16 September 2012

Education: if no one is to be left behind….

Some Advanced Level question papers are set by professors, some not.  The Political Science paper was set by a professor who was once the Head of the Political Science Department in his university.  In this year’s paper the candidates were asked who wrote ‘Das Kapital’.  Within brackets was the Sinhala translation, ‘jaathinge dhanaya’ which, when translated back would be ‘Wealth of Nations’, the classic by Adam Smith.

It was not carelessness.  Before the paper was finalized, someone had pointed out the error.  The professor had re-checked with a senior lecturer in political science who had once been his student.  The ‘approver’ had brought in his assumed knowledge of German to support his former teacher.  The question stood.  The professor obviously doesn’t know his Marx, hasn’t read Das Kapital, has never heard of Adam Smith or ‘Wealth of Nations’.  The professor, interestingly, is a die-hard critic of the ruling party and has for decades been a staunch supporter of the UNP, reaping benefits of position when that party was in power. 
The above is no footnote to the education-salary drama being enacted by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) and various Government representatives.  It speaks to deeply entrenched problems in the entire education system which will not be resolved by simply pumping more money. 

Crises are moments that can be used and abused.  FUTA is for overall reform and not just salary hikes, apparently.  So far, apart from a few cursory and unfleshed recommendations, the fixation has been on obtaining the equivalent of 6% of the GDP for education.  The Government is operating as though it wants the strike ended by hook or by crook.  We don’t see any sign of anyone in the Government using the opportunity to review the entire education policy.  There are, however, things that both parties ought to think about.
We have three kinds of health care and three kinds of education: primary, secondary and tertiary.  In the health sector, Sri Lanka is way ahead of most of the world in terms of access to health care and education.  It’s not only about how much money is spent or the equivalent of the GDP percentage spent, but also about how many people benefit.  It is about affordability.  It is about a mix of private and public that makes for the maximum coverage of the population.

The private sector provides primary, secondary and tertiary health care.  In education, the private sector has had a marked presence in primary and secondary areas, albeit largely unregulated with little concern on the part of the relevant state agencies about quality.  Quality-lack is of course not limited to private educational institutions.  The reason for private sector play is not just policy-sanction but the inability of the state to provide for all.  It applies to health and it applies to education. 
It is inexplicable then that the idea of private sector involvement in tertiary education is violently rejected by some.  The state can do better, yes.  Better streamlining and better investment of resources (including the injection of more funds of course) can see more students entering state run degree awarding institutions. That’s part solution, though.  An overall policy that upgrades all tertiary education facilities to degree awarding status perhaps by affiliating with relevant universities is a possible ‘easy’ (or ‘easier’) step in the right direction.  It must however be accompanied by a restructuring of courses based on an occupational classification that identifies and details the human resources needed well into the future given economic realities. 

Even that will provide space only for a fraction of those who qualify to enter university (through the A/Ls).  What are the others to do?  Neither the Government nor FUTA can say ‘hard luck!’ for no one should be ‘left behind’.  That would be akin to limiting surgeries only to state hospitals and telling about 80% of patient who really need surgery, ‘sorry, roll over a die!’ 
The truth is that many university lecturers don’t have the moral right to oppose private education because they benefit from it.  They engage in ‘private practice’ (reaching, research etc).  Just like doctors.  Even if the Government agreed to the FUTA demands and if all the additional money is used to expand the university system to accommodate more students, the vast majority of students who qualify to enter university will be left behind. 

The Government might not be interested in education (as FUTA claims), but FUTA cannot say ‘not our problem’ for it purports to be less interested in salary than in education (for all).  It must come up with some answers or be seen as just another set of self-serving, poorly qualified, ill-educated operators who complement well the self-serving, poorly qualified, ill-educated lot that make up the Government.
[Published in 'The Nation', September 16, 2012]


Dr. Edward Perera said...

who is responsible for this extremely sad situation? State is not only the ruling lot but all the institutions including the subjects in that country. There is a kind of collective contribution from all sides worsening the situation further.

The poverty is not due to the exploitation of wealth by the "haves" but due to lack of cooperation amongst individuals and groups.