Issues in Moulding Education and Fostering Accessiblity & Spearheads


A translation of an essay written by Professor Sirimal Abeyratne (Colombo) appeared in the Lankadeepa of 18 August, 2021. As I have difficulties obtaining typescripts in Sinhala, I will write in English. Abeyratne dwelt on two questions. First, who benefits from ‘free education’? Second, how do you engineer a knowledge centre?


Prior to answering the first question, he forays briefly into discussing ‘what is free education’. As we have developed the usage, free education is what is free to the student or her parents. But the community as a whole, that includes you and me, pays for ‘free education’. Education is provided by the state. The state, unless you are Hegelian, is the community organised for political purposes. In order to pay for my education, the state using its agent the government, collects taxes from my parents. Instead of paying fees to a private school to educate me, my parents pay taxes to the government which pays the public schools to educate me. No matter who organises the provision of education, my parents pay for my education.

However, there is a difference of critical importance of who actually pays for my schooling. When it is necessary that students or their parents pay for a child’s education, whether a child goes to school depends on whether parents can afford to pay for the child’s education. When the community pays for children’s education, the child can go to school, no matter whether his parents have the wherewithal to pay for his education. The rest of the community takes on that burden. This is fairer, far more just and far more productive for social wellbeing.

Education is free in school and in university in the same sense as it is in Sri Lanka in France, Germany and Finland and may be elsewhere. In the US, primary and secondary education is free in the same sense. We are in no sense unique. US school education in the US, school education (K-12) is organised by School Boards, elected by voters in the School Board area. School Boards pay for education with property taxes paid by owners in the area. The Board is accountable to those that elected them, by and large, the same persons who pay property taxes: an excellent example of the principle of subsidiarity at work. Parents are commonly closely associated with the school. One of them may volunteer to substitute for a teacher absent without expectation, another may help in the library and still another may accompany a class on a day-outing. That gives a clue to the differentiating in the quality of teaching in schools.

The more educated and the better informed the parents are, the better their schools. Imagine a young couple who have come out of an elite university and together earn $100,000 to $200,000 a month. They can buy an expensive house in a School Board area (e.g. Montgomery County in Virginia), where public schools are of high quality. In New York City, Brooklyn High School, Bronx High School and Manhattan Science High School, all in the public sector, have excellent reputations. The high prices of houses will keep out those with low incomes. (The State of California introduced, a few years ago, a scheme to make equalisation grants to improve the quality of education in poorer counties.) The parents will take care to provide a home environment conducive to creative activity and the growth of the children’s minds. Besides, they can buy private tuition to supplement what is done in excellent schools.

Parents will take the children to see the beauty of the country, to great museums, to enjoy a play and in summer perhaps to Italy, to China, to India or to Japan. The children will learn at least one foreign language (perhaps Greek or Latin, in addition), some music, to dance, play baseball and to debate. Their teachers, counsellors and parents will be aware of what elite college admission committees look for and send the children to volunteer work in a hospital or the local library. In these and many other ways children from educated and high earning families will ‘hoard the dreams’ of children of common families. Contrast that with the experience of poorly educated and low-income families whose children may never have been out of their hometowns, never seen a museum or even seen even the ocean, if in Iowa or Idaho.

That pattern, on a lower scale, is quite common in our country. I had not been to Galle till I was 15 when I was hospitalised there for three nights. (I was shocked to hear from a ward doctor in a private hospital in Colombo, who normally worked in a government hospital, that he, although owning a car, had never been to Matara or to Nuwara Eliya. He had gone to school in Veyangoda.) Given these wide disparities in income levels, educational levels and cultural practices among families, it is utopian to imagine that there are equal opportunities for all children to do well in school and in university.

We can observe these differences played out in daily lives. How many physicians or surgeons have you met in this country, whose parents were tea pluckers in the hill country? Even as early as the 5th standard scholarship examination, you can see children whose parents earn regular incomes, commonly from government, end up in the top one or two percent of high scorers. Look at sharp differences of those who score high Z scores at A’ Level in Mullaitivu and in Gampaha districts. There are odd instances when an extraordinarily intelligent student may break these barriers. But they are exceptional and prove the rule.

