Business Times

‘Lanka’s achcharu’ education policies

Sri Lanka’s education system – both at the secondary and higher levels – is in crisis mode these days.
Universities are having all kinds of problems, school education syllabuses are an issue and the latest fiasco to hit the education sector is the A level results disaster.

Education policies and its implementation are probably the biggest issue Sri Lanka is facing today as this deals with the lives of young people and their future aspirations.

Consider today’s problems:

  • Politicization of the university system
  • Complicated syllabuses in secondary schools
  • Overload of information
  • A tuition industry built on the failure of the system, so much so that without tuition the performance of students at examinations is most likely to suffer.
  • Alleged corruption in education departments and units dealing with examinations
  • Universities in crisis; some closed.
  • Increasing protests by universities and threats to extend it to schools
  • Increasing lack of faith in the education system

These issues are succinctly captured by our cartoonist (see previous page) who calls it the ‘achcharu’ system. Protests and concerns are happening all over. Students protest over some issue, university teachers protest over salary anomalies, and in a recent case, over an assault of one of their colleagues.
Discipline is rapidly eroding. An undergrad lies in hospital, a victim of severe ragging, while other colleagues are demanding that the authorities should not take action against the perpetrators. What kind of evil society is this?

The only segment that has escaped the ‘protests’ bandwagon are the Vice-Chancellors, most of whom have been politicized to the level that joint protests – on whatever issue – is a most unlikely option.
Amidst this uproar, the government is preparing to present a new National Education Act which has been drafted following hearings by a Parliamentary Select Committee on Education. The Minister has said that this is the culmination of a series of meetings and public consultations on a new policy. Whether this is so and reflected in the proposed new law, can be judged only once its contents is made public.

On the other hand, it would be a good measure of governance, accountability and transparency for the government to reveal the policy and ask for another round (if one was done earlier) of comments on the completed draft, to make sure that it contains all shades of opinion.

This week the Government, in another reversal on policy issues, was forced to postpone approving a controversial bill dealing with the regulation of private universities following widespread protests against the bill. The last virtual riot and backing down by the Government were the protests against the pension bill, the death of a protestor and the subsequent withdrawal of the bill. A feeble attempt to sneak in a kind of pension scheme through an amendment to the EPF Act was nipped in the bud by unions recently.

Private universities are a bone of contention in Sri Lanka and there is a need for a more comprehensive discussion and debate outside parliament, with all levels of civil society. The creation of private universities is inevitable and given the demand for degrees in various disciplines and skills-based education systems, which local universities are not geared to, this trend cannot be stopped – protests by university students or otherwise.

Yet after the disastrous example of the Private Medical College at Ragama in the 1980s and the recent crisis over the Malabe Medical College, there are enough and more lessons learnt to show that the private university issue needs more discussion and debate before decisions are made.

This is not saying that the Government should be cowed by protestors and threats. However if policies are designed with the larger interests of the public in mind without any other agenda, then fewer problems emerge. But this is not the case in recent times where there are many instances policies being drafted for politically, motivated reasons.

Education is not only important for the development of a child but also for the development of the nation and the sustenance of a well-balanced human resource that would serve the country well into the 21st century.

With secondary education in a crisis and never-ending unrest in universities, it is not surprising that parents of a middle-class background are scraping the barrel to send their children to international schools, degree-connected local colleges or overseas. The recent crash of finance companies precipitated by the collapse of Golden Key and connected institutions, revealed the number of parents, many of who are pensioners, who had put their life-savings into high-yielding interest, but risky, deposits to send their children to top schools here and universities abroad.

What is seen in the current policy framework is a kind of ‘papering the cracks’ rules and regulation aimed at finding solutions to a specific issue, rather than tackling its root case. Education has many dimensions particularly disparities in facilities between rural and urban schools. Recently a rural school received a set of computers from an organization that didn’t take to time to check or just didn’t care that the school didn’t have electricity! The computers have been lying in boxes for several months.

The education crisis will be a never-ending one unless political parties (because they are the decision-makers), academics and the public come together on a non-political platform, forget their differences, and prepare an education policy for this century. Is that asking too much from our leaders and role models?

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