Sustaining Education

Written by Arsla Jawaid  •  Features  •  June 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Sri Lanka boasts a 94% literacy rate, the highest in South Asia. But what does that truly mean for a country just emerging from three decades of civil war?

Reeling from three decades of a brutal civil war, Sri Lanka today boasts an unprecedented 94% literacy rate; higher than that of any other South Asian nation. Today, the student population of Sri Lanka stands at approximately four million. Despite recording a strong literacy rate, the country continues to remain susceptible to ethnic violence as well as a troubling unemployment rate.

Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948 and the introduction of free education in the early 1940s created opportunities for the youth, especially those in rural areas. In the 1950s, when the country’s economy came under state control, many young students found jobs as lower and middle rung employees. However, as unemployment figures continued to rise well into the 1970s, the government undertook efforts to introduce vocational subjects into the school curriculum to meet the growing demand of skill-based employment. Complicating matters was the fact that in 1956, as a result of post-independence reforms, the official language was changed from English to Sinhalese and as the university education system expanded, it created opportunities of upward social mobility for many students from rural backgrounds. However, Tamil youth viewed this as discriminatory behavior, which eventually led to an ethno-linguistically segregated education system that prevented the formation of a common national identity.

According to Prithviraj Perera, Secretary General of the Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO, the decision to change the medium of instruction from Sinhala, Tamil and English to solely the official language, Sinhala, left adverse long-term effects on development. An entire generation was segregated and grew up with a hostile mindset that eventually culminated in a three-decade long civil war. Unlike the colonial elite, the post-colonial elite were socialized in isolation as a result of language barriers. The change in language gravely impacted Sinhala and Tamil relations, which continue to remain an issue. As a result, President Rajapaksa, on 20 December 2012, announced a new government initiative: the National Trilingual Policy to unite the nation it once divided, and revert to pre-1956 policies of focusing on all three major languages in the academic curriculum. However, this is a recent development, one that will take years to yield a trilingual and young workforce.

In 1977, with the change of government, educational policies were also reverted to the traditional focus on academics. Apart from ushering in changes in education policies, the new government allowed the private sector to flourish, which promptly participated in almost every aspect of economic activity, including education. International schools, teaching in English, gained popularity (though remained significantly less popular as compared to privileged, government schools) yet only drew close to 2% of the young, school-going population. The youth continued to aspire for secure government jobs despite the expanding private sector. However, the turbulent years starting from the early 1980s brought in escalating violence, instability and insecurity. As a result, foreign investment halted and public funds were withdrawn from the education sector and allocated to defense thus severely hampering educational growth.

As terrorism became uncontrollable, the LTTE diverted its funds into drugs and war as opposed to development. Furthermore, the brain drain in the country meant that most competent teachers had left, thereby worsening the already low quality of education that prevailed in Sri Lanka. According to the International Organization for Migration reports, close to 1.7 million Sri Lankans are employed abroad and have repatriated Rs 6bn in 2012. According to Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, Sri Lanka Permanent Representative to the UN, “This amount is equivalent to 8.2% of Sri Lanka’s GDP, 25% of total government revenue and 35% of total foreign exchange earnings.” Over the years, such large scale remittances have become a driving force for poverty alleviation and development within the country, impacting close to 23% of the population. Those employed abroad constitute approximately 17% of the labor force while those who continue to work in Sri Lanka, despite attaining an education, remain employed in the informal sector with unstable and irregular incomes.

According to Professor Hettige, Senior Professor of Sociology at the University of Colombo, by many a stretch, Sri Lanka’s high literacy rate is nothing more than a façade. As the country slowly begins to move away from labor-intensive industries to technology intensive industries, the education system must also be revamped to introduce skill-oriented education as opposed to simple academic achievement. The education system lacks innovation and research, belittles creativity and provides little scope for critical thinking. Irrespective of socioeconomic status, education is seen as a means to an end: finding the best possible employment.

Educational attainment is already imbibed in Sri Lanka’s culture, making it easier for the government to undertake educational reforms. While the country may boast significantly high literacy rates, the drawbacks of such claims are hidden but severely cripple the young future of Sri Lanka. The country’s dropout rate remains significantly high with only 36% of children reaching the GCE O Level and only 35% passing the GCE A Level examination and qualifying for university admission. Only 40% of children continue their education beyond the post-secondary level (O and A Levels) and of this, only 5% secure university admission. The remaining 35% are dropouts who opt for vocational training or search for jobs in a competitive economy where inflation and poverty remain dominant. Security forces tend to absorb men while garment factories eagerly provide employment for women. Today, there are a total of 15 major universities making it increasingly competitive for students to qualify for admission. According to Perera, the university absorption rate remains abysmally low. Approximately, 300,000 GCE A Level students apply to universities in Sri Lanka, which can only absorb up to 20,000 vacancies.

Careful policy analysis and an immediate reallocation of public resources are needed to create a labor force that can keep up with the demands of a changing economy. There is an urgent need to broaden the general education system that has a strong emphasis on personality development, identity formation and moral and value systems. Many analysts argue that education has not ushered in peace in Sri Lanka but has rather worked counter to that very goal. Today, education is not measured strictly in academic qualification terms but is rather viewed as a strong, socializing mechanism that prioritizes strong values of equality and harmony, striving to tear down the walls of segregation and the isolation it once supported.

In many respects, the Sri Lankan government has revisited its education policies and has launched a new education program titled, the “National Action Plan on Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (EPSD)” to counter the growing ethnic violence and inculcate the values of social cohesion and sustainable development in young Sri Lankan minds. At the very core of this program is the understanding that education is intrinsically about values. Formulative steps such as this are critical to the future of a country where an entire generation has grown up against a backdrop of segregation, dominance, and brutal violence.

The Education for Peace program that strives to meet the Millennium Development Goals through a sustained investment in education is founded on the values and attitudes that foster respect, freedom, justice, democracy, tolerance, equality and solidarity.  Sri Lanka is faced with the unique opportunity to not merely reconstruct and rehabilitate its society but rather rebuild peace, trust and confidence in the minds of its citizens. Therefore, programs like the EPSD are not merely confined to universities and community centers but strive to penetrate through the public and private sector, local government and mass media to ensure sustainability. These are ambitious goals that are vital to post-conflict development and social revitalization in a war-torn country like Sri Lanka and require regular monitoring, reliable evaluation processes and a strong and consistent commitment from all stakeholders. 

Arsla Jawaid is Associate Editor at SouthAsia. A Boston University graduate, she holds a Bachelors degree in International Relations, with a focus on foreign policy and security studies.

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