26 June, 2022


University Admissions: Treating Students From Unequal Schools Equally Violates Equal Protection

By Jayampathy Wickramaratne

Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne PC

The writer’s article last week on fundamental rights issues in Grade 1 admissions provoked some discussion. A senior lawyer who appears in fundamental rights cases offered to appear pro bono if the circular is challenged. There may be more such lawyers.

Over the weekend, the University Grants Commission (UGC) called for applications for university admissions. The UGC handbook on admissions lays down the applicable criteria. University admissions also give rise to fundamental rights cases every year. The Z score system, clubbing together of students who sat for different syllabi and who sat for three and four subjects, have been challenged.

This piece is on the district quota. Before 1970, all university admissions were on merit alone. The admission of more Tamil medium students—compared to the percentage of Tamils in the total population—to the science-based streams evoked calls for changes in the policy. The authorities hastily introduced language-wise standardisation. For example, the cut-off mark for Sinhala-medium students entering the Medical Faculties in 1971 was 229, while it was 250 for Tamil-medium students. It is known that standardisation led to frustration among students and was one of the reasons that led to the radicalisation of Tamil youth, as much as unemployment among Sinhala youth was a major factor that led to the Southern insurrection of 1971.

Prof. Osmund Jayaratne

Standardisation was replaced by a mix of merit-based admission and district quotas in 1974. Under a scheme introduced for the 1980 admissions by the UGC, 30% of the available places were filled on the basis of island-wide merit. 55% were allocated to the twenty-four administrative districts that existed at that time in proportion to the total population of each district, that is on the ratio of the population of the district concerned to the total population of the country. The remaining 15% of the total available seats were distributed amongst students of thirteen districts recognised as educationally disadvantaged districts. This too was allocated on the ratio of the population of each such district to the total population of the districts so recognised.

Later, admissions to the Arts stream came to be made purely on island-wide merit. The percentage taken in for all other streams based on island-wide merit was increased to 40, and the percentage reserved for disadvantaged districts reduced to 5. The total number of administrative districts is twenty-five now, of which sixteen are considered disadvantaged. They are: Nuwara Eliya, Hambantota, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara, Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Badulla, Monaragala and Ratnapura. Jaffna was added to the list after it was ravaged during the war.

In Seneviratne vs. U. G. C., the decision to fill fifty-five per cent of the vacancies in the universities for the year 1980 on the ratio of population figures in the twenty-four administrative districts was challenged. The UGC contended that it had to conform to national policy and relied on the directive principles of state policy, especially those contained in Article 27(2)(b) and (h) of the Constitution relating to ‘the promotion of the welfare of the People by securing and protecting effectively as it may, a social order in which justice (social, economic and political) shall guide all institutions of the national life’ and ‘the complete eradication of illiteracy and the assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels.’

The petitioner did not challenge the allocation of 15% of the places to disadvantaged districts. He stated in his petition as follows: “The petitioner, while accepting in principle the apportionment of 15% of available vacancies among areas with inadequate educational facilities as it does recognise merit, states that he is entitled to be considered on the basis of the aggregate marks received by him to fill 340 places (that is to say the balance places available after accounting for the 60 places reserved for educationally backward areas) without any other restriction.” The Supreme Court considered this to mean that merit cannot constitute the sole criterion for admission. 

The UGC averred that the 55% reservation was imposed “to make available the limited number of places to as wide a number of qualifying candidates as possible from various parts of the country, so that access to high education provided by the State will be equitably distributed and also subserve the objectives of the national interest and policies.” It had also taken account of the fact that the application of the merit principle as the sole criterion would “confer an unfair advantage on students in the cities and towns who, by reason of their mere residence, have the advantage of better secondary educational facilities at the hands of the State.”

Delivering the opinion of the Supreme Court, Justice Wanasundera stated that the departure from the merit principle, though unfortunate, was inevitable. “The University Grants Commission has tried to act as fairly as possible in this matter and had endeavoured to distribute, on a rational basis, a percentage of seats among the great mass of residents who are handicapped—through no fault of their own—by being denied adequate teachers, laboratories and other facilities in the schools they attend.” The intention of the UGC to implement the relevant directive principles was accepted as a reasonable basis of classification.

