By Harini Amarasuriya –
The current government’s budget as well as statements by several Ministers, including the Minister for Higher Education and Highways, has made it clear that it intends to continue with the previous regime’s policy on education, especially with regard to higher education. The most worrying of proposed initiatives, is that of allowing the establishment of private campuses.
One of the problematic aspects of policy debates in Sri Lanka is the tendency to simply take opposing stands on issues and hurl insults at each other. There is no critical analysis or engagement with issues: instead, debates are split simplistically along ‘for’ and ‘against’ positions. The danger of this tendency is that arguments are simplified and critical decisions are made based on political expediency or even more alarmingly power alliances: so which side has access to the powers that be, will often determine the course of policy in Sri Lanka. The debates on education too have become reduced simply to ‘for’ and ‘against’ privatisation – with very minimal, serious, analysis of the consequences of such policies. This is especially true of the ‘anti-privatisation’ camp – who are usually painted as wild eyed, left-wing idealists who have no grasp of ‘reality’. Their mode of protests – which are usually confined to street demonstrations – have sometimes resulted in their views being dismissed as irrelevant. The pro-privatisation camp on the other hand has mainly relied on a few arguments which they repeat over and over again. It is said that a lie often told becomes the truth, and unfortunately, the arguments of the pro-privatisation camp have been mainstreamed far too easily. Their main arguments can be summarised as follows:
- Thousands of students who are eligible for university are denied these opportunities since the current state universities cannot absorb them.
- State universities are unable to produce graduates who are employable.
- Large amounts of money flowing out of the country to pay for education abroad can be saved if private universities can be established locally.
Each of these arguments ignores certain basic factors. Yes, state universities are unable to absorb all those who qualify. But firstly, this assumes that the A/Ls is simply a qualification for university entrance (which it is not) and secondly that all those who are eligible to enter university and fail to do so, will be able to afford private universities. Thirdly, it ignores the fact that there are many departments in the state university system which are not functioning at full capacity. Apart from popular programmes such as medicine, engineering, management, law etc (which are viewed as professional courses leading directly to some kind of employment), there are many departments in the state universities who are not running to full capacity.
This previous assertion is linked to the second argument by the pro-privatisation camp that the sole function of a university is to prepare graduates for the labour market. This has become so mainstreamed in society, that the idea of a broader function of education has been almost erased from society while also conveniently ignoring the role of employers in providing training and professional development for their employees. Unless employers are simply looking for robots who can carry out instructions, one would think that some of the most important skills that are required for employment are independent and critical thinking, creativity, imagination and a broad outlook on life. To gain such an education, the discipline in which you study becomes less important. Instead, the content and pedagogical features of a programme of study are the factors that will determine the quality of a programme. We seriously need to focus on is whether our universities are paying attention to these factors, but unfortunately, a narrow, technocratic view of employability which dominates thinking in education, has stripped education of its critical, transformative and creative elements which can only be ensured through critical pedagogy as well as content. Thus education choices have also become limited with competition for certain courses and less attention to others.
There is another important consideration: the role of a university is not simply to teach but also as centres of research, knowledge production and dissemination. And it is no secret that our university sector falls woefully short on these areas. The pro-privatisation camp does not consider how private universities will engage in research and knowledge dissemination and there is no serious dialogue and debate in society about the need for research in the country. And not simply research for the sake of promotion or patents, but for knowledge generation at a much broader level. This is a critical need in a country that is facing so many social, political and economic challenges.
The final point that private universities will ultimately prevent money from leaving the country is dubious to say the least. It is highly doubtful that so called prestigious universities will set up camp in Sri Lanka. The most likely scenario is the mushrooming of low-quality ‘campuses’ set up simply with the intention of making maximum profits. The demand for higher education in prestigious foreign universities will continue – because as higher education opportunities expand, the value will not simply be attached to the qualification but from where the qualification is obtained.
But the more serious consequences of privatising education are its socio-economic consequences. Unfortunately, the anti-privatisation camp while vaguely basing its opposition to private education on issues of equality and social justice have failed to come up with a powerful enough or convincing argument from this perspective. The issues of equality and social justice are the most compelling arguments against privatising education and this argument needs to be made forcefully.
If we consider what is going on around the world, there is increasing evidence that the issue of equality in education is becoming a serious concern. Recent student protests in South Africa are the latest in a string of education related protest movements from around the world. A few weeks ago, Oxford and Cambridge came in for strong criticism from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in the UK for failing to select enough students from state schools. The commission found that the majority of students to Oxford and Cambridge come from private schools thereby perpetuating a system of inequality. In the US, Democratic Party Presidential candidates debated on their positions with regard to College tuition fees, with Bernie Sanders advocating for a radical transformation of tuition fee structures in the US. The positions of those such as Sanders are resonating with the public showing that the effects of inequality in education are being felt in society. These debates highlight the fact that unless there are specific measures, education becomes the right of the privileged only and that the opportunities for social mobility provided through education will simply disappear. The current government’s enthusiasm for providing ‘full autonomy’ for universities for example – which comes from a very narrow understanding of autonomy as meaning control over funding and managing admissions – is a serious threat to the existing, however flawed, attempts at ensuring equality in university education in Sri Lanka.
Because if there is one thing Sri Lanka’s education system provided over the years was at least the hope and opportunity of a dream: the dream to better oneself, through one’s own ability. Universities especially became a ground where a highly hierarchical society was forced to bow down to individual capability rather than socio-economic position and influence. This does not mean our universities are havens of equality – far from it – as most women and minority communities in our universities will testify, but at least they maintained an ethos of respect for the concepts of equality and social justice. This ethos is under serious assault and its loss will have huge consequences for society. The problem of increasing demand for higher education must certainly be addressed. So must the question of quality in the university sector. Yet, if the proposed solutions are going to lead to the erosion of at least the hope of equality and social justice through education, the results will indeed by extremely detrimental for our country. At the same time, it is time we stopped playing lip service to the ideas of equality and social justice in education and seriously take action to reverse the deterioration of these ideals in our university system as well as to rigorously defend the role of education in ensuring social justice.