Economic hard times or not, investments in education must continue, but some hard thinking must go into reprioritising and reallocation – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
After nearly 80 years we are in the same situation. Education is geared towards 8% who go on to universities while learning for the rest is compromised by the examination centred approach adopted. A recent assessment of students in Grade 3 by the Ministry of Education is a case in point. Only 7% were able to show all essential competencies in literacy and 12% in numeracy
Sinhala Avurudu is a time to forgive, forget and move on. In the old days Avurudu was celebrated when Atu-kotu or storage units are filled with the harvest and all debts are settled. That is not the case now. Debt is part of life for a country or a family. The least we can do is to manage our debts better in the new year.
Education along with other government expenditure was funded partly by printing money. The Government is targeted to change the primary deficit from minus 3.8% of GDP in 2022 to plus 0.8% of GDP in 2024, signalling funding cuts across the board.
Economic hard times or not, investments in education must continue, but some hard thinking must go into reprioritising and reallocation.
Unfortunately, the gravity of the situation does not seem to have sunk in. A select committee in Parliament is tasked with identifying ways to increase opportunities for public higher education. The budget speech included proposals for new medical faculties and new universities. The sub-text is perhaps about bringing-in private funding to boost public funding, but this is no time to beat about the bush. Piecemeal solutions based on hidden agendas won’t work.
We need to take a holistic approach towards one question – i.e. How do we prioritise our education spending as we maintain and build the human resources we need to ride and survive this unprecedented economic crisis?
A good place to start is to question (1) the lop-sided education funding which starves schools and feeds the universities, and the related (2) negative influence of universities on the teaching and learning process in schools.
The lop-sided funding situation is not a new observation. In their 2003 report titled ‘Treasures of the higher education system in Sri Lanka’, the World Bank noted that:
“[T]he pattern of average recurrent expenditure across education levels suggest that, in contrast to high performing East Asian countries, the balance of public resources in Sri Lanka may be tilted unduly in favour of tertiary education at the expense of primary and secondary schooling.”
Sadly, the situation has worsened since then. If the per capita public spending for university education was six times that for school education in 2000, today the ratio has risen to thirteen.
Let’s take a closer look.
Education in Sri Lanka is driven by a public university sector of questionable quality
First a few words about the quality of our public universities.
Public universities in Sri Lanka are opaque institutions with no external accountability. Public universities elsewhere must show measures of selectivity in admission, retention and graduation rates of students, and the quality of faculty as a proxy for the quality of education. They must compete for students who pay part of the cost of their education even in public universities and hence are more discerning.
Nothing of the sort is required of academics here. Other than news of a university moving up the ranks for 1000th to a few places up in ranking systems which have no meaning beyond the first hundred or less listed, there are no external evaluations. Students are brought to the doorstep. Nobody is keeping track as to whether the students register but do not show up, dropout in the middle or do not complete a degree within four years. Militant students are allowed a free reign in universities including ragging of freshers. These students are encouraged or tolerated at best by academics because they are an essential part of the desired culture of entitlement and its propagation.
The second problem is that the incentives in education are driven by this public university system of questionable quality.
In 2010, per student spending for universities at Rs. 181,064 was nine times higher than the spending per student in schools at Rs. 23,267. By 2020, per student spending for universities stood at 502,172 and was 13 times higher than the per student spending in schools at 39,126. The teacher’s union marched along with students and academics denouncing private higher education and demanding more public universities little realising that more universities come at the expense of school education
The GCE A/L curriculum and the examination is decided by university academics with no expertise in pedagogy or assessments, or knowledge about school education. As a result, the curriculum is heavy on content, and the examination papers test rote-learning. The GCE O/L examination is essentially seen as preparation for the GCE A/L, contrary to the intentions of the curriculum from Grades 1-11. Grade Five Scholarship Examination is another story.
The Grades 1-11 curricula indeed begin with national objectives and competencies required for achieving them. There are weak but well-intentioned efforts in the curriculum to connect the content to the objectives. But teachers are judged by three unrelated measures – How many students get over 35% for both papers in the Grade Five Scholarship Examination; How many get a minimum of 35% in six subjects at the O/L; and how many get a minimum of 35% in three subjects at the A/L. Five, eleven or thirteen years of education is reduced to getting passes in two or more three-hour papers in the subjects concerned.
Whatever achievements students may show in the seven competencies named as being the expected outcome of education – Communication; Personality Development including leadership; Awareness, sensitivity and skills regarding the physical, biological, and social environment; Religion and Values; Play and Leisure; Learning to Learn; and Readiness for the world of work – do not count.
The damage done to the majority who are forced to jump these examination hurdles for no ultimate benefit is incalculable.
(1) 8% entered public unis but 92% disappeared off the public radar with no learning to show
When I came back to Sri Lanka in 2002, the biggest issue in education seemed to be that so many sit for GCE A/L examination, so many qualify, but only so few get admission to a public university. Even today we continue with same refrain. In fact, the whole education system is driven by this objective of selecting and finding places in a public university for a free-of-charge education. But in the end only a handful benefit.
In 2000, public universities admitted 11,085 students. Averaged over five years this number represents 2.3% of the Age 19-24 youth cohort. The number doubled in the next 10 years and redoubled in the next 10 years to move up to 8.2% of a youth cohort in 2020 [UGC Statistics, 2021].
Our policymaker proudly announces the increase in the intake to universities every year, while our Ministry of Education essentially behaves like a Ministry of Examination, getting students to jump through three obstacle examinations seeming to be its only activity.
