Like most things in life, many good things can become bad and destructive – fire, water, electricity, medicine are all the same. Over the centuries, we have mastered the safe use of these essential and dangerous tools by learning through bad experiences, and generating rules of safety from successive generation to generation. The ‘free education’ [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Bad side of ‘free’ education


Like most things in life, many good things can become bad and destructive – fire, water, electricity, medicine are all the same. Over the centuries, we have mastered the safe use of these essential and dangerous tools by learning through bad experiences, and generating rules of safety from successive generation to generation. The ‘free education’ is no exception. How come it can harm?

We have embarked on ‘free education’ since the (C.W.W.) Kannangara era, but have never really analyzed its pros and cons over the years. In the recent times, we have begun to see more and more of our university graduates on the road, demanding employment from the government. This is a dangerous sign as, by definition, university graduates need not seek employment by force. To the contrary, they should be head- hunted. As a developing country we cannot afford to give the best of our students, taught in our universities and educated via national funding that has become a burden to our society.

When products of free education are becoming a burden to the country through unemployment and un-employability, alarm bells should ring aloud, to find out what has gone wrong. Rectifying measures should be taken urgently. This is because as a developing nation we cannot afford to allow ‘free education’ go wrong and become a hindrance to development. It is our responsibility as a nation to be vigilant, look back on the productivity of our ‘free education’ and find reasons for its recent failure.

Funded by taxes

What is free education? It refers to education that is funded through taxation, rather than tuition fees. It is not a unique facility for us alone in Sri Lanka as implied by our politicians, but is a common public facility available in many countries. The primary and secondary education is usually free, but countries such as Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, offer even the post-graduate study free – of – charge. Argentina, Norway, Finland go further and allow foreign students to study free if enrolled for university education. Nations developing rapidly such as China, Mauritius, Spain, France, and Italy follow suit. In contrast, Sri Lankan state universities provide undergraduate courses free, but despite pledges of successive governments over the last 50 years, even to date, the national universities only accommodate 1/5th of the students who qualify for university entry. This is equivalent to just 3 per cent of this age cohort. Thus, 97 per cent of our younger population, irrespective of their meritorious performance in the advanced level examination fails to secure a university place. This is irrespective of us, as parents big or small, paying taxes through our noses to the government to ensure equity in education for our children. It should not be forgotten that 65 per cent of our earnings are currently taxed one way or the other leaving no spare cash in the hands of any honourable citizen receiving a legitimate pay packet to support higher education of their children privately. Sadly, in the recent years, the capability of our national educational institutions have also further deteriorated due to poor funding and politicised administrations, catering for political rather than national needs.

The best outcomes of free education are possible only if education goes hand in hand with ‘freedom for education’. Freedom for education depicts not only the choice, but ability of the educators to modernise educational institutions and introduce new learning tools and courses without hindrance from external agencies. This includes freedom for self sustainence through research, innovation and education and ability to recruit and retain the best staff. Only then will our higher education institutions be competitive and attractive to the best students.

If the teachers’ hands are tied by financial and bureaucratic restraints, and are unable to make progress in their education strategies keeping up with the rest of the world, then our products of education will gradually become non competitive. The ultimate end result would be that no one would want to employ them, as better skilled personnel can be found elsewhere.

Freedom of education is a constitutional (legal) concept that has been included in the national constitutions of several nations. This is the right for parents to have their children educated in accordance with their views and not what the State or others have introduced as best. When the students are mature enough to make their own choices of education – this too is incorporated. Unfortunately, our parents have little choice in this regard in primary, secondary or higher education institutions. This is why some parents who can afford, including some politicians, move away their children from national educational institutions to private educators.

Protests than study

Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, covertly and overtly, the freedom for education is impinged to an extent where ‘free education’ is no longer a tool of prosperity. This is already obvious in our society. The ‘cream’ of the country, selected through a highly competitive advanced level examination, is offered university places upon national merit. Given the meritorious capability, these students should maintain their momentum on education in the university and excel their careers and enter the highest social strata in society.However, we see a gloomy picture. Most of our ‘top cream of the country’ entering national universities, seem to spend more time on the roads than in the class, staging protests or holding placards, to win their most basic needs of living and learning in the university. They eventually seem to end up with a qualification that is not in demand for employment. At the end, following continued public protesting activities, these graduates are offered a bait, so called ‘jobs’ in the government sector, with neither a job prescription nor a ladder of development. The end result is individual frustration and an eventual failure of our products of free education.