The writer submits that the policy of distributing fifty-five per cent of the places among the various districts on the basis of their population and another five per cent among specified under-privileged districts must be done away with and a more equitable scheme adopted. While filling all places in all streams on the basis of merit is an ideal goal, disparities in opportunities in education need to be recognised. As Laski emphasised in A Grammar of Politics, the provision of adequate opportunity is one of the basic conditions of equality. “The power that ultimately counts in society is the power to utilise knowledge, and disparities of education result, above all, in disparities in the ability to use that power.”

Given the wide disparity in educational facilities even within a given district, it is against the concept of equal protection of the law for students in all schools in a district to be treated equally for the purpose of university admissions. The large majority of places allocated for a particular district would naturally go to students from the best schools. For example, schools in Puttalam district such as Zahira College and Fathima Muslim Girls School in Puttalam, St, Mary’s College, Chilaw and Holy Family Girls School and Joseph Vaz College, Wennappuwa have much better facilities compared to schools, say, in Anamaduwa and students from such schools would grab the majority of places allocated to the district. In the Matale district, most places would go to schools such as Science College, St. Thomas’ and Sanghamitta Balika. In Colombo, there are schools whose facilities are no better than schools in the remote areas of Anamaduwa and Mullaitivu. Students attending such disadvantaged schools are, to use Justice Wanasundera’s words in Seneviratne vs U. G. C., “handicapped—through no fault of their own—by being denied adequate teachers, laboratories and other facilities in the schools they attend” and should not be treated at par with students of schools having the best facilities.

In Seneviratne vs U. G. C., the petitioner admitted that there were candidates “who have been handicapped by attendance at educationally backward institutions”. Justice Wanasundera, while agreeing that the petitioner’s statement had been established beyond doubt, pointed out that it does not seem to be confined only to the disadvantaged districts.  The learned Judge stated: “The statistics before us relating to staffing and facilities between the schools in the cities and towns and the schools in rural areas show such a gross discrepancy as to be distressing and disturbing.”

It is submitted that the Supreme Court should have struck down the scheme in so far as it treated all students in a particular district equally, irrespective of the staffing and facilities of schools they had attended. Once the Court had concluded that there was such gross discrepancy between schools which it found to be “distressing and disturbing”, it should not have permitted the clubbing of all schools in a given district together and treating them as equals as that is violative of equal protection guaranteed by Article 12(1) of the Constitution. The Court’s conclusion should have been followed by an order striking down the 55% rule to the extent that it treats unequals as equals and a direction to the UGC to formulate an equitable scheme that takes into account the discrepancy between the various schools. Notwithstanding that the petitioner did not challenge the 15% rule, the discrepancy that the Court found would be equally applicable to schools in the disadvantaged districts.

Equality, as Laski stated in A Grammar of Politics, does not mean identity of treatment. ‘There can be no ultimate identity of treatment so long as men are different in want and capacity and need’. Humans are unequal in strength, talent and other attributes. While some of these are natural, others are referable to the society in which they live. Some are born with advantages. Other factors and combinations of factors may favour some people and place others at a disadvantage.

As far back as the 1970s, Professor Osmund Jayaratne, renowned physicist and educationist, proposed the grading of schools and an affirmative action scheme that takes disparities among schools into account in preference to standardisation. This was at a time when district quotas had not even been thought of. True to his leftist political views, Professor Jayaratne recognised the need to treat students who attend schools lacking teachers and facilities differently from those attending popular schools. But he insisted that such measures should be limited in time and reviewed periodically.

The writer suggests that schools be categorised for the purpose of university admissions taking into account the availability of qualified teachers and facilities and other relevant criteria.  Whatever percentage of places to be filled outside the merit principle must be allocated among the various categories according to an equitable proportion, after consultation with experts and obtaining the views of the public. Re-assessment of the gradings, as well as an overall assessment of the system of admissions, must be made periodically until someday, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when it would be equitable to decide on all admissions on the basis of merit alone.

