It was raining cats and dogs, just like the popular expression, for a few days this week. However, what intrigued me most was that the rain was accompanied by strong, angry winds, once again taking away a few roofs with it (as it did some months back) as friends told me later. “Machan, the Gods [...]

Business Times

Messing with education


It was raining cats and dogs, just like the popular expression, for a few days this week. However, what intrigued me most was that the rain was accompanied by strong, angry winds, once again taking away a few roofs with it (as it did some months back) as friends told me later. “Machan, the Gods must surely be angry with Sri Lanka,” one friend, obsessed with bad Karma, said over the phone.

Watching the heavy drops of rain accompanied by gusts of wind, Kussi Amma Sera said: “Mahattaya, apey gam-wala hari puras-na wathura nethi hinda. Ling walath wathura nehe.” (We have serious problems in the village due to the lack of water. The wells have also run dry).

I recalled her 18-year-old son, visiting from the village in August last year, expressing similar sentiments when it was raining, again cats and dogs, at that time in Colombo.

Visiting a small school of 200 children with classrooms badly in need of repair at Mahawilachchiya in the Anuradhapura district, some weeks back, I was amazed to find the children dressed in neatly-pressed white uniforms even though the village hasn’t seen rain for at least three years. The wells have run dry and cows were grazing on the parched tank which fed water to the paddy fields. Several harvests had been lost, farmers were desperate without incomes and forced to seek “kuli weda” (daily labour work).

Assembling together to receive a donation of musical instruments, the principal says the thirst for education is very strong, a reflection of the disciplined way the children dress. And that is further enhanced in the happy shouts of the children when they are asked what they would like to be. “I want to be a doctor”, “I want to be a teacher”, they say in the background of a school that doesn’t have most of the facilities an urban school would have. Even some school material – books and other needs – have to be obtained from an education office in a far-out town. So the principals of three or four schools, all small, in the vicinity jointly hire a van and go to the city to collect these.

Those thoughts came to my mind when three stories in local newspapers this week drew my attention – teaching English by US Peace Corps volunteers, the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and helping small businesses to flourish by providing collateral-free loans.

All these developments can be linked to this village school: They lack proper teaching in the English language; there are no facilities for science or computer labs and when village youth with an innovative business idea try to be entrepreneurs they don’t have collateral to a get bank loan (state banks in particular, on the other hand, have powerful defaulting businessmen on their books with loans invariably written off). The last point is a case of banks (more commercially motivated, than socially-minded at least in some part of their lending which they can do at the risk – if ever — of reducing a small share of huge profits) not seeing the wood for the trees, causing frustration, resentment and eventually militancy in the rural economy which represents the voting population of the country. This week’s protests by farmers in Thambuttegama, also in the Anuradhapura district, against a water project partly to provide drinking water to villages, and which was quelled rather violently by the police, are a reflection of that anger and no water for farming.

English, science and technology (in whichever order) is the way forward for young people to enter the world of work and global interaction. Unfortunately, for schools like the one in Mahawilachchiya this is beyond their reach, with children here dreaming of vocations like teaching, though a noble profession, doesn’t have the same financial benefits like any other job. Today’s society respects jobs with big bucks, nothing else.

The London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in a recent study titled ‘Education to 2030’ found that with increasing use of technology, jobs of the future will demand a different mix of skills.

“STEM will feature prominently in that mix and the economies that perform best are those that, annually, graduate the most students with STEM degrees as a percentage of the overall labour force. By 2030, Russia, Australia, Israel and Turkey will see new STEM graduates equivalent to one per cent or more of the entire existing labour market,” the report has said.

Lack of proper science and technology facilities in rural schools is just a symptom of the problem. In an article titled ‘Towards a knowledge -based economy’, researchers at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) explain how the lack of proper teaching in schools that even have mathematics and sciences restrict children from pursuing their passion for science.

The researchers said that “there is an urgent need to improve pre-service teacher training, currently offered at the National Colleges of Education and at universities, to match the demand for STEM teachers in schools”.

Generating a high share of university graduates, especially in STEM subjects, is a policy priority for Sri Lanka, given the country’s goal of becoming a knowledge-based economy, driving competition through innovation, the article said, also referring to the 2018 Budget speech which identified the need for “improving the ratio of STEM to non-STEM graduates in the country”.

Having said that, it remains to be seen how quickly budget proposals are implemented or reversed given the large-scale tinkering of proposals in the post-budget process, a recent example being the suspension of tablets (small, hand-held computers) to school children.

While that decision has been welcomed in some quarters saying there are other bigger needs in schools, particularly rural ones, than tablets, decision-making (budgets or otherwise) which has been approved by Parliament shouldn’t be reversed. Doing so sets a bad precedent and allows all decision-making to be subject to the perceived notion of review, recall or cancellation.

While Sri Lanka struggles to keep pace with global developments, its lopsided decision-making, often based on emotion than fact, will reverse the clock of progress.

Another case in point is the decision of the newly-set up National Economic Council (NEC) to lift the ban on glyphosate, a herbicide used in agriculture. It was President Maithripala Sirisena, just a few months in office, who in May 2015 ordered the ban saying it was responsible for a growing number of chronic kidney disease patients. The ban heavily impacted on all crops including tea and paddy, resulting in huge losses. Largely affected were small tea producers in the south who were believed to have, angrily, voted against governing parties.

Unsurprisingly, the NEC, initiated by the President to counter the economic influence of the Prime Minister-led Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) at a February 23 meeting decides to lift the ban on the grounds that research has shown it is not harmful to human health! This is what, for nearly three years, the tea industry and others have been saying pointing to research but it apparently took a negative election result to reverse the decision. If saner counsel had prevailed and the problem approached in a holistic way it wouldn’t have caused so much of despair and losses in tea and agriculture. And, may have minimised anti-government anger, too!

In another development, the Central Bank Governor was quoted as urging CEOs of commercial banks to provide collateral-free loans to young entrepreneurs with vocational training to rejuvenate the rural economy which hasn’t seen the kind of development similar to towns closer to Colombo. Another reason for growing youth frustration in the village.

Last but not least is the offer from the US Peace Corps to teach English with the first batch of Peace Corps Volunteers arriving in late 2019 under this programme, supplementing state efforts to improve English language teaching in rural schools.

Sri Lanka’s development and an advancing marketplace will be dictated by the number of graduates who have skills in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, English and IT and able to walk into a job in any part of the world. Thus, school education policies with these objectives shouldn’t be messed around by politicians, whoever in power.

You don’t need Harvard economists, Cambridge scholars or foreign minds to show Sri Lanka the way, we have plenty of those skills in-house. Last week, a Tamil colleague called to say that just like Kussi Amma Sera’s kitchen economics, there is a Tamil proverb, “Yaanai pidipavanin paakkiyam, paannai pidipavalain kaippakuvom” which implies that a man’s wealth is owing to the housewife who controls the pot or it’s the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. “Eka nung hari mahattaya” (That’s right, Sir), interjects Kussi Amma Sera, listening to a phone conversation to clarify the proverb, and as usual having the last say on the subject of worldly economics.

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