29 October, 2020

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On Sri Lanka’s Free Education Crisis

By Lakshman Jayawardena

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.
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Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    Introduction of Sinhala Only and withdrawal of the English Medium was the begining of the downfall of the public education system. Govt also took over Christian Missionary schools which were of a good standard thereby depriving students of gaining a good education. Later on Govt introduce standardisation which was used as a means to limit the admission of bright students from minority dominated areas entering the universities.

    Thus these malafide measures taken with an impure intent have resulted in a third rate system of education. At least two or three generations of students have suffered due to these ill conceived acts of successive govts. Minorities and now the Majority themselves have been forced to send their children to private and international schools at great cost mainly due to the language problem. It is not possible to compete using a language other than ones mother tongue. Minorities have sent their children abroad as they are not qualified to enter the local universities (London A levels and BC not recognised by UGC).

    Now these people want to lay their hands on the international schools. It is better if they cleaned up the public school system by reintroducing the English Medium and do away with this bogus system of standardisation. Give the minorities a chance to enter National Schools like Ananda, Nalanda, Visaka and Museas etc. Otherwise if people have the money let them educate their children wherever they wish. This type of thinking by the author is quite outdated and reflects the result of the public education system in Sri Lanka.

  • 1
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    This man needs counselling for this low level analysis of free education. He may be surely from Ruhuna or Sabaragamuwa University graduate. First [Edited out] to Sri Lankan fake professors. No PhDs or no good publications but professors.

  • 0
    1

    The education system worldwide has increasingly become commercialised, as a result of the society expects their children to be passed out by a branded school in the hope that the child will be successful in the career market place. The parents are missing out on the quality of education, discipline and the environment that provides are more important in laying the foundation of a child than just grading. A couple of decades ago education was the one of the ways out of poverty. Now it has become the only way. The economic boom and talk of the merits of hard work have created an expectation that to learn is to escape poverty. But these days higher education system only leads to jobs for a few, educating a new generations to unemployment and despair. How do you choose a college when 4 years of schooling costs 20 years of income? What is it like to join the “ant-tribe”, the millions of newly graduated who, every year, can’t find work? And what if the only job we could find involved selling worthless products and services?

  • 1
    0

    No country in the world provides free education for all those who desire the facility, with uniforms, school books, shoes and a meal. No one can stop the right of parents to provide a private school education for their children. This trend is likely to continue with the improvement in the living standards.

    The excellent results from outstation schools at grade 5, ordinary level and advanced level exams shows that there is no significant disparity in the results between different districts. The district quota system is a good affirmative action program, not second to such programs provided anywhere else in the world. Hence, Sri Lanka can be proud of its primary and secondary education system.

    The Minister of higher education is slowly and steadily upgrading the quality of the graduates produced by the Sri Lankan universities. The measurement of international rankings and the gradual shift to the English medium is helping the process of upgrading. The foreign students help to enrich the life in the universities. I agree with the recommendations of the writer to make the universities more responsive to the market forces.

  • 0
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    Dear Mr. Lakshman Jayawardena,

    Your recommendations on tertiary education are “reproductions of outcomes of many a QAAC evaluations”. There is nothing new. May be you thought that readers of CT are not aware of the recommendations. Go to QAAC web site and you will find them.

    1. “Re-design university courses and their curriculum to attract
    students for courses having good employment prospects upon
    completion of the degree.
    (You do not seem to have understood the meaning of the word
    “University”. They are not for producing employable graduates but
    intellectuals. And intellectuals are not bothered about employment
    prospects because they are confident and know how to create
    the future.)

    2. “Requires industry participation,negotiate industries to fund for
    specific research projects relevant to Sri Lanka.”
    (This has been in practice for nearly 10-years. Now the private
    sector has almost delegated the pre-job training to universities
    which is conducted through industry specific research in
    laboratories donated by the industry.)

    2. “Traction to invest in creating jobs rather than fattening the
    public service and adding layers of bureaucracy which has proved
    unproductive.”
    (This is a slogan that has been used by many a Donor Agency for
    nearly 20-years. But almost all of the graduates leave the private
    sector when the state sector absorb them as Graduate Trainees for a
    Rs. 10,000.00 monthly allowance. Private sector starts with Rs.
    25,000.00 now.It proves my point about the intellectuals.)

