Education and its (dis)contents:a critique of state policy on education and a call to action

Sivamohan Sumathy, from The Island, 2 November 2011 Education is not an undertaking of A about B; it is not an undertaking of A for/on behalf of B; it is an undertaking of A and B together.”This is a paraphrase of mine of Paulo Friere’s initial premise of what ‘true’ education is in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The ‘enterprise’ of education energizes society toward change, to energize individuals to become active agents. This underlining theme of Friere’s has inspired thousands of educators over the years to make education a weapon of social justice. This is what underlay the Kannangara vision of free education when he proposed free education for all to the State Council in 1943, which was implemented in 1945. While Friere envisioned it as a socio-pedagogical project, C. W. W. Kanangara conceptualized it as a socio-economic project. But there is an intertwining, an intertextuality here. Can free education really free one, give impetus to a theory of freedom?

The many meanings of freedom and free education:This idea of education as the means toward freedom is in tussle, tension with the kind of linear history one has of education, colonial and postcolonial, which is about conformity and perpetuation of the status quo. Thomas Macaulay’s (in)famous minute on education of 1835 comes to mind here. And while we may decry it for its colonialist racism, it is the Macaulay principle that drives our advocacy of education. Formal institutional education is about disciplining a workforce toward the better granting of the needs of a classed system. Public universities reside within the cusp of this tension. Within the educational and higher educational system, we cradle both these tendencies together, in opposition, and in togetherness. But today, we are finding that this enabling tension, which allowed us to preserve the spirit of pedagogy as social justice, is under threat. The authoritarianism of the current regime and the authoritarianism of the economic and economist narrative have rendered the threat acute.

In this scenario, neo-liberalist strategies for educational reform bring together persons from seemingly widely disparate groups, from the ultra nationalist JHU to adherents of globalist-laissez-faire-World-Bank-theology. Instead of human agency one hears the mantra of human capital. Economist predictions replace economic analyses, as political economic research gives way to statistical surveys, and compartmentalized empirical studies take on a priori the values and determinations of market ethics. The piecemeal empiricism of these studies is predicated on how the market functions in the fantasy world of free trade and free exchange of goods. When it comes to a consideration of education, this economism becomes acutely dangerous for: a) it makes education a commodity where it cannot be; b) market forces, even when they are predicted accurately (and we all know they are not for the most part) are seen as constant and lasting for whole epochs; c) instead of adopting a political approach (where class and other social factors, the relations between state and society etc. come into play) it premises itself on the foundational myths of corporatism.

Economism and the Neo liberal State: To illustrate my point, let me cite a few documents that are of significance and which espouse dominant thinking on education today. Let me begin with sections of the Central Bank Report of 2010 on education and higher education, which outlines the policy of the Ministries of Education (MoE) and Higher Education (MoHE).

Sri Lanka ranks at 82 out of 149 countries in the Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) prepared by the World Bank (2009). The knowledge economy is one that creates, disseminates and uses knowledge to enhance growth and development in a country. A successful knowledge economy is characterized by close links between science and technology, greater importance placed on innovation for economic growth and competitiveness, increased significance of education, greater investment in R&D, information technology, and education. (75)

The scant two odd pages on education and higher education do not go into any detail about this proposed knowledge economy either in its economic or pedagogical thrusts. But one can tease out two features of its policy that capture the basic premises of the policy.

1 Sri Lanka as the Knowledge Hub of Asia, which would contribute to its economy.

2 Consequently, create a class of professional labour, who would gain from the investments in the Knowledge Hub.

The points above raise many questions relating to their relevance to the overall achievement and wellbeing of the Sri Lankan peoples. How would the Knowledge Hub, however conceived, help in greater social mobility for the people and in greater empowerment of disenfranchised sections of the population? First, let us see what this notion of a Knowledge Hub means politically and socially. At the most basic understanding of the concept, knowledge here becomes subordinate to and becomes the means of immediate economic gain accrued in the open market. Does this run contrary to the programme of democracy that Kannangara imagined? Would the establishment of a Knowledge Hub entail, before or after, increased spending on education for the marginalized, for those in the ‘rural’ sector? Or is it designed to usher educational reforms that are aimed at creating a workforce that would at best create a middling middle class? Where do we see in this programme, leading to the establishment of a knowledge hub, a greater investment in education for all? Even if unstated, one could safely assume that the government’s policy seeks to improve infrastructure and services at the centre(s) rather than in the peripheries. V. Kumar persuasively argues that the government’s plans are bound to fail even within its own logic (Privatizing Education– There are many reasons to believe that the present strategy will fail, Colombo Telegraph, October 28, 2011). They are bound to fail by any reckoning of what a national policy should entail. It can be safely adduced that the government’s approach to education as a commodity will leave large numbers of young people out in the cold, while enhancing the advantages that a very small segment of society, of the urban and semi urban middle classes, already have.