Under these circumstances, ‘free education’ in our country has become a ‘mirage’ that traps the best of our children in a cocoon preventing them from utilising their potential for national and personal gain at a prime age. The question is why has the ‘free education’ that brought so much benefit in the earlier years now become a liability for the country? Who is responsible? The politicians are busy blaming the teachers and students whilst some others brand them as hooligans or terrorists without pointing their fingers towards themselves for not addressing the root cause of the problem. How many of us are willing to stay quiet and witness our children go down on this treacherous slope at our own expense whilst most politicians have evaded the system?

Proper pay for teachers

Although, some students worm their way through these hardships and demonstrate a better performance via sheer personal effort, most of them finally say goodbye for good, as they neither have appropriate job prospects nor reasonable standards of living in this country. Some others elect to join the university itself as teachers to fulfill the obligation to serve the motherland. Unfortunately, the best of the best now get trapped in the university system as teachers, facing bureaucratic obstacles and financial difficulties, unable to promote or upgrade their own higher education never mind that of their students. Unlike in the past, the, university teachers are now forced to spend more of their time, generating extra money to make ends meet, leaving no spare time to enhance the quality of the job they are supposed to do, i.e. teach, research, innovate, modernise and serve.

In desperation, some of these teachers cry for help on political platforms whilst some others shed their professionalism to become political stooges. A few teachers end up similar to students on the roads, protesting against deficits, and seeking resolutions. Thus, our ‘free education’ now seems to be in shambles, grooming more and more passive citizens. As a result our state universities have become a national burden with little productivity. With a hope to resuscitate, our politicians are now trying to justify fee levying foreign students in our national universities to ease the economic crunch. What is truly required is to reduce the exorbitant public costs of political machinery and divert the savings for national education.

Amidst this chaos, some of our children who were unable to secure a university placement via national merit, appear to have been lucky to have sought self funded higher education elsewhere and become civilised, educated, self sufficient, productive prominent personnel in the world.

In this scenario, it is ironic that our politicians are busy crowning the best performing students in the primary schools as national icons, offering materialistic perks, whilst suppressing the more mature vocalising senior students in the universities showing no mercy for their proven capabilities let alone recognition in national recruitment. Certificates of merit are things of the past, and there shall be no jobs in the government institutions without political influence.


In summary, the downfall of our ‘free education’ emanates from the ‘throttled’ freedom for education mainly resulting from lack of funding and politicisation of educational institutions. The situation is made worse by restrictive legislation that prevents local generation of funds. With the government recruiting educators and managers of political flavour, rather than merit, the quality of the standards of education is set to become even poorer. This is already obvious from disastrous errors, acts of corruption, lack of standards that has come into light during the conduct of national examinations. The same will follow in universities if no action is taken now.

File photo shows students engaged in a protest last year

We are aware that successive governments have gradually curtailed money allocation for free education, and diverted its funds to support projects that benefit themselves most, both politically and privately. With poor returns from these mega projects, combined with steadily increasing government burden on loan repayments, further cuts on education will become inevitable, with only 1.9 per cent of GDP used now. In contrast, most developed countries spend 10 -20 per cent of their GDP for national education. In this context, our hopes of becoming a centre of excellence is a non starter, only limited to a glorified set of words.

The lack of resources has forced education authorities to spend less and less on modernisation of education, its’ upliftment and staff training. With the increasing squeeze on spending, the student facilities and welfare have suffered making university life not too pleasant. This has led to exploitation of students in hardship for political gains by shrewd politicians. The students who have joined in desperation have unleashed havoc and anarchy in universities in return for a few bucks, irrespective of its righteousness. So much so, the sole goal of student leaders’ mission has become to close the university, for one day at least. This not only leads to disruption but deviates student focus away from education. As a result, we have now ended up with a university student population who are insecure of their future, less focused, politicised and violent.

For all practical purposes it seems that, ‘free education’ has now become a throttle instituted by politicians against the nation, and a mechanism to create havoc. This is because, a country inhabited with less educated people would be an easy bait for unscrupulous politicians to exploit.

The rescue

One option available for us is to pressurize the government to either increase spending for education or announce an educational grant to every student who qualifies for university entrance at Advanced Level, enabling them fund a university place of his or her choice elsewhere. Unfortunately, this seems an empty bullet, observing what had happened to FUTA (university teachers union) who went along this path. After a 3-month long struggle they drowned in their own sweat.

The next step would be for us as citizens to openly denounce political parties that do not whole heartedly committed to promote education. At present neither party in power, nor do the parties in opposition seem to be interested in enhancing education. At most, the commitment is limited to some words. Indeed, a political party without a strong and a leading policy on national education has nothing much to offer for this nation.

Securing an educational grant for all students who qualify for university entry is a good initiative. This will not only assure equity among the public but also a sense of responsibility for existing students to engage in education and not destroy it in our universities. Peace and tranquility should prevail in the universities and not havoc and violence.

These educational granting schemes can only survive, if repayable post qualification to their university of origin. This enables future students to obtain similar grants without becoming a national burden. It will also ensure that our national universities will be competitive in the global market. Universities not updating their student facilities and courses will naturally attract fewer students, leading to eventual closure. This is probably a good thing as productive and quality graduates should be our priority and not sub-standard universities with poor staffing and resources that are used as excuses to disperse money to pay political stooges.

Universities should have independent authority (away from government) to develop its academic programmes, introduce new undergraduate courses etc i.e. ensure freedom for education. Academics should be given the responsibility of taking education forward It is only them – not politicians – who can bring positive change. To ensure, sufficient motivation for development, our universities should also be competitive, between each other to offer best facilities and education. Obviously, the better universities would have a higher demand, rewarded with a higher number of student admissions. If the universities of demand can increase capacity, then they should have the freedom to do so.

The role of the University Grants Commission should be limited to disperse the national funding, on a per student basis to our national universities. Thus, higher student intake will bring higher remuneration to better universities. Poorly performing universities will face an automatic extinction as there shall be no student demand.

Foreign students

Our universities have remained closed for foreign applicants. Without a foreign student demand, we would never disseminate ourselves as educators internationally. We as Sri Lankans adore some foreign universities over others. This is simply because, we have had a chance to taste their teaching standards as students or have seen the achievements of their products post qualification. Similarly, if we are to achieve international standards and popularize ourselves as of high standing, a quota for foreign student intake is a must – but should be done without jeopardizing our own who are seeking entry. For example, places not filled in our universities may be offered to foreign countries at least as a start. This would also bring much needed revenue.

The government has recently attempted to admit some foreign students on a fee levying basis, but for the wrong reasons. The remuneration received from fee levying foreign students should not be used for the purpose of funding national students, but for the betterment of the university as a whole for education. This is the only way we can ensure that our universities will be motivated and cater to the best standards.

Recruitment of academic staff too, should be competitive. Underperforming staffs needs to be replaced with better staff. Thus, everyone’s job should be subjected to re-competition regularly and periodical review. Academic staff should be sufficiently remunerated to keep the best. The non academic services can be obtained on a competitive basis, individually as staff contributions, or services as contracts. There is no need to jeopardise quality of education in a national institution for the sake of well-being of poorly performing staff members. The national interests should be served first. In other words, the universities should have the full hire and fire power without any political interference.

All undergraduates should enter through the national merit list and a selection process conducted by the University Grants Commission. Foreign student too can be selected through the same process, and these procedures should be transparent.

Competitive student recruitment, staff recruitment, automaticity and adequate funding will ensure our universities will once again become places of academia, ready to take on the challenge of becoming competitive amongst the best in the rest of the world. That would be just the beginning of the road to recovery.

(The writer is an academic attached to the University of Peradeniya).

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