24 June, 2024

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Whither The National Education Policy Framework Of Sri Lanka?

By Athulasiri Samarakoon

Dr. Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon

Amidst a severe economic crisis and an IMF-driven reform process, the Sri Lankan government’s recent legislative surge, comprising over 42 bills, aims to reshape various facets of the country’s political, economic, legal, and social spheres. Central among these, for me, is the National Education Policy Framework (NEPF), which is yet to be tabled in Parliament. The proposed NEPF has already drawn significant attention and criticism. Opposition comes from the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA), Medical Academics’ and Professionals’ Unions, Teachers’ Unions, Professional Trade Unions, the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF), and opposition parties. Critics, including prominent figures like Prof. Arjuna Parakrama, argue that the NEPF poses a dire threat to Sri Lanka’s tradition of free education, a legacy established by CWW Kannangara in the 1940s. A closer examination of the NEPF reveals its potential to exacerbate social inequalities, increase class disparities, and ultimately lead to greater social unrest.

Free Education Under Threat

Sri Lanka’s free education system has long been a pillar of societal equity, providing access to education regardless of socio-economic status. However, the NEPF proposes several reforms that could undermine this foundational principle. One of the most concerning aspects is the advocacy for “public-private partnerships facilitated in all sectors” (Policy 33). This move risks the commercialization of education, potentially widening the gap between the rich and the poor. The introduction of market-driven forces into the education system could lead to a scenario where quality education becomes a privilege of the affluent, thereby entrenching existing social inequalities.

Additionally, the funding and resources section of the NEPF clearly highlights that state funding will not be prominent, but funds collected from students and private partnerships will be key. The policy suggests that students will be given loans to enter universities rather than direct funds being sent to universities, which could exacerbate financial burdens on students. Provisions like No. 35, which proposes to finance government schools based on enrolment and performance, and No. 36, which outlines a three-component model for tertiary education funding—government funding, student contributions, and other generated funds—suggest a shift towards a performance-based, market-driven approach that risks increasing disparities.

Further complicating the situation are Provisions No. 37, which transitions to enrollment-based funding in tertiary education, and No. 38, which allows students with government-backed loans to choose between state and non-state institutions. This loan-based model places significant financial pressure on students and could deter low-income families from pursuing higher education, reinforcing socio-economic divides. Provision No. 39, removing limits on foreign investment in higher education, could lead to a proliferation of private institutions focused on profit, further marginalizing public institutions.

These reforms, if implemented, could dismantle the structures supporting equitable access to education, undermining the legacy of free education in Sri Lanka. The NEPF’s emphasis on commercialization and reduced state funding threatens to deepen class disparities and social inequalities, ultimately leading to greater social unrest. The gradual withdrawal of the state from funding and administration of public education will cause for the abolition of free education and removing equitable access to quality learning opportunities.

The proposed replacement of the University Grants Commission (UGC) with a National Higher Education Commission (Policy No.29), which would treat both non-state and state universities under the same policy and recognition, blurs the distinction between public and private institutions. This, coupled with the divestment of administrative powers from the Ministry of Education, hints at a broader neoliberal agenda. By prioritizing market interests over educational welfare, these changes threaten to dismantle the structures that have historically supported equitable access to education. The NEPF’s emphasis on economically driven subjects, such as artificial intelligence and sustainable development (Policy 05), further narrows the educational landscape. While digital literacy and global priorities are important, the focus on marketable skills at the expense of critical thinking and civic engagement can deepen class divisions.

Class Disparities

From a critical perspective, education policies often reflect the interests of the ruling class. In Sri Lanka, where political power is concentrated within elite circles, the NEPF’s reforms could perpetuate rather than alleviate class disparities. The state’s push towards neoliberal education reforms aligns with global trends that prioritize economic efficiency over social justice. However, resistance to these reforms is crucial to preserving public education and ensuring that it remains a tool for social mobility and equity.

The establishment of a parliamentary select committee, led by Minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe, to spearhead education reform adds a layer of complexity. This move, coupled with structural changes, may further entrench market forces within the education sector, eroding the foundations of free education.

