Outlook for Jaffna
Having returned to Sri Lanka to settle for the third time, I cannot help wondering if Sri Lanka is really ready for progress. Signs were good, but not any more. The promised reforms have stalled. There are still signs of a police state and the Human Rights Commission confirms continued use of torture. Real estate is rising in value slowly compared to the rest of the country, driving Tamil investors to invest outside the North. Jaffna’s youth are satiated by luxurious lives with motorbikes and Android smartphones sustained by relatives abroad. But what of education to pull them out of dependency?
Education: Bad News
My former student, Dr. Roshan Ragel, at the Akaram Foundation Workshop in Jaffna on 15.10.2016, presented a chilling analysis of education. He represents another breed of Northern Province products who are well-accomplished but find they can only grow elsewhere. Using his metric of assessment which he calls the Normalized Metric Value, he showed that the Northern Province has undergone a sharp drop for overall university entrance from first place in the 1980s to eighth place today (out of 9) and the Eastern Province is still in one of the last places now as then. In contrast, over this period, Western Province has retained its second place while Southern Province has moved from third place to first:These figures from Ragel indicate that within Northern Province, Jaffna District’s ninth place (out of 25) for overall admission is similar to the much improved Vavuniya District’s performance.
At the same meeting the Eastern Province Education Minister, The Hon. Singaravelu Thandayuthapani, spoke coherently showing there are still a few competent people remaining in Tamil areas. His data showed the same precipitous state in the East as indicated in Ragel’s.
We see the Sinhalese not qualifying in relation to their provincial share of the eastern population in each of the three streams, the Muslims doing relatively well in the biosciences, and Tamils surprisingly doing better in arts.
Other sources confirm this precipitous decline in Tamil performance. For example, in the exam to select nurses held in the 25 districts, Galle, Hambantota, and Kegalle had 455, 431 and 428 qualifying candidates while at the low end were Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, and Kilinochchi, which had 7, 17, 18, and 18 qualifying candidates respectively. Jaffna did middlingly with 156 qualifying candidates while Trinco had 80, Puttalam 82 and Batticaloa 87. In contrast, Amparai had 228 qualifying and Monaragala with 153 matched Jaffna. Very recently both these districts were the most underperforming districts in the country.
As another source, consider the exam conducted on 29.11.2015 by SLIDA (Sri Lanka Institute for Development Administration) for the Election Commission for our recruitment exercise. SLIDA’s test consisted of an aptitude test and an essay test in the most appropriate language, Tamil or Sinhalese.
The pass rate for Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims was 88%, 38% and 48% respectively – essentially, most Tamils who sat for the exam failed. Out of the 371 candidates, the first 10 in rank were Sinhalese and among the last 10 (all of whom failed) there were two Sinhalese, and one Muslim and seven Tamils. Among Tamils, while the IQ marks in the aptitude test were comparable, the marks for the essay writing were well below the Sinhalese’s. The matter needs attention.
Role of English
The low essay marks for Tamils shows they do not read. Exercising literacy is the key to education: from critically reading diverse materials as learners, and translating this growing adeptness with language and knowledge into writing. This literacy is particularly important for English, which is now the language of all international exchange. Without English literacy, access to knowledge becomes highly constricted, because academic knowledge is developed, gathered, and exchanged globally in English. English competency is therefore a mark of high quality education. Unfortunately, poor English proficiency is a serious problem that holds Jaffna back. Having been isolated for many decades, teachers across the district are unable adequately to guide ones education in English. This problem is widespread even at the top tiers of the university. When the university website has a Dean speaking of his “academic carrier” one would wonder if someone else carried his academic load for him. When a Senior Lecturer Grade I declares on the university website that “He has taughted” at Peradeniya’s Faculty of Engineering, anyone would naturally question the quality of the English medium courses at Jaffna and Peradeniya. The picture is grim as the University of Jaffna is led by a Vice Chancellor who wrote to her “Deens” ordering them to get senior staff to sign an urgent letter of support for Mahinda Rajapakse’s election because “we have to forwarding this” before 29.12.2014. Reference letters for students written in such English reduces the value of the students in the job market, since employers outside the community question both the legitimacy of the reference and the quality of the university.
Is Jaffna a Lost Cause? The case of Thevamaran
Can we Tamils ever come back to our pre-war, pre-standardization level of achievement? I was very despondent until I met Dr. Ramathasan Thevamaran this week at Rice University in Houston, TX. He studied at St. John’s College during the war years. He worked hard to pick up English, which his parents encouraged knowing there is no future without it. He went for classes to Mr. Alex Thambirajah of St. John’s to learn beyond the trivial OL syllabus. He went to V. Paranthaman of the university’s ELTU and did OL English Literature. He entered Peradeniya, and received many prizes at St. John’s. He topped the batch and entered CalTech, one of the world’s most prestigious science universities, and got his doctorate.
This October, Dr. Thevamaran published as the premier author in the journal Science on his research using nanotechnology with lasers to develop strong and tough nanograined metals. Scientists around the world vie to publish in this journal, and it is considered almost impossible to have a paper accepted by this rigorous and widely read publication. He is a credit to the innate potential of our students.
Thevamaran wants to come back to teach in Sri Lanka but all his mentors here, perhaps wisely, have advised him not to. Yet it is in getting people like him back that our future depends. Currently, he is part of a USgroup trying to get funding for Lankan scholars to do their doctorates. Unfortunately, our scholars are unable to write the required essays explaining why they want to do their doctorate in that particular programme. When advised to get help to get the essay and its grammar right, they say their professors have already corrected it.
Thevamaran recalls being taken by CalTech to meet Dr. Michael Nelson, a top Analyst on Technology Policy in Washington for the US Government who told their group: “First Grade people hire first grade people and surround themselves with intelligent people. Second grade people hire third grade people.”
This is Sri Lanka’s tragedy. Stooging by the third grade recruits is apparent in our university websites, with the VC on almost every page. TNA’s M.A. Sumanthiran publicly said at a seminar at Jaffna’s Managers Forum that because of quality they do not have MPs to man parliamentary committees. This in turn is because candidate nominations are given by our second grade politicians to third grade stooges without any party democracy. TNA MPs have no interest in our universities because their children get scholarships in India or they plan to send them to the West.
For Sri Lanka to do well, Tamils must do well. For Tamils to do well, our universities must do well. Stars in the dark skies like Thevamaran must be enabled to come back, not just in political sentiment, but in active changes led by the President and fostered in the university community.