by Sumudu W. Watugala
(September 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) As Sri Lankan society emerges from decades of violence and mismanaged government, our first priority must be in ensuring that the foundation we lay to rebuild the country is as strong as possible. With this in mind, our foremost focus should be on strengthening and reforming our education system because in the long-run, whatever strides we make in terms of sustainable development and true political stability will follow from policies set today in this regard. Our education system is based on the principle of creating equal opportunity for all Sri Lankans, regardless of socio-economic background. This is the cornerstone for progress and stability within an open, free and democratic society. To maintain this philosophy, we need to strive towards expanding access to the best possible education for all Sri Lankans, while maintaining high standards and meritocratic principles within our schools and universities.
With the government’s stated resolve of making Sri Lanka the knowledge hub of Asia, we all expect that it will bring farsighted reforms to our education system in the best manner possible. However, we still need to analyze closely some of the views expressed by the current administration and those who support its policy vision for the future. Any reform should not focus solely on the economic productivity of graduates, but also consider the need in a balanced society for clear-thinking individuals with intellectual depth. Urgent action is required to address the fact that currently less than 5% of school graduates can be accommodated in the public university system each year, and Sri Lanka experiences continual major shortages of qualified professionals in areas such as medicine. Most Sri Lankans who closely observe the education system understand that we are in a state of disequilibrium: many graduates are produced in certain disciplines who find it difficult to find suitable employment, while certain sectors of our economy experience severe shortages of graduate candidates with the right set of qualifications and skills.
The recent university trade union action put our academics in a difficult position. Perhaps the government was counting on a prolonged action serving to turn popular support against even their legitimate concerns. It certainly seemed that way as the government prevaricated and made no sincere concessions in order to resolve issues before the impasse could affect G.C.E. Advanced Level Examination marking. Many academics recognized an extended hiatus would only serve to further erode the already diminished confidence Sri Lankans have in our public education system as a viable means to prepare future generations to succeed.
Several university academics I have spoken to point out that the government appears to have ample funds for discretionary spending as displayed by the government’s extravagant bid for the Commonwealth Games, where if the bid were to succeed, billions more will have to be spent. There are numerous examples of such vanity projects and misplaced priorities when allocating our limited resources. This is doubly disappointing to see in this administration, which was elected with unprecedented popular support and high expectations in order to govern in an environment with more stability than we have experienced for generations. Is the current administration wasting the small window of opportunity we have to set the path Sri Lanka will travel for decades to come?
Importance of public education in Sri Lanka
Since independence, public education has served as the great social equalizer in Sri Lanka, and remains our main mechanism for social mobility. In a country whose socialist and closed economic policies have never been particularly pro-business, we don’t have many stories of self-made millionaires who rose from impoverished backgrounds and rose as leaders of business through sheer hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit. What we do have in abundance are stories of thousands of talented and hardworking Sri Lankans rising from abject poverty or harsh family environments to become pillars of our communities with the help of our public education. How many such teachers, doctors, engineers, scientists, lawyers, judges, academics, policy-makers, and other professionals do you know who overcame impoverished backgrounds, and possibly even ethnic and gender discrimination extant in other areas of our society? We know of so many such embodiments of the Sri Lankan Dream, who have reached a level of personal and professional excellence, together with financial independence that enabled them to support their extended families and contribute positively to Sri Lanka’s society as a whole. Hence anyone who, without differentiation, calls everyone produced by our education system "kaala-kanni" (as a cabinet minister did recently) is deluding himself.
We should not lose sight of how truly amazing it is that this system survived in a developing country that was mired in civil unrest for decades. Such universal access to education is not available in India, Pakistan, or even China. Our current system of drawing the "best" students through scholarships and competitive exams into "good" national schools is admirable in its conception, even if arguably still somewhat flawed in its execution. For instance, there are differing views on the validity of how the merit of students is determined and what benefits, if any, they end up receiving after leaving their local schools and gaining entry to the best national schools. These flaws are no reason to abandon free education. They could and should be resolved expeditiously, by introducing well-planned, intelligent reforms to the existing system.
The access every Sri Lankan child has to a good education, potentially the best available in the island, is something that should be protected and further expanded; indeed, it is something that should be fought for vigorously. The ancient Kingdoms of Sri Lanka may have had 2500 years of wondrous and enigmatic history, but post-Independence, I do not exaggerate if I say our young Republic created one wonder we could consistently be proud of, all through the unspeakable violence and despair of the past decades. This one constant beacon of hope has remained the possibility that any young Sri Lankan, through his hard work and developed ability could change his circumstances. This is one way in which we surpassed even our ancient history. Admittedly, there have been severe disparities in the hardships faced by different Sri Lankans depending on socio-economic status and geographic location, and we should continually attempt to mitigate these. But at least for the most talented or the most focused and hardworking young Sri Lankans, there has always been a potential pathway to succeed.
