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No Country in the World Including Sri Lanka can Develop Without the Help of Intellectuals

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By Nalin Abeysekera

Sri Lanka is experiencing the dividends of peace at the moment. The economy has expanded at a healthy growth rate of 7.9% during the first quarter of this year, from the same period a year earlier.

A Global Survey carried out by the ‘Equity and Bond Trading Institution’ chose Sri Lanka as the 4th rapidly developing economy in the 3rd quarter last year.

Sri Lanka’s logistics sector international ranking has improved from 137 to 81 in the World Bank logistic performance index of 2012. Even National Geographic Traveler magazine has named Sri Lanka among its top six destinations for world travelers in 2012, lauding the island nation’s heritage sites, wildlife, lush landscapes and pristine beaches.

Typical post war scenario

This is a typical post-war scenario and we have to understand the sustainability of this growth in the future. But on the other hand the discipline of the country is deteriorating day by day. Once you go on the road, you can observe both pedestrians and drivers violating the rules. Rarely can we see three wheelers, bicycles, buses as well as other vehicles using the signal lights on their vehicles. This is the same in every place.

There were a number of media announcements to save electricity, but you can see lights on the street even in the daytime. Even if you visit many government institutions to get your work done, they always like to take their own time. Sometimes, you have to go to the same place a few times for the same purpose.

So, some people tend to bribe in order to make things happen quickly. Most of the parents do not have any relationship with their children, as they are used to drop them off at schools and then go to their offices and in the evening just try to bring them back from school after tuition.

There is an unnecessary ‘rat race’ in society and sometimes we witness cases of suicide among young children, as a result. Most of the parents want their son or daughter to become ‘dream stars’, and they are striving hard by sacrificing the most important time of their childhood.

On the other hand, people like to talk about Sri Lankan products, but they are used to buying foreign brands. There is no such feeling of a ‘Sense of belonging’ in society. People like to talk about patriotism, but they could not implement it on their own. It is only like slogans.

Although the main leaders in different religious communities should be involved in the development of the society, their roles are problematic, as there is evidence of an increasing number of crimes instead. On the other hand, the rate of corruption has been increasing. Some even go further by arguing corruption is a ‘lubricant’ in the economic development of the country

In the last few months it can be observed there is an escalation in the amount of violence by regional politicians, most of whom were attached to the government. But there is no strong message, and on the other hand, this is also motivating others to be violent.

Culture of ‘Joolampitiye Amare’ is emerging

It seems a culture of ‘Julampitiye Amrae’ is emerging. There is a tendency people seem to be taking the law into their own hands, which can be considered really dangerous for the future. It is one indication people have lost faith in these establishments. The government badly needs to be conscious about that as well.

Education a focal point

If you really analyze this situation there is a need for a better society with discipline. Education can be considered a focal point in this regard. Still, in Sri Lanka, we have a type of education which has not been updated (in the curricula, quality and so forth) for years. This is common to school as well as university education.

There are some students in grade 10, who cannot write properly or even read properly. There is no sound assessment method in the system that takes into account these critical issues. According to sources of the Examinations Department, around 270,032 school children had sat for the GCE (O/L) examination in December 2011, and out of them 12,795 had failed in all nine subjects! Only 44.57% students had passed the English Language paper and 55.3% passed in Mathematics.

Then there is the competitive university entrance examination: the GCE Advanced Level Examination. According to sources out of the 239,624 students who sat for the Advanced Level Examination, 142,000 are eligible to enter universities in 2011. But, we have to understand all those who have qualified for university entrance will not be absorbed by the national university system. Every year, the University Grants Commission (UGC) enroll 20,000 -22,000 students.

This is only around 15% of the students who are qualified for university admission. The point we have to understand is this is not the total number of students who sat for the examination. Out of 100, only 15 students can enter the university. This has been the (miserable) story for the last few decades. For the past 15 years the UGC have enrolled around 20% of the students, who satisfied the minimum requirements for admission.

142,000 students who gain admission will be over the moon to tell their parents, relatives and friends that ‘I have qualified for university entrance’. But that is a short- lived ecstasy. For, only 20,000-22,000 might be the actual figure, who enter the varsity. And unfortunately some students who got 3 As’ in the Science stream, have to do the exams again to go to medical college! What is the point in sitting for the exam again once you have got high grades for all three subjects? It is the same story in Engineering and Management as well.

This is really a shame for our education system. It is worthwhile to address the issue of the remaining 110,000-120,000 students, who are eligible to enter the national universities, but do not get the chance to do so because of our scarce resources. Some of them will sit for the exam again. Some are sitting for professional exams like Chartered Accountancy and CIMA and some will be in doubt about their future. And this is similar to the students, who did not get the minimum requirement for university admission (239,624-142,000=97,624) .Then what is the point of having this “minimum qualification” if all are finally dropped into the same basket? Technically, in Sri Lanka only 10% will be absorbed by the state university system!

We have only state universities controlled by the Central Government.

(I am not dwelling on other sectors) But once you analyze other countries, they have regional universities, university colleges and so forth. In Sri Lanka, there should be a system like that (this is all about a sound educational policy). But the government should have a rigorous game plan to address this issue. There should be many strategies. One strategy might be the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, starting university colleges in other areas to absorb more students (with certain quality assurance levels).

Those who are not admitted to the universities can either enter vocational technical schools, or be employed in companies, or in government departments as apprentices or trainees. That is why now we can see private educational institutes spending large sums of money on Sunday newspapers to attract these potential candidates. But there is a problem with the quality of the educational end products (degrees, diplomas even postgraduate degrees) offered by the private educational institutes.

Most influential vote base

On the other hand the recent saga of the Z score also triggered this by placing the most important youth in trouble and this is the section that can be easily considered as the most influential vote base in the future. But it seems the authorities are not learning from previous lessons.

This is clearly evident through the mistakes on exam papers of the A/L examination being held these days, which have been a common factor for many papers. The most interesting (sad or dangerous?) part of this is the people who are responsible, are not willing to accept their weaknesses(there are many cases similar to this that have been reported, as no one willing to take responsibility). This may be due to the unlimited power, which opposition also should be responsible for.

We can see the same scenario in the university sector as well. The authorities think of the university as a machine that can produce people for the job market. This is the myth, which leads them to make all the wrong decisions in the sector. The University can be defined as ‘an educational institution designed for instruction, examination, or both, of students, in many branches of advanced learning, conferring degrees in various faculties, and often embodying colleges and similar institutions’(Oxford dictionary).

The university should be the place which architects the development of the country. It should be the place in which a country can learn the essence for existence from intellectuals. This can be seen in Canada, the UK and even India, South Korea and China, who invested heavily in Research and Development (R&D), channeled through universities.

In respect of urban and rural development, universities are engaged in extension services, university- government linkage and university-industry linkage. As illustrated by the African Institute for Science and Technology (AIST), these linkages seek to develop a ‘push-pull relationship’ between the university and industry, or government. But, in Sri Lanka we have to travel a long distance.

High time to change education system

It is high time to change the education system in Sri Lanka in order to achieve sustainable development in the country. A proper educational system will lead to proper discipline. The British colonized type of education system will always create problems and we have many examples to cite.

Hence there is a need for intellectuals, administrators, experts in the industry, as well as members in civil society, who should work together to have a proper plan and come-up with a ‘white paper’ on this. There should be a debate in society, which can be considered important at this critical juncture.

The government should get the support of university academics on this. The time has come for the government to change their attitude towards ‘University Academies’ .They are the ‘change agents’ in the system. Getting the help of university dons is a must when it comes to achieving the vision to become the wonder of ‘South Asia’.

There is no country in the world (I do not know about the universe), which has developed without the support of intellectuals. This is the bitter truth the government should understand urgently.

The demand of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) for allocating 6 per cent of GDP can be considered important as a start-up to this process. This 6 per cent allocation was originated at the Dakar Conference on Education for All in 2009, the Framework for Action, which recommends governments should ensure at least 7 per cent of GDP for education within five years, and 9 per cent within ten years.

Sri Lanka’s commitment to spending 6 per cent of its GDP on education was reiterated at the second ministerial meeting of the South Asia Education for All Forum in 2009, where all the participating South Asian countries agreed to this benchmark. The following diagram depicts the education expenditure for the country is decreasing.

Need for more budgetary allocation

It is clear there is a need for more budgetary allocation for education. Education is an investment for the country. As reported last week the government has agreed to the demands of FUTA such as including the academics in a separate service as in the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS), as well as university autonomy.

Even the salary structure of the system should be reviewed in order to attract, as well as retain, quality intellectuals in the system. More importantly, there are many problems faced by the universities due to the bureaucratic nature of the system. Last year the University Grants Commission (UGC) has issued a circular, which prevents senior lecturers, who joined as direct recruits, to go abroad for their PhDs, on full pay study leave.

In Sri Lanka we are talking about partnerships with the private sectors. In universities, professionals from different disciplines can be absorbed to the national university system as senior lecturer (grade two).

This is very important for the sustainability of the system, and especially in business education, which can be considered dynamically important. But now, if you are a person who was directly recruited after sacrificing your professional career, you can go abroad for your PhD on no-pay! This is not applicable to others. How can the system attract professionals in this context?

Then what about retention of qualified people? After four years of a special degree, two to three years of Masters and three to five years of PhD, still you do not have enough salary. Which means there will be a problem of a performance appraisal system of the institute or the person? There should be a mechanism to address those issues as well.

It can be proposed to have a specific framework and a road map and this should be on top of the priority list of the government.

This is the best time to discuss and reform our education system. Because, as mentioned earlier, there is a strategic window, which has opened avenues for the prosperity of the country. But keep in mind the strategic window means “Temporary period of ‘alignment’ or ‘fit’ between the competitive capabilities of an organization and the key requirements of the existing or new markets it intends to compete in”. It seems this so-called “Temporary period” is going to expire, as it is for a short term.

This is really a decisive moment for the government. On the other hand, this is the first time intellectuals talk about the value of education as a strong association, and this is one indication they are willing to help the country in this, and this is a clear demonstration of their commitment.

The government should take this as a matter of top priority and initiate discussion with all stakeholders. Ignoring this golden opportunity will be a real problem in the future, and for the future generation of this beautiful nation, because the country needs a proper educational system (Sri Lankan model of education with the sense of our proud civilization), which would lead to a well disciplined country, with sustainable development.

As mentioned earlier, there is no country in the world, which developed without the help of intellectuals.

(The writer is a Senior Lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka)

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