By M. Y. M. Siddeek –
“Truth alone will endure, all the rest will be swept away before the tide of time” – Mahatma Gandhi.
I believe there is a widespread myth that the Tamils were badly affected due to the university admissions criteria of the successive governments of Sri Lanka. There is no truth in it. It is true that not only the Tamils but also the Muslims who studied their A Levels in Tamil medium were affected by ethnic/language based standardisation of university admissions implemented in 1970 and 1971. However, with the introduction of the District Quota System, the Tamil students from the Northern districts of Vavunia, Mullaithivu, Mannar and Kilinochchi, from the Eastern districts of Trincomalee, Ampara and Batticaloa and from the Central province districts of Nuwara-Eliaya, Badulla, Bandarawela immensely benefitted. The District Quota System has been implemented by the successive governments since 1972 to admit students to the universities.
Before 1970, university admission was based on pure merit. The number of Tamil and Sinhalese students was almost equal in highly demanded medical and engineering faculties in the universities. However, the Sinhalese students in the faculties were not proportionate to their population in the country. Therefore from 1970, the university admissions policies made it compulsory for the Tamil students to score higher marks than the Sinhalese students to enter the same faculties in the university. For example, Tamil students had to score 250 marks to get into Medical or Engineering faculty while Sinhalese students only had to score 229 and 227 marks respectively. In short, students sitting for examinations in the same language, but belonging to two ethnic groups, had different requirements of minimum marks to enter the universities. It is widely claimed by some that this open discrimination of the then United Front Government of 1970 caused enormous harm to ethnic relations between Tamils and Sinhalese. This made it difficult for Tamil youths to enter university and as a result, the Tamil youths were not able to find suitable employment. Therefore, they say that this made the Tamil youths hate the Sinhalese and the university admission policy was another reason for the conflict between the Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.
From 1971, the same government made some changes to the university admissions criteria and the students were admitted to the universities based on language they sit. The number of Tamil and Sinhalese students admitted to the universities was proportional to the number of participants who sat to the A Level examinations in Tamil and Sinhala languages. This obviously decreased the proportion of the Tamil medium students in the universities. It is noteworthy that, according to 1971 A Level examinations results, a large proportion of the Tamil allocation was enjoyed by Tamil students from Jaffna and a large proportion of the Sinhalese share was enjoyed by the Sinhalese students from Colombo. Therefore, the Education Minister of that time seriously thought about this imbalance between the districts due to lack of facilities in the other districts of the country. Therefore, the District Quota System was introduced in 1972 to take into consideration of extremely limited facilities available in the districts other than Colombo and Jaffna. It is also important to note that, the ethnic/language based standardisation was in existence only for two years. Therefore, it can also be argued that impact of those short-lived criteria to admit students to the universities is immaterial considering a long history of higher education system in Sri Lanka.
The District Quota System for university admissions introduced in 1972 abolished medium wise standardisation of marks. There is no evidence for existence of language based standardisation after 1972. One of the other reasons for the introduction of the District Quota System was to control continuing influx of students to Colombo and Jaffna schools due to lack of facilities in other districts. It was therefore thought that if admissions to universities were decided on a District Quota System, an incentive for good students to remain in their home towns would be created. Therefore, one of the objectives of the District Quota System was to ensure that the best students from rural schools gain admission to the universities from schools in their own districts. It was also thought that selections on a District Quota System would eliminate the handicaps created by the lack of sufficient satisfactory facilities in certain areas such as Nuwara-Eliya, Mannar, Vavunia, Mullaithivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Monaragala, Polonnaruwa etc. This fact was never appreciated by the critiques of the District Quota System and was never mentioned in the debates. According to the District Quota System of 1972, 30% of university places were allocated on the basis of island-wide merit and 55% of the places were allocated on the basis of comparative scores within districts on the basis of the population strength of each district. Therefore, if a district has a population of 18% of the total population of the country, 18% of places available for any particular group of courses were allocated to that district whereas another district with a population equivalent to 7% of the total population, it would get only 7% of places in that particular, group of studies. An additional 15% was reserved for students from underprivileged districts such as Nuwara_Eliya and Trincomalee. This 15% too was allocated on the basis of the population strength of the underprivileged districts. Once the total number of students for each district is determined on the basis of the population strength of the district, 100% merit basis was applied within the district to select the students for each course of study. I am not arguing here that this is the best system because a student’s performance can be affected by various factors such as I.Q., school and home environment, extra- curricular activities, attitude and aptitude for learning etc. Inclusion of all these factors into the admission criteria is impossible. It is very important to note that Sri Lanka has only a small number of universities and therefore , the education system in Sri Lanka is very competitive. Approximately only 9% of the students who sit for the G.C.E (Advanced Level) examinations, and only about 14% of those who qualify, are admitted to universities. Therefore, it is fair to provide opportunities to the students from all the districts, more importantly to the students from educationally underprivileged districts other than Colombo in the West and other than Jaffna in the North. The District Quota System has also brought an ethnic balance. In 1969, before the introduction of standardisation/District quota System , the Northern Province which was pre-dominantly a Tamil province with only 7% of the population of the country, was allocated 27.5% of the places for science-based courses in Sri Lankan universities. By 1974, after introduction of the District Quota System, this was reduced to 7% which is equivalent to the population proportion of the province. Similarly, from the other predominantly Tamil districts of Vavunia, Mullaithivu, Mannar, Batticaloa, Trincomalee etc. the percentage increased to closer to their population strength. Similarly, the Western Province with 26% of the population of the country was allocated 67.5% of the places of science-based courses in 1969. This reduced to 27% in 1974 which is closer to the population strength of the district. It should be stressed here that the majority of the share enjoyed by Jaffna Tamils were distributed among Tamils in other Tamil districts such as Vavunia, Mullaithivu, Mannar, Trincomalee, Ampara, Batticaloa and Hill country where the facilities in the schools were very poor. Majority of the share enjoyed by Colombo was distributed among rest of the Sinhalese. This is the major impact of the District quota System.
