Sunday, January 15, 2012

Editorial - Publish the Dhara Wijetillake Committee report

The Sunday Island,  

In a news release issued on Friday, the president’s office said that there was no fault in the evaluation of GCE `A’ Level answer scripts according to the Dhara Wijetillake Committee report which had recommended wide and careful consultation on formulating the Z score on which admission to the universities are determined. There is no escaping the reality that the examinations department and the government itself ended with a lot of egg on its face when the delayed `A’ Level exam results were finally released. There were a number of howlers in those results that totally lacked credibility. Political and official functionaries, still not held to account for their blunders, tried to make out that the picture was not as bad as had been made out. It has now been determined by the five-member committee that included three vice-chancellors and the principal of Royal College that the district ranking errors that grabbed headlines had not been made during the data entering stage but the processing stage.

Be that as it may, the results that were released were replete with errors. This created a traumatic situation for both candidates and their parents. We do not have to labour the fact that students put in enormous effort into their GCE `A’ Level examinations as that determines whether they would gain admission to the preferred faculties of the universities. University admission, especially for disciplines like medicine, engineering, law and other professions is savagely competitive. While the candidates themselves shed blood, sweat and tears preparing themselves for these exams, the far from satisfactory state of most of our schools have spawned a multi-million rupee private tuition industry fattening on students’ desire for university entry and parents’ ambitions for their children. After all, which parent will not spend even money they can ill afford to send their children to these classes to enable them to give their best shot at the examination? The students certainly are entitled to a properly conducted examination and error free results. This they did not get last time round, whatever the stage in the process at which the mistakes occurred.

Let the people know exactly what the Wijetillake Committee has said. Taking parts of it and issuing a press release suggests to any reasonable person that some effort has been made to give the report the best possible face. That is not enough. While we do not say that the news release from the president’s office was not factual, there is every likelihood that positives were stressed and other areas glossed over. Thus transparency demands that the whole report be released so that students, parents, teachers and all those concerned know exactly what weaknesses in the system were discovered and what measures have been recommended to counter them. That is the right way of handling this situation. If the authorities do not wish to publish the report itself, we hope that the opposition in parliament as well as the student community would press that this be done. We would have preferred if the committee included at least one member with some investigative background. Some of the vice-chancellors have by their statements in the run-up to the elections have demonstrated where their loyalties lie and undermined their autonomy. While that does not mean that they did not honestly apply themselves to the task entrusted to them, in these matters justice must not only be done but be seen to be done.

The news release on the committee report implies that the members have found weaknesses in the Z score formulation as it presently stands. Given that three vice-chancellors and the principal of one of the country’s leading schools were members of the committee, one would hope that these were matters they have independently taken up before they were assigned with the responsibility of probing what went wrong with the exam results. These are all matters that have been under discussion for a long time and the careful consultation recommended should have happened before the formula was compiled. Admittedly it would be difficult if not impossible to have an absolutely infallible formulation. But it is necessary that the best possible brains are consulted and every effort made to make it as good as possible.

One problem in this country is that the public memory is notoriously short. Already, except the affected students, their parents and concerned teachers, the wider public has forgotten about the mess. Those culpable seem to have got off Scott free. The Commissioner of Examinations continues on his throne. Minister Bandula Gunawardena has not gone back to his previous vocation of running lucrative tuition classes. Minister S.B. Dissanayake continues smiling as widely as ever, preoccupied with problems far more compelling than Z scores in the campus jungles that pass off for universities. Hopefully the Wijetillake Committee’s recommendations are studied carefully, refined, debated and implemented. The report must not treated as a purely fire fighting exercise to be forgotten after the flames are doused. Far too many of the studies undertaken by governments past and present are allowed to gather dust in various offices. The Shelton Wanasinghe Administrative Reforms Committee which produced a series of useful reports comes readily to mind. Instead of rationalizing the public service and making it leaner and more effective, successive governments keep inflating already bloated payrolls. The taxpayer who must pay for all this has to grin and bear it.

The hoary Sinhala idiom encapsulated the situation. Kata kiyannada or whom to tell, it asks.

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