Saturday, September 1, 2012

Preserving heritage of a sound education system and ending present multiple crises

"After the Roman Army took Syracuse

a soldier, in the midst of the looting and raping,

stopped when he saw a Greek bent over

figures inscribed on the sand. Gaping,

the Roman watched his strange absorption

in that magic of lines and circles. He,

(not looking up at the soldier said, "Move!

With your shadow there it is hard to see!’

The soldier hit him on the head, and so

Archimedes died."

- Regi Siriwardena


by Shanie

Archimedes was one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He was a native of Syracuse and when the Roman Army overran Syracuse, the Roman General gave orders that Archimedes, because of his fame, should not be harmed. But, yet, a Roman soldier killed him. The circumstances of his death are not known but Regi Siriwardena’s creative enactment of the killing perhaps effectively captures the mindset of a conquering army. An arrogant soldier, unable to comprehend the genius of Archimedes, takes it upon himself to kill the respected scientist, He perhaps thought that this old Syracusean had no right to be talking to a conquering soldier in that manner, without the deference the petty man thought he deserved. It is the same arrogant mindset that seems to grip many of those in power in our country. But we will come to that later.

Our country has had a proud educational tradition since ancient times. Both in the Buddhist and Hindu cultures, scholarship and the guru-sishya tradition flourished. In modern times, the colonial rulers introduced a system of school education. It was during British rule, however, that sound secular education was encouraged, with primary and secondary schools, imparting education both in English and in the vernacular, being established throughout the country. In 1921, the University College, affiliated to the University of London was established and transformed 21 years later, as the fully fledged University of Ceylon. About this time, the State Council, on the initiative of the Kannangara Committee, introduced far-reaching educational reforms. The twin pillars of these reforms were the provision of free education for all, from primary to tertiary levels and the establishment of high quality central schools in all the districts pf the country. Even though the legislation for compulsory education for 5 to 14 year olds did not come immediately, school enrolment was high. That is why at the time we gained independence, our country had a near 100% literacy rate, among the highest in the world. The Kannangara reforms had made possible education available and affordable to all, thus enshrining one of the cardinal principles of a democracy – the right to education.

Decline in Quality

During the first couple of decades after independence, we carried on with the momentum built with the Kannangara reforms. Thereafter there were ups and downs, depending on the Minister of Education. but over the last few years, there has been a rapid decline in the standards and quality of the institutions and bodies associated with education. It will not be fair to place the whole blame on bungling politicians. The sycophantic bureaucrats who have found a niche in our educational system have to share the blame. They have failed to take a firm stand on ensuring that our educational institutions enjoy academic freedom and maintain acceptable academic standards. There are two apex bodies – the National Education Commission reviewing on an ongoing basis the education system in the country and advising on overall educational policy that needs to be formulated; and the University Grants Commission concerned about coordinating the University system, regulating the broad administration of Universities and ensuring that they maintain academic standards. Unfortunately, both Commissions do not function as they should. The NEC has virtually been sidelined and policy decisions are made by politicians and the bureaucrats in the Ministry without any consultation with the NEC. The UGC which maintained its independence until a few years ago, now merely carries out the directives of politicians, even when they are in total violation of the Universities Act.

z-scores and University Admissions

Take the case of University admissions. We have two Ministers responsible for this. The Examinations department under the Minister of Education has to release the results of the GCE (AL) results. Based on those results, a system has been in place to choose those eligible for admission. Raw scores are converted to z-scores based on a system worked out by competent academics. The Minister of Higher Education becomes responsible for the admission of students to Universities.

A new syllabus was introduced for some of the subjects at the 2011 AL examinations: Thus some students sat under the old syllabus and some the new. But the Examinations Department erred in having the z-scores calculated without treating the two sets of candidates as different, and released the z-scores. The Minister refused to listen to the protests and ultimately the Supreme Court had to rule that the calculation of the z-scores by combining the raw marks of two different ‘populations’ was wrong. This has now been rectified. But it has taken the UGC an enormously long time to finalise the university admissions. It will be unfair to penalize the students who qualified for admission under the old (and wrong) system of z-scores but do not qualify under the corrected system. This column suggested some months ago that all those who qualified under both systems of z-scores should be admitted to universities. This is also the opinion of several academics including Professor Arjuna Aluvihare, former Vice-Chancellor and former Chairman of the UGC. It entails taking in an additional batch of students but the UGC in typical bureaucratic fashion seems yet to make up its mind. They seem so used to following political directives that they are unable to take a decision on an issue that is within their mandate. In the meantime, the students are left in total suspense. The z-score issue is not one that should have ended up in a fiasco calling for Supreme Court intervention. But our Ministers and their bureaucrats are not used to admitting mistakes or taking responsibility for mistakes. It is always a case of blaming it on conspiracies!

Yet another conspiracy!

