I was asked last week to speak at the first national seminar arranged by the Officer Career Development Centre at Buttala. I have been familiar with the place for twenty years now, for it is situated in what used to be the Buttala Affiliated University College, in the days when I coordinated English programmes at all those Colleges. The site had been developed for the 1992 Gam Udawa, and my involvement with the place helped me to appreciate President Premadasa’s vision in having such events.

Though some elements in both national and international media mocked them as the world’s most expensive birthday parties, they provided a focus for development, with infrastructure that would be of lasting benefit to areas that had not had such concentrated attention before. The present Government is engaged in something similar through its Deyata Kirula celebrations, though this is only a supplement to the wider development in the regions which is its flagship.

I much welcome the establishment of the OCDC because its Mission and Objectives indicate a clearer understanding of our educational and training needs than I have seen in those formally responsible for education. It is true that glimpses of what is needed can be seen in the pronouncements and efforts at developing policy that the various agencies responsible for education have come out with, but given the chaos of our administrative structures and the difficulties of taking and implementing decisions, I am relieved that a more efficient and clearsighted body has also entered into the field.

Amongst the objectives of the Centre is ‘to assist schools, universities, government institutions, corporations and provide institutes in developing leadership traits and social skills’. These skills are vital for students and student groups, but our education system pays little attention to them. Though at last we have convinced the Ministry to make extra-curricular activities compulsory, I fear that implementation of that provision will take ages, and there will be no proper effort to encourage and sustain it.

That is why the Ministry of Higher Education had to develop a pre-university programme that promoted attitudinal change in youngsters who had spent what should have been the most exciting years of their life confined, not to books, but to tuition classes. Indeed, so boring must their lives have been, that I can even sympathize with the breakaways from those classes that many adolescents engaged in, though I could wish we had better mechanisms to avoid the increase in teenage pregnancies nationwide that has resulted.

Sadly, instead of trying to understand why almost all students who participated in the orientation programme conducted last year by the forces enjoyed it so much, our prophets of doom complained, in pursuance of their customary animosity to anything done by the military. The parrot cry of militarization, made with no understanding of what militarization in the negative sense means, and no appreciation of the signal contribution to civilian life in all countries that the military can provide when exceptional skills are needed, nearly put paid to the programme.

That would have left new students to suffer, as they have done for years, the brutal familiarization programmes arranged by political groups that see ragging as a way of ensuring conformity. The techniques used, which have often led to physical injury as well as mental torment, are what one associates with militarization in the negative sense, whereas the inspiring programme of enjoyable but strenuous activities the military had prepared was both inspiring and instructive. I am delighted therefore that the programme continues, and the fact that the OCDC will provide a conceptual base for such activities is heartening in a context in which so many good things we do are ad hoc, and thus not sustained.

The task that had been allotted to me was to speak on nation building with a focus of protecting the country from social threats and revolutionizing the education system. I was delighted by this radical approach, and believe very strongly that the military needs to take the lead in providing this, given the slow pace at which other institutions move, even when they are willing to promote reforms.

I had spoken on this theme twice last year, and am still hoping that the Kotelawala Defence University will be able to move on some of the suggestions made, including the development of courses for school leavers with stress on social skills as well. I think this is particularly important for the North, but youngsters elsewhere should also be able to benefit from any such programmes on offer.

Unfortunately progress seems to be slow, though initially the academics at the University seemed as keen as the officers. I hope therefore that they are not allowing that customary reason for moribundity, allowing the excellent to be the enemy of the good, and therefore seeking to formulate courses without flaws, stand in the way of progress. In particular, given the problems of livelihood development that continue to affect the North, it is vital to engage in systematic training, and I believe the SF Commanders there are ready and willing to put their men at the service of the local communities. But structures must be developed, with qualifications that will be acceptable anywhere in the world, which is why the involvement of the KDU is so important.

What I suggested then, and it bears repeating, is the ‘development of formal qualifications, certificates and diplomas and degrees, based on a modular approach that enables youngsters to select from menus of learning that will give them a better future. This is something I believe the Kotelawala Defence University should start, because it is in a better position to introduce the flexibility with regard to educational qualifications that our traditional universities find difficult’.

But there are other programmes too that could be put in place, as I indicated at Buttala, which I will expand on later.

The Island 21 Jan 2013 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=70863