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Latest comments

  • 8

    Jayampathy Wicramaratnae,

    Your claim that the cut-off marks for Sinhala -medium students entering medical faculties in 1971 was 229 while it was 250 for Tamil- medium students was incorrect.

    This basis was not only to Medical Faculty, but also to all prestigious Science stream such as Engineering, veterinary science etc..

    It was not Sinhala- medium and Tamil- medium students; it was Sinhalese and Tamil students. It was a racial classification.

    The English medium students were also decided on the racial basis and admitted to all prestigious science streams..

    The criteria was racial, to call it standardization was in fact giving a racially motivated action a scientific label.

    Moreover, this scheme was designed after the examinations were conducted and results released. To be fair,any changes in the selection criteria should have been made before the students commenced preparing to sit the examination.

    It was shame on the part of United Front Government with LSSP and CP as the vociferous partners – the champions of equity and equality. This contempt for everything the leftist stood for years were continued for the balance term until the leftists were convincingly destroyed in 1977 never to rise again.

    • 0

      Dear srikrish,
      I don’t know much about this, but if indeed it was “a racial classification” then a comment that I have just posted below the author’s earlier article, about Lavanya Nethmi Yogaraja, is very relevant. I hope that these comments get approved; I think that they will. We still maintain certain decencies on Colombo Telegraph:

      • 2


        You are absolutely correct

  • 4

    Jumpy raises a very difficult and very complex action in respect of affirmative action in university admissions. In India (reservation system) and USA (candidate by candidate affirmative action) there is still huge controversy. The main argument is that such provisions should be temporary and fade away in 10 to 15 years. We have had some form of it for about 50 years! It’s still controversial which means improvements to schools are still lagging. The concept of 13 Backward Districts should surely have been done away with the dawn of the 21st Century.
    The modifications proposed by Jumpy are ok in principle but still too complex. Perhaps there should be only two categories; say 50% of all admitted on raw-marks faculty by faculty and 50% district-wise in proportion to population. In each district schools can be classified as type A and type B and places allocated to A and B in some ratio x:y. Still it will be controversial. Should x and y be the same in all districts? Should they be fixed for all time in a district?

    • 3

      Kumar, Jayampathy
      Please stop this. You need to look at how and why standardisation started. Affirmative action was not even a part of the conversation in 1970 when this vulgar exercise in Sinhalese triumphalism started. It was an after-thought when their communal motives were obvious to all.
      In my batch a Street-Sweep’s son was moved out of Peradeniya engineering to Moratuwa’s Dip.Tech while a civil servant’s son from a Colombo school was admitted to Peradeniya Engineering after standardisation.
      They the ULF (really you) added 28 marks to every Sinhalese student, even those who sat in the English medium. (Different versions such has as a report to parliament says 23 marks were added).
      Then at the bottom of depravity they said Tamils were favoured by our examiners. A Royal Commission went through our scripts (only of those admitted to Peradeniya Engineering, the only engineering faculty then) and said marking was fair and if at all there was a difference, it was that Tamil examiners had been a little stricter.
      You leftists had better simply say you did wrong and lick your wounds rather than defend the indefensible.

  • 1

    I agree in principle the arguements of the author and the logic in the arguement. I had made the same or similar in an article two years ago on Une 8, 2019 in Colombo telegraph on;

    a) national schools and provincila schools which are two diffferent entities and may not be considered as equal ( https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/national-schools-in-provinces-is-it-a-success-failure-or-myth/)
    b) I had also argued or suggested that the quota system was to be dome away oin 20 years with 5% adjustment each year funding unequally to the less developed districts and such in 20 years we would have only merit at the end,. Thus we should have had the ONLY merit system in 1992. Yet nearly 30 years after we have none to that effect or even an expectation of that result. I endorse that the cutoff marks shoul dbe different o the National schools and the provinicl schools as they do not share the same facilities within a province or treat the nationa schools in the country as one entity as the resources availbale at these are far different form the provincial schools and it is unfair to treat them alike, as much as we treat two different districts different.

  • 1

    As a former UNP appointed MP the writer could have raised these things when the UNP had the power. Otherwise the reader can think you are not sincere.

