Thursday, February 2, 2012

Education and Higher Education: Bouquets and Brickbats


By Prof. H. Sriyananda

It is indeed a rare occasion in Sri Lanka today that one can genuinely offer ‘Bouquets’ to anyone in authority, but it is with pleasure that I would like to offer my congratulations to the Government of Sri Lanka for the recent announcement that the Private Universities Bill is withdrawn, at least for the time being. I only hope that this is not a mere tactical withdrawal to divert attention, but is based on the realisation of the impropriety of the manner of its intended introduction.

I grant that there are strong arguments both for and against the establishment of ‘private universities’. Most of these are based on emotional judgments, knee-jerk reactions and long-held prejudices that have not been examined critically. This is complicated by the fact that private universities mean quite different things to different people. I do not propose to discuss these issues in this short article, but to highlight the manner in which such issues have been handled in the past and to suggest how this can be handled now.

Most people are very eloquent in stating that education is valued very highly in our culture. This is perhaps true, and that may be why, on previous occasions, with rare and disastrous exceptions, any proposals for changes in the existing system of education have been subjected to widespread public debate, not only among the so-called ‘stake-holders’, but among the mass of the people, for ALL citizens are vital stake-holders of the future of our children. If we confine our attention to the ‘modern’ period, the Colebrook-Cameron Commission (1829) made proposals for wide-ranging changes in the then existing system of education under the British, and consequently, the Education Commission was established in 1834 for the management of all schools under the government. Towards the end of the colonial period, the University of Ceylon was established in 1942, after a very long public debate about its functions, structure and even the location. In 1958, the Needham Commission was appointed by the then Government of Ceylon to study and report on the need for expanding university education, and submitted its report after conducting a series of public sittings all over the country.

In 1961, the National Education Commission (NEC) was appointed by the government to report on proposals for a unified education system for the whole country, with Prof. J E Jayasuriya as the Chairman and 20 eminent members including Dr C W W Kannangara, L H Mettananda, S Natesan and T Vimalananda. In 1963, The T P de S Munasignhe Commission was appointed to report on Technical Education, and subsequently, a white paper was issued in 1964. Unfortunately, the government was defeated before the white paper could be discussed, and the new government dropped the matter altogether. However, the Ceylon College of Technology (now, the University of Maratuwa) was established in 1966 as a result of the recommendations of the Munasinghe Commission.

In Higher Education, the National Council of Higher Education (1966) and the Jayaratne Reforms (1972) can be both considered to be knee-jerk reactions to specific situations, undertaken without much discussion and without reaching consensus. Neither could last a change of government, and were ultimately replaced by the present system of higher education introduced by the 1978 Universities Act which was prepared after much discussion, with the then Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education visiting all the seats of higher education and all other learned institutions of relevance and meeting with all those concerned, including with students. It has now lasted more than three decades, and many changes of government.

There is something we need to learn from these three episodes – while it is possible for governments to pass legislation without consultation, they are short lived, even though the harm they do will be long lasting.

And now it is time for the brickbats.

Even though some two weeks have elapsed since the announcement of the withdrawal of the proposed Bill, there appears to be no action to follow it up with a genuine attempt at a public discussion on the issues that were supposed to have been addressed by the proposed ‘urgent’ legislation. The government could appoint a Commission of Inquiry (with demonstrably independent and competent commissioners) to inquire into and report on the state of education / higher education in the country and to suggest how they can be improved to meet the current and future needs. For, obviously, the problems are there not only in higher education, but also in general education.

The fact that the universities as they are now cannot admit all those who ‘qualify’ through the GCE A/L Exam is true, but it begs the question whether these students can benefit from a university education. It is necessary to look more carefully at pre-university education and at the phenomenon of private tuition and coaching for examinations. It has also caused a complete erosion of free education at school level, and it is starting to happen at university level.

If it already has some suggestions, it can present a white paper for public discussion, and even facilitate such a discussion, leading to a general consensus document. The absence of such a course of action only suggests that the government is only marking time to re-launch its aborted legislation, perhaps at a moment when the public attention is diverted to some other issue. The Commission appointed to report on the z-score fiasco can only illustrate how not to appoint a commission of inquiry. It is patently unfair by the officers paid out of public funds to be asked to sit on such a commission – for they can neither refuse, nor can they come up with a really independent report, in the present atmosphere.

The step-motherly treatment given to education is highlighted by the fact that the National Education Commission, established in 1991 ‘to make recommendations to the President, on educational policy in all its aspects, with a view to, ensuring continuity in educational policy and enabling the education system to respond to changing needs in society. Review and analyze such policies and plans in operation and where necessary, to recommend to the President, changes in such Policy Plan or plans.’ is currently in abeyance – there are no sitting commissioners, and its website says ‘New Commission will be appointed by HE the president’! When is the question? [This is a permanent commission, not to be confused with the Jayasuriya commission of 1961.]

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