Colombo Telegraph

Crisis In The Education Sector

By  Jayantha Dhanapala and Savitri Goonesekere

Prof. Savitri Goonesekere and Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala

The recent trade union action by university academics and other staff, and the current critique of educational policies and interventions by students, parents, teachers and members of the public are a response to multiple crises in the education sector. These problems have not emerged overnight. They reflect progressive decline including many decades of mismanagement and politicized and ad hoc decision making.

Education has always been considered a public good in this country and providing equitable access to education continues to be one of the important pillars of public policy. Our educational system built over decades of social and state investment, and commitment to provide free and accessible education, has helped Sri Lanka achieve impressive social indicators in education, health, life expectancy and equal opportunities for women and girls. The priority given to education is recognized as having contributed significantly to Sri Lanka’s high ranking in human development. Sustaining these achievements and working towards greater progress in the education sector is the responsibility of the State. However, approprate policy planning and implementation requires the active engagement and interest of many other actors such as students, parents, teachers, trade unions, the private sector and all citizens.  There is a collective responsibility to revitalize the education sector as an important public good and a necessary dimension of democratic and accountable governance.

The recent trade union action by the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) and public protests over the recent Z score fiasco, school admissions to grade I, closure of rural schools, paucity of competent principals and teachers, politicization of appointments in the education sector etc. have  raised important issues and created an opportunity for a public debate and citizen participation in regard to reforms in education. The Friday Forum, in a spirit of democratic engagement wishes to draw attention to what our group considers priority concerns that  must be addressed and resolved to prevent further deterioration and a possible collapse of the state education system.

Lack of Priority for Consultative Policy Planning

Education is regulated in this country by a colonial Education Ordinance (1939) and post-independence legislation on higher education culminating in the Universities Act (1978). Various expert policy advisory bodies like the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the National Education Commission (NEC) examined the regulatory framework many times and made proposals for reform. A draft Education Act and a draft Universities Act were prepared during previous administrations in a consultative process. A new draft Univeristies Act was forwarded by the NEC to the Kumaratunga government in 2005. The present government has included the education sector in the Mahinda Chinthana  policy document and has also accepted commitments to achieve the goals and targets of  international policy douments like the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs).

However, in a recent trend, statutory policy advisory bodies like the NEC have been sidelined and made dysfunctional. The UGC  which in the past recognized  its responsibility to uphold the concept of academic autonomy incorporated in the Universities Act, has now become a convenient conduit for implementing ad hoc decisions of the Minister on the management and resourcing of university education. Once an independent institution, which linked to the universities as the statutory regulator of higher education, the UGC today is nothing more than a political appendage, functioning almost as a government department within the Ministry of Higher Education. Important legislation seems to be drafted in secrecy without the thought and reflection required for law reform and policy formulation. An example of this approach is the recent drafting of the controversial Universities (Non-State) Bill.

In this environment, academics and students are increasingly resorting to judicial interventions to question policies, sometimes leading to further ad hoc administrative decision making and delays, as in the case of school admissions to grade I or the recent Z score fiasco.

It is critically important to replace this type of ad hoc  and highly politicized administrative decision making in the education sector with rational and well thought out policy planning and implementation based on  the advice of educational experts and competent professionals. Such experts should  act independently and represent the various stakeholders whose contribution is important for the education sector. The NEC and the UGC must act as independent bodies and become effective channells for expressing a professional viewpoint that the government must respect in formulating educational policy. University bodies like Senates and Faculty Boards should, as highlighted by FUTA, have a voice in policy planning, implementation and the management of university education.