The latest scandal to hit the Ministry of Education is the leaking of the Grade 5 scholarship examination papers. Instead of investigating it, admitting any mistakes made and putting things right, the Minister of Education talks of ‘conspiracies’. To what ridiculous a length can the Minister go. Does he think the public will keep swallowing his conspiracy bogeys. If blundering Ministers cannot take responsibility for mistakes and put things right, they should gracefully give way.

Also, on the subject of schools, it is reported that the Police have installed complaint boxes in several schools (presumably it will cover all schools) with a request that students place any complaints, etc in the boxes. The key to the box is held by the Police and the Principal has no access to its contents. Has the Minister initiated this or is it a Ministry of Defence brainwave? Either way, it will undermine school discipline when the Principal has no control over any student complaints. There are acceptable ways of dealing with student abuse, student complaints (even against the Principal), etc. without undermining student discipline in schools and without the intrusion of the Police or the Ministry of Defence in school affairs.

From Jaffna, comes the report of the senior girls in a leading school having protested against the conduct of an education official whose office is sited within the school premises. Apparently, following the protest, the Sri Lanka Army officials have taken some of the Prefects of the school to the local Army camp, given the girls a dressing down, got them to apologise and obtained a pledge from them that they would not allow such an incident to happen again. Again, at what price is school discipline and the authority of the Principal and the staff of the school.

Indeed this growing intrusion of the security establishment in schools is a worrying development. There have been reports that some school Principals are to be given military rank and that A/L students are to be given training in military camps. Indeed, apparently the students at the Mahinda Rajapaksa Vidyalaya in Homagama have reportedly already had this "training". The University community is already in upheaval about the growing militarization in the campuses. The plan seems to be to extend militarization to schools as well.

Trade Union Action by FUTA

The University teachers’ strike is now nearing two months. Their demands were eminently reasonable but it has taken the Minister of Higher Education, after weeks of denial, to come round to doing something. The reports of this week’s cabinet meeting suggest a Cabinet Paper was presented jointly by Basil Rajapakse and S B Dissanayake on the FUTA demands. The cabinet seems to have approved the proposals. Why did it have to await Basil Rajapaksa’s intervention for this to happen. Of course, the Minister of Higher Education, like his colleague in the other education sector, is unlikely to admit that he was wrong in not having listened and acted on the FUTA demands. We will probably be treated to another conspiracy theory and how he successfully broke the conspiracy.

Reports indicate that in terms of the cabinet paper, University teachers are to be treated as a special category of public servants, as they were some years ago when they were treated on a par with Central Bank officers. But there is no commitment on their salary demands. The FUA demand was also for an acceptance of the UNESCO recommendation that public spending on education should be 6% of GDP. At present, Sri Lanka is at the ridiculously low rate of 1.9%, the lowest in our region. Of course, it may not be possible to change this overnight but there must be a commitment that we would work towards achieving that UNESCO goal on an incremental basis within a defined time frame. In the meantime, adequate resources should be provided to the Universities to function effectively as institutions of excellence in higher education. The cabinet also seems to have accepted that the Universities should enjoy autonomy and independence. This should have been the goal of the UGC which the UGC shamelessly surrendered.

The cabinet has also decided to appoint a committee of some sort. At the time of writing this column, the exact function of this committee is not known. It is hoped that it is not a means to put off meeting the FUTA demands and for implementation of the cabinet proposals. For far too long, the Ministry of Higher Education has been playing games with FUTA with promises made but not implemented. The present cabinet proposals have come about due to the intervention of Minister Basil Rajapakse. He should assure FUTA of the immediate implementation of those demands that can be met now and a definite time frame for others. It does not appear that the academics have much confidence in the Minister of Higher Education delivering on anything.

The cabinet seems to have approved the right to autonomy of the Universities. We trust this means that political interference will end. Professor Arjuna Aluvihare in a recent newspaper interview has said that political interference in universities was all pervasive. This must end. The UGC must re-discover their role as guardians of University autonomy. The Senates and the Councils must be allowed to function and make decisions in terms of the Universities Act. Political directives cannot do away with aptitude tests in aesthetic studies, interfere in the selection of the most suitable security agency for each University, in the authorization of any training (leadership, military or otherwise) for new entrants, in providing for English or IT skills for new entrants, etc. Nor should indirect pressure be brought on making appointments to senior positions, appointments including those of Vice chancellors. The UGC should re-discover its role as a guardian of university autonomy and the rightful functions of the Senate both in letter and in spirit. Universities can meet the needs of the world around them only if their administration, teaching and research are independent of political authority and economic power.

Now is the time to halt the slide in our education systems, both in higher education and at school level. The multiple crises in education offer an opportunity to reverse this trend. We need to revitalise this sector for the public good. We need to preserve our heritage of a sound education system that produced men and women who took their place in society and made a valuable contribution to nation-building.

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