Saturday, August 11, 2012

Have successive governments abrogated their responsibility towards education in Sri Lanka?

By Raj Gonsalkorale
Governments can produce statistics through creative accounting, and compete with those who quote statistics from institutions like the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. What is important at the end of the day is whether figures produced by different parties comply with internationally accepted norms for measuring expenditure on education.
The international norm is how much a government spends on education as a percentage of its GDP.
In this regard, official Central bank statistics reveal that the Sri Lankan government spends less than 2% of its GDP now on education.
Expenditure statistics should not be the only measure to judge the responsibilities of a government. The qualitative aspects must receive greater attention than quantitative aspects if we are to chart the right direction for the future generations of the country and the future of the country itself.
The current government or any other government cannot play with mirrors and come up with figures that include non- government expenditure on education, as expenditure on education, as it is misleading from the context of internationally accepted norms.
Sri Lanka cannot include education expenditure by private institutions including private schools and tutories, and add that to expenditure on education if they are comparing what governments of other countries spend on education.
Sri Lanka has a proud record of taking responsibility for health and education in the country. This responsibility entails spending government funds to provide a good healthcare system as well as a good education system for the people of the country.
Sri Lanka’s health and education indicators have consistently shown that we have performed well above the standards of many countries in the world, and most definitely above our Asian neighbours. This has been as a result of the direct responsibility of the government for health and education in the country.
The sprouting of private schools, including scores of “international” schools, tutories in every corner of the country, private tuition to students by the very same teachers who teach or are supposed to teach students in schools, cannot be considered improvements to education system in the country.
This mushrooming has occurred due to the abrogation of the government’s responsibility for education and the economic opportunities it has precipitated for a private industry to fill the gaps created by this abrogation.
While it is understood that governments of the last 30 years in particular had serious competing priorities for expenditure due to the advent of terrorism and war, one cannot permit an ongoing decline in government responsibility, and funding, for both health and education in the country. Neither should the public accept any creative, and misleading accounting on the part this government or any future government about government expenditure on education and health.
There has to be a commitment and a demonstration, that over the next five years, there will be a steady increase in real government expenditure on education and health, and this commitment has to be given not just by the government but also the alternate government, the political Opposition grouping led by the UNP.
This issue must rise above party politics, and personalities, and a public commitment has to be given by both sides of politics.
However, expenditure statistics should not be the only measure to judge the responsibilities of a government. The qualitative aspects must receive greater attention than quantitative aspects if we are to chart the right direction for the future generations of the country and the future of the country itself.
There needs to be a debate on what this expenditure means to the quality of education and health in the country, and how this quality is to be measured. One needs to question whether the education system produces a value system consistent with the cultural identities in the country. It also needs to address the role of the parents and elders in the system.
It is not news to anyone today that economic pressures coupled with numerous logistics difficulties, especially in urban settings, have rendered the family and home unit influence on education and values, much less relevant today than what it was some decades ago. In some respect, this might be the price that one pays for development in developing countries, but unchecked, it could be a very heavy and irrecoverable price to pay for bringing up a future generation on commercial, bottom line values, rendering these generations anchorless in their own country.
Governments and would be governments of all persuasions must work with the civil society to discuss these issues even from their own political perspectives, as the important thing is to have a discourse, and then, where possible, agree on a common path.
A discussion needs to involve a wider cross section of the society and ideally leave the politicians out of it at least initially, as they should only be acting to put into effect the wishes of that wider cross section of the society. The trend today appears to be the reverse, with politicians being of the opinion that such a discussion would be aimed at destabilizing the politicians and the government.
One issue that should be discussed beyond the boundaries of partisan politics is the time that a family spends together as a family unit, the factors that impinge on their inability to spend more time, the interactions that result, and the strengthening of values that comes from the amount of time spent together.
In all likelihood, most urban based families today spend very little time together due to the various pressures mentioned earlier. Even that little time spent may not be of quality or relevance. There has to be a discussion on how this trend could be arrested.
This is where political governance and political decisions can and must come in. For example, meaningful decentralization through devolution may lead to migration of industry and jobs to provinces. With this, the standard of education in provincial schools may improve sufficiently enough for parents to move to provinces and provincial jobs, so that they could relocate their families to provinces. Life in most provinces would be far more relaxed than in a city like Colombo and its immediate environments.
Another measure to ease pressure on parents seeking entry for their children in some of the more reputed and prestigious schools in Colombo and other major cities, maybe achieved by some of these schools opening campuses in outlying areas. For example, in Colombo, Royal College could open a campus say in Hokandara, and similarly, Visaka Vidyalaya could open a campus in Kaduwela. Such a move could lessen pressure for parents living in and around Kaduwela or Hokandara to battle traffic and time, and energy, in transporting their children from where they live to Bambalapitiya or Colombo 7.
A discussion on education as one can see has a much wider spectrum than expenditure as a percentage of GDP. It is so wide it needs to include a wider section of society. Ideas flowing at such discussions should be synthesized by experts and translated into policy options that politicians could consider and bring about policy changes that involve the different feeder influences on education.
Strike action like what FUTA has chosen as a way of conveying their message does not engage or inform or involve the wider society in this important debate. Their mode of operation is seen as a self serving means to achieve their own ends in regard to remunerations and working conditions in the guise of arguing for a noble cause. This course of action will only harm the prospects of a genuine debate on education, and it will only polarize opinion from a political perspective at the expense of a rational debate that must be had.
- Asian Tribune -

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