Sunday, August 26, 2012

An Uneducated Mess Over Education

The Sunday Leader, 26/08/2012

A continuing misfortune of Sri Lanka has been that we have had many ministers of education who cannot truly be said to have been educated. Educated persons are not necessarily those with paper qualifications but those with deep understanding of human nature with the ability to appreciate the thinking of students, teachers and other stake holders in education. A teacher’s diploma or a certificate of graduation from a university will not make a good minister of education be it for secondary or higher education. Tolerance and appreciation of opposing views should be a part of their mental make-up. Intolerance, arrogance and sycophancy to their political bosses at the cost of educational policy are the worst attributes.
The furore over marking of GCE-AL answer scripts and the Z score have dragged on for months with poor students and their parents who have invested over 11 years of their lives and great expenses seeing no satisfactory solution to the problem. There is no doubt that it is a mess created by the Examinations Department and no other. The Department is adding on to the problems by setting erroneous questions to new question papers and then faxing amendments to the errors made, thus breaking down the confidentiality expected to be maintained. Obviously the Examinations Department is at fault and if the officials cannot resolve the problems created by them the Minister of Education has to take swift remedial action and hand over the problems even to those outside the Department for resolution. If the Minister is incapable of solving the problem due to interference or other matters beyond his control he has to resign. The Z score issue cannot be permitted to drag on.
The most disgusting development is making stupid excuses such as: Errors have been made by Examination Department before and thus recent errors are not a new thing to be unduly concerned about.
The other concern is the strike by FUTA (Federation of University Teachers Association) asking that their long standing grievances including higher salaries be addressed. FUTA has packaged their demands into a 6 per cent allocation of the GDP for education which would provide funds for most of their problems to be resolved.
This is indeed a reasonable demand considering the glib assurances with great flourishes given by President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. University dons point out that the UPFA government had advocated for the 6 percent of GDP allocation in compliance with the Millennium Development Goals and to achieve them by 2015.
The two Mahinda Chintanaya documents (2005 and 2010) considered sacred texts by the adherents of the Rajapaksa faith, waxed eloquent about concerted development in education that would take place and spoke of Sri Lanka being a ‘Global Knowledge Hub’. That would, as pointed out by dons, involve even greater costs than 6 percent of the GDP. However sceptical observers were wondering about Sri Lanka being made into so many ‘hubs’ by Rajapaksa – education, tourism, shipping, aviation and more. Now all such grandiose visions on education have come crashing down because the government can afford only 1.8 percent of the GDP for education! The public revenue is only 14.3 percent of the GDP and thus 6 percent of the GDP cannot be devoted to education, says the loquacious Minister of Higher Education S. B. Dissanayake.
To allocate 6 percent of the GDP it is estimated that the government must find Rs. 272 billion in additional funds. But the Commonwealth Games which was proposed to be held in Hambantota in 2018 was estimated to cost Rs. 265 billion at 2011 prices. Now, the billion dollar question which President Rajapaksa should answer is how on earth he would have found Rs. 265 billion to stage the Commonwealth extravaganza if he does not have enough funds for education?
Recent articles in the media by university teachers on the inability of the government to find funds to meet the demand by FUTA have shown the failure of the government in the field of tax collection where the poor public pays indirect taxes which amounts to 81 percent of the total income revenue while the rich pay much less. The Income Tax Department appears to be adopting the converse of the Robin Hood principle: taking from the poor while letting the rich get away. It calls upon for more intense methods of tax collection not by scouring the fixed deposits of pensioners in banks and finance companies but by soaking the dirty rich. A writer has shown that the required funds to allocate 6 percent of the GDP could be found through better tax collection.
The question of paucity of funds for education raises grave doubts about the rosy statistics produced by the glib Governor of the Central Bank, Nivard Cabraal. With 7 to 8 percent economic growth claimed over the last few years – and now even 9 percent – is the UPFA government so hard pressed that it is unable to provide sufficient
funds for education which is considered vital in any country? Or is it that the Rajapaksa regime’s urge for ostentation takes precedence over the basic needs of the community such as education and health.
The former President Ranasinghe Premadasa had such desires for carnivals, fountains and overhead bridges rarely used by people. This was called ‘showbanne’ by the man on the street. The Rajapaksa showbanne is of a much costlier variety to the tax payer such as Rajapaksa stadiums, aerodromes and seaports costing millions if not billions of rupees to the people. Such projects can be placed in the category of ‘development projects’ but priority should be given to basic requirements of the community such as education and health.
The lower middle class and those below are irked very much by the lavish and ostentatious life style of the ruling class. University teachers who comprise the best academically qualified group in the country at times find themselves among the lowly paid categories which would not have happened had they sought employment in greener pastures.
The Rajapaksa regime should realise that locking horns with university students and teachers can result in social unrest that could have disastrous repercussions. The revolts of Rohana Wijeweera and Velupillai Prabhakaran were fuelled by student unrest caused by shabby treatment meted out to youth.

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