Already, in the sphere of education, the Sri Lankan state’s performance is low. It ranks as one of the lowest, if not the lowest, inSouth Asiafor its spending on education. On top of this, its spending on urban areas is exponentially much more than in the provinces. For example, it spends much more on theWesternProvince than on other provinces, increasing the disparities between the city and the provinces. The government needs to address these issues, if it is serious about its i ntentions of a knowledge economy as a national policy. It needs to look into the widest possible representation of the Sri Lankan peoples in any programme of a knowledge economy.

The government in its own way draws succour from policy making emanating from the centres of neo-liberal thinking. I’d like to draw the readers’ attention to the World Bank document of 2011, prepared by Athurupane and his team of World Bank experts, Transforming School Education in Sri Lanka: from cut stones to polished jewels, Colombo: World Bank, 2011. Complementing MoHE’s assertions and adding meat to its flimsy pronouncements we have the World Bank report’s conclusive pronouncement on the needs of the labour market:

Employers are demanding high levels of ‘soft skills’. Employers list skills such as habits of discipline and industry, creativity, good communication, collaborating in teams, problem solving, decision making, initiative, punctuality, and the ability to work to deadlines, and adaptability and trainability as key skills needed for the work place. In addition, formal private sector organizations, especially those involved in international trade and finance, stress the importance of fluency in international languages, particularly English language skills…. The higher education system also requires soft skills, English language fluency and basic IT literacy in the graduates of the school system…. (E4-E5)

Yet, Athurupane’s graph on the changing composition of skills needed in economies in the 21st century forgets to mention how much of this is a Sri Lankan reality. In other words, in relation to the general job market in Sri Lanka, what is the percentage of the jobs that are of the nature of ‘soft skills’, as specified by Levy and Murnane? The graph that he presents is one adapted from findings of the World Bank of 2008 and Levy and Murnane’s identification of key competencies in the age of computers. But one is bound to ask this question of Athurupane et al. How did they adapt a graph based on Levy and Murnane’s predictions for an advanced capitalist economy like that of theUS? Secondly, have the insights of Levy and Murnane on the new division of labour (in terms of developing strategies for a potential workforce) actually staved off the massive assault on jobs in western economies (Levy and Murnane, The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004)? Why is there no statistical or empirical study of the job market inSri Lankaitself?

In order to put a ‘human face’ on it, the World Bank also engages in what is known as social indicator research, which ultimately has little to do with its predictions for a knowledge based economy. But to its credit, the World Bank report does insist on greater spending on education inSri Lankaas investment in education remains one of the lowest for Asian countries. It is lower than that of other South Asian countries, includingNepal,BangladeshandPakistan. The government spends less than 2% of the GDP on education, including higher education. Also, where performance is concerned, there’s been no marked improvement in recent years. In fact in Mathematics, performance in the crucial O/Levels has only a 51% pass rate (Transforming school education 83-95), making it even lower for students in the rural areas. Yet, paradoxically, the government insists on building a knowledge economy out of a policy of ‘non’-investment in the educational sector.

There is something philosophically and pedagogically amiss in looking upon education as pure and simple economic gain. There is an inherent contradiction nestling within this conceptualization of knowledge. Knowledge is taken to be some kind of distilled product, a commodity, which can be packaged in order to be sold on the market. The idea that this package of knowledge can be arbitrarily attached to market forces runs contrary to the educational principle that sees knowledge as a dynamic socio-cultural phenomenon or process which is collectively shared and not possessed by isolated, atomized individuals. Institutionally speaking, education is a cluster of disciplines, which complement each other in a multiculturalist sense. Educational institutions, at their most basic, whether they be schools or universities, function as sites where A and B together engage in the expansion of their own and society’s horizons; they do not and cannot function as commodity producers at any time. To put it more simply, a university exists and functions as a whole and not as an aggregate of subjects. For the MoHE, World Bank experts and economist policy makers, knowledge is something that can be produced in a factory, on the assembly line and as discrete items. The current emphasis on English and IT, tagged as life skills, speak to this. Pedagogically too it is a faulty notion. Neither English nor IT can function as single and singularly derived subjects. They are part of a curriculum. I am an English teacher (of sorts). I know that one cannot teach English, either as a written or spoken language, as an isolated element. To buttress the study of English as a language, there needs to be studies of history, geography, of society and of the sciences going on at the same time. That is what university education is. But not realizing this, the government, its apologists and industrialists look at these disciplines as those necessitated by the demands of the market.

