Address at the Colombo Conference of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats on ‘Promoting Choice and Excellence in Education’

I am grateful to the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats for agreeing to our suggestion that the first event for this year, with Sri Lanka taking over the Chairmanship of the Council, should be this Conference on Education. This is only the second event that CALD is holding in Asia over the seventeen years of its existence. The last one was in 2003, as part of the ten year anniversary celebrations, and I am glad that that event was followed by the recruitment of an associate member from Pakistan, the Pakistan Liberal Forum. I hope very much that this event will be followed by a further accession from Asia, with luck from India.

India, like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has had difficulties with the concept of Liberalism, since we all got our independence in the heyday of Socialism in Britain. That was the source then of the political philosophies of all our intellectuals, who dominated the discourse in the first few decades after independence, whether in acquiescence to the imperial enterprise or in rebellion. For this reason we claim to be a Democratic Socialist Republic, while India has gone one step further, and enjoined constitutionally that all political parties profess socialism. I believe Mr Bhutto too embarked on this path, and his concept of the all powerful state has continued in Pakistan to all intents and purposes, with often the added controls provided by a militaristic outlook.

Sadly this mindset was institutionalized just at the period when socialism, or at least the statist model that we had followed in the subcontinent, was clearly failing, in the rest of the world as well as here. The entrenchment of these titles was accompanied then by an actual loosening up of our economies though, as many distinguished commentators have pointed out, much remains to be done. At the same time, in Sri Lanka certainly, for a long time we seemed to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, in that we underestimated the need for regulation and responsibility in the economic free for all that some governments at least seemed to encourage. Fortunately, the recent worldwide economic crisis has made clear the need for continuing state intervention, in the form of selective support as well as monitoring, to ensure protection for the most vulnerable when market forces fall apart.

But my subject here is specifically education, and in this respect Sri Lanka has been unique, in that, unlike our neighbours, it took statism to a ridiculous extent. The principle that the state was obliged to provide education for all was misinterpreted as entailing that no one else should provide education. The result was inadequate resources, so that we were simply unable to provide excellence for the vast majority of our students. Whereas India and Pakistan and Bangladesh have space for private institutions, at all levels, in Sri Lanka this has been a hole and corner affair at best, institutions wishing to provide choice having on occasion to register themselves as businesses rather than education institutions. Thus indeed we had the ridiculous situation of a Minister of Education requesting the Attorney General to prosecute the first so-called Interntional School in Colombo, and then confessing that nothing could be done since it came under an authority that reported direct to the Prime Minister.

So, while the basic education we provide is better than most, we find it is supplemented both by such theoretically irregular institutions and also, for those who remain within the formal system, by a massive private tuition industry. And we simply cannot provide enough education at the higher levels, in terms of numbers as well as skills. The result is a terrific brain drain, that is also a drain on resources, as our youngsters seek higher education abroad, in the West and Australia, in India and Bangladesh and Nepal, in Russia and China and Malaysia and even the West Indies. And sensibly enough, some of these countries have special provision to employ the brightest and best, which means they are lost to us for ever.

Remedies for this will need to be sought over the next few years when, having achieved peace with regard to the terrorism that oppressed us for so long, we need to facilitate longlasting peace, by ensuring opportunities for all. In that regard a healthy education system is a must. And in this respect I would suggest that the liberal philosophy offers the best answers. Liberalism, unlike socialism, does not believe in egalitarianism and uniformity, and therefore it will avoid the lowest common denominator approach that countries competing in the modern world cannot afford. However, unlike the ruthless proponents of market forces, liberals believe that the state has to ensure equality of opportunity, and in this regard our commitment to basic social services is absolute.

This after all was one of the historic achievements of Liberalism, at perhaps its most productive political period, in Britain in the 19th century. The manner in which successive Liberal governments completely transformed the previous elitist system was one of my main subjects of study for my first postgraduate degree, and that was perhaps the beginnings of my moving away from the youthful socialist fervour that possessed many of us who were students in the seventies.

What the Liberals did, is build on the strengths of the existing system, whether it was the great universities or the public schools. They made them more socially responsive, and more concerned with quality education, but they did not destroy them. Instead they also encouraged replication, in different ways that promoted choice, but also ensured excellence. So we had the new University Colleges in London, many new public schools for the emerging middle classes, the conversion of many Church Foundations into what became the Grammar Schools, flagships of social mobility for all. Female education too became one of the distinctive features of the liberal creed, when conservatives still assumed that a woman’s place was at home. And much of this was achieved through encouraging private and sectarian initiatives, which worked in accordance with basic regulations, but were permitted to experiment and diversify in the wider interests of diverse bodies of students.

So, when there were signs of social support systems turning into social engineering, the moderate liberal philosophy reasserted itself, in terms of reining back the more restrictive interventions that proponents of uniformity advocated. Sadly that moderating influence proved less effective in Britain in the 20th century, with the decline of liberalism, and it was a more extreme approach that dominated the thinking that percolated down to us.

So, whereas the great founder of free education in Sri Lanka, C W W Kannangara, was a product of liberal thinking, believing in interventions to promote the vulnerable, but not striving to limit excellence in pursuit of equality, his successors were more convinced of the absolute power of the state. Though they doubtless assumed this power would be used for good, they were unable to ensure the positive outcomes at which they aimed. The result is that, while we still pride ourselves on our basic education, we are falling behind in the technology and skills we need for rapid development.

I should however reiterate that the pursuit of excellence cannot be at the expense of universality. I do not suppose though that there is any danger of this happening in Sri Lanka, with our distinguished record of having continued with basic services even to areas under the control of terror for so many years. I believe this effort, implemented despite difficulties by the teachers and educational administrators whom we financed and trained in spite of their having to work under terrorist controls, has contributed to the resilience we see in the populations who were displaced and are now being resettled.

We strove throughout to provide the basis for human dignity, we ensured continuity and looking to the future, when we conducted school examinations even in the midst of a difficult military campaign. That commitment to education is unique, and I think bodes well for the enhanced efficiency we must aim at as education and advanced training become even more important. We need to ensure that all our citizens are able to embrace the opportunities a country finally at peace can provide. For that purpose I believe the liberal philosophy of education is the most suitable, and I trust we will be able to proceed on these lines to ensure excellence, choice and a wider effectiveness.