ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 9, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 28

Only tinkering, no reform of education

~ Final part of the Lalith Athulathmudali Memorial Oration......

Continued from last week....!

Today, most have been reduced to breeding grounds and training camps for destructive political movements. In order to provide opportunity for the academically deserving post secondary students, the role to be played by private institutions in higher education delivery was recognised. In a country with a robust and vibrant private health care delivery system, existent for many years, such a move in higher education seemed hardly out of place.

Dr. Tara de Mel, former Secretary, Ministry of Education delivered the Lalith Athulathmudali Memorial Oration at the BMICH on November 26 on ‘Reforming Education in Sri Lanka: Attempts and Failures’.

Selected private degree awarding institutions in Sri Lanka were evaluated by the UGC and subsequently recognised, through gazette notification. This enabled numbers of students who qualified at A’level but couldn’t gain entry into Sri Lankan universities, to find recognised alternate higher education. Similarly, reputed foreign universities were encouraged to dialogue with the UGC with a view to establishing branch campuses or linkages with local universities enabling qualified students to gain admission for a fee. In addition to reducing the burden on the state university system, this would have also opened avenues for those shut out of the current system to pursue higher education towards a degree.

Sri Lanka is unique, because unlike India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, it does not allow the establishment of foreign universities. In fact it is one out of about four countries in the world, with the most restrictive higher education policy. As a result we continue to lose over 7 billion rupees in foreign exchange, as well as lose bright and talented students to foreign universities, every year. In addition to this annual financial drain, the brain drain we see also includes those qualified professionals, who wish to give their children a good quality education, which they feel they cannot do while living in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is also one out of very few countries that legally prohibit establishing private/international schools (in Grades 1-9). The 250 such international schools operating today, are able to do so because they are registered as business ventures in accordance with the Companies Act.

The University Education Reforms of the Presidential Task Force, proposed a new Universities Act. This preparation began during 1999-2000. After a lot of discussion amongst university academics and administrators the draft new Act was approved by the Cabinet. Some of the changes that were proposed included,

  • Reforming university curricula, introducing modular/unit-based approach, synchronising academic terms, de-linking the A’level examination from university entry, introducing English medium instruction, integrating IT and using it as a learning tool

  • Restoring state-owned universities to what they used to be, i.e. bastions of critical thinking, with cutting-edge research and academic freedom, with improved funding from the state and modern management techniques.

  • Depoliticising the University Grants Commission and the Vice Chancellors, giving them financial and governance autonomy,the freedom to generate income and recruit staff with the brightest minds and sharpest skills.

  • Liberalising university education, allowing the establishment of private, fee-levying degree awarding institutions as well as private universities, subject to scrutiny and monitoring as well as quality control by independent Quality Assurance Authorities.
    Had this been presented and enacted in Parliament and had these changes been implemented, not only would we have retained the fundamentals of free university education with improved quality, but we would have also accommodated a reputed private higher education delivery system, as it is in health care. Political pressures prevented presenting this Act to Parliament and prevented the Ministry from implementing the changes proposed.

During 2004, further improvement of the competency-based curriculum began. This was to pave the way for second and third generation Reforms starting in 2007. Curricula of several countries that had adopted modernisation were studied by subject specialist committees. New syllabuses were prepared accordingly. Examination and Assessment models that had been tried and tested by other countries were used as guidelines.

These new syllabuses were announced to the public in September 2005 and they were posted on the Ministry website, so that parents and students were made aware of the new initiatives that were to be introduced. The main changes were,

  • Further promoting higher-order thinking skills, i.e. analysis, problem solving and social skills. Projects and assignments were made compulsory

  • Special emphasis on English, Science and Maths and IT.

  • GCE O’level curriculum was re-organised to have core subjects and baskets of subjects from which options could be selected. Chemistry, Physics and Biology were to be re-introduced after 33 years and English medium instruction was to be offered as an option.

  • Special exam to test General IT (General Information Technology) at A’ level was announced.

  • Technology subjects were to be introduced into Arts and Commerce streams

  • English language teaching at provincial and zonal level strengthened, while improving and expanding English medium instruction to include all subjects eventually. (An institution dedicated training teachers in English Medium Education had already been established in 2004.)

  • ICT to be vigorously strengthened and incorporated as a learning tool in all subjects. Interactive CDs were to be given to students with their new books.

  • The Ministry signed an agreement with Microsoft to engage their services in teacher training in ICT during 2004.

  • Teacher training and re-training that was required to implement these changes from 2007, was to begin in 2006 January.

  • Medium term budgeting and multi-year planning. This helped in Education planning for 3+ year cycles and would help in resource predicting and provide for a long term development process.

  • Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys/Systems (PETS) were planned to monitor expenditure and the flow of funds

  • Performance based funding (better performing institutions will be eligible to bigger portion of funds from subsequent budgetary cycles) was planned for universities and the NCOEs. Special indicators had been developed for evaluating performance of these institutions. This type of incentive would have facilitated better performance. These changes were to be implemented with the assistance of a special grant (Education Sector Development Grant of US$ 60 Million – from the World Bank). Most of the changes planned during that period were abandoned and the newer Reforms never took place.

It is necessary to understand that we are constantly challenged by global developments in education. This is particularly so because borders between countries have become porous and movement of information, and of people of all ages is a constant happening.

Ranging from ‘internationalising’ curricula and teacher training, bench marking quality assessments for cross-country comparisons and ‘e-learning’ using open and distance methods are just a few examples. Sri Lanka does not have a national policy on ODL, it has not instituted dual/multi mode higher education or studied the role of GATS (General Agreement on Trade and Services) in education delivery. This is critical in the context of cross-border education.

Educationally better performing countries in the world are identified using criteria developed by the OECD. Such countries are ranked in league tables. Those enjoying high rank have substantially increased government expenditure on education every year. They have also paid attention to teacher motivation, training and re-training and small class size. Students from those countries perform exceptionally well in international quality assessments like PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in International Maths and Science Studies).

Research conducted by reputed firms, using these two measurements periodically compares educational achievements of different countries and this enables corrective measures to be taken, by the relevant country when performance lags behind.
Sri Lanka plays no part in such international programmes.

Those who are familiar with the international movement in education would know that the Reforms I spoke of had been implemented by other countries many years previously. These were not new. But in our context, some of the changes proved contentious and controversial – and that was to be expected since, as I said at the beginning, Education Reform is very emotive politically.

For instance issues like introducing English medium instruction as an option in 2000-1, was opposed by the majority of the Cabinet of Ministers, including the Minister in charge of the subject. Similarly, recognising private higher education institutions and universities was interpreted as ‘privatising’ education, while knowing very well that this was clearly not the case.

In fact the word ‘Reform’ was fraught with danger and feared by some. And these are not just politicians. And these irrational fears are not due to ignorance alone. In my experience, the fiercest critics of Education Reform were the very people who had kept on criticising the present system of education, saying how out-dated it was and how poor the products of our system were in comparison to their peers who were exposed to better systems in other parts of the world. These same people kept saying that education change must be discussed and debated for years and years before they are implemented. This is precisely how so many generations of children missed out on any possible improvement to education in this country.

Those who could afford the costs decided not to wait until these deliberations were over and they chose to send their children (and grandchildren) to private/international schools or overseas. Ample testimony to this is the steeply rising numbers of students who are admitted to international schools every year, the proliferation of such schools and the increasing number of school leavers who are seeking higher education overseas.

The market forces are speaking for themselves. I see this trend towards private education as a serious ‘no-confidence motion’ placed on our entire education system. Whilst countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore and some centres in India are ‘exporting’ education - by way of offering excellent secondary and tertiary education facilities to overseas students, we are facilitating and encouraging an exodus of young people to foreign lands, where they will ‘purchase’ education at tremendous cost.

Unless the urgency for Reform is understood, and unless the political will and the courage required for Reforms are forthcoming, the role of the state in education delivery will diminish drastically.

The time will come when state schools will be reduced to mere ‘tuition halls’ dishing out mediocre education. Meanwhile more and more ‘international schools’ will mushroom, devoid of quality control and standards, catering to those who can afford and to those who believe that they will get a better deal.

Before I conclude I must reiterate that we have failed in our attempts to ‘reform’ education. Over the years we have tinkered with the system, but never had the courage for total change, a change that would have enabled us to leap frog into the club of countries which have modernised their systems with a vision. It is only if we decide to enact legislation to depoliticize education, to continue an uninterrupted cycle of reforms irrespective of government change and to ensure a corruption free system, that we may at least see a glimmer of success.

Send in your contributions to ‘Education Views’, c/o the Editor, The Sunday Times, No. 8, Hunupitiya Cross Road, Colombo 2, fax 011-2423258 or email

We must also not delude ourselves that we have offered the fundamental right to qualitative education, to everyone, as it is enshrined in the Constitution - because we haven’t. Lalith Athulathmudali, in his address to the Sri Lanka Association of the Advancement of Science, on December 3, 1990, eloquently summed this up:

‘ many of us want to be educated to contribute to the well-being of Sri Lanka, but you are denying us that right and opportunity’. That complaint is not just against the Government, it is against those who are holding positions of trust in our education. Ultimately it is a charge against all those of us who label ourselves as persons of scholarship or education.

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