By Dhammika Herath –
The word ‘free’ in the term ‘free education’ is misleading. Education in Sri Lanka has never been free. In face there is no country in the world where education is free of charge.That is not simply possible as funds are necessary to pay teachers, lecturers and academics, not to mention the other support staff. The much needed money is generated via direct and indirect taxation as well as international aid. This is the stark reality in the face of mounting pressure to preserve this so-called free education.
What we were actually discussing over the last thirty years was obtaining some privileges for underprivileged children considered deserving on account of superior intellect and skills, irrespective of the parameters that are used to measure them, which obviously have their fair share of flaws.
This has helped many in the wider, underprivileged sections of Sri Lankan society to improve their socio-economic standing irrespective of caste, creed, religion and ethnicity.
Over the course of thirty years there were many blows to this process including the White Paper of Education (1982), the establishment of private medical colleges and private universities. Sri Lankan universities are private properties of some academics, but that is another story.
The recent blow to the so called free education came from the government which states ironically that it represents the majority who are poor and underprivileged. There is truth in the claim, though; in fact the poor voted for the current government en masse. The interesting fact is that doing away with Grade V Scholarship exam has several ramifications, the most obvious one is that it hinders some of the brightest students an opportunity to study in more prestigious schools.
Some of the great clinicians I know immensely benefited from this exam and their excellent achievements testify to the invaluable nature of the exam itself. I personally did not change my school since i passed this exam more thank 35 years ago, but the financial incentives greatly benefitted me in acquiring necessary books and dealing with transport costs.
The education system in Sri Lanka is not free, let me repeat; parents have to bear enormous cost to send the children to school, provide them with food, transport, and meet other expenses including fees and other charges that are levied. All this is in addition to paying taxes.
The rise in the cost of living impacts everything. The poor cannot provide basic necessities for their children such as food, clothing and shelter. Therefore they can become disillusioned and start to leave the schools early. This is quite apparent over the last ten years.There is ample evidence that class movement in Sri Lanka has come to a grinding halt and is in fact reversing since the end of war.
The government’s current policy is based on a concern about “…stress the children are placed due to this exam”. This is baseless and not based on evidence. children who cannot bear the brunt of that stress are highly unlikely to bear the stresses of ever increasing societal pressures, peer pressures as well as pressures exerted by other life challenging obstacles. What is really needed is better stress management and skills development than scrapping of scholarship exam.This new found policy is preventing social and class movement, fulfilling the agenda of the privileged and in the end keeping slaves as slaves forever. This is only to provide cannon fodder for future wars and uprisings directly resulting from these kinds of short sighted policies.
*Dhammika Herath, Consultant Psychiatrist, Queensland Health ( formerly Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka)