The President’s Budget Speech had a lot of innovative suggestions about education. This is just as well, for this is an area in which we must move swiftly, if we are to reap the full fruits of development.
A balanced but trenchant criticism I heard recently of current economic policies is that, while infrastructure has been developed effectively, human resource development has lagged behind. That must be remedied for we must ensure equality of opportunity, even while promoting the private sector as the engine of growth.
In this regard, the example of the Ministry of Economic Development, entrusted to someone with no previous Parliamentary experience, but with a track record of proven practical capacity, suggests one way forward. Sri Lanka has not yet recognized that an Executive Presidency demands technocrats at the helm in areas of urgent concern. We suffer from a preposterous constitution, the only one in the world that confuses an Executive Presidential system with the Westminster model of government that abandons even any pretence of the separation of powers. However, the institution of a Ministry devoted to development has permitted concentration on results, without the need to work also on parochial political concerns in a particular area.
Something of the sort with regard to Human Resource Development seemed on the cards when a Senior Minister of proven competence was assigned responsibility for that subject. However coherent action is simply not possible with the current administrative structures we have, though we can hope that the policy document that has been developed in this regard will improve matters.
Meanwhile the President introduced a breath of fresh air when he declared support for recruitment of teachers within respective localities, plus training them on required subjects. Long ago he advocated more practical methods of teacher deployment, including school based recruitment of teachers. Sadly, the reluctance of Ministries of Education, National as well as Provincial, to allow their power in this regard to be taken away, meant that this seminal suggestion was ignored. Now however it looks like the President means business, with funds allocated for provincial training mechanisms.
I hope this will lead to imaginative and effective training programmes, including provision by expert bodies. It would be good if the suggestion of educationists from all four religions practiced in this country, that teacher training should also be undertaken by the non-profit sector, is taken up, perhaps confining this initially only to those provinces where there are shortages, and only in subjects as to which there are great needs. While independent evaluation can and must be done, by Provincial or National bodies, before the products of such non-state institutions are engaged within the state sector, we must never confuse the obligation of the State to ensure education for all with a monopoly on provision.
The enlightened approach with regard to teacher training has also, it seems, been extended to other types of skills development, given the innovations mentioned with regard to technical training, and the need to provide proper qualifications for this. For years efforts to provide degrees for those entering vocations, on the basis also of soft skills acquired on a modular basis, have fallen flat. The University set up to provide degrees for our many accomplished technicians has failed to do this on the large scale necessary, given the academic orientation of those in charge of educational policy in this country. They still replicate the old British model of education, without realizing that Britain moved beyond this many years ago. Indeed I saw, in a recent discussion on the difference between France and Germany in their capacity to overcome the current economic crisis, that the more practical German model of education may have been a principal factor in its comparative success.
Sadly, despite the excellent impact of the German Technical College over many years, we have failed to replicate it in more, if not all, of our Provinces. And we should not only replicate it, but we should build on the model to also provide modules in the skills needed for the modern world, communication skills, thinking skills, management skills, accounting skills. Though reforms were supposed to increase employability through introducing such skills on university degree programmes, many of our universities still continue to produce graduates who cannot gain employment, so that the state then has to create jobs for them, after having paid for what passes for education over several years. Now, though, under proper management, and with the possibility of innovation before impractical approaches get entrenched, the Skills Development Ministry will be able to ensure a more effective model of training.
But I hope that government will also encourage other service providers to enter the field. I have argued previously that we should make better use in this regard of the forces, whose training capacities are amongst the best in the country. As with other countries that give vocational training to servicemen before they retire, we should set up institutions that will also allow the public to have access, on payment of a fee that covers costs, to such courses. And specialist cadet colleges in rural areas, with encouragement of sports and social service, along with good teaching in all three National Languages, as well as Maths and Computing, will enhance opportunities for those without ready access otherwise to such subjects. Such innovations are vital, if education is to promote social mobility, and allow all children to take advantage of the economic opportunities that are being opened up.
For this purpose we should use the physical resources of schools, and make full use of buildings that are now wasted for half the day and half the year. Recently the Northern Province Education Ministry supported the establishment of Vocational Training Centres in schools in the Mullaitivu District, and I hope such learning centres are developed elsewhere too, so that a holistic education is available for all those who wish to improve themselves.