertiary level. For example, it should be possible and indeed compulsory for a student focusing on the social sciences to obtain more than rudimentary instruction in commerce, mathematics and biology where the student can select from a basket of subject options. The entire examination schedule can be restructured to allow for two or more exams that count for the final overall result where a student, if he/she feels that he/she has made a mistake could, after the initial set of exams, shift disciplinary focus.

While there are assignments, group projects and such, they do not count towards the final grade that a student receives. Therefore, naturally, what is fostered is a culture of exam-mania. It’s a do or die matter and those who die are buried, as per ‘custom’.

Ideally, there should be a system which strikes a balance between school based assessment and evaluation through competitive exams. Centers could be set up to facilitate schools and teachers to conduct such assessment and also oversee the integration of new and innovative learning/teaching mechanisms.

In any event, there has to be a strong civil-education component in the school curriculum especially to ensure that students who benefit from subsidies are made aware of how much is spent on them, who coughs up the money and what this entails in terms of ‘giving back’ at some point.

Such an initiative would have to be complemented by a licensing system for all those who aspire to be teachers. Having a degree does not mean one is automatically suited to teach. It is unfair to subject children to the supervision by those who are engaged in on-the-job training. That’s like getting a medical student to prescribe medicine.

The overall idea is to ensure that when a student exits school, he/she has a more rounded education, is empowered with the ability to work with others, a healthy curiosity, good communication skills in at least two languages (including English) and an innovative frame of mind among other things.

There are other issues. International schools operate largely without any supervision. In this case it is not about curriculum, but policies and practices, some of which are highly questionable. What is proposed is of course not policing, but a system of licensing that requires adherence to standards across all areas of operation.

There are lots of institutes devoted to higher studies, both private and public. There are also institutes that focus on technical education. There’s overlap and there’s sidelining. Such things can be corrected by reviewing and if necessary restructuring the institutional arrangement to obtain a greater degree of coherence and enhance synergy.

Education is obviously a key element of national development. Therefore higher education (subsequent to the empowerment through a reformed school education structure) has to be tied to overall skills requirements. This necessitates a comprehensive occupational classification based on current realities and those that envisaged development could produce. In other words we need to know what kind of human resources we need, envisage the needs down the line and ensure that these ‘needs’ do not compromise the fundamentals of education — a solid enough foundation in the sciences, mathematics, social sciences and humanities regardless of whether or not direct arrows can be drawn from courses to jobs.

Unfortunately, we are stuck in a mindset that’s best exemplified by the confusion betrayed by the Minister of Higher Education. The preference has been for uttering truisms, misunderstand and misarticulating the problem, addressing piece of it and in an ad hoc manner, and leaving things by and large unchanged.

We can and must do better. Please take note Nagananda Kodituwakku, Rohan Pallewatte, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena and any other individual entertaining hopes of becoming the next President of Sri Lanka.

Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles on key subjects that ought to be taken seriously by candidates and parties. Here are the links to the previous articles:

An introductory note

The State

Justice, Law and Order

Understanding the Executive

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.

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