The NEPF’s approach is emblematic of ‘”economism”, Prof. Sivamohan Sumathy of Peradeniya University argues, where education is treated as a commodity. This perspective is reflected in the Central Bank Report of 2010, which outlines the vision of Sri Lanka as the “Knowledge Hub of Asia.” While this vision emphasizes innovation and economic growth, it fails to address the broader social implications. The focus on creating a professional labor class for economic gain overlooks the need for greater social mobility and empowerment of marginalized communities.

The concept of a Knowledge Hub prioritizes immediate economic benefits over long-term social equity. This approach runs contrary to the democratic ideals envisioned by pioneers like Kannangara. By emphasizing infrastructure and services in urban centers, the government’s policy risks leaving rural and marginalized populations behind. The disparities in spending on education between urban and provincial areas already exacerbate social inequalities, and the NEPF could further widen this gap.

Conclusion

The NEPF’s proposed reforms warrant critical scrutiny within the broader socio-economic context. Education should serve as a tool for liberation rather than oppression. The current reforms threaten to undermine this ideal by prioritizing market interests and deepening class disparities. To ensure a more just and equitable society, Sri Lanka must protect its legacy of free education and prioritize equitable access to quality learning opportunities. The pursuit of a knowledge economy should not come at the expense of social justice and inclusivity. The government must adopt a more balanced approach that considers the needs and aspirations of all segments of society, particularly the marginalized and oppressed.

Sri Lanka’s education system stands at a critical juncture. The NEPF, while presented as a necessary modernization, risks undoing decades of progress towards educational equity. It is imperative that stakeholders, policymakers, and the public engage in a comprehensive dialogue to ensure that any reforms enhance rather than erode the principles of free and equitable education. The future of Sri Lanka’s youth and the fabric of its society depend on it.

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Latest comments

  • 1
    1

    Contrary to this author, from what he has mentioned of the NEPF (National Education Policy Framework), I think it seems to be quite a progressive legislative bill.

    Most countries in the world, including those in our region, have private universities and our country seems to stick out like a sore thumb in resisting this. Vietnam, which was a poor third world country not so long ago and is now ahead of us in economic prosperity, has both public and private participation in tertiary education.

    “While digital literacy and global priorities are important, the focus on marketable skills at the expense of critical thinking and civic engagement can deepen class divisions.”

    So this writer is okay with our tax payer-funded universities churning out unemployable graduates who eventually demand that the Government provide them with employment, too, as if free education was not enough?

    Our universities train students in “critical thinking”? Why has not the “critical thinking” training that this author received enabled him to see that these educational reforms are necessary due to economic constraints, provide opportunities for students who otherwise would not have access to higher education and so are in the wider interest of the country?

    Continued.

  • 0
    2

    Continued from last comment.

    Since the author is proud that he is trained in “critical thinking,” can he mention one example of where this “critical thinking” has enabled him to reach the right view or conclusion about ANY subject under the sun, so I could comment?

    • 0
      0

      To Leonard and all others who made comments. Where do you fit this account?

      Hope you Sri Lankan (loyalists) can understand this narrated in SINHALA, the main language used in Sri Lanka
      Sisira Weragoda
      Tasmania

      https://youtu.be/whOiF0lff7M?si=8VapRZQKS_OuT44D

      • 0
        2

        Sisira:

        As I advised another commenter some time ago, links to other websites are acceptable only if they are cited in support of a point or argument already made in your comment.

        If you will do that, I might respond to your comment after possibly checking out your web link.

        • 0
          0

          Leonard
          This is not a debate.
          We all (Athulasiri, others, you and me) are sincere people exploring social issues, social injustice, ”…equitable education” etc.

          • 0
            0

            Sisira:

            If this is your response, then I regret having replied even to your first “comment.”

            I was saying that I don’t respond to any comments that just give bare web links to other sites. I have better things to do with my time than that.

            I requested you to state your point in YOUR WORDS (as briefly as possible), so that I could respond. The fact that you didn’t do that shows that you either you don’t have a point or not clear about it yourself or are too lazy to articulate it.