In China, the same result is achieved with the hukou system and competition at gaokao, the entrance examination to universities. The $70 billion private tuition industry, now under attack there, is stark evidence of differences in the capacity between the rich and the poor to buy ‘good education’. In Colombo, you can see the same schemes at work through property prices. Borella, Maradana, Kurunduvatta, Bambalapitiya and Kollupitiya have nests of high-quality schools which feed into the more coveted faculties in selected universities. You can observe that even those who score high at Grade V scholarship examination are from families where parents have had more education in them than others. Given even the best intentions (e.g. China), there is no way that advantages enjoyed by children from families of well-educated parents, who almost invariably earn high and stable incomes, can be denied advantages in education.

Creating knowledge centers

Let us briefly, look at the idea of creating ‘knowledge centres’ that Abeyratne wrote about. The presence of foreign students and teachers is not always a mark of a knowledge centre. There are a large number of foreign students in both China and India, although neither is yet known as a knowledge centre. A country may have a large number of foreigners as teachers, simply because it is short of competent teachers. In Peradeniya in the 1950s, the professor of Sanskrit was German, four teachers in economics (Das Gupta, Sarkar, Oliver Henry and Eiteman) were from overseas, in history two and one each in Sociology, Geography and English.) Gradually local scholars replaced them.

Abeyratne, in fact, was looking for students and teachers who are attracted by leading scholars in particular disciplines, who open up new lines of inquiry that may extend the width and depth of that discipline and well-functioning labs working on frontier problems in a particular discipline. In the University of Cambridge in 1989-90, out of 10,243 undergraduates, 568 or about 5% were overseas students and of 2,975 postgraduate students 1,022 or about a third from overseas. In the History Faculty in the same year, out of 60 postgraduate students admitted, 33 or more than a half were from overseas. The reputation of good scholars matters much. Importance of libraries The importance of libraries, especially for undergraduates has diminished somewhat with computer technology, but not entirely.

For research students a great library is an essential asset. A reputation for good research is earned with publications in high quality journals and books that explore new areas or develop new insights into existing problems. That in turn implies that there are good publishing houses. University Presses are essential ingredients for ‘knowledge centres’. The Cambridge University Press comes from 1534 CE and Oxford UP from 1536. There is not a single good publishing house in our country.

Good research comes out of universities with strong leaders in certain disciplines. This was most clearly evident in German universities from about 1850 to the disaster that was Hitler. This practice of powerful professors who assembled a number of researchers started in mid-nineteenth century Germany, soon spread to Britain and the US. In US, the outstanding example is Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The expulsion of Jewish university teachers and researchers in the 1930s from Germany by Hitler and their dispersal in Britain and the US helped greatly to promote research in many disciplines in those countries: mathematics, physics, linguistics and sociology. Amsterdam, Utrecht and London had had great publishing houses from the 17th century, when dissenters of various kinds fled their home cities in search of welcoming havens: e.g. Benedictus Spinoza from Madrid, John Locke and James Mill from London.

Instance of our failure

An instance where we failed to make use of strong leaders in anthropology to establish a centre for the study of societies in South Asia was in Peradeniya in the 1950s. The leaders were Ralph Peiris, Stanley Tambiah, Gananath Obeysekera, Kitsiri Malalgoda and H. L. Seneviratne, all distinguished anthropologists. A younger scholar Sarath Amunugama joined the Civil Service. In addition, there were Michael Roberts in History and K. N. O. Dharmadasa in Sinhala, both of whom had made contributions to anthropology. They all, except KNO, dispersed themselves to more welcome homes in the US, New Zealand and Australia.

Some distinguished scientists dispersed to Britain, the US, Canada and Hong Kong. There is a centripetal force at work here. Unless we arrest this trend, it is unlikely that we will develop a knowledge centre in our country. I would rather emphasize the development of good undergraduate schools from which may grow graduate schools This was something emanant in the late 1950s within the University of Ceylon, but, unfortunately the prospect was aborted by ill-informed judgements on the development of higher education. The present ill-founded emphasis on ‘discipline’ in universities seems likely to welcome a worse disaster. The memory of Hitler destroying German universities in the 1930s has not been erased from our memories.


USVATTE: This is the last of three notes I wrote on university matters in August, during the worst days of the epidemic in our country. It helped me to keep my mind off impending horrors. Then, our son came home spreading sunshine for a brief two weeks.)

Professor Srimal Abeyratne


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