By Lakshman Jayawardena –
Free Education system: sustainable in its current form or should it be scrapped altogether?
The Education landscape in Sri Lanka has changed dramatically over the years, however, meaningful and effective reforms are yet to be seen. Such reforms require proper funding arrangements to uplift standards, be productive and compete with intra and international spheres. Governments over the years have not made any attempts to reform this sector as it is politically sensitive but have done band-aid solutions disguising the real agenda under the “socialist framework”.
Free Education is not only to provide Education at free of cost but to provide equitable access to every child irrespective of the demography, exploit the individual strengths and cultivate good values to become a law abiding citizen.
Primary and Secondary Education sector
The so called “real” free education had collapsed many years ago. Sri Lanka liberalised education policy, allowing private international schools to operate and grow prolifically driven by the demand of unsatisfied parents of the public education system. The government has failed to create an effective regulatory framework in a timely manner thus leaving room in adding another layer to the existing “well known” hierarchical schooling system. The absence of such national regulatory framework is highly regrettable and dilutes the impetus for education. Another driver for the growth of these institutions is that the medium of delivery be English. Sri Lanka should learn from developed countries how to run a mixture of schools in a competitive and liberalised environment without losing its emphasis and improve the overall development of the next generation of Sri Lankans.
Furthermore, signs of decline of the education have been noticed much earlier. Most of the parents resort to send their children to private afterschool tutories to be competitive in the public examinations. Private tuition is a huge industry spread across many parts of the country and again run mainly for profits. Nearly, fifty years ago only Colombo students had the access to such coaching but now every corner you find posters and cutouts advertising available places for tuition and the credentials of the tutors. In the backdrop of teachers in their continued negligence of their primary responsibility this industry has expanded from a niche to a wider market over the decades. The government has neither control nor regulatory powers to reform this market but often criticises of unhealthy environment for child’s overall development.
Managing the extraneous forces attacking the core ideology of Free Education is a significant challenge for governments and needs the formulation of effective policies and progressively funds the primary and secondary education sector, ensuring every child has equitable access to education and reduces the disparity between urban and rural schools. As Sri Lanka is a Socialist Republic, each child irrespective of the demography should not be deprived of the facilities enjoyed by City or urban students.
Tertiary Education sector
Since 1970’s the university education sector was subject to various upheavals, including many stoppages due to JVP insurrection and several industrial actions by the students and staff. These unwarranted stoppages have placed tertiary education behind several years. Moreover, the demands by students and staff to increase funding for tertiary educations have ended up with several broken promises by the government, stalemates and violence. If such activities continue there will be a total breakdown and recovery will be another challenge. It is regrettable to note that according to the latest global university ranking index, our universities are ranked well below 600. The frequent spin we hear from the minister to make Sri Lanka the education hub of Asia is highly farcical. Without increasing funding there is no guarantee that Sri Lanka will become the tertiary education hub.
The reasons for most of the tertiary education issues arise due to lack of funding and excessive government interferences. The question is, are we in a position to provide free education at the tertiary level. According to my view it is a big no. I believe it is the right time to withdraw the provision of tertiary free education and suitably arrange students to bear the course fee, albeit subsidised, depending upon the Course. For students who are unable to bear the cost, government should provide soft loans and devise a mechanism to recover the cost once they are employed and earn above a certain income threshold determined by the government. Also government should allow universities to operate as autonomous entities, keeping only the regulatory function. Government interference and getting involved in day to day running of the business is most inefficient. Creating such autonomous entities similar to the models in most fast developing and developed world open up competitions among the universities also make them productive, efficient and competitive. Authorities should understand without healthy competition university rankings cannot be improved.
This will bring several social and economic benefits:
- Re-design university courses and their curriculum to attract students for courses having good employment prospects upon completion of the degree. Requires industry participation, negotiate industries to fund for specific research projects relevant to Sri Lanka
- Traction to invest in creating jobs rather than fattening the public service and adding layers of bureaucracy which has proved unproductive
- Discourage industrial actions that result lengthening the course duration- this will drive students to complete the course and get employed without delay
- Remove courses that are not in demand – this will reduce the academic staff, and so reduce the burden for the government
- Recovering course fees from employed graduates – the government will be in a position to increase funding to universities creating pathways for improvements and recognition
- Coupled the salary increases of the Lecturers and other non academic staff with performance
- Device mechanisms conduct performance reviews of all academic and non academic staff couple with rewards and recognition with feedback of students to be sought
- Increase funding for research, demanding lecturers to get involved and publish and present papers locally and internationally with monetary rewards
- Rank universities within Sri Lanka and open up competition.