Politicizing Education, FUTA’s Trade Union Action and Government Spending

Uniquely as far as the developing world goes, and pretty much as far as the whole world too, Sri Lanka does not in theory permit private education. There are a few official exceptions that we all know about, namely a few private schools that are immensely popular. Then there are official exceptions in the form of paid postgraduate and diploma programmes which the universities run, and which continue to function with input from separately paid FUTA members even while the strike for undergraduate courses continue.

Then we have unofficial paid education, in the form firstly of what are termed international schools, some preparing students for international examinations, others for Sri Lankan exams in English medium. The whole country is dotted with such schools, and they have in fact a very efficient organization that prepares good textbooks, or procures them from international, mainly Indian, publishers. Secondly there are branches of a number of foreign universities, usually ones not well known in their countries of origin, though there are some exceptions. These prepare students for foreign degrees, and most can now cover the full course here, though in some cases students go abroad for one or more years.

Finally, most lucrative of all, we have tuition, which many students now consider essential to get through public examinations. In many cases, tuition is given in large tutories, in several of which serving teachers are stakeholders, and where they often teach. Sometimes tuition is arranged privately, often for teachers who explain to their students that such supplementation is necessary.

Checking with my students at university, I would find that, with one or two exceptions, all had gone for tuition. The idea that education was free was not something that they took seriously in their struggle to get into university. This is perhaps understandable, since when supply does not equal demand, then inevitably there will be alternative sources of supply. Ironically, those who argue vociferously that, to preserve free education, formal institutions supplying education at a price should be banned, pay no attention to the tuition industry which not only makes enormous amounts of money nationwide but is also deeply parasitic upon the free state system, in that those supposed to benefit from that system are providers as well as recipients.

I do not think that hypocrisy is necessarily involved in the programmes of protest that we see. Rather, this selectivity is a necessary feature of what is a politicized process, so that those opposed to government must take what advantages they can, when they know that government personnel also take advantage of the system. Though in theory state institutions are independent, we know that many decisions, from the appointment of Vice-Chancellors to selection of students to prestigious schools, are made by politicians. It is inevitable therefore that, when they see a chance to make political capital, both politicians and intellectuals opposed to government will take their chance.

Sadly, their answer to current problems is simply more statism. They believe that, somewhere in an idyllic future, there exists the possibility of academic autonomy within a totally statist system The fact that over fifty years the politicization of education has got worse must surely indicate to anyone with a scientific turn of mind, and a regard for inductive reasoning, that the answer should be a reduction of the role of the state. But so entrenched are prejudices, along with the recognition of advantages that can be obtained, that radical change seems anathema to all.

I mentioned a period of 50 years because it was then that the rot really began, with the takeover of schools nationwide. I suppose that was understandable in a context in which the Catholic Church seemed involved in anti-governmental activity, but the remedy proved disastrous – and it is no secret that all major political figures since then have sent their children to the few private schools that remained, or to the international schools that sprang up in the eighties. The exception to this was Royal College, which was graced by Anura Bandaranaike, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, and several others, whose performance in public life speaks for itself – though I should note that Eran Wickramaratne, who did distinguish himself at school, unlike those worthies, is an honourable exception.

The universities followed suit under Minister iriyagolle in the next government, and this was followed by the aggressively centralizing approach of the United Front government of 1970, which created a single university. Though the Jayewardene government that succeeded claimed to restore autonomy, it continued to control, a factor that was masked by the capabilities of a couple of Vice-Chancellors of the time, notably those in Colombo and Moratuwa. Trusted as they were, they were permitted a free rein. But there was no effort to introduce the reforms needed if the new universities that were established were to produce graduates suited to the new economic opportunities that were emerging.

The Premadasa regime, and its dynamic UGC Chairman, did try to change things, through the Affiliated University Colleges, and promotion of modernizing units such as the Sri Jayewardeneputa Management Faculty, but President Wijetunge soon put paid to that, sacking the Chairman over a personal matter. Unfortunately the Kumaratunga government did not stop to think, and converted the AUCs into traditional universities, where they have suffered since then as pale shadows of institutions they cannot emulate. Meanwhile, as was most obvious in Peradeniya, the type of witch hunt the Jayewardene regime had engaged in, was imitated, though less thoroughly, given the less ruthless – or perhaps less competent – approach of its perpetrators.

So, despite some excellent ideas that emerged from the Task Force President Kumaratunga set up, little was done to reform the system. Good ideas were grafted onto a moribund system. By the time government realized that it needed radical change, it was too late. Tara de Mel was Secretary to the Ministry all too briefly on two occasions, and the second time her hands were tied by the President foolishly taking her away on tsunami work, in what I can only describe as envy that it had all been set in place effectively while she was away.

Typically, following the change of government in 2005, it was assumed that whatever Tara had done should be undone, and we therefore had five years of reversion to type. However, with a revitalized government in 2010, the need for reform was obvious, and the Ministry of Higher Education did try to introduce some changes. I should note here my continuing regard for the Minister and the Secretary who have had the courage to point out the need for reform. Though action could have been swifter, and more consultation should have taken place, they did try, and it would be a tragedy if this opportunity for reform passed the country by. Conversely, though there were efforts to reform the school education system, continuing lethargy at the Ministry seems to have overcome the intention of the Minister, way back in 2010, to introduce a new Act. This was intended to make clear the need for greater responsibility in the system, and greater accountability based on individual schools, but naturally those who now wield immense power in the Ministry seem to have sidetracked the effort.

So things have now come to a head, with opponents of the government scenting blood and determined to push protest to its limits. Aided by a series of blunders, not so much with regard to decisions as to failure to explain matters rationally and precisely, FUTA has now announced a strike that is clearly political in intention. Though there are claims for enhanced salaries, this has paled before the assertion that government must commit 6% of GDP to education before work is resumed. So undergraduates continue to suffer – something they are used to, given the range of mechanisms used to stop work, student strikes, academic strikes, non-academic strikes, working to rule and of course ragging – and courses that are in any case longer than they should be, four years for what should be done in three, given the intensity of our Advanced Level syllabuses, now drag on for longer. Thus what government spends on education is squandered, while if more were committed, that too would be similarly squandered, as more and more excuses are found to provide less value for more money.

That of course lies at the heart of the problem, namely that it is not a question of what is spent, but rather of how it is spent. Academics themselves are guilty of ignoring this, since they too, when they can make demands, concentrate on capital expenditure, new buildings, more computers, accretions to libraries that are not read. Twelve years ago in Sabaragamuwa we found millions squandered on print outs that cost Rs 10,000 each while funds for recurrent expenditure were diverted to capital spending through a brilliant sleight of hand that the UGC ignored. In the old days, my father, as Secretary General, used to say that all politicians wanted Ministries, and they all wanted Ministries which would construct. The same seems true of academics, who want to be Vice-Chancellors and then embark on massive building programmes. Trying to improve the quality of the courses on offer, and the teaching, takes second place.

Incidentally, this passion for construction can be linked to the determination of the Ministry to have a monopoly on the supply of textbooks. The abuse this leads to became obvious to me when I saw how much was spent on printing these books, a much greater sum – despite what should have been economies of scale – than I had used when I produced the English medium books for the first year in which that was permitted. Printing contracts were given out to those who then printed posters for the politicians responsible for awarding the contracts. And when Tara de Mel tried to introduce a multiple book option scheme, having driven off professional publishers, NIE officials set up cartels which produced the books, with perpetuation of the errors Tara’s more professional approach had sought to circumvent.

Such abuse, due to peculation or carelessness, of the funds that are available is I believe true in general of the school system. Taken as a whole, government does not spend much less than Singapore does as a percentage of GDP, but much of this goes on salaries for teachers who are not present. No other country permits teachers 40 days of leave in addition to long holidays, no other country conducts all training courses during school working hours. Many years ago, when I worked for the British Council, we helped to set up Regional Support Centres all over the country, but whereas these should be used by teachers outside school hours (not working hours, for teachers too are expected to have a full working day right through the year), these close in vacations. They are not open on Saturdays or Sundays, whereas they should be, with their staff given off days during the school week.

The same, I should add, is true of the many Teacher Centres set up all over the country. When I ask schools about extra-curricular activities, they talk of sports meets, for which children are taken out of class throughout the first term. Or they mention concerts for which rehearsals take place in school hours. The idea that schooling requires extra-curricular activities after the period set aside for teaching is not common in most schools in the country.

