By Sumanasiri Liyanage –
Crisis is a strong word that I prefer to avoid using although many tend to use it to describe any dis-equilibrium. When a situation is in a crisis, it means the direction towards which the situation would develop may not be predicted. This seems to be similar to a situation when medical practitioners describe ‘critical’. Nonetheless, social systems may go through a prolonged period of crisis with no radical transformation for multiple reasons. I believe the Sri Lankan education is in a prolonged crisis. Solutions that were introduced by the government as well as university system in the past and that are being tried today are not based on a serious diagnosis of the situation that in turn caused to generate the present prolonged crisis in education. A survey on education by Transparency International has revealed that education has been one of the most corrupt sectors in Sri Lanka. However, my attention here is not education in general but higher education. Many seem to believe that the present situation is primarily due to lack of adequate resources. The government tends to think that bringing in private capital would resolve this crisis of resource inadequacy. The Federation of University Teachers proposes that increasing the government expenditure to 6 per cent of the GDP would be a solution. I accept that the public expenditure on education is not adequate and it is even less than what the government spent on education in the pre-1977 liberalization phase. However, I submit that the prolonged crisis of education should not be reduced to the issue of lack of resources. In the present situation, mere increasing resources would not be a solution to this multi-faceted crisis. Let me give an example. Some years ago, the universities except medical faculties introduced semester and continuous assessment system with the argument that it would raise the quality of the degree. In my view, it is an utter failure in social science and humanities and become a mere weapon of disciplining students. Do we teachers need to review this system? So crisis is within as well as without. It is in this context, the Ministry of Higher Education has been trying to establish private universities. I have no objection to setting up of private universities per se if that comes under and within a national plan of higher education that ensure not state but public/social control. Nevertheless, if that suggestion comes as a part of a plan of commodification of higher education, it should be resisted.
The current strategy of the Ministry of Higher Education is, in my reading, two-fold, namely. (1) to make higher education a tradable commodity meaning a commodification of higher education provided by both the state and private higher education institutions; (2) to increase the state control exercised by the Ministry of Higher Education over higher education institutions, both state and private. My neo-liberal economist friends may see this strategy as self-contradictory because according to their theory commodification means by definition less state control. On the other hand my leftist friends in the government (Vasu, DEW, and Tissa) would praise the ministry strategy claiming that commodification under increasing state control would make no harm as it goes with their ‘state socialist’ theories. In order to commodify higher education, the Ministry suggests the establishment of private higher education institutions as Board of Investment companies within educational investment zones or outside of those zones. In addition, the state higher educational institutions would be encouraged to develop more and more tradable courses making them also attractive to teachers in the state higher educational institutions. Secondly, the Ministry is seeking increasing Ministry control through appointments, approval of private institutions, accreditation system etc. It is evident from the fact that the state control over the state higher educational institutions has increased significantly since 2009.
How would this strategy affect the future of higher education? How can it be resisted? What kind of educational reforms that we should stand for? It was Karl Polanyi who had convincingly argued that market cannot and should not be allowed to handle certain areas of human life. The arguments that are put forward to support the commodification of education are many. First, it has been said that educational benefits go to an individual who received it so that she has to make a payment. Education is essentially a collective exercise. It is not only produced collectively but also its benefits go to a larger community in many ways because it is incorrect to argue that the benefits of education can be calculated in terms of the salaries and wages of individuals. Secondly, many tend to justify the commodification of education by arguing at the end of the day that educational product is evaluated by the market that is an impartial evaluator. This argument is based on two misconceptions. As Paulo Friere has informed us if CEOs are given power to decide the direction of education, that would be dangerous from the perspective of real objective of education that should be inclusive. Delivering this year J E Jayasooriya memorial lecture, Prof W D Lakshman informed us that inclusivity had two related meanings. First, it should be open to everyone irrespective of class, caste, gender, age etc. Secondly, he emphasized the inclusion of social sciences and humanities in all streams of education. The second misconception is that it is assumed that market can resolve all the issues. Joan Robinson, a well-known economist, emphasized that the market may quite well resolve short-term issues but if would fail in many if not all long-term issues. One may add a third point in showing that the government strategy is incorrect. It may be affect economic development adversely in a country like Sri Lanka. One of the tendencies of capital accumulation in Sri Lanka has been the movement capital from productive sectors to unproductive (should read as use less) sectors in order to get higher profits. We have been witnessing private investment are moving towards setting up of private hospitals. Education is another sector. The consequences would be a sluggish growth in productive sectors such as industry, agriculture, construction etc because of the lack of adequate capital investments.
So the issue is not simply privatization of higher education or keeping higher education solely owned and controlled by the state. Although the ownership matters and it sometimes decide control, (TRADCO), the workers after three years strike decided to get the control and a half of the ownership into their hands. In the last three years TRADCO workers have shown that they are capable of running the factory by maintaining its international market share and offering more benefits to its workers. This experience gives some light on how future society should be organized. The message has been given by the ‘occupy movement’ appears to be the same. In addressing the crisis of higher education and resisting the government strategy of higher education specified above, two important principles should be highlighted. The first is to stop commodification of education and all such steps taken so far in that direction should be undone. The second is to take steps to establish social (should not be read as state control) control on education in both the state and private higher educational institutions. This will open up a new debate how in what way higher education in Sri Lanka should be organized to make it inclusive and democratic. So ’occupy and control’ are the two key words of any resistance movement today.
*This is an English translation of the text of a speech delivered at the meeting held in Public Library Auditorium, Colombo. The writer is the co-coordinator of the Marx School, Colombo, Kandy and Negombo. – e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org