By M.A.Sumanthiran M.P.
Teachers and students across the island have succeeded in securing space in national discourse for Sri Lanka’s degenerate education system. They have raised fundamental concerns about the quality of education being provided and the quality of student being produced.
For three months, nearly 5,000 university professors have been on strike forgoing their own pay, and all State universities in the country have been closed indefinitely.
In this context, much of the discussion has come to centre on the demands of the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA), specifically the demand for the education budget to be increased from 1.9 % to 6 % of Sri Lanka’s GDP.
FUTA’s critics claim 6% is an arbitrary figure. They demand a detailed plan regarding what the additional funds will be used for, and how they will solve the problems plaguing Sri Lanka’s education system. In the critic’s view, answers to these questions are a prerequisite to action.
Consideration of the critic’s demand reveals an irony. Even as the demand for 6% circulates and gains grassroots support, Sri Lanka lives in the current reality of an education allotment of 1.9% of the GDP. The primary question, then, is not ‘why should we have 6%?’ instead, the primary question is ‘why do we have 1.9%’? The fact that the 1.9% was imposed without a detailed plan as to how it would solve the emerging education crisis, reveals the irony. The critic’s inquiry is thoughtful and legitimate, it is an echo of FUTA’s own exasperation, and it is best directed towards the government.
FUTA has stated the 6% figure is symbolic; it is a representation of the seriousness of their concerns and what they surmise are proportionately severe demands. FUTA’s stated intention has been to start a discussion and to frame that discussion in a consequential light. The grip education has on national discourse, can serve as some vindication of their method. The figure symbolizes a re-prioritization of education. While the figure itself serves as a wedge into discourse, the message the people have come to rally behind, is uncompromising and clear, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) cannot marginalize education anymore.
The government’s position was recently defended in a forum discussion by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha. The professor argued a low education budget was actually a counter to ‘Statism’ and served as a de-evolution of the State ‘monopoly of supply’ on education. According to the professor, by decreasing the education budget the government is disentangling itself from the market. Furthermore, the professor argued education must be addressed in isolation, and the topic must not become politicized by other issues.
This position is problematic. Because the debate has been usefully framed in the context of ‘Per cent GDP’, it is clear that, budgeting a 1.9% of the GDP towards Education is not indicative of de-evolution; instead, it indicates de-prioritization. Per cent budget is zero-sum; an increase in one, necessitates a decrease in another, and vice versa. It is not hard to discover which sectors are being fortified to the detriment of others.
For example, the government has been steadily increasing the defence budget. In 2011, the defence budget rose by over 6%, and in 2012, it rose by 7%. While the government claims these increases were necessary to pay off old war debts, it is estimated nearly half of the defence budget is spent maintaining 200,000 military deployments. Keeping 16 out of 19 army divisions in the North and East is costly and education is paying for it.
The characterization of ‘monopoly of supply’ is also problematic. The professor assumes if this supply is broken up, it will be met by the private sector. He points to the success of private universities like Harvard and Princeton in the USA, to illustrate his point. But in determining what steps Sri Lanka is to take in developing an education policy, it becomes important to consider how and why those institutions were started.
Harvard and Princeton were started as seminaries to train Christian clergy. They were conceived to address a gap in the American market, for which there was significant demand. Clearly, that gap and demand cannot be transplanted, but, perhaps, Sri Lanka has its own gap. In fact, technical and vocational schools are in increasing demand, but interestingly the private market has failed to meet it. The question then is, why has the private sector failed in this regard, and what confidence does that instill, upon which we ought to entrust a larger share of education? The solution to Sri Lanka’s education crisis is not necessarily in the private sector. And the private sector cannot be used as a safety net for government refusal to address inherited responsibilities.
The professor’s defence of the government position on education did touch on an important point. ‘Statism’ is a problem, but it is not limited to education. The Counter to ‘Statism’ is not for the government to withdraw from providing Education. Instead, the solution lies in combating Centralism by encouraging democratic discourse, dialoguing with FUTA and realigning the budget to reflect constituent values. The democratizing process will bolster both private sector confidence and public sector efficiency.