  • 2

    All schools irrespective of national schools or Provincial schools having GCE A/L classes are presently categorized as 1AB schools, having only arts and commerce classes are named as 1C category and other schools are classified under II and III category.

    All national schools are invariably 1AB schools.

    However not all 1AB schools have similar facilities and have teachers for all science subjects.

    As rightly pointed out by the author, unequal s should not be treated equally, but unequally,but based, on a transparent acceptable criteria so that finally some equity prevails.

    Thus, for university admissions these 1 AB schools could be further classified based on availability of laboratory facilities and teachers and of course number of students and then admissions are decided based on this criteria.

    Of course, criteria should be made simple and easily comprehensible.

    The ideal situation is to equalize facilities in all 1 AB schools and have merit as the sole criteria.

  • 2

    The decision of present government to have 1000 national schools in the name of upgrading facilities is lamentable because centralizing all power and responsibility under one roof will undermine power sharing, even regional development and good governance and therefore avoided

    Instead, government policy should be with the objective of upgrading and equalizing facilities in all 1 AB schools irrespective of whether they are national or provincial schools and thereby enhancing equity.

    • 0

      I think that what you have said is a clear pointer towards the truth.
      We all like to generalise, but as Blake said, “the truth lies in particulars.”
      Also when something happens in a “distant” place we don’t make any effort to understand. Or we imagine we do, if the media blared it out. We hear so much about America. No, that’s not true; about the United States.
      But what happens in “Tamil Areas” we Sinhalese don’t bother about. And vice versa.
      Being conscious of that, I tend to say all sorts of silly things about what happens in Jaffna. I make many blunders but I have found people of other communities fairly generous in forgiving the mistakes I make.
      We ought to try to get at least the overall picture within this little island right.
      Just see! I was prescribing attention to particulars, and now I’m being vague!

  • 5

    Any method adopted to overawe the Principle of Merit and Merit alone, in University admissions is discriminatory.

    The Standardisation system was introduced, as the essayist claims was because the number of Tamil students who entered the prestigious science based courses did not reflect the percentage of Tamils in the population. So, a system was introduced with altruistic arguments, to checkmate the Tamils. A case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

    What is the percentage of Tamils in State employment right now?
    Does this reflect the percentage of Tamils in the population?

    I am not finding fault with the essayist, on this score, especially with his Leftist ways of thinking but the fact remains that Standardisation was the most important issue that caused so much strife in the country, with an armed revolt,and an ever widening gap in the Sinhala-Tamil relationships.

  • 3

    Like in Arts all admissions should be on merit and all other criteria such as disadvantaged groups, district basis should ignored. Students from so called under priveleged schools attend the same tuition classes as those from city schools. Long time back my daughter who got 3Bs and an S could enter any science based faculty while the student from Nuwara Eliya with 4 S passes and who sat next to her in all her tuition classes got into the medical faculty. The district basis has no meaning now because all these students from the district attend the same tuition classes as others from cities.

    • 2

      I’m sorry to say it, readers.
      But what Appuhamy says is now about 90% true.
      Please do some thinking.

  • 2

    The Sinhalese have become acquisitive — they took our places at universities, they took away the powers of our provincial councils (given to us by our sovereign parliament), they are taking away our lands … they took away our youth and journalists and killed them or locked them up, they are looting our treasury and our politicians are becoming richer by the day …,
    Please ensure that you are on the right side of history and morality if we are to have any respect for the left parties you root for.
    PS: I am making another posting related to this.
    PPS: I really respect you both and it saddens me that you cannot see what your parties collaborated in, in what I call the decapitation of the Tamil people in my upcoming book on standardisation.
    The Finance Commission gives its latest 2021 report where the Northern Province has been reduced to the bottom — population, GDP etc., while excelling only in poverty. We are second but last in median capital income, but then the last is the Eastern Province!

    Mine is a comment on the Achille’s heel of left the United Left Front govt that unleashed standardization on Tamils.
    Even my leftist relations, argue with my position that standardization started with my batch (1969 AL and 1970/71 admissions). They say standardisation started later in 1973 date.

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