            • 0
              0

              Full Stop.

              • 0
                0

                Thanks for wasting my time.

  • 2
    1

    ”…equitable education”? Everybody has the right to an education but when it comes to higher education, an unfair selection process favors the village youth while those in urban areas are deprived even with significantly better test results. The equitable solution would have been to strive to raise the standards of all govt. schools, not concentrating on a few, like Royal & Ananda.

    Many Universities offer unemployable qualifications, a waste of public funds & time for students who could only expect a relatively low govt. job at best after graduation. Even in most developed countries, higher education is not free. All students are eligible for a loan or an outright grant, depending on individual financial status, to cover University fees & living expenses, which will be repaid only after gainful employment, earning more than £25k or written off after 20 years. Anything free is not appreciated & the result can be seen in sadistic campus ragging (illegal & not practiced in UK or any developed country) & the lethargic, indifferent attitude of many govt. employees, often the product of SL universities.

    SL needs an education system that is beneficial to the country & the people. The current system is not fit for purpose.

    • 3
      1

      Raj,
      “waste of public funds & time for students who could only expect a relatively low govt. job at best after graduation. “
      Most students who get into University want just that. Why struggle with real work when you can get a government sinecure from which you can’t be sacked, automatic promotions, and a pension?

  • 1
    0

    Hello Dr Athulasiri Samarakoon ,
    I am sure given your background that you are well aware of the problems with Sri Lankan Education. Before Sri Lanka can hope to become a “Knowledge Hub” it will have to ensure that Students have a high level command of Technical and Scientific English. Sri Lanka should be teaching English starting with Pre-School Nurseries (Kindergartens) and then throughout the School/College Curriculum. By the time they get to University their command of English should be at IELTS Band 6 or 7 depending on the Degree. How are you going to find the Teachers and train them to this level?
    Of course to begin such an ambitious program necessitates having a sound financial situation in the Country.
    The abysmal Electrical Infrastructure will also have to be torn down and built anew. It would help if Sri Lanka developed its known Oil and Gas Reserves in the Mannar Basin or they may have to build a Nuclear Power Station, but with the current level of Health & Safety in Sri Lanka I wouldn’t take that risk! The other Educational Policy that the Government should be looking at is Adult Education (sometimes known as Lifelong Learning).
    Best regards

    • 3
      1

      LS,
      “Sri Lanka should be teaching English starting with Pre-School Nurseries (Kindergartens) and then throughout the School/College Curriculum. By the time they get to University their command of English should be at IELTS Band 6 or 7 depending on the Degree. How are you going to find the Teachers and train them to this level?”
      Many years ago, before Independence, Sri Lanka did produce world-class scientists , artists, administrators, engineers, etc. The nowadays much derided missionary schools did this. Where did they get the teachers? They were imported. I will not risk the ire of the fake patriots who can’t see the wood for the trees by mentioning where most came from. You could ask Sinhala Man about Mr. Kuruvila, his English teacher.

      • 1
        0

        Hello OC,
        Some of my Kerala friends/colleagues spoke perfect Engish, Arabic and Malayalam with a fair bit of Hindi thrown in This was ideal for the mixture that we were teaching in Qatar. Students were from India (North and South), Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia and Philippines. The official language on our Project was English, but many Students had only a Basic Knowledge so it was useful to be able to translate the PowerPoints and Documents for them.
        Some of my Keralan colleagues in Saudi had the Family name Nair (or Nayar) but I didn’t realise then that it was considered a High Caste name.
        Best regards

        • 3
          0

          LS
          Indian surnames are predominantly caste names. An impressive exception is Tamilnadu, where by mid 20th Century people dropped the caste identity in the name endings.

    • 0
      5

      Hello Lanka Scot,

      “Before Sri Lanka can hope to become a “Knowledge Hub” it will have to ensure that Students have a high level command of Technical and Scientific English.”

