The Horrendous Failures in the Education Sector in Sri Lanka

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, in The Daily Mirror,22 October 2012, where the title runs: “The Myth of Free Education

The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) and the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) in Sri Lanka have been on a long campaign to “protect free education”. I will be dealing with both the semantics and substance of “free education” in Sri Lanka in this think piece. The fundamental truth is that NOTHING IS FREE IN THE WORLD of human beings. Every single citizen of Sri Lanka pays several taxes to the government for the provision of public goods (for e.g.infrastructure)  and services (for e.g. education, health). Since between 70-75% of the
total revenue of the government accrues from indirect (consumption) taxes every single citizen pays various taxes to the government daily
during their entire lifetime. Therefore, every household pays for the education of their children albeit indirectly through the payment of
direct (income) and indirect taxes to the government. Besides, there is rampant corruption in admissions to popular schools  throughout Sri Lanka which makes a mockery of the free education system because of payment of bribe to secure admission. In addition, almost all the parents pay to send their children to private tutories from grade one onwards because most schools in the country hardly teach anything worthwhile despite being nominally free-of-cost.

According to the latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES)
2009/10, out of the total non-food expenditure of the households, the
average monthly household expenditure on education amounts to 5.6% of
the total (following personal care & health expenses 41.5%, housing
19.1%, transport 12.8%, and fuel & light 7.1%). The average monthly
household expenditure on education is higher than on clothing, textiles
& footwear (5.0%) and Communication (4.2%), for example. With
expenditures on education and health consuming 47% of the total
household expenditures, how legitimate is the claim of “free” education
and health in Sri Lanka?
The public-funded universities and other public-funded tertiary
educational institutions produce mostly UNEMPLOYABLE graduates. Barring
Engineering and Medical degrees, most degrees awarded by the fifteen
universities in Sri Lanka are not worthy of recognition. Public
universities in Sri Lanka are infested with under-qualified and abysmal
quality teachers; especially in the arts, humanities, and social
sciences, disciplines which together accommodate more than two-third of
the total university student population in the country. The fact that
many university teachers in Sri Lanka send their children abroad for
higher education is a testimony to the abysmal quality of university
education in Sri Lanka.
According to the HIES 2009/10, only 14.7% of the population has passed
the G.C.E. O/L examination and another 11.2% has passed the G.C.E. A/L
examination or beyond, out of which little over 1% have an undergraduate
degree or above. Hence, in total only 26% of the population has passed
the G.C.E. O/L or beyond in the country. In other words, the eulogised
free education in Sri Lanka has failed three-quarters of the population.
The fact that many members of parliament (from all political parties)
send their children to the fee-levying private ‘international schools’
is a testimony to the abysmal quality of school education (private and
public) in the country.
“Almost all the parents pay to send their children to private tutories from grade one onwards because most schools in the country hardly teach anything worthwhile “

According to a Ministry of Education source, even the foregoing pass
rates are achieved by lowering the pass mark at the G.C.E. O/L
examination to 30 in the past five-years or so from the historic pass
mark of 40 in order to fulfill a commitment made in the “Mahinda
Chinthana”. Such fudging of numbers as a way of attaining policy goals
and targets has become a hallmark of the Rajapaksa regime and perhaps
their policy instrument to make Sri Lanka a “knowledge hub” in Asia.
Besides, a significant part of the 1% of the population with degrees is
unemployed or under-employed because of the poor quality of their
degree. Is this the result envisioned by the champion of free education
Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara when he introduced free education in 1945?

The FUTA and IUSF may contend that the foregoing pathetic results of our
free education system are due to under-funding. However, I would
contend that with similar or lesser amount of public funding many other
developing countries have achieved much better results than Sri Lanka
has. Money is a necessary but insufficient ingredient for attaining
quality education both at the school and higher education levels.
It is high time for educationists to do soul-searching regarding the
outcome of the sixty seven years (1945-2012) of free education. The
entire education sector in Sri Lanka, from cradle to crematorium
(lifelong learning), has been in crisis for a very long time. The low
salaries of the school and university teachers and the declining share
of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) devoted to the education sector are
minor problems in my view. The major problems afflicting the education
sector in my view are (a) dated and irrelevant curriculum (b)
predominance of culture of teaching (spoon feeding) as opposed to
culture of learning (c) lack of performance-based remuneration for
teachers which has resulted in low-level of motivation (d) nepotism and
favouritism in awarding scholarships for postgraduate study abroad to
academics, and (e) ragging of students by students and sexual
exploitation of female students by male teachers which are endemic in
further and higher education institutions. The Universities’ Grants
Commission (UGC) and individual universities have the legal right and
responsibility to rectify the foregoing core problems (except the common
salary scale) without government interference. What has FUTA done to
address these problems?
In this ground reality, what is the logical, moral, or rational economic
imperative for the demand to allocate 6% of the GDP for the education
sector when only 1% of the population has earned a degree (that too of
unemployable quality)? In my view, even if the government allocates 10%
of the GDP for education, the quality of our university graduates and
teachers will not improve unless and until the aforementioned core
issues afflicting the education sector are corrected. Thus, any
resolution of the salary issue should be tied to resolving severe
qualitative problems highlighted above. Is the holy grail of “free
education” in Sri Lanka worthy of protection?
Muttukrishna Sarvananthan Ph.D. (Wales), M.Sc.
(Bristol), M.Sc. (Salford), B.A. (Hons) (Delhi) hails from Point Pedro,
Northern Sri Lanka, and a Development Economist by profession and the
Principal Researcher of the Point Pedro Institute of Development (PPID).
He has been an Endeavour Research Fellow at the Monash University
(Melbourne, Australia) and Fulbright Visiting Research Scholar at the
George Washington University (Washington D.C, USA.) as well.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Horrendous Failures in the Education Sector in Sri Lanka

  1. Chandre Dharmawardana

    Don’t have time to write in detail.
    But what the writer has written is in my view INCORRECT in substance and concept.

    In a country like Canada or US people pay all the taxes that
    the writer has written about. But in ADDITION, it costs about $40,000 an year in tuition fees alone in the US, and about $15,000 an year in Canada, and roughly four such years are needed for a young person to get a B. Sc. There are some loans an bursaries to help out. Also, students are expected to work during the long vacation (end of April to early September) and earn to meet their expenses.

    A Sri Lankan student does not pay any fees of that sort (even if we replace the $ value by 1 to 1 by a rupee value). If you take a fee levying trade school like the college run by the Institute of Chemistry in Nawala, they charge about $3000 for the full four year course in Tuition and Lab fees (I had this from the Rector of the college, just a few days ago). Thus the author mis-uses the word “free education”. That is why the Minister’s plan to get foreigners in SL is a valid business plan; but it should be peddled by the Vice-chancellors of respective universities and not by the minister – but I suspect the academic body is more interested in their own salaries and also mounting a political opposition.

    MuthuS does not compare numbers or ranking (say in terms of TOEFL competence of SAT competence as suitable empirical measures) with nearby countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan, from applicants who have sat those exams. The SL universities that the author trashes so strongly, consistently send us (who are working in western universities) Sri Lankan students who apply to do graduate studies in US and Canada, and we find that they do far better than Indian and other applicants (I am talking of science, eng, and med students)., on the average. On the other hand, the Indian Institutes of technology are far better than anything that Sri Lanka has got. There is no research culture in the SL universities, and indeed scientific research is very very expense. However, I am impressed by occasional individual sparks that I come across.
    [I have less knowledge of the Arts and Humanities set up today]

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