12 May 2012

And education keeps ‘crisising’ along…

Sri Lanka prides itself on providing free education.  The extraordinarily high literacy levels are frequently cited in self-congratulatory terms by academics, development practitioners and politicians, very often to gloss over telling anomalies, mismatches and bewildering policy decisions pertaining to education. 

Progressive policies designed and implemented several decades ago need to be lauded for the positive benefits they have yielded.  On the other hand, nations and people do not stay still; they move, often with the times, with new realities spawning new challenges and these in turn requiring re-think and re-design to ensure standards, effectiveness and relevance. 
One of the most perplexing issues about the positive results of education policy is that the beneficiaries (i.e. the educated) consistently fail to deliver when they move to positions of power and authority.  Rarely is the right person placed in the right position.  Rare too is the right person in the right position supported with the right kind of personnel and resources.  This is a phenomenon that is not limited to the education sector of course.  Quite apart from a culture of sidelining career administrators in favor of political appointees, a tendency that has caused more problems than yielded benefits, the country is clearly in the throes of a serious human resources crisis.  Two insurrections and a three decade long struggle against terrorism that resulted in the loss of some 200,000 lives have not helped either. 

The country suffers from a continuing mismatch between instruction provided and the skills necessary to move the country forward, an absence of a comprehensive occupation classification to determine skill needs and a lack of systems to ensure quality of education. 
Last week, students of the University of Visual and Performing Arts took to the streets demanding that the University Grants Commission (UGC) re-introduced practical tests for aspiring entrants.  Student leaders claimed that the practical tests that are part of the A/L exam for subjects such as music, dancing and art are of unsound quality with assessments being made by school teachers and not university lecturers.  Scrapping the aptitude tests, they claim, could be to the advantage of students who have scored well in non-related subjects (thereby boosting their Z-scores).

The UGC counters that the quality of the aptitude tests is suspect, alleging inter alia, that the examiners can favor applicants who they themselves train in various private ‘academies’ for music and dance for example, alluding to a conflict of interest.  It is also pointed out that in several instances students who have secured ‘A’ grades in all subjects have failed the aptitude tests.  Since the handbook for those applying to universities has no mention of aptitude tests, it is not possible to re-introduce them at this point. 
Now it cannot be impossible, even given inadequacies referred to above, for a system to be put in place to ensure transparency and also to separate the deserving from the undeserving, either at the A/L itself or through an aptitude test.  The fact that those who have their own academies do not disclose the fact and excuse themselves from screening processes also compromises their integrity and detracts from the legitimacy of their demands for aptitude tests. 

In another example of gross incompetence, the Ministry of Education has assigned placements in a Colombo school to 4 university lecturers as per quotas for that category, without ascertaining whether or not vacancies existed.  That’s basic.  According to the aggrieved parents, they had been brushed off by a senior ministry official, who had allegedly claimed that the ministry doesn’t need university lecturers.  This has prompted the university dons to consider boycotting A/L paper marking.  It is reported that the said lecturers had been abusive during the argument with the official.  Regardless of what was said and done, the fact remains that the Ministry has not bothered to do its homework regarding space availability. This is May, five months into the school year.  Bad.
These are just two of many examples where all round and insufferable incompetence is evident.  We could the imbroglio concerning private medical colleges, the utter lack of supervision of mushrooming ‘international schools’ and various other degree-awarding institutions, a pernicious tendency of student activists to salivate at the prospect of protesting and indeed instigating student unrest, steadily dropping quality levels in many streams of education and other ills.  It seems that saying ‘there is a crisis in education’ is no longer valid, for our education system is ‘crisising’ and has been doing so for far too long now.  It could lead to another bout of youth unrest leading to insurrection and blood-letting, but that’s only one of the ‘possibles’, for in this here-and-now, for all the progress made over the years, the mismatches, incompetency, lack of ethics and ad hoc policy directives impact the entire sector. 

Big words, brash acts and a preference to sweep things under the carpet will not help.  Our tomorrow doesn’t look too rosy.