Political Appointments to Key Posts

Politicization in making of key appointments has reinforced the trend towards ad hoc policy making by the Ministry of Higher Education. There have been reports of violations of the Universities Act through persistent political interference in making appointments to the post of Vice-Chancellor and governing bodies (Councils) of universities. We are aware of many instances in which eminently qualified academics have refused to apply for the post of Vice-Chancellor because of the political manipulations of the appointment process. There is now open political canvassing for these positions.  Relatives, friends and political allies without the relevant competencies and expertise are also constantly being appointed to University Councils. Their main qualification appears to be political allegiance to the regime and/ or to the Minister of Higher Education. We are not surprised by the desperate call of FUTA to end this abuse of authority, as the weakening of academic governance through politicization has already contributed to deepening the crises in the university system.

Political appointees are now helping the Minister to make arbitrary decisions regading university matters in complete violation of the legally established procedures under the Universities Act. This Act makes university Senates the highest academic authorities in universities. However,  the decision to conduct the controversial “Leadership Training Program” through the military  for new university entrants was taken by the Minister unilaterally. We undertand that academic bodies of universities were not consulted as required by the Universities Act. Similarly, we learn through newspapers that the Minister, without consulting the proper academic bodies, has given instructions to eliminate the aptitude test  for admission into an academic program where the test was considered an essential requirement by academic bodies to assess whether students had the capacity to follow the course.

Vice-Chancellors, whose duty it is to engage with policy makers and political authorities to safeguard the interests of universities, have turned their backs on the legitimate demands of the academic community in their eagerness to please the  political establishment. This is also manifested in the manner  in which Vice-Chancellors appeared on the political platform of the President and other ruling party contestants during elections. Statements of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Directors (CVCD) which simply endorse the government’s position on academic issues without any effort to dialogue with the univeristy community reflect a new trend in this important body which provides a forum for articulating a collective voice on issues of concern to the university community.

Resources for Education

Sri Lanka wisely resolved through its elected representatives in the State Council in 1943 that formal education at all levels should be paid for collectively. This social contract has been undermined and challenged over the decades, due especially to prolonged armed conflict and the  pressures of economic transformation and globalization.  It is shocking that the government of Sri Lanka currently allocates only 1.9% of the GDP for the entire education sector, the lowest allocation for education in South Asia.

Government spokespersons emphasize that in the post-war period, infrastructure development and energy are more important for development than resourcing poorly functioning educational institutions.  Village schools are being closed despite protests from the communities. The government is thus advocating a cutback on resources for state schools and universities rather than addressing the resource gap.  There is a perception that the private sector must be the engine of growth in regard to education and that private institutions will place Sri Lankaon the path to becoming the knowledge hub inAsia. The relevance of ideas, curiosity, debate, dialogue and creative thought are ignored, and has been replaced with an overemphasis on providing information and skills for the market. The privatization of education project has thus become an excuse for denigrating and undervaluing the state education system.

Sri Lanka perhaps needs an appropriate new public/private (not-for-profit) partnership in resourcing education. Such a balance may contribute to knowledge generation, dissemination and increased partnership relieving the pressure for admission into state schools and universities. However, 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.

We recognize that there are serious issues of teacher under performance in both universities and schools. Those personnel, and the unions they belong to, must in fairness to the students and the larger community engage in a process of self-reflection and take optimum remedial measures that are possible under existing circumstances. At the same time, however, if  the quality of teaching and academic output in schools and universities are to improve not only must be there systems of  enhanced teacher training and performance evaluation, but also a commensurate level of remuneration for such personnel which can attract and retain the best qualified in a competitive environment. Such measures certainly require a commitment to higher investments in education.

In Sri Lanka today, unregulated private institutions are mushrooming, entrenching a private tuition education industry that prioritizes profit rather than academic standards and equitable access. While it is true that state institutions provide uneven facilities in teaching and infrastructure due to declining resources, FUTA’s current trade union action has highlighted the critical importance of providing adequate resources for these state institutions. They have emphasized that this is essential in order to ensure that this country sustains its commitment to give equitable access to educational opportunities for all our people.