For the MoHE, improving university standards means turning the university system into a competitor in the open market, undermining the pedagogical principles on which an educational institution should be run. Let me quote from the relevant section on higher education of the Central Bank report:

While promoting foreign investment in the higher education sector in the country, it is important to improve the existing university education system. In doing so, due to the limited fiscal space, it is important to explore alternative sources of funding for higher education of a greater quality. For this purpose, the existing administrative and financial regulations would need to be reviewed and suitably amended without compromising academic standards, quality and examination integrity. Though public universities enjoy a considerable level of autonomy, administrative constraints could result in reducing revenue generated through consultancy, research activities and study programmes. Entrepreneurial orientation of university education is another possible avenue for alternative financing as well as attracting foreign students from other countries. Even with the expansion of the private general education system in the country, proper criteria are yet to be set up to admit students of private education institutions into public universities via a suitable cost sharing mechanism. Simultaneously, it is important to introduce a quality assurance rating system to make public universities competitive which in turn would spur academic and research excellence in public universities. (76-77)

MoHE’s response to the problems assailing university education and the institutions themselves is without any true value. And it is a dangerous response. Its attempt to turn universities into profit-making institutions would undo the bottomline standards that had been jealously guarded over the decades by the institutions. Money making consultancies in which the academic staff would be forced to take part in cannot be considered research. If the Minister and the planners think that consultancies are research, they demonstrate a clear lack of understanding of the basic principles of research and pedagogy. An ‘entrepreneurial orientation’ as prompted by MoHE, would erode into the quality of education administered; quantity would be valued and promoted at the expense of quality of research and teaching. Teaching too would suffer greatly in the rat race to generate funds. In the end, education as a whole would suffer.

Further, to abdicate its obligations of providing education to the people would lead to much greater social unrest than what we have at present. This would be a foolhardy undertaking of the government. Realistically speaking, I envision a scenario where the government would marginally improve spending on education and invite private investment, which would not make any kind of impact on improving (access to?) education on a national scale or on the generation of employment on a large scale to for the educated populace. All its talk about human capital and the labour market and its measures to invite private investment in higher education are designed to appease an urban middle to upper income bracket and a small entrepreneurial class. Although the government’s aim in its rhetoric is to appease the urban middle class that should not be taken to mean that its plans would actually alleviate the anxieties of the middle classes. As stated above, for the labour market to flourish there should be ample investment. And we do not know what kind of economic situation awaits us in the years to come. Neither the World Bank report nor the MoHE is able to produce any research detailing the quality or quantity of the demand for IT graduates or for an English-educated clientele. All of their pronouncements and predictions are at the anecdotal level. Further, if the world or at least the west is assailed by a financial crisis, how do we predict the stability of other investing powers, namelyChina and India? Why would they invest in education here or in other spheres? To what purpose? And to what extent? These questions have not been raised or addressed in any of the policies of the government or by those serving in an advisory capacity.

The government’s and in general the Sri Lankan state’s policies on education are as always myopic, contradictory and largely reactionary. Let’s take a look at its policy on the teaching of English and English education. The project of bilingual education (English and first language) in some schools was initiated for some select groups in 2000. I am not necessarily a critic of the policy. But there are certain questions that need to be asked of the design of the project, the intention of the policy makers and the government. The teaching of English has been a qualified failure over the years. Of course, one could say that more people ‘know’ English today than 50-60 years ago. That goes without saying and that is part of the success of free education in this country. But instead of strengthening and building on this trend and carrying out in-depth research on the pedagogical aspect of English language teaching, the government has embarked on wild schemes of ‘English as a life skill’, and ‘Speak English our way’both of which are part of more and more sloganeering on education than of any informed and collaborative endeavour designed to increasing English language learning in the country. But my question here is of a different order. Why on earth does the state apparatus embark on the notion of bilingual education, when English language teaching is floundering in the country, rural schools being the most affected? The state’s programme of bilingual education can be implemented only in urban areas and that too not very satisfactorily. As Carmen Wickramagamage, P. Sethunge and M. Kalugampitiya discover in their research on bilingual education in the Central Province, the bilingual programme accentuates already existing social divisions, even within a school (“The Pursuit of Equity and Excellence in English Education through English Medium/Bilingual Education in the Sri Lankan Education System: Effective Strategy to Meet Desired End?’, (PURSE), 16th December 2010. Volume 15 – Part II. University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. 84-143). According to the World Bank report, a total of 55, 000 students (out of 4.1 million students of the country) across 601 schools (out of 10, 400) study in the bilingual stream (78). But the report omits a crucial detail: the location of these schools. According to Wickramagamge et al, in theCentralProvincemost of the schools are located in theKandyarea. Given that the dividends are meager on a national compass, one can only assume that this is a ‘ploy’ intended to appease the different levels of the upper middle classes of the urban sectors, who already have access to English outside the school, and are therefore able to take advantage of this opportunity provided to them to become English medium students.