      Knowledge of English and knowledge of technical/scientific matters are two different domains, although there is some intersection. For scientific training, logical reasoning is the most important element. This comes through an understanding of mathematics. To become a “knowledge hub” for science and technology, the Sri Lankan government should follow the model of Communist countries. Select the best students at the primary school level and send them to specialized schools that focus exclusively on math and science subjects.
      Regarding the University system in Sri Lanka, it is very good, but not so much for PG when it comes to certain subjects. Certain facilities are missing due to budget constraints. Which makes it difficult to train researchers in cutting-edge science and technology.

      • 1
        0

        Hello Lester,
        The UK gave up its 11 Plus system many years ago. Are you trying to bring it back, or only in Sri Lanka?
        I have seen some fairly well equipped Schools in Sri Lanka, but they are few and usually in heavily populated areas.
        Best regards

        • 0
          2

          Hello LankaScot,

          Something like the 11 plus system is definitely necessary. By the way, have you encountered the Soviet maths books? They are black and white, but still superior to anything we find today, including the books written for IB Maths, which are also very good.

          https://archive.org/details/a.-kutepov-a.-rubanov-problems-in-geometry-1978-mir-publishers/page/34/mode/2up

          It is a maths book from the Soviet era, written by a master. The problems are quite ingenious and not at all easy on a first go. Even students of average ability were subject to this curriculum, designed exclusively by professors (the textbooks were written by PhD mathematicians). The maths teachers at these schools all had at least a masters degree. With this kind of training in physics and maths, the Soviet Union was able to retain its superpower status, while also producing many accomplished scientists, mathematicians, and Olympiad winners.

          • 2
            0

            Hello Lester,
            Prior to Putin the Soviet Union had many cordial relations with Academia, Universities etc. and engaged in Joint Ventures in Archaeology etc.
            The link that you gave could easily have come from Scottish Geometry Text books in the 1940s or 50s but probably had their roots in Euclid, Pythagoras or Hipparchus. Many of our Text books on Maths and Physics rewrote Newton’s work to be easier understood. Also remember Oliver Heaviside’s re-writing of Maxwell’s Equations into the form we use today made them much easier to understand/use.
            The Soviets had problems with Science that did not adhere to their Stalinist Ideology – e.g. Lysenko denied that the basis of heredity was in some special substance such as chromosomal genes, and they asserted that evolutionary and agricultural advances were achieved through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This was Lamarckism with another name – Lysenkoism set Soviet agriculture back a generation.
            They also lagged behind in Electronics, even though they gave Kennedy a big shock with Telstar.

            Unfortunately despite “the Soviet Union was able to retain its superpower status” the Soviet Union is no more.
            Best regards

            • 3
              0

              Hello Lester,
              I have always maintained that the point of Education should be to better the lives of all Schoolchidren/Students, not just the brightest.
              Best regards

            • 0
              0

              LS
              I think that you are overstating the effect of the Lysenko phenomenon.
              The following item in nature is one I spotted just a moment ago:
              “Lysenko and Russian genetics: an alternative view”
              https://www.nature.com/articles/ejhg2017117
              *
              The impact of Lysenko was limited to just one aspect of science. Advances made by the Soviet Union first stunned the US when Uri Gagarin went into orbit.
              The collapse of the USSR had more to do with ideological issues and the Sino-Soviet conflict than bad science.

            • 0
              0

              Hello LankaScot,

              Even though the Soviets lagged behind in electronics, they still launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, and sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space in 1961. This proves that their system of STEM education and technical training was among the best in the world.
              I don’t agree with Communist ideology in general, however, it seems as if the system of education in those countries, as far as STEM goes, is largely superior to what we have now in Western European countries.
              “I have always maintained that the point of Education should be to better the lives of all Schoolchidren/Students, not just the brightest.”
              The brightest are the ones who significantly increase the GDP. Look at the CEO’s of the top tech co’s, all of them went to famous schools.

    • 1
      0

      LS
      I agree with the science and technology part of the argument. but the whole of East Asia educates its young in the mother tongue.
      This is no case against the teaching of English, but contests the view that South Asian languages are inadequate in some way.
      What happened here was that English was ditched without readying Sinhala/Tamil to take up the task. There are other factors too linked with the problem.
      South Asia has failed its languages unlike most East and South-East Asian countries.

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