Recent attempts at militarization of education too have grave implications for academic freedom and institutional autonomy.  There appears to be a concerted effort of the defence establishment, working closely with Minister of Education and Minister of Higher Education, to infuse military discipline and a military ethos into the formal education system, both at school and university levels. The Friday Forum in the past has made extensive criticism of the so-called militarized “Leadership Training” of undergraduate students. Here we list some recent and ongoing concerns:


  • The decision by MOHE to continue the “leadership training” to university entrants conducted by the military in military installations;
  • Media reports of possible military training for and designating of  school principals with  military ranks;
  • Media reports of militarised “leadership training” for A/L students;
  • The Cabinet decision that all public universities must mandatorily hire the services of  Rakna Lanka Ltd., a security firm with close ties to the defence establishment; and
  • The installation of letter boxes in schools in the Kollupitiya area by the police on purported instructions from the Ministry of Defence for students and parents to make confidential reports and tips on risks, suspects, abuse and criminal activities.

While we respect that the military has to have its own form of training, the promotion of a military ethos among civilian youth is not acceptable in a country committed to parliamentary democracy. The education system should not be focused on producing regimented minds which do not question authority and who think that free thought and action amounts to mutiny. In the post-war era we must do all we can to strengthen democratic freedoms and values through the education system, that promote respect for the rights of all our people.

This insidious trend towards militarization in the education system must be recognized as contrary to the public interest, and halted by the government with immediate effect.

 Trade Union Action of FUTA

The crippling strike action launched by FUTA has a clearly formulated set of demands on strengthening public universities in the country. Unfortunately, the government has not displayed a commitment to engage in a constructive dialogue to resolve the crisis as a matter of national priority. It has wrongly perceived FUTA action as part of a radical political agenda. From the inception, the Minister of Higher Education, the UGC and the CVCD have been on a confrontational course with the academics.

The failure to recognize the crises in the education sector including in universities and resolve issues of concern is not in the public interest and undermines, in our view, the government’s capacity for sustainable development. Rhetoric on making Sri Lanka the ‘knowledge hub of Asia’ without any understanding of the basic goals of education in a democratic society, cannot achieve expected outcomes. An over focus on IT, science and technology, undervaluing the humanities and social sciences has been recognized as a negative development in many countries in Asia including Singapore and China. Therefore, these countries are increasingly developing approaches in education which emphasise multi-disciplinary teaching and learning. This is because educationists throughout the world have recognized that funding cuts in education must not undermine the gains in education that cannot be measured.

As the President of Harvard University has reminded governments and policy makers:

Education measured only as an instrument of economic growth… misses the fact that we are all interpreters; it ignores that somethings are not about facts but about understanding and meaning… Look to the past to help create the future. Look to science and poetry. Combine innovation and interpretation. We need the best of both …As stewards of centuries old traditions of higher learning, we must work to assure that the understandable effort to promote what is valuable not eclipse our support for what is invaluable…. How can we create minds capable of innovation if they are unable to imagine a world different from the one we live in?  Economic growth and scientific and technological advances are necessary, but not sufficient. Education measured only as an instrument of economic growth neglects the importance of developing the capacity for interpretation, for making meaning and sense out of the world around us…It is about opening that window that must be stirred and awakened time and again, even in the wise.

Drew G. Faust, President of Harvard University, Address to the Royal Irish Academy, June 30, 2010

Those words are very fitting for a country that has a long tradition of literacy and learning, and a higher education system once considered one of the best inAsia. Government efforts at development must recognize the importance of recreating the excellence of the past rather than destroying the existing public education system in the name of economic efficiency and growth.  Dialoguing with FUTA and resolving the important issues raised, in our view, will provide an opportunity for the government to take education policy and management in a new and welcome direction. Failure to do so through indifference or misplaced priorities will harm both present and future generations.

7th August 2012

Jayantha Dhanapala                            and                   Professor Savitri Goonesekere


On behalf of Friday Forum, the Group of Concerned Citizens

The Friday Forum                                                                            2, Greenlands Avenue, Colombo 5, Sri Lanka

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