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Roles and responsibilities of the Open University

Peace, educational needs and Open Distance Learning

By Prof. U. Vidanapathirana

(August 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The objective of this article is to analyze the mood of the country during the period immediately after the war, that it can be used to change the political, economic and cultural landscape of the country for the better.

The war that is over has generated a massive challenge that will test the spirit of Sri Lankans. The history of this country is full of instances of lost opportunities. This essay maintains that the new challenges that post-conflict Sri Lanka is faced with require the purposeful engagement of all Sri Lankans irrespective of class, caste, political or ethnic divide to transform this country into a place apposite for future generations to live peacefully.

A challenge

Overcoming this challenge cannot be considered the sole responsibility of the Government. As in the case of tsunami, every one of us has a role to play. This country needs ideas that are practical and also she desperately demands purposeful action. Governments can fail; but a nation cannot afford to fail.

Hence, the current conjecture requires reflection at both individual and collective levels to comprehend what can be done at our own levels. No doubt, we have a daunting task of healing the national wounds and helping the country to weather future challenges successfully. Every individual should contribute to the nation building efforts which have become the urgent need of the hour.

In the 1960s and 1970s Sri Lanka was regarded as a model nation on account of her exceptional achievements in health and education sectors as well as other aspects of social well-being. These achievements were the outcomes of purposeful programs of public action which included free health, free education and a universal food subsidy implemented in the 1950s and 1960s.

Investment in education

Even the recent IMF letter of intent has emphasized the need for investment in education, health and social support for the needy. They must have a country wide focus to relieve those who suffered due to the war in the North and the East and those who made sacrifices expecting an end to the war against terror in the other parts of the country. That war is over. It is time we concentrate on heightened public action to heal the wounds of war.

The Vanni requires special attention because the people here have suffered silently for 30 years. In terms of education, this includes both children of schoolgoing age and many others who have dropped out of the school system for fear of attrition. Many of them were coerced to join the militant movement and these incidents are only coming into the limelight slowly. Hence providing educational opportunities to them should be one of the priorities of public action. The Government has taken this priority seriously.

It is in this sense that education in general and distance education in particular has an enormous responsibility to respond to the new challenges meaningfully. Health and education are the worst affected spheres on account of the decades long Eelam war. The war sidelined the educational pursuits of thousands of people. This included the youth and also the very young children who had no facilities for pre-school education. In addition, post-secondary education too was adversely affected depriving many adults of educational opportunities. Hence the challenge of providing educational opportunities is enormous.

This challenge is of such magnitude that the country finds it unprepared to respond to it speedily. Under normal circumstances such a challenge would have required years of planning to build the infrastructure of the scale demanded. It includes new buildings for schools, technical colleges, and other tertiary institutions. It also requires laboratories, teachers, administrators and other infrastructure. The inflexibility of the delivery mechanisms is another matter of concern. The non-availability of trained teachers, curricula and study material make the task all the more daunting.

School teachers

These constraints require a flexible, cost effective yet qualitatively superior response. One of the important beneficiaries of such an initiative should be the school teachers in these areas who may be utterly disoriented for years of war related uncertainties. The curricula and teaching priorities in these areas may have been changed by the LTTE to suit their propaganda. The teachers who work in this area may have now become misfits. They may not be able to adjust to the new conditions overnight.

They need help and counselling as to how they should respond to the new demands. This is where post-conflict management and peace building skills should form an integral part of their education. Thus there is a massive need for teacher re-training and re-orienting to meet the post-war challenges.

Another area that needs immediate action is providing short-term training programs for pre-school teachers. This is about looking after very young children who witnessed the fighting and how their near and dear ones got injured or killed. There can be many children who have become orphans due to no fault of theirs. The insurgents had their own mechanisms to brainwash these very young children; children’s parks were set up for that purpose. The walls of school buildings were full of drawings depicting war martyrs of the LTTE.

An urgent need

This had been done to create a war mentality so that children even at a very young age may be recruited as child soldiers. Now that the LTTE is physically eliminated, there is an urgent need to fill this void effectively and meaningfully to change the socio-psychological undertones of these children.

Thousands of combatants have surrendered during the latter part of the war. They need rehabilitation by way of changing their psyche and attitude to work and to cultivate sentiments of peaceful coexistence.

For them, it would be useful to develop as far as combatants who have surrendered and needing rehabilitation. The need is for developing skills of languages like Sinhala and English and also information technology. They may require occupational skills as well. The numbers involved under this category is closer to 10,000. If they are to be rehabilitated so as to make them responsible citizens. Basic skills of this nature are needed to build their self-esteem as law abiding Sri Lankans.

Concerted effort

Eradication of militant movement therefore requires much concerted effort. We have attempted to cover a few aspects relating to the educational needs of the liberated North. The liberated North is very different from the North and East due to variety of demographic, political, economic and social factors.

The concerns expressed here needs urgent attention. No time should be wasted expecting others to respond to our calls in the interest of a united Sri Lanka. It is in this context, that the Open Distance Learning (ODL) has a especial responsibility. ODL by nature is relatively flexible and has the capacity to respond to situation in a professional manner. The Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) which has a sophisticated physical and institutional infrastructure is better equipped to serve some of the areas that require a faster response. The OUSL has its own regional and study centre network connecting Jaffna and Vavuniya. It also has some programs of studies that are specifically suited to the IDP community who require formal educational inputs to improve their human resource capabilities.

One specific example is the pre-school education program of the OUSL that can train pre-school teachers to undertake new challenges in training young people. Another example area where there is much scope is language training. This has two components. First, the OUSL has a ready-made package to provide the state functionaries, in the police stations, the health sector and even in defence establishments with a working knowledge in Tamil.

Language is a useful tool to bridge the divide. Second, it also has the packages to meet the urgent need to teach English language to the youth who require such input. Third, it also has other programs including computer skills and small business and entrepreneurship skills that can contribute to preparing the youth for gainful employment. Fourth, the Engineering Faculty of the University is equipped to help developing the built up areas in consultative capacities.

Using distance mode

There are two features that make these programs unique. Firstly, they are cost effective as education is imparted using distance mode. They require minimum physical infrastructure and minimum human resources. Open distance learning by definition is intended for production of educational opportunities at mass scale. This enables us to achieve scale economies which are unique for us. These study programs are now available and time-tested in the other parts of the country. They have withstood rigorous quality assurance tests both nationally and internationally. Hence, low overall cost does not mean that we compromise quality.

What requires now is to discuss with the authorities what can be done, how much and how soon it can be done. What is important here is that the ODL has its special mandate to serve communities that are hitherto un-reached. It is designed to improve access and equity in educational endeavours. In this context, the Open University is better placed to help the State and also the communities that need such help. Helping the State is an integral part of our national obligation. We have already initiated action to visit the IDPs and offer possible assistance by providing educational opportunities. However there is much more left to be done.

The responsibility

This is a solemn responsibility incumbent on the university academics. Besides, the aspect of helping the communities affected by the conflict is part of our mission “to empower those who are deprived of the basic educational inputs”.

Hence, the beneficiaries should be those who were rendered destitute on account of the devastating war thrust on them by the insurgency. As such the OUSL has a vast responsibility. Time is now ripe for generating ideas and concerted action. We need to sit down and prepare the ground plan and faithfully implement the decisions taken by us collectively.

The writer is Vice Chancellor of the Open University
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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