Urgent need for intelligent reforms
For this pathway to remain viable there is urgent need for reform, and not just academic salary reform. We know that the quality of public education has declined so much that the current system is not comparable to how well-placed Sri Lankan education was in the 1950’s and 1960’s relative to the rest of the world. The reasons for this are varied and the blame lies in decades of shortsightedness by both politicians and academics in this country. Will we ever be able to look forward and plan for the best outcome decades in advance?
What we have seen is that the intransigence of successive Sri Lankan governments makes even the most straightforward reform a political, long drawn-out battle with uncertain and unwelcome outcomes. It is unclear when we shall have the will and vision to discuss and implement deep reforms without resorting to self-serving opportunism, hyperbole, and even violence.However, without waiting for the politicians to come around, there are many areas in which our academics themselves can take immediate steps to improve and modernize university education in Sri Lanka. It is great to fight for autonomy and independence, but will our academics use this autonomy to once again promote the dogmatic political agendas of certain elements, to the detriment of the entire country, or will they organize to fight for the freedom for honest intellectual endeavor? Academics already have the power to implement many essential changes to the current university system, without any political intervention. Indeed, it will be better in the long-run if there is no governmental influence in implementing most of these reforms. The more our academic institutions are decoupled from the vagaries of the prevailing political regime, the more likely our public universities will survive in the future as respected and stable institutions of learning.
Care needs to be taken to ensure that we do not sacrifice quality for quantity. There is urgent need for the creation of an apolitical consortium of academics and professionals who have the credibility to set national guidelines for academic standards and ethics, and assess the quality of degree programs, published works, and journals produced by Sri Lankan universities. Most of these are currently dependent entirely on the intellectual honesty and personal integrity of individual academics, and receive little or no independent oversight.
Students will benefit greatly if different departments and degree programs are ranked by the quality of its research and student placement in industry or graduate study, and if this information is publicly available (as is the case in other countries with successful higher education systems). Universities need to foster transparency and promote public understanding, something that could be easily accomplished in this age through a stronger online presence. As publicly-funded institutions, universities, faculties, departments, and degree programs need to maintain updated, professional websites with open access. Many of the best universities in the world make their course material available freely online, to contribute to the advancement of human knowledge.
More needs to be done to foster high-level academic publication in Sri Lanka, especially if we wish to become an international hub of learning. We urgently need an organization that will promote and set the standard for peer-reviewed academic publication in Sri Lanka. For this, our academics could organize to create an independent Sri Lanka University Press. We can look to respected organizations such as Harvard University Press, MIT Press, or Oxford/Cambridge University Press as models of how advanced academic publication should be supported. A major part of the work of such an institution would be to rapidly update academic literature available in national languages in Sri Lanka, and making translated works available to faculty and students at cost.
There is a clear need to modernize core curriculums. On this front, there needs to be emphasis on internships for students in research and industry, expanded access to computers to students of all faculties, and exposure to multidisciplinary research projects. Universities urgently need to do more to develop and offer students core courses in scientific writing and communication, which is a key factor in the development of a student’s analytical thinking and research success.
There is little basis for our academics to oppose the creation of private universities (the arguments related to the loss of foreign exchange and the loss of future graduates alone convince most people of this). Instead, our academics would better serve education in Sri Lanka by taking the initiative to assess and set the standards for all academic institutions in the country, both public and private. We need more intelligent debate on how public and private universities can co-exist to the benefit of all Sri Lankans.
None of these ideas are particularly controversial; nor can there be any political will that opposes academics organizing in this manner. What will require objectivity and foresight from our politicians are in the essential reforms urgently required to restructure current university administrative and funding structures.
In all this, we must understand Sri Lanka and the world are much altered since the decades immediately following Independence. The lines of inequality that need to be addressed by the government have changed dimensions, the options open to the average Sri Lankan have expanded, and what is required from our public education system is different. What we hope for and should work towards is the right balance between what is popular, what is ideal, and what is ultimately possible.
There is nothing wrong with looking at the world and learning from what has worked well and what has failed for the best institutions of higher learning in history. We can learn from what happened in ancient Nalanda, as well as from the evolution of the best universities existing in the world today. There is simply no excuse for repeating the mistakes of the past.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )