Business Times

Tall order on education

The fact that most middle-class Sri Lankans are in favour of allowing private universities is well established and amply proved in this week’s Business Times poll on the same topic. Why we decided to hold a poll on this issue follows a statement by Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake some days back where he announced that the government was planning to allow private universities as the state university system was bursting at the seams.

It’s very clear that there’s no way out other than allowing private universities to absorb a large number of advanced level students who pass the exam and qualify for admission but are unable to do so because of a woeful shortage of places in local universities.

Over the years, more and more desperate parents in the middle-class category have joined more affluent parents in sending their children to the best universities in the UK, the US and Australia, or second-tier institutions in Asia, or to affiliated institutions in Malaysia. Another alternate move has been to undergo degree courses here for institutions affiliated to top foreign universities.

The recent Golden Key scandal and its reverberations into the finance company sector also illustrated how parents were selling their properties or using the interest to pay for overseas education. When the money ran out or their funds were frozen by failed finance companies, these people were forced to bring their children back while in some cases the students delayed payments for some semesters till the money came in or found jobs to support themselves.

One parent recently related a personal experience of how he was keen on sending his son and daughter to a local school – not of the standard of Royal, S. Thomas’, Visaka, Bishop’s or St Joseph’s -- because he wanted them also to understand the difficulties faced by rural children. However the children were sent to two good local schools and he has no regrets. “I now realize what a tragedy it would have been for the children sending them to a small government school without resources,” he said.
Consider the state of government schools today. Most teachers are running private tutories, driving flashy cars and also teaching their own school students (for a fee). Everyone knows what is wrong with the education system, the corruption and the stink.

Furthermore exams keep getting more difficult every year forcing children to not follow one but two tuition classes per subject. Private tutories, which are unregulated, have become one of the biggest businesses in recent times – all because the state education system has failed the people.
While we applaud Minister Dissanayake for his bold decision, praise is also due to Education Minister Bandula Gunawardene for taking into consideration the views of many parents that OL and AL exams are getting more difficult. Another praiseworthy move is the proposed setting up of a Select Committee on Education which would take a long, hard and holistic view and come up with a solution that would address Sri Lanka’s long-term development and economic needs.

The private sector has repeatedly pointed out that graduates passing out of local universities are not armed with the skills to work in highly motivated and committed companies. Most graduates prefer cushy government jobs even at less pay because there’s less work and there is no commitment. How can you develop a country if workers are not committed?

The university teaching system also has much to blame by not preparing teaching modules that provide students a basic understanding in work skills. If private universities are set up, standards are high and students go into the private sector, it would serve as a wake-up call for state universities.

The recent fracas over the proposed Indo-Lanka trade services pact (CEPA) and that it would hurt the jobs of local professionals also has a connection. At a recent TV panel discussion on the trade issue, one panellist conceded that if foreign universities are allowed to be set up here, the standards at local universities would have to be improved and ‘we too would have to wake up and deliver a better product.”

Education today is not only a source of gathering knowledge to be a better person in society and to the community. It is life-saver, a qualification for a job, and preserving one’s dignity. Without a qualification a young person is a nobody and treated with distain by society. That is the very reason why the government should firmly push forward with Minister Dissanayake’s proposal to allow the private sector in education leading to the creation of a knowledgable workforce.

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