By Shenali Waduge
The war is over. Sri Lanka’s next battle is to arm Sri Lanka’s greatest asset – its People with Education. The ground realities are not so simple. Resurrecting a nation that suffered 30 years of more than just terrorism is a daunting task especially when forces continuously attempt to keep Sri Lanka pinned down.
More than any period of Sri Lanka’s history the country is in need of “educated” people- not necessarily those that hold paper qualifications. However, those that don’t possess even that have been responsible for the plethora of maladies that prevail necessitate the policy makers of Sri Lanka to realize they need to do more in terms of creating proper change. Sri Lanka needs highly educated people to deal with the growing political dynamics that prevail – we should not be looking at the possibilities of outsourcing decision-making to external forces simply because we do not have people educated enough to strategize Sri Lanka’s policies.
We see a growing middle class, an aging population, there is an evident brain drain, those that pass out seem to lack the qualities needed to lead. Are Sri Lanka’s policy makers even concerned to change the status quo?
Tertiary and Higher Education
With over 90% literacy the highest in South Asia, free education to almost 10,000 public schools, 11 universities, 561 Pirivenas, over 210,000 teachers and over 4m students what exactly ails Sri Lanka’s education?
The issues are many – corrupt practices in not just grade one admission, poor quality of teachers made worse by politicians doling out jobs to graduates as teachers, insufficient teacher training mechanisms, standards of text books and their relevancy to the needs of the external environment, tendency to encourage memorizing and cramming of notes, the standard of examination papers, leaking of papers, copying and encouragement of copying, tuition craze and dependence on tuition, rise in drop outs, poor quality of university education, relevancy of university topics for employability, the ability of university lecturers to raise the profile of undergraduates are just a few of the festering problems that prevails. How best have university and educational authorities addressed this volcanic situation.
The ground realities is nothing Sri Lanka especially its Education branches can deny. Standards have come down and standards are deteriorating.
Is it the syllabus that is creating a generation of youth unable to understand what they read, incapable of applying what they study and more importantly lacking mental disposition and ethics that should have been nurtured both in the home environment as well as in schools?
Are administrators really serious about a parallel system of education – the tuition? Seasonal statements issued by the education establishments have helped little to stop the dependence on tuition forcing children to hate studies for lack of time to even play. Why does Finland score in its quality of education – it does not give homework, its teachers are trained to assess each student and at the end of each semester a comprehensive report card is given to parents because there are no exams. Finlands policy is to encourage cooperation instead of competition. This is something for Sri Lanka’s educators to think about.
This was how China transformed its nation. China in the 19th century was driven by coal, by 20thc it was oil – 21st century education is what China is all about with a coherent national plan for 1.3billion people with proper investment, legal frameworks and regulations in place where nothing conflicts or overrules the other. Its students who go overseas for studies return to apply what they have learnt and China encourages R&D and is a world’s leader and its learned are always producing new books, journals and research so their students are all the more alert and aware of the changes taking place globally.
What have educationists and the Government done to upgrade the quality of Sri Lanka’s education system? Do they work in unison to a national plan, is it simply politics that dictate the policies in place and is this not likely to boomerang on Sri Lanka unless those that work in these entities put country first?
Have parents too played their role. Are they unnecessarily pushing children to compete, forcing children to go beyond their levels of capabilities and showing poor example themselves that students carry forward as they grow into adults?
Would increasing salaries alone change the quality of education? Of course teachers/lecturers do deserve a far better deal but it goes without saying that before increases the first priority is to clean up a system that has been based on and promoted by unsuited and incompetent recruitment policies which has over the years created the issue the country is today faced with. Once mechanisms are set in place to recruit the best and the country sees a visible change in the objectives and goals the rest will certainly fall into place.
Today, there are 80,000 internal students enrolled in the 14 universities, 3 campuses, 1 Open university, with 9 undergraduate, 7 post-graduate institutes, 9 degree awarding institutes under the University Grants Commission, 2 religious universities under Ministry of Higher Education, 1 university under the Ministry of Defense, one under Ministry of Vocational Training. The number of external students number more than 150,000 while close to 10,000 students are attending overseas universities.
Sri Lanka produces only around 13,000 internal graduates annually from the 11 universities in Sri Lanka – more than half this number from the Arts/Management streams. Around 6500 external students pass out annually while the Open University has 500 annually passing out.
Are these annually passing out 20,000 graduates equipped with the knowledge, attitude, mental skills, behaviors to take up employment and possibly be future leaders at national levels? Of the 10,000 who have sought foreign university education how many talented individuals would the country have lost and why is Sri Lanka watching its brains leave the country?
