There has been much concern expressed in Parliament recently about the Right to Education, including through an Adjournment Motion dealing with university admissions. Opposition Members of Parliament have gone so far as to highlight the need for reforms on the lines suggested by the Minister of Higher Education when he initiated legislation to encourage and monitor alternative methods of provision, though sadly one cannot be sure that their leadership will back such measures.

Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara

Experience has shown that political expediency often trumps principle when such issues come to a vote, and I fear that those who have been forthright in their appeals for reform will succumb to pressure if there is a bandwagon to join.

With regard to education, we are still stuck in a mindset that confuses the Right to Education with a state monopoly. The fact that government must provide education to those who will otherwise be deprived of it for financial reasons is sacrosanct, and we in Sri Lanka must be proud that we have instituted this at all levels.

Less idealistic countries confine this to primary level, which is all that UN Conventions demand – though even this is not universal. Most countries manage also to provide secondary education free as their needs dictate, though sadly even those countries that pioneered free tertiary education have in some cases made adjustments that entail charges, of various magnitudes. One way of removing the injustice of this, in the Rawlsian sense of justice requiring level playing fields, is to provide loans to cover charges, repayable only when university education has led to a higher level job.

Sri Lanka has not come to that, which must be welcomed and cherished. But a corollary of this generosity is that the number of those receiving free tertiary education is limited. This is accompanied by a mindset that still distinguishes between academic and technological skills, and denies degree status to the latter. This contributes to failure to include in technological education the range of soft skills that will facilitate higher level employment and encourage the entrepreneurship and initiative that promote productivity. Interestingly, a continuing example of this mindset, that denies to teaching the status it deserves, was apparent in a recent discussion where traditional educationists demanded academic competence from teachers before they could be permitted a degree, whereas we should also be taking seriously the alternative of action research as the required top up to convert certification of pedagogical skills into a degree in education.

Education, the right of every child. File photo

Given continuing teacher shortages, given shortages of applicants for high level jobs, given the need to upgrade worker skills for possible foreign employment too, it is clear that we need to diversify the provision of tertiary education. While certainly some of our universities have managed successfully the internal changes needed to produce graduates with thinking and problem solving and decision making skills, instead of those only knowledgeable about particular restricted fields (and that too in a very limited fashion, given the worrying level of several General Degree programmes), the difficulties employers at more demanding levels have indicates that there is much more to do.

It is therefore a developmental imperative that we encourage more institutions to provide the required education, and in different ways so as to encourage a range of skills and competencies. But I believe it is also a moral imperative, in terms of the Right to Education that is the most important of Rights in ensuring distributive justice. Social mobility has throughout the world developed through educational reform that expanded opportunities, and Sri Lanka was no exception, as the achievements of the Kannangara reforms showed. But, sadly, we have forgotten that Kannangara, whilst ensuring that those who would otherwise be deprived had institutions that allowed them to develop their talents, continued to allow alternative systems to flourish. This both relieved the system he had instituted of financial pressures and encouraged experimentation, whilst promoting excellences that afterwards could feed into his institutions too.

That such opportunities have been shut down is surely also a violation of Rights, and I suspect that an enlightened Supreme Court, which has shown itself aware of the negative effects of excessive statism, will rule in favour of choice if a challenge to the status quo were brought.

Certainly there can be no justification for the current sharp dichotomy between those dependent on a restricted state and those able to take advantage of international opportunities at the cost of funds that could otherwise benefit the country at large. Given the concern recently expressed with regard to education in terms of Rights, I hope that logic will prevail, and the Right to obtain Education at all levels, without continuing dependence on the state, will be claimed and granted.

Daily News 16 July 2012 –