The government’s thinking on the subject is reflected in other instances of policy making. Sirimal Abeyratne’s paper, ‘Free Education Versus Freedom of Education – University System in the Global Knowledge Hub (, 23 October, 2011) published on the website of Pathfinder Foundation, a think-tank aligned to Milinda Moragoda, is clearly an apology for the policies formulated by the government and the World Bank. Given its rather weak formulation, Abeyratne’s report does not warrant much thought. On the other hand, Minister Champika Ranawaka’s proposals of educational reforms, submitted to the President, present a distinct political challenge (“A New Set of Proposals” Daily Mirror, 18 August, 2010). Draconian and militaristic in its approach, its dizzying vertical structure of educational attainment has a small technocratic elite forming a clique at the top of the pyramid. It calls to mind visions of a labouring populace toiling away in the factories, reminiscent of Dickens’s Hard Times and industrial capitalism. Yet, ironically, the ultra utilitarianism of Ranawaka’s proposals is terribly out of fashion. Orwellian totalitarian states take on more subtle forms in the 21st century than what Ranawaka is able to conjure up.

Education: access, empowerment and democracy: Ultimately, what this country needs is greater access to the educational apparatus as a means of social empowerment. While education can be seen as a right in itself, it will not have much meaning if it is not realizable economically. But what exactly is realizable economically is a thorny issue. If economic gains made through educational attainments are evaluated only in relation to market forces (of any order), then such an assessment and policy based on that assessment would lead to greater disparity and greater uneven development. The country would not be able to sustain it in the long term. What needs to happen is an understanding of the complicated nature of national economies and a socio-economic mapping of the country at large, so that policy imperatives are made with a view to addressing the needs and demands of the different struggles and different aspirations of the people. Recently, quite accidentally, I came upon a letter written in the ‘70s by the head of a fishermen’s association of Jaffna to an international body about (if my memory serves me right), becoming a member in that international body. The letter is written in what we think of as ‘perfect’ English. Here, I am not suggesting that working people’s associations need to function in English. If English is an empowering tool, we need to make it accessible to the greatest number of people in this country. Nor should we predict too narrowly what shape that particular process of empowerment would take.

The mandate of the people and investment in education: The immediate and urgent question facing us as educationists today is poor state investment in education. The hypocrisy of the government should be called to task when it says, “University education in Sri Lanka, which is mainly a public sector monopoly, suffers from both, the inability to meet demand and failure to supply a quality education compatible with labour market requirements.” (Central Bank Report, 75-76). When government spending on education is a meagre 1. 9% of the GDP of which its expenditure on higher education is even less, it is no wonder that that the university sector is unable to meet its demand. University academics have made repeated appeals to the government to raise expenditure on education to at least 6% of the GDP. Instead of responding to that, the government spends enormous amounts on leadership training of entrants to the university conducted by the military and on other fringe programmes. The public has the right to demand from the government an answer to these legitimate questions:

* Why is spending on education so low compared to that on defence?

* Why are the universities compelled to employ an expensive security firm, when there are so many other educational priorities?

* Why is the state intent on spending Rs. 200 million on a three-week leadership training for incoming students and much more on the three month Pre Orientation Programme (POP), generally understood to be at an expense of Rs. 900 million, in which the universities as institutions have no role to play?

There is a multitude of similar questions that could be asked challenging the state to increase its spending on education and higher education.

In its recent trade union action, FUTA demanded a minimum of 6% of the GDP as state expenditure on education. If this is achieved the university system would be able to expand on its intake, update its resources, increase cadre positions and give better quality education. Instead, the government is running state-funded public education into the ground, decisively and stealthily. The most inimical of the MoHE’s pronouncements to quality and independence of the university system is that pertaining to its increasing control of curricular and pedagogical activities of the University. “Though public universities enjoy a considerable level of autonomy, administrative constraints could result in reducing revenue generated through consultancy, research activities and study programmes. Entrepreneurial orientation of university education is another possible avenue for alternative financing as well as attracting foreign students from other countries. (77)

A sure way of reducing quality is to turn Universities into money spinners. A third world country like Sri Lanka, which has relied for so long on providing a somewhat standard education, one that is for the most part on par with internationally accredited universities cannot afford to become entrepreneurial institutions. That would be educational and social suicide.

Folks, let us not wait until the state tells us what to do. We from the university system and from outside it, civil society (by civil society I do not mean NGOs), need to undertake a serious study of the imperatives of education that would act as a public commission and a public document that would help shape policy. Today, a new University Act is in the making, but there is no open debate on it; nor is there any active participation in the design of it by the university community. It is imperative that we involve ourselves in these programmes as a democratizing act and in promoting education in the many names of freedom.

(Sivamohan Sumathy is attached to the Department of English, University of Peradeniya)

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