Public universities in Sri Lanka are opaque institutions with no external accountability. Public universities elsewhere must show measures of selectivity in admission, retention and graduation rates of students, and the quality of faculty as a proxy for the quality of education. They must compete for students who pay part of the cost of their education even in public universities and hence are more discerning. Nothing of the sort is required of academics here. Other than news of a university moving up the ranks for 1000th to a few places up in ranking systems which have no meaning beyond the first hundred or less listed, there are no external evaluations
What does it mean to get a pass mark in three subjects at A/L or study towards that goal? Look at the history paper for the GCE A/L or any other exam. Booklets of these past papers which are readily available for purchase serve as the shadow curriculum for the schools. These papers do nothing but test memorisation of facts and have nothing to do with the stated objectives of education. These question papers are relics from the past and should have no place in education in the 21st century, but nobody questions.
For those who crammed with success, the GCE A/L is a ticket to a free-of-charge university education with bursaries awarded as needed for living expenses. Others fall off the radar – around 15% before sitting for O/L, another 25% after O/L, another 52% after A/L– with nothing to show except marks obtained for a set of three-hour papers of no significance.
All in all, as of 2020, 92% of our youth left school and went off the radar of policymakers without a chance to learn, or demonstrate their learning, in essential competencies in literacy and numeracy at a minimum; and adequate opportunities to experience Aesthetic, Physical or Social-emotional learning.
(2) As a result, public university interests drive education policy
With 92% or less of the population off the radar, the 8% of youth and cadre of academics and non-academics who benefit from educating them have become the voice for education from top to bottom. The result is a funding system which continues to expand and feed higher education starving school education. Let’s look at the numbers.
(3) Per capita student spending is disproportionately high for universities
Contrary to warnings by the Bank about our education spending being unduly tilted towards higher education, the share of higher education funding continued to increase thanks to the powerful university lobby.
In 2010, per student spending for universities at Rs. 181,064 was nine times higher than the spending per student in schools at Rs. 23,267. By 2020, per student spending for universities stood at 502,172 and was 13 times higher than the per student spending in schools at 39,126.
Teacher’s union marched along with students and academic denouncing private higher education and demanding more public universities little realising that more universities come at the expense of school education (or vocational education for which we don’t have the data here).
A comparison with South Korea drives home the point.
With 92% or less of the population off the radar, the 8% of youth and cadre of academics and non-academics who benefit from educating them have become the voice for education from top to bottom. The result is a funding system which continues to expand and feed higher education starving school education
In 2019 South Korea spent $ 15,641 per student on School education while spending only $ 11,287 per student in universities. In contrast, converting per student spending to dollars at the rate of Rs. 330 per dollar, Sri Lanka spent $ 1,579 per student in universities while spending only $ 118 per student in schools.
Essentially South Korea spent only $ 0.72 per student in universities for every dollar spent per student in school, while Sri Lanka spent Rs. 13.40 per student in universities for every rupee spent per student in schools.
As noted elsewhere:
“The Korean government has since Korea’s independence continuously expanded the provision of free education to all students in a step-by-step approach beginning with primary education culminating in universal primary education 1959, it expanded free education to middle school (1985~2005) and will expand to high school (expected in 2017).
The OECD average for percent government spending on education at 10% compares well with Sri Lanka, but Sri Lanka’s bias towards free higher education at the expenses of school education is an unusual situation.
It is high time policymakers in Sri Lanka took note of this lop-sided funding situation which has been going since 2000 or before.
(4) Lop-sided education priorities and underdevelopment in India and Sri Lanka
Ashoka Mody, the author of the 2022 book ‘India is broken: A People Betrayed, from independence to date’, says in an interview with Karan Thapar that the policies followed by governments since independence in India – whether industrial, agricultural, education or health – were poorly designed to tackle the problems India faced. Regarding education, he notes how Nehru prioritised IITs for a select few over basic education for the masses. As he further notes, every country in its initial stages invests in primary and secondary education. Nehru neglected mass education and focused on institutions that he thought would harness science and technology in the service of India, but these institutions functioned as islands of excellence benefitting those who were educated but not the masses.” [19-21 minutes into the interview]
A similar issue was raised by Dr. N.M. Perera as far back as 1943 in his booklet “The Case for Free Education” which critiqued Dr. Kannangara’s hasty and last-minute decision to declare all education shall be free from kindergarten to university. As he noted, in practice it meant that only 5% of students who were selected through a scholarship examination would go onto university, but there were no budget provisions to give a quality basic education to the remaining 95% of which about half would never attend school or dropped.
As Dr. N.M. Perera notes: “It were better to see that compulsory education up to 14 is properly enforced before embarking on a grandiose scheme of free education.”
After nearly 80 years we are in the same situation. Education is geared towards 8% who go on to universities while learning for the rest is compromised by the examination centred approach adopted. A recent assessment of students in Grade 3 by the Ministry of Education is a case in point. Only 7% were able to show all essential competencies in literacy and 12% in numeracy.
A reset is a must
Three issues for a reset could be as follows:
a) Funding: Freeze free-of-charge higher education enrolments at 8% or less and focus on quality; Double or treble school education funding
b) Assessments: Assess essential learning outcomes, not rote-learning
c) Management: Decentralise, Decentralise, Decentralise school education
Who will bite the bullet?
This kind of resetting is not a job for one minister or secretary of education. It must be a collective effort with heavy lobbying by civil society groups and industry partners with a stake in quality of education. The sectoral oversight committee on education could be the place to start if that team is ready to take up the challenge. Present members of the Sectoral Oversight Committee in Parliament include: V. Radhakrishnan (Chair); Sivagnanam Shritharan; Rohini Kumari Wijerathna; Asanka Navarathna; and Prof. Charitha Herath.