Colombo Telegraph

Open Forum On Education: Same Old Anecdotes No substance

By Sujata Gamage –

Dr. Sujata Gamage

Sri Lanka Economics Association and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung hosted an open forum on education at the Taj Samudra last night. The title was “Education in Sri Lanka: Achievements, Challenges and Strategies Ahead”. The panelists were Prof Savithri Goonesekere, Dr. Harini Amarasuriya and Mr. T. Mahasivan, Ceylon Tamil Teachers’ Union with Prof. Indraratna as the moderator.

My first reaction to the event was no I don’t want to waste another evening. Prof. Indraratna is not the most erudite moderator. I have heard Prof. Savithri Goonesekere’s arguments before. I admire her stand for good governance but her views on education are too university-centric and statist, I believe. Besides, there was nobody to present the better half of tertiary education- the vocational and professional institutions. However, I was keen to hear a Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, a new voice from the Department of Social Studies at the Open University, and the trade unionist.

My worries proved to be true. Dr. Amarasuriya too was disappointing and the trade unionist could have been replaced with a middle class grandparent from anywhere in Sri Lanka.

Prof. Savithri’s argument was clear and concise. Nothing can be achieved unless the education system is depoliticized. However, she offered no strategies. Judging by her previous ideas, her  strategies if any would be far too removed from reality. For example, following is her (along with Mt. Jayantha Dhanapala’s) strategy for private higher education:

“we emphasise that, as in other countries, these private institutions must be not-for-profit educational institutions which should be regulated adequately through a professional accreditation system to assure academic standards ”

Their statement begs the question whether the writers considered the availability of philanthropists who would fund such non-profits in Sri Lanka? Has anybody in our universities bothered to a do study of philanthropy in Sri Lanka for that matter? What about the existing for-profits? Has anybody really studied them before bashing them?  LIRNEasia together with Ceylon Chamber recently released the results of a study on the Higher Education Landscape in Sri Lanka. Our survey revealed 46 institutions that offered degrees from 54 foreign institutions. All but five of the foreign institutions were members of the International Association of Universities or the Commonwealth Association of Universities. (According to the UGC these are the authoritative sources).  The five were institutions recognized by the relevant authorities in their countries.  In terms of track record, 27 of those private institutions have already awarded 2,344 degrees in 2010/2011, 17 had enrolled students and 2 are new programs. They have enrollments of 10,000 or more. Prospective students to these institutions can further question these institutions about the validity of their affiliation with the foreign body and other relevant questions. What else can we ask at this stage from a fledgling private sector? If the truth be told, they are the ones who should be asking for concessions for giving solace to harried parents and taking some pressure off the public system.

As for Dr. Amarasuriya, she did not tell us anything beyond what we heard during FUTA’s trade union action. What does research in social studies have to say about the achievements, challenges and strategies for education in Sri Lanka? We did not hear.  The problem with open forums of this sort is that when they are not based on substance the audience rise to the occasion and start babbling about their own experiences and frustrations.

The only worthwhile comment of the evening came from an expat lady in the audience. She asked whether we really know what is happening in education.  Why does a three wheel driver begin the conversation by saying I failed the O/L? Why is he not able to say proudly that he completed 11 years of schooling? How come he does not have anything to show for it? Have we put in place an education system to simply to raise the bar for admission to the public university system?

This article does not mean to devalue the efforts by the Sri Lanka Economics Association and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung but to urge them to support the groundwork which is necessary for a proper discourse on education. We need to ask the right questions and look at the hard facts. A tracer study of a suitable cohort of youth would be a good starting point. Take the case of three hundred and fifty thousand or more student entered school in 1990. How did they fare in 2001 after 11 years of schooling or at 16 years? Where were in 2010 as eighteen year olds and where are they now at 32 years of age? What percent do not have anything to show for their schooling?  Is it more than 50% of the cohort as we suspect? Which of them are driving the economy with their labor in export driven industries, creating jobs with their entrepreneurism, or helping us think deeper or laugh away our worries with their creativity in the media or the arts?  How did they get there? I would not be surprised if the numbers tell us that the economy is driven by the NCTs, NDTs and the CIMAs or those learned on the job having had the fortune to be kept away from our universities.

This article would not be complete if I don’t make a plug for the efforts by the Human Capital Research Program at LIRNEasia’s to fill the gaps in research on education.  Please visit http://lirneasia.net/research/hcr/.

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