Jaffna Open Forum Takes Off

Courtesy of the Sunday Leader, 3 October 2010

The Jaffna Open Forum, a joint venture between the Point Pedro Institute of Development (PPID – independent private social science research institution based in Point Pedro) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES – social democratic political foundation of Germany working in Sri Lanka for 46 years), took off at the Jaffna Public Library auditorium on September 02, 2010. This was the first of a series of Jaffna Open Forums to be conducted in the peninsula jointly by PPID and FES. The theme of the first Jaffna Open Forum was “Pathways to Knowledge-based Development” and was envisioned to address the following questions:
* What are the prerequisites to foster knowledge-based development in the North?
* How can the state and private sector (in partnership with the diaspora) take the lead in founding knowledge-based development in the North?

* What could be the specific ways and means by which the government, corporate sector, academia, and schools facilitate and promote knowledge-based development in the North, where natural resources are scarce?
* What are the policies and regulatory framework should the government put in place to create an enabling environment for the private sector (national, international, and diaspora) to undertake knowledge-based development in the North?
* What strategies should schools, universities, and other higher education institutions adopt to improve the learning outcomes of primary, secondary, and tertiary students in the North that could in turn generate nationally and globally competitive workforce?
* How could modern information and communication technologies contribute to enhancement of teaching quality and learning outcomes of students at schools, universities, and other tertiary educational institutions?
The overall objective of this public conclave was to present submissions and debate the ways and means and costs and benefits of transforming the traditional agrarian cum fisheries economy of Jaffna and the North into a modern knowledge-based economy.

The four key speakers representing the provincial government, corporate sector, academia, and schools were Mr. Selvaratnam (Additional Director of Education, Northern Province), Mr. Niranjan Nadarajah (Manager, Consumer Credit and Risk, Asia Pacific Risk, HSBC), Dr. P. Balasundarampillai (former Vice-Chancellor of the Jaffna University), and Mr.T.Mahasivam (General Secretary of the Ceylon Tamil Teachers’ Union – CTTU) respectively. Mr. S. Rangarajah (Advisor to the Governor of Northern Province and former Chief Secretary of the North East Provincial Council) deputised for the Governor of Northern Province, Mr.G.A. Chandrasiri, who was to represent the provincial government but could not attend due to unavoidable circumstances.
Mr. Selvaratnam enunciated government’s policy framework on school education (primary and secondary) enshrined in the Education Sector Development Framework (ESDF). Four key goals of the ESDF are: (i) increasing equitable access to basic and secondary education, (ii) improving the quality of basic and secondary education, (iii) enhancing the economic efficiency and equity of resource allocation, and (iv) strengthening education governance and service delivery by strengthening the monitoring and evaluation of educational outputs and outcomes. In order to achieve the foregoing policy goals, annual and medium-term implementation plans are to be devised at different levels of the school education system.
Mr. Niranjan Nadarajah pointed out that while the twentieth century was dominated by the industrial economy, the twenty-first century would be dominated by the knowledge economy. He also contended that knowledge-based economy is a greater wealth creator than an economy based on any other sector. He further highlighted that though Jaffna (North in general) is endowed with limited natural resources (“moola valam”) it is endowed with lot of brain resources (“moolai valam”). There are four key pathways to knowledge-based development, claimed Niranjan Nadarajah, which are enhancing the (i) human capital, (ii) stakeholder capital, (iii) structural capital, and (iv) reviewing the policy and regulatory framework. He opined that it is the skills and competencies of the workforce that would determine their productiveness and competitiveness internationally. He urged the educationists to align the curricula to the needs of the market (rather than expecting the market to absorb the output of schools and universities). Niranjan Nadarajah also stressed the importance of the process of education (as opposed to the outcome of education) and emphasised the need to inculcate a culture of lifelong learning in order to remain competitive in a fast changing world.
Dr. P. Balasundarampillai emphasised the need to increase the number of technological colleges and establish engineering universities in the North in order to enhance and improve the scientific knowledge and skills of youths. He cited the example of Tamilnadu (Southern India in general) where there is mushrooming of technological and engineering tertiary educational institutions, especially during the past decade, and urged our authorities to tap that vast pool of knowledge centres in our neighbourhood. Dr. Balasundarampillai also highlighted the fact that some Jaffna youths who get just ordinary passes in the G.C.E. A/Ls enter British universities and do very well in their undergraduate studies and called upon the authorities to open-up access to higher education for such youths within the country so that their human and knowledge capital could be retained. He lamented that though over the years he had acquired expertise in the discipline of development planning his university colleagues prevented him teaching it claiming that a Geographer is not suitable to teach development planning. He also said that when he attempted to introduce information technology courses at his university during his tenure as Vice-Chancellor, he was stopped by some of his colleagues who argued that without the introduction of Civil Engineering courses IT should not be introduced. Thus, Dr. Balasundarampillai regretted the rigid and obstructive mentality of the Jaffna academia.
Mr. T. Mahasivam, General Secretary of the Ceylon Tamil Teachers’ Union, lamented that when there is no path for development in the North we are discussing the pathways to knowledge-based development. When there is no human security in the North how can we discuss development? queried Mr. Mahasivam. He noted that people’s participation in development planning is vital. Mr. Mahasivam urged the authorities to set-up a regional institute of education for the North.
Of course not everyone actively participated in the Open Forum was in agreement with its theme or the submissions made by the key speakers. One argued that the presentations were too much focussed on university or tertiary education. It was further argued that Indian experience or example is inappropriate for Sri Lanka or the local context. One even cast aspersion about the anticipated entry of private and foreign universities into Sri Lanka. While one participant opined that development should be community-based rather than knowledge-based, another opined that development should be “philosophy-based”. One enthusiastic participant observed that while Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) firms have mushroomed throughout Southern India, some women working in those BPOs are verbally abused by clients and therefore BPOs have become an occupational hazard. One cynic opined that the theme of the Open Forum makes him suspect that it was designed to promote globalisation backed by western countries.
There were around eighty participants at the first Open Forum, which included both the young and the old; government officials, youths, teachers, educationists, social activists, civil society members, academics, municipal council member, local business personalities, school and university students, and one priest participated in the Open Forum. Both men and women in large numbers attended the Open Forum. There were few participants from the local Muslim community as well as few from the majority community in and around Colombo. Moreover, few Tamil diaspora people attended the event. Hence in many respects the inaugural Jaffna Open Forum was very inclusive. But, the fact that females and minority communities of the North (Muslims and Sinhalese) were not represented among the panellists was a sour point of the event.

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