    3. “Discourage industrial actions that result lengthening the course
    duration- this will drive students to complete the course and get
    employed without delay.”
    (All students and parents know this. But completing courses without
    delay does not assure employment.)

    4. “Remove courses that are not in demand – this will reduce the
    academic staff, and so reduce the burden for the government.”
    (It is simple logic that courses in demand can accommodate limited
    numbers and those with just above cut-off level have to follow the
    courses that are not in demand.)

    5. “Recovering course fees from employed graduates – the government
    will be in a position to increase funding to universities creating
    pathways for improvements and recognition.”
    (Now you come to the point. This is like recovering student loans
    with interest. The day per capita income exceeds US$ 4,000.00 and
    “if it is fairly distributed”, it may be possible. But forget about
    the spirit of free education.)

    6. “Coupled the salary increases of the Lecturers and other non
    academic staff with performance.”
    (Performance review has been in practice since 2002 but it is not
    coupled with employment contracts.)

    7. “Device mechanisms conduct performance reviews of all academic and
    non academic staff couple with rewards and recognition with feedback
    of students to be sought.”
    (Academic and Non-academic staff who really interested in career
    development are doing well even without rewards and recognition.)

    8. “Increase funding for research, demanding lecturers to get involved
    and publish and present papers locally and internationally with
    monetary rewards.”
    (You do not have to this as a novel idea. University of Moratuwa has
    a business arm named “Uni Consultancy” and it has been functioning
    for over 10-years.)

    9. “Rank universities within Sri Lanka and open up competition.”
    (This not something new. You do not seem to have understood what
    ranking is and methods of ranking. Free universities which are open
    only to locals do not need competition.)

    Your article is not based on the outcome of a proper analysis and your recommendations are just statements copied from several sources. The statements have no links to the narration. If you are a graduate from a real University then behave like a learned person. Do not criticize the system without analizing it. If you are unemployed I can see the reason. It is not because your degree does not have a recognition but your thinking is not knowledge based nor you are knowledgeable to pass judgement on university education. The content of your article is good for passing time during funeral vigils.

    The Professional

  • 0
    0

    I wish to thank everyone for the comments provide so far, but I regret to note that some of the comments are not in line with basic premise of the article. I wrote this to discuss whether the free education system is sustainable in the current form or not.

    I have never argued that international and private schools should be scrapped, what I have said was to have an effective national regulatory framework to oversee the level of education across the mixture of schools and their coexistence with the public schools. Without raising the standards of the rural and sub urban schools in par with the rest, there will be high demand for admission to affluent public schools. Because of this reason, corruption and favoritism have been climbing up and become a normal activity.
    As one said the downfall of public education came with the introduction of Sinhala only policy (my understanding was swabasha Sinhala and Tamil) and withdrawing support for missionary schools. This is a fact but only handful of people had the access to such education. The Srimavao government’s attempt was to bring down the standard of missionary schools (out of jealousy/political gains, despite she was an old Bridgetian) rather than raising the standard of rural country schools to make them equal – a cheap solution.

    I also fully agree that if parents have money there should be choices for them to select the schools for their children and never said against it. The basics premise of my writing was to uplift the education standard for all children in Sri Lanka so that they will never be ashamed of their school or their origin. I believe the free education charter provides such a framework, but I have noticed that over the years the core values have been marginalised with the liberlised education policy.
    I was never aware of the existence of QAAC, the recommendation I listed have not been copied from any document or report, and they are my own. If my recommendations are the same as QAAC commissioned report, I am very happy to say that there is no necessity to appoint high powered committee to come with recommendations which are common sense. This will be a total waste time and money. If people are not aware of how other countries conduct their business in the sphere of Tertiary education, I urge them to read or visit countries of interest- Asia at least.

    You cannot attract foreign students if we operate our university in close doors. The only guide available for the foreigners to evaluate our universities is through global university ranking index. The institutions who conduct such surveys are reputed organisations very similar to S&P, Fitch and Moody’s who provide credit ratings for countries and companies.

    Here again my premise was to argue whether Tertiary free education is sustainable in the changing global culture.

    Again thanks for everyone

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