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DateLine Sunday, 17 February 2008

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Government Gazette

Crisis in university education system - a systemic ailment?

Reform will not come from the educationists:

The crisis in the Sri Lankan system of universities once again comes to the forefront of the social discourse with the intensifying fracas among rival students groups. Though the periodic fighting among students' groups is a tell-tale symptom of the ailment, it does, perhaps, not reflect the severity and the intensity of the syndrome that blighted the entire body of education in the post - independent Sri Lanka.

In a close examination of the entire system of education in Sri Lanka, it is apparent that the current system in function has been oblivious to the ground realities and insensitive to the fundamental socio-economic changes brought about by the liberalisation of the economy in 1977 and the subsequent emergence of private sector as the engine of economic growth.

In the pre-1977 era, almost all the major sectors of the economy was monopolised by the Government, thus becoming the principle provider of employment for university graduates.

For the undergraduates who were passing out from the few national universities in Sri Lanka, mainly University of Peradeniya (known then as the University of Ceylon) and the University of Colombo, there was no uncertainty with regard to their future employment prospects as the Government sector was ready to recruit them.

Though there were private sector establishments in operation, their contribution to the overall economy was minimal. Vital sectors of the economy such as Education, Transport, and Plantation and even, to a greater extent, retail and wholesale businesses were controlled by the Government.

However, a significant socio-economic transformation took place in 1977 with the dismantling of the then command economy and the introduction of the free market economy.

Since the government was withdrawn from most of the economic activities, in its stead came the private sector with stiff competition among diverse actors to secure a market segment in almost all vital sectors of the economy.

Despite the sea change in the economic and social spheres, the Sri Lankan system of education continues as it was thirty years ago, in teaching students in Sinhala and Tamil, thus forming mono-lingual constituencies and making them unemployable in the expanding private sector.

As the language of commerce and governance becomes English against the backdrop of increasing direct foreign investment and transnational conglomerates come into the local market in a big way, wealthy parents wanted their children to have an English education.

This demand led to the birth of International Schools outside the conventional system of education, producing a new breed of students with language skills not only in English but also in other languages such as French and German.

The by product of this process is the expansion of private schools. In addition, plethora of foreign university affiliated colleges and degree awarding institutions emerged to cater to the generation of students who completed their primary education at International and private schools.

However, the conventional system of education remains unchanged with imparting no language skills, especially in English. Naturally, the graduates produced by the conventional system of universities remain unemployed as they cannot compete with the new breed of graduates from foreign universities. Reforms in the education sector is sine qua non.

In this back drop, major reforms in the Education sector, commencing from primary education is a pre-requisite in order to reform the university education. The responsibility of imparting sound education with necessary language skills for students and preparing them for universities squarely lies in the schools.

However, over the years the school education sector has miserably failed to impart language skills and other aptitudes for the students, thus compelling the university lecturers to conduct lectures in Sinhala and English media.

In an ideal scenario, schools should produce generation of students who can follow lectures, write their assignments and make presentations in English in order to introduce English in universities as medium of instruction.

However, the stark reality is that the majority of undergraduates 'knowledge of English is so poor that they cannot follow lectures in English, compelling university lecturers to continue lectures in Sinhala or Tamil.

The inevitable result is that the conventional system of universities continues to produce a large number of graduates of the same quality as they produced thirty or forty years ago.

However, unlike in the past, the government cannot recruit the entire educate segment produced by the university system as it does not generate as many employment opportunities as it did before 1977.

The task has become more harder with the expansion of universities after 1977 and the subsequent increase of the output of graduates. So the government confronts twin problem of creating employment opportunities for a large number of the graduate' population against the backdrop of the declining involvement in the economy.

On the other hand, the private sector does not recruit undergraduates from local universities, though it is expanding rapidly.

Although certain categories of graduates such as those who follow courses in Engineering, IT and the Sciences find employment in private sector, a vast majority of graduates follow the Liberal Art subjects remain unemployed.

In order to exert pressure on the system of universities to reform it, some market elements such as part of the expenses should be met by the income generated by the university and can be introduced into the system.

If the universities have to compete in attracting students, it will add competitive dimension to the system, in turn compelling the universities to attract sound academic staff and to provide a better service to the students.

In order to attract more and higher calibre academics, the universities will have to offer attractive remuneration packages with additional incentives. However, this may lead to problems for some of the universities as some universities would attract more students than other universities.

In such a scenario, some universities would not attract students.

Though Sri Lanka does not have to commercialise the system of universities, some competitive elements can be introduced in order to bring about reform in the universities. It should be borne in mind that reform in the education system is the key to force reform on the system of universities.

However, it is a pity that political, official, military elites are least concerned about improving primary education, especially in the rural sector for the simple reason that their children either attend some of the best public schools or private school. One of the factors that has caused a crisis in the universities is that as academics are under pressure to earn more money they pay little attention to their work in the university which has a negative effect on the students' moral.

The violent atmosphere in the universities might have been resultant of the widespread idea of rather dim employment prospects, especially on the part of students who do not follow professional courses.

Recognising the crisis in the university system may be the first step towards addressing critical issues faced by the Sri Lankan system of universities confronts. However, issues should have to be addressed taking the socio-economic changes into consideration.

Unless the parents who send their children to rural schools which are adversely affected by the crisis in the education system demand a change, reform will not come from the educationists who, in fact, are reaping the benefits from the crisis.

It could be alleged that these experts who regularly are in the international conference circles and presenting academic papers on reforms in the Educational Sector are not interested in reforms being implemented in the rural sector or allocating resources to needy schools in villages, simply because their children attend leading public schools or international schools.

Therefore, it is high time that the allocation of funds for resource-rich schools to be either reduced to the minimum or completely stopped, directing benefits to resource-deprived schools in the rural and plantation sectors.

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Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
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Ceylinco Banyan Villas
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