The idea of formulating such a booklet emerged after FUTA's campaign to force the government to allocate 6% of the GDP on education ended without success. FUTA realized that to secure their victory it needed the assistance of other stakeholders with similar interests and to educate the public of their rights so that they realize what discussed in abstract by FUTA affects them directly.
"This endeavour commenced after FUTA's struggle to ensure a 6% budgetary allocation for education. After the struggle many accused FUTA of betraying the struggle, we realized we need to join hands with other stakeholders who are interested in similar issues. We are of the belief that free education is a right and that government is responsible for infrastructure needed for education," FUTA Chairman Chandragupta Thenuwara said.
Making the discourse simple
He added that during discussion with the other organizations, they realized that their efforts will be futile if the public are not aware of their rights. Although the public is aware vaguely of the discourse on free education, at times parents and students have difficulty in realizing the daily effects of these issues.
"If people look at these issues as abstract notions, the government can always get away with manipulating numbers. We wanted the public, specially the parents to realize how the lessening of government expenditure and its anti-free education policies are affecting them in their daily lives. This is why the booklet has an exercise book format, so that the people can easily understand where they are," Thenuwara added.
For example although many parents are aware and complain about the increasing expenses to ensure a decent education they often fail to calculate more subtle but significant costs like the expenses on travel which increases as children need to travel greater distances. According to statistics of the Department of Census the expenditure on education for a family, where a child is studying at a government school, increased by 200% between 2010 and 2011.
"This has been done by cutting money given to schools. Thus, parents have to give money to schools, in various guises, to keep the school running. In addition many students in universities study CIM, CIMA, ACCA and so forth, so that they will find jobs. We have listed many such points so that people will immediately realize how the anti free education policies are affecting their lives," CTSU's Mahinda Jayasinghe said.
The biggest expense on education of an individual family is the tuition fees which has been sky rocketing since early 2000. In 2002 tuition fees was equivalent to the money spent on exercise books, however, by 2010 parents were spending twice as much money on tuition than what they spent on books. The number was 400% by 2013.
Meanwhile, statistics show that 8% of children travel over 10 kilometres or more to reach their schools. However, with the new 1,000 secondary schools and 5,000 primary schools development project this percentage will rise. The more a child has to travel, the travelling expenses will increase.
"We need people to see this. After reading this they will realize how the government's spending cuts on education, on health and on public transport is affecting them. We will distribute these booklets in each education zone, so that people realize how these policies affect them in everyday life," Jayasinghe stated.
Development of schools
A few years ago the government declared that they will develop 1,000 secondary schools and 5,000 primary schools in a bid to develop the educational infrastructure. With the development of 1,000 schools, the government claimed, the pressure on students to do extremely well in year five scholarship exams will lessen.
"We are trying to develop 1,000 secondary schools, three for each divisional secretariat, so that year 5 students can enter a good school with all streams and facilities. Right now everyone is attempting to get into top 56 schools, imagine if we increase that number to 1,000. Then there will be no need for such competition. Year 5 exam will have a natural death. Then the competition for GCE OL will also lessen as students know they can get quality education from the schools they are in. And by increasing the university intake to 100,000 by 2020 we reduce the competition during GCE AL," Mohan Lal Grero, Deputy Minister of Education said.
He added that there are 334 Divisional Secretariat Divisions, but there are no schools that offer Mathematics and Science for ALin 72 of them. The government is planning to develop at least three schools that offer Mathematics and Science for AL in each Divisional Secretariat Divisions.
In addition the government will also create a new cadre of education professionals, teacher inspectors, to increase the standard of teaching.
"So, our plan is to increase productivity and to assure that we will create a new service for teaching instructors. They will act as quality controllers for education, they will visit schools evaluate the teaching, assist teachers and students to better themselves, objectively assess how teachers should be rewarded and will monitor the general education level in schools. We already had teaching instructors but we never have a system to use them properly. But we have now established a system to fully utilize their potential, this did not cost us any money, it was only an improvement to the management," he said.
Thus, the government does not need to reserve 6% of the GDP on education but an additional 20-30 billion rupees. 6% of the GDP will amount to Rs 500 billion and with the existing structures that amount cannot be spent.
Although the idea of developing 1,000 secondary schools and 5,000 primary schools sound good on paper, the selection process of the schools is highly political without any rational basis, the CTSU said. The schools were selected according to whims of politicians and already the new classification, primary and secondary, has caused confusion and displacement of students, Jayasinghe added.
"Currently we have several categories of schools, from 1AB to type 2 and 3 and type 2 and 3 schools also have various categories. There are schools that have classes from grade 1 to 5, and then there are schools with classes from grade 1 to 8 and 1 to 11. With the new division many students will have to find new schools and the matter has become worse as secondary schools were not selected after a systematic study," Jayasinghe informed.
Thus, more students will have to travel greater distance and students who will have to change schools will also incur additional costs to adopt into new schools. Children from rural schools, often go to schools with an informal dress code, many children who go to schools nearby do not wear shoes or ties.
"However, when children from rural schools need to move to schools based in villages they will need to incur additional costs to adopt to their new surroundings," he said.
In addition, the government has not provided the promised Rs 60 million to the schools which are to be developed.
"The biggest problem here is the politicization. The officials are selecting schools to be developed for political reasons, according to the whims of regional politicians. The government has appointed 5,000 acting principals, often political henchmen, and a number of zonal education directors are the same. These political appointees will ensure that every move has an adverse effect on students," he stated.
With the 2015 Budget the government announced that it will recruit 50,000 teachers through schools and the fact that most of the principals in schools are political appointees would mean that the new teaching assistants will be recruited among supporters of the UPFA. Already many 'volunteers' are turning up at schools controlled by provincial councils with letters from regional politicians expecting that they will be taken in as teaching assistants next year.
"When the government recruits unqualified persons based on their political loyalties, the people will lose respect in teachers. We remember that when the United National Party (UNP) recruited a number of teachers based on party sympathies, the society began to be increasingly disrespectful of teachers as they realized that a large number of them didn't deserve respect. This might be a repetition on that, on a bigger scale," he said.
The crisis in higher education
Another main focus of the report by the Steering Committee on Education is the higher education sector. The report points that in the recent years the government has been weakening the State higher education system through drastic cuts on expenditure, through appointing political henchmen to top posts in universities, suppression on academic rights and subsidizing private institutions investing on education. Although the government fails to assist the students, teachers and administrators of rural schools, it has been providing substantial tax relaxations and subsidies to private entities who are establishing private education centres.
"These private institutions are often owned by those closest to the government. There is no guarantee that the degrees provided by these institutions are accepted internationally. The government does not care about the standard," Thenuwara continued to say.
The Ministry of Education has been chipping away at the 1978 Universities Act and guarantees it provided to ensure academic freedom and standards. For example, the Act placed the responsibility of giving permission to private education entities with Steering Committees at the UGC and relevant professional bodies. For example, to start a medical college one needed to get permission from the Sri Lanka Medical Council.
"However, the government has taken this power and given it to the Ministry of Education. Knowing that it will face stiff opposition if they try to change the Act, they are chipping away at it through gazette notifications," he added.
The recent actions of the government and increased politicization of universities have deteriorated the public's faith in universities and the higher education sector. "Education was seen as a way of social mobilization. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds study hard so that they can enter universities, find new jobs and seek a decent living. By destroying the ladder, by taking away this option the government is going to create millions of disillusioned young men and women," said Anuruddha Pradeep, education secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).
When people lose faith in the possibility of social mobility through education always had disastrous results over the world and the steering committee on education states that they plan to mobilize the people in the coming years to push the government to provide necessary services to the people necessary to a decent life.