Big Colombo schools are an exception, which is another reason for their products having access to jobs, which require additional skills in addition to basic academic qualifications. But there is no effort on the part of the Ministry to insist, as other countries do, that teachers also help with extra-curricular activities. On the contrary, they see their working days as ending when the final class bell rings (or ealier, given the provisions for short leave as well as the need to go to education offices to sort out various private matters). Tuition can be given then, but the fact that this is a deadly parasite on what free education there is, is never considered.

When expenditure on education is calculated as a percentage of GDP, in other countries expenditure outside the state system is also included. In Sri Lanka, given that such education is not formally recognized, such calculation is difficult. Both the Central Bank, and the National Education Commission, have estimated what is spent on tuition, but this is not widely known. Figures for expenditure on education abroad, which several students have to resort to, given the paucity within Sri Lanka of universities that can ensure decent jobs, have also been prepared, but these too do not figure in the debate.

Nor do statistics of those responsible for the delivery of education whose children go abroad for their degrees. I was astonished, when I was a Consultant at the Ministry of Education on two separate occasions, at the number of staff there whose children were abroad, in England and Australia and India and Nepal. Whether the charges are affordable on Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education salaries is a moot point, but I suppose parents must do whatever they can to ensure that their children get a good education. That I cannot object to, but to preside over a system that does not provide a good education seems to me irresponsible. I am reminded then of what I found during a brief stint at S. Thomas’, when the then Warden had declared that his students came from a class that did not need to go to University. The Board did not sack him on the spot, but of the two members who had children of school going age, one – Bradman Weerakoon – had sent his son to Royal, while the other managed to get the required qualifications after leaving school.

What I find abhorrent is the universal understanding that alternatives are essential, accompanied by a steadfast opposition to all alternatives. I believe it is imperative that we move now to alternative methods of supply, recognizing the enormous demand there is for more and better education. This should however be done systematically, with concerted efforts to improve the delivery of free education where it is needed, and in particular in our rural areas where access to the alternatives there exist is difficult or impossible.

School based teacher recruitment is essential, with monitoring at Divisional level, instead of classifications in terms of Zones that are large areas with diverse needs. School boards should be established with the involvement of local professionals as well as parents, to monitor activities and results, though not to interfere in the administration. Checklists of what should be achieved in schools must be supplied to all stakeholders.

With regard to teacher supply, we must promote alternative systems of delivery. Unfortunately the debate now is conducted in terms of private versus state, and we forget the enormous contribution of the non-profit sector in the days when we established our

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott with Ven. Hikkaduwe Siri Sumangala Thera

primacy in South Asia. Anglican missionaries, Catholic educationists, and determined Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim social visionaries led by Colonel Olcott, are now forgotten, in our dogmatic assertion that only the state – and hence politicians – can contribute to education.

For fifty years and more, we have failed to provide enough teachers in English and Maths and Science, and it is the rural students who suffer from this. Successive Ministers of Education think they can solve the problem, and blame their predecessors, instead of realizing that it is the monopoly they preside over that is at fault. The statists claim that there is no way of ensuring that the products of alternative systems will be satisfactory, which begs the question of whether their own products are satisfactory. In any case, the solution to that problem is not to ban such initiatives, but to subject their products to formal evaluation before permitting them to teach in the state system.

We need also to promote alternative textbooks and make supplementary reading material available on a wide scale. That this can be done locally is obvious from the beautiful and informative booklets prepared by the Disaster Management Centre with regard to hazards, but I doubt these being taken up by the Education Ministry. In addition we should take advantage of the hugely competitive schoolbook publishing industry in India, and encourage partnerships to produce attractive and accurate texts for our children, instead of the turgid fact (and non-fact) filled tomes they have to plough through.

FUTA, I would like to think, is idealistic, but I suspect they, and the vested interests that are less idealistic, will not allow this. Unfortunately, because over the years we have abandoned proper consultative systems, we have not been able to get the best from those educationists, at universities and in the school system, who do want our education system to develop and serve all our people better. I can only hope that the present crisis will lead to reforms that are both practical and inclusive, so that the best minds can work together without prejudice to give our children a better service.

Daily News 29 Sept 2012 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/09/29/fea01.asp Part 1

Daily News 04 Spt 2012 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/10/04/fea01.asp Part 2