Sunday, September 2, 2012

‘Six per cent save education’

Lakbima, 02/09/2012

The headline of this editorial resonates a self explanatory slogan of the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) and with that we express our solidarity with the on-going campaign for higher budgetary allocation for education. Public spending on education has been on the downward spiral since the early 1970s and it has been on a free fall in recent years. Sri Lanka  spent 3.98 per cent of GDP on education in 1970, which declined to 2.9 per cent by 2005. The national expenditure on education has since seen a rapid decline, hitting below 2 per cent (1.9) this year. According to the most recent data on the government spending on public education, we are ranked at 190 out of 205 countries in the world, ahead Republic of Congo — not to be mistaken for Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the most wretched places on the globe, which is also ranked 9 slots below us (Source: World Bank). We are losing out and even some of the least developed countries are on a spending spree on social infrastructure, including health and education in order to leapfrog in economic development. On average, Sub Saharan Africa spends 4.7 per cent of GDP on education. Among our neigbours, the Maldives spent 11 per cent on education in 2009. 
The apathy on the part of the government is disturbing. What is further worrying is that, due to  the continuous neglect of the government, Sri Lanka is missing out yet another historic opportunity to transform itself into a knowledge economy. A previous opportunity to leapfrog the nation from an agrarian economy to a Newly Industrial Country (NIC), alongside the Tiger economies in Southeast Asia was lost due to a brutal civil war, and stems from repeated and deliberate blunders committed in the nation building exercise since independence.

Countries such as Malaysia which aims to be a developed nation and a knowledge economy by 2020, on average, spends 8 per cent of GDP on education. Needless to say our failure to pick development priorities is glaring. A country which spends Rs200 billion on defence to sustain a large and redundant peacetime army has failed to spend one third of that amount on its schools and universities. 

The systemic failures in the education system, ranging from the decline in international reputation of local universities, to the recurrent blunders in national exams, which this year has delayed the university admission of 20,000 students are symptoms of an impending, much dangerous collapse of our education system, largely  due to neglect and low public investment. Our universities, once the centres of academic excellence have lost their glamour. The top 10 per cent of their graduates migrate to greener pastures, seeking better employment opportunities and the bottom 30 per cent of the university intake take to the streets, demanding government jobs.  Our university dons are paid the lowest salaries even by South Asian standards and many who leave for higher education in the West never return. This status quo has been in place for the last 30 years and now, at last, university academics have decided to rally, demanding a qualitative improvement in the system, and more funding for education. We salute them for that act of courage.

However, higher budgetary allocations are not a panacea for the ills in the education system. The government monopoly in the education system, mainly in higher education is equally responsible for the gradual decay in our university system. In the absence of competition, our universities have been enveloped by a sense of complacency and the recent international ranking of Sri Lankan universities, none of which come within the top 1000 universities in the world, is a reminder of the pathetic conditions of our centres of higher learning. Student activists and academics alike, who have vehemently been opposing the setting up of private universities stand condemned for their share of the rot in our universities. It is time for Sri Lanka to truly revamp its education policy, drastically increase its investment on education and to embark on a concerted plan to regain the lost glory of its centres of higher learning.

No comments: