One of the more meaningful achievements after winning self-rule in the last years of British dominion over Sri Lanka was the introduction of free education. It inflicted a heavy burden on the State's purse, and its critics say it only generated hordes of 'educated unemployed' because the economy was unable to match their expectations with suitable employment opportunities. This even bred social and political upheavals as we saw in the 1971 uprising by southern youth crying that they were discriminated against.
And yet, there is little argument that free education opened new vistas for generations born since the middle of the last century. The Central College mechanism in the districts and an All Island scholarship scheme brought talented youth to the leading national schools throughout the country and directed them towards varied fields of expertise that was to nourish this nation. The unofficial quid pro quo was for those who so benefited from free education, to repay the debt by contributing financially and time-wise in their adult life to their alma mater. The late Lalith Athulathmudali was a classic example. When he became a powerful Cabinet Minister he started the Mahapola scholarship scheme that gave a bursary to thousands of underprivileged university students. The beneficiaries of this pioneering system have also been several foreign nations, to which professionals from this country went.
Many of those products now serve as Cabinet Ministers, Secretaries of Ministries and Heads of Departments in Government, and it is heartrending to see the total mess they have made of this proud exercise of 'education for all'. Education and Higher Education have plunged to abysmal depths today. There is total confusion; there is no coherent policy; there is corruption; and there is mismanagement.
The Examinations Department is at the centre of some of this. Plagued with problems, from being short staffed (as they claim they are) to making computer errors in marks tabulations sheets, the ministers in charge have been talking their hind legs off without being able to fix the problem at hand. This Department is what many institutions, government and non-government, local and foreign, rely on to hold tests under proper supervision. More than 400 such examinations are conducted by this Department annually, quite apart from the GCE Ordinary Level and Advanced Level exams. These range from the Government service competitive examination to promotion exams, the Law College entrance exam, the YMBA certificate exam, CIMA and AAT exams and the like.
The Department is remunerated for many of these exams -- it not always a free service they provide. Yet, the whole image of the Department has been sullied in recent times by its continuous bungling, with public confidence in it almost completely lost. The A'Level results are the latest scandal. Allegations are made that in the recruitment of graduates as teachers for the 1000 developed secondary school programmee to feed the primary school network, the Department permitted non graduates to sit for the exam outside the rules. The problem is that what is happening at the Examinations Department is not an isolated occurrence but one in a series of lapses involving the Ministries of Education and Higher Education, and a bigger issue that exposes the malaise affecting the general administration of this country.
There was a time when President J.R. Jayewardene's government tried to bring back the independence and autonomous status of the education sector by introducing an Education Services Commission much in line with the Public Service Commission of yesteryear. It was also a time of the last of the upright public servants, protected as they were by the Public Service Commission from the interference of politicians - in one celebrated instance the Commission refused to accede to a request by President Jayewardene himself to cancel the transfer of an Art teacher at Royal College.
Today, this Commission exists sans its independence; a solitary member sits overlooking this entire sector in the Public Service Commission which acts now only as an appellate body without the powers to initiate inquiries on its own.
The Bribery and Corruption Commission reports that the number of complaints against school principals is as high as the number of complaints against policemen -- a sad indictment of the Education Service of this country. The teaching profession, once considered one of the noblest, today has been disgraced by those who have benefited from free education. But can one expect them, given their meagre salaries, to maintain high standards when bribery and corruption are so rampant in the highest echelons of the government itself?
Last year, university teachers went on strike after their nagging demands for better wages fell on deaf ears. They argued, quite rightly, that academia, tasked with grooming the crème de la crème to be the future leaders, was being short-changed and sidelined. They felt the government was basically uninterested in promoting university learning, that its priorities lay elsewhere than nurturing intellectuals. Students saw the Government's reluctance to grant a decent wage to university teachers as a ruse to encourage them to gravitate towards private universities that were on Cabinet papers for approval. Their pay issue remains unresolved despite the matter being referred to a special committee of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the National Salaries and Cadres Commission since 2008. For the record, a senior professor's basic salary is Rs. 57,755 per month and a Grade II senior lecturer is Rs. 37,650. They get no housing loans, nor official vehicles.
The Higher Education Minister's issuing a Gazette notification in August last year to permit the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine to be a MBBS degree awarding institute led to protests by students and doctors alike questioning the credentials of this 'private university'. Legitimate questions were raised whether there were financial considerations that were the driving force for the establishment of these 'private universities' with powers to award degrees, especially in subjects like medicine. That is the problem. Even if the motives were bona-fide, and the issue of whether this country must start private universities is one that must be debated on its merits, the whole exercise is coloured by the suspicion the public has of its political leadership and their intent.
The latest controversy is that of external degrees. Last year, the UGC put in place guidelines for the registration of external degree programmes on the grounds that some external degrees lacked standards. The guidelines included prescribing syllabuses and limiting the number of students, especially in the Arts stream. Now, the Minister of Higher Education says that external degrees are worthless pieces of paper!
These are the loose cannon the Government has as Ministers of such important subjects as Education and Higher Education; but then, it may be a reflection of the Government's low priority on higher education anyway. Pre-campus (military) training camps and an incident that occurred at the Sri Jayawardhanapura University this week coupled with the placement of security guards outside these campuses comprising ex-service personnel with links to the Government machinery seem to point to the Government's overt concern that these campuses have been infiltrated by ultra-left wing student elements backed by political parties of the same hue.
Brutal ragging of freshers continues unabated, especially in the Peradeniya and Ruhuna campuses, with some undergrads even ending up in hospital. Grade 1 admissions remain a huge headache for parents and Government alike because of the lack of facilities in schools around the country - yet money is freely busted up for extravaganzas for Bollywood glitterati, campaigns to host games in Sri Lanka and cricket stadiums instead of being channelled to education -- the upgrading of secondary schools and universities.
Right now, the future of thousands of this country's students whose anguish we shared over messed-up A/L results must not be ignored. It is the Government's bounden duty to set right the injustice that has been done to them. And, taken as a whole, the picture that appears on the education sector is not a pretty one. One can only reflect on where our free education policy envisaged by its pioneers has taken this country, and where it will lead us to, in the future.