Therefore, the district quota system not only brought benefits to those students not having adequate access to educational facilities, but also had a significant impact on the demographic patterns of university entry. While the open ethnic/language based and short-lived university admissions criteria of 1971 and 1972 have long been dismantled, many Tamil youth still feel that they are discriminated against in access to higher education because of the false propaganda by some politicians and Tamil movements.
It is true that the Tamil students in the District of Jaffna were affected by the District Quota System for a few years. But in the mean time Tamil students from all other districts of the Northern and the Eastern provinces have benefitted immensely with the implementation of the District Quota System. For example, soon after the creation of new Kilinochchi district in 1984, one Tamil student from this district was admitted to Medical faculty with only 182 marks when the students from some other districts had to gain about double of that marks to go to a Medical faculty. Isn’t it a record in the recent higher education history of Sri Lanka to go to a Medical faculty with such a very low mark? I am sure this particular student, now a senior doctor, should be able to witness this. Similarly, a large number of Tamil students from Vavunia, Mannar, Mullaithivu, Trincomalee, Nuwara-Eliya etc. were privileged to gain admission to the universities due to the introduction of the District Quota System should also be able to witness the benefits they derived. Isn’t it a benefit that the Tamil community derived from the District Quota System? Therefore, it is a false believe that the Tamils were badly affected by the University Admissions Criteria of successive governments. What the District Quota System does is to provide equal opportunity to the students from all the district irrespective the language they speak and their ethnicity.
Now the district quota system has slightly changed. Up to 40% of the available places are filled in order of Z – Scores ranked on an all island merit basis. Under District Merit Criteria, up to 55% of the available places in each course of study is allocated to the 25 administrative districts in proportion to the total population, that is, on the ratio of the population of the district concerned to the total population of the country. A special allocation up to 5% of the available places in each course of study is for 16 educationally dis-advanced districts including Jaffna District. It should be highlighted here that Jaffna district is now considered an educationally dis-advanced district and the students from that district are also immensely benefitting from the District quota System. The island-wide merit 40% was only 30% in 1972. There were only 5 districts classified as underprivileged districts in 1972. It should also be noted here that Jaffna district is benefitting now more than Colombo, Kandy and some other districts since it is now considered an educationally dis-advanced district and gets extra number of admissions.
However, in selecting students to a given course of study, it is ensured that the quota allocated to any districts (55% and 5%) is not below the quota in the academic year 1993/4 or 2002/2003, whichever the greater. As a result, the districts in the North and the East are not disadvantaged by a large outflow of population due to the war.
The quota system to admit students to universities is nothing new. There are other countries following similar systems. A very good example is China. The quota system recently introduced in China allocates more students from poorer areas to the universities. According to the system, the universities in 11 of the richer provinces are to admit a total of 210,000 students from poorer provinces. Another example is Nigeria. The universities are guided by admission policies such as quota system, catchment area, carrying capacity, and educationally less developed states and others. Educationally less developed areas are given 20%. Only 45% of the available places are reserved for candidates with very high marks. This is just 5% above the current 40% merit based admissions in Sri Lanka. The Nigerian university admissions policies are aimed at addressing the issues of ethnic representation. Even in the UK now many academics and politicians are thinking of widening access to university. They accept that all youngsters should have an equally good chance of going to university. There are arguments in the UK academic and political circles to force the universities to discriminate in favour of under-represented groups. The argument is that they should be given admission and an opportunity to learn regardless of whether their Advanced Level results are poor. Although they do not support a quota system, it is similar to a quota system.
I remember at this point what John F. Kennedy once said; ‘all of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have equal opportunity to develop our talents’.