“Educated” Public Sector
14.3% of workforce are employed in Sri Lanka’s public sector, that is 1.232million people. The deteriorating state in the quality of service provided is nothing that Sri Lanka’s public service mechanism can be proud of. While corruption is a key factor, lack of competence and disrespect for the needs of the public are just a few of the reasons that the public of Sri Lanka finds its public sector not delivering to its people. Cosmetic improvements are the best that the heads have been able to offer. A national plan to clean up the Public Sector necessarily means its application to the Ministers as well. Otherwise, we are looking at a future of an ever bloating sector that is clueless about the laws of the state caring less about their duties towards the State – taking the country down. The dangers of this are that in Government to Government negotiations, agreements and discussions how knowledgeably equipped are our officials to protect the sovereignty and integrity of Sri Lanka? To what extent has free education sufficed for the public sector to function outside the premise of being just paid employees with a greater goal and role in their work ethics?
“Educated” Private Sector
The private sector employees make up over 40% of the workforce. It has been the driving force of the economy and to its credit it has been raising its profile as seen by the place it has given to recruitment and the methods employed in recruiting. Its service delivery upgrading seen in the manner of their customer service as compared to the public sector is worthy of emulating. This has challenged graduates who have come to realize that there is no “value” in the degrees graduates take up. Sri Lanka’s educators need to realize that for a country to aspire to the status of becoming a knowledge hub drastic changes need to take place and these changes cannot be done in any ad hoc manner or with the commitment of only a handful of people.
In a developing country we need to have degree programs that help graduates absorb into the economic system armed with the learning that would generate growth personally, professionally and nationally. What is delaying a proper study of the courses offered at graduate level and why are these courses not upgraded, changed or annulled if they do not offer the objectives Sri Lanka seeks at a national level? Is it not a policy failure if we continue to enroll students into courses that we know are commercially irrelevant and create frustrated graduates who are easy prey for political parties looking to use them as guinea-pigs to advance their political agendas? We are talking about 42,000 unemployed graduate’s majority of whom are from the Arts and Management faculty who are easy prey to “revolutions”. Is it so hard for Sri Lanka’s politicians to see that any Arab Spring in Sri Lanka is likely to use these frustrated graduates and university systems if some serious actions for genuine change does not happen!
Education is not just about giving books, producing a time table, completing a syllabus, holding exams, giving homework and punishing students for bad behavior or rewarding students for obtaining good grades. There are a host of skills that students are expected to nurture other than book knowledge. Yet, how can values, attitudes, morals and ethics be imparted unless teachers themselves uphold these values. Is it not when those that preach do not practice that makes students themselves turn a blind eye? Thus, education entails a journey of learning for both teacher and child as well as parent together.
When things go wrong it is always a quick-fix solution or to change the portfolio of the Minister in Charge, transfer the secretary or officials – these are only cosmetics that do little to conceal the true scenario. We must accept that we have a situation wherein Sri Lanka’s education is crumbling apart. There is little help in pointing fingers – it is time to realize that there is a problem and attempt to address that problem.
The mechanisms to change must certainly come from the educators who need to realize the delicate situation Sri Lanka is faced with. If one option to tackle the brain drain is for the State to bring private education under its umbrella with the Private University Bill – it must do so without politics. The public must be properly educated. The public must feel assured that State Free education will not be compromised and Public education from tertiary to higher education would not be neglected but would go in par with the private education and that no step-motherly treatment would become policy. The public must be made to know that already professional degree offering private institutes function and have been functioning for decades – if so, what is the argument against a private medical college when only a handful can enter because Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to admit all those qualified to enter. The people must be informed of the amount of money the country would be saving when private universities function inside Sri Lanka according to proper state laws, regulations and monitoring – not as NGOs.
People must also be informed of how Sri Lanka can encourage greater numbers of external students from within the South Asia region because their countries are today in turmoil. We are in a good position as a nation to offer valued services so long as we get our education on the road with a proper national plan.
The responsibility before the nation as parents, teachers, advisors, Government, educational centers (public and private) is one that needs a very passionate commitment from all concerned. If we expect to nurture students who are educated, morally and ethically and who will become the assets of Sri Lanka the children must be able to see in our actions how patriotic we are in service delivery. It is in seeing how passionate teachers are about what they teach that make children never forget their teachers – the teachers of yonder years will know how true this is and their students would most definitely agree.
We cannot train adults or youth to be patriotic – it must come from within a culture that the 5 senses are made aware of as they progress from child to adult. The essential theme is that we are judged by what we say and also by the way we lead by example.
Prosperity and well-being of a nation depends on whether citizens are informed and intelligent enough to elect officials who can lead the nation. It is when the level of education rises that the nation will have people competent and pragmatic to govern. The ills of society would soon disappear with time when a society raises its profile. These are not ideal situations and nothing that cannot be done if there is a will to do so.
The winners are nations that invest in education.