budget 2014Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

On the votes of the Ministries of Higher Education and Sports

During the Committee Stage of the Budget Debate, November 17th 2014

Mr Speaker, I am happy to speak on the votes of these two Ministries, which are both in their different ways so vital for the development of this country. Though I shall for obvious reasons concentrate on the work of the Ministry of Higher Education, I would like to congratulate both Ministers for their imaginative approach to the subjects coming under them. With regard to Sports, the efforts of the Minister to have it incorporated formally in all schools are laudable, and I can only hope he succeeds.

This was a decision of the Consultative Committee on Education, and it is a pity that those decisions have not as yet been translated into action. But while all the reforms that are contemplated are worthy, it does make sense to proceed with what is possible, given that vested interests seem to be delaying the full fruition of the Parliamentary recommendations. I hope therefore, that with His Excellency the President also committed to making sports compulsory, the Minister will soon succeed.

This is the more important because the qualities that develop through Sports in particular, but also other extra-curricular activities, are essential for productive employment. Team work and leadership and other aspects of socialization are vital, and at present opportunities to develop these are confined to children in the more popular schools. I have been shocked at the lack of extra-curricular activities in the many rural schools I look at during Reconciliation meetings in Divisional Secretariats in the North and East, and I am sure this is true all over the island. Given that for most jobs what employers look for is not just academic attainments, but evidence of other skills, it is vital that the proposal of the Minister has an impact soon in rural areas too.

This bears on the main point I wish to make with regard to Higher Education, where urgent reform is needed. The Minister and the Secretary did their best, and though the draft they prepared could have been improved, it is a great pity that the Legal Draughtsman’s Department ignored that draft and spent ages producing something not substantially different. I suspect, Mr Speaker, that the damage done to development by the Legal Draughtsman’s Department, by its delays, will loom large in the future, and amongst its worst shortcomings was the delay with regard to Higher Education.

Significantly, the need to have thought more carefully about this came up when the whole concept of Free Education was popularized. Though what Kannangara did with his Central Schools was invaluable, in extending opportunities nationwide, when the idea of Free Education was thrust upon the State Council Committee at the very end of its deliberations, there was more stress on the word Free, and not enough on Education.

Characteristically, D S Senanayake pointed this out, in his speech to the State Council towards the end of its days. What he said then is well worth quoting at length –

DSIndustry in this country has yet to be developed. Today Government service is still regarded as offering the most attractive jobs. The Civil Service is today looked up to as the most attractive branch of the Government service. But I feel that if our country is to prosper, we must recognise the fact that it is the industrialist who can prove to be of great service to the country while at the same time benefiting himself,. The industrialist can be of far greater service to the country than the Civil Servant.

 

We speak of industrialization in Ceylon but we do not seem to realise that we require well-trained personnel to enable us to compete in the industrial sphere with other parts of the world. We also want agriculturists who could help this country to compete on equal terms with the rest of the world.

We realise that 80 per cent of the people of the country, according to the estimate of the Special Committee on Education, must take to industry and agriculture. I feel therefore that any scheme of educational reform that takes no account of these factors tends to ignore the usefulness of our student population to the community in the future.

 

When the age-limit is revised to sixteen, what happens? We carry on with the same kind of education up to the age of sixteen, whether it is bad Sinhalese, bad Tamil or English. We would not get that bias that is required, that was expected to be given to students from eleven to sixteen. They would not get that training; and if we get any students at all, they will be students over sixteen who have been rejected everywhere. They will not have the necessary bias and we will have to start all over again.

 

One problem Senanayake diagnosed was the failure of adequate consultation. He put that down to the unusual system that obtained under the State Council, where there was no question of Cabinet responsibility –

 

The duty of making the actual proposals is entrusted to the Executive Committee concerned … But I have one little complaint to make in this regard. Although an Executive Committee does or omits to do something, the only body that is blamed for it is the Board of Ministers. In these circumstances, one feels that it would be well if the Ministers as a body were given an opportunity of considering a report as a whole and were allowed to put forward their own proposals … So far as my Ministry and I were concerned, we would have been only too happy to be associated with my good friends in evolving a scheme or discussing a scheme for discharging our duty to the large number of students who were to be placed under our care.

 

Unfortunately, though we have Cabinet government now, the norms of Cabinet government do not apply, and there is insufficient coordination. Thus the need to diversify, to provide more and better vocational and technical training, and also provide degrees and opportunities for advancement in skills suitable to higher level employment, is not taken seriously.

With the cooperation also of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, I have been able to look into the situation more closely, and not only as regards the North and East. But though there is great goodwill on all sides, we do not have systems in place to ensure swift action, and also to empower more and better service providers. Unfortunately the efforts of the Minister of Higher Education proved abortive, while our efforts at COPE to introduce a greater sense of accountability in those now responsible for education at the universities has not been properly understood. Setting in place mechanisms to all institutions to fulfil their responsibilities to the students as well as the country at large would be easy, but it requires great will and commitment.

I am grateful to the Minister and the Secretary who decided earlier this year to appoint me to an Advisory Position. Better late than never, I thought at the time, given my long experience of the system and education in general. However, having now put forward a constitutional amendment to prevent Members of Parliament having any formal involvement with any Ministry, which seems important if the Doctrine of the Separation of Powers is to be upheld as best possible under this strange hybrid Constitution we have, I felt I should resign. Besides, though my suggestions were well received, the system moves so slowly that we need more effective mechanisms if we are to develop a system suited to the modern age, and the varied talents of our students. I hope then that the Minister will try in what time remains to move swiftly on the excellent ideas with which he began his tenure of office.

These include the promotion of public-private partnerships in providing educational services. This is essential if we are to increase the range of courses on offer, as well as provide better education to more people. Unfortunately there was insufficient consultation and explanation to begin with, which allowed opponents, including those within the government who are still stuck in unthinking dogma, to claim that the plan was to do away with free education. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but rather what was sought was to provide education to those who now have no access to free education, and who often have to spend exorbitant amounts to obtain degrees in other countries, degrees as to which we have no monitoring capacity.

The failure to regularize the availability of paid courses within Sri Lanka put paid to our being able to encourage courses that would benefit the nation, it also prevented us from developing a scholarship scheme which would have allowed bright students access to different forms of delivery. And we were deprived of developing healthy competition that might have made the more traditional of our universities realize they had to make changes in their programmes.

I remember, Mr Speaker, when this government seemed full of innovation and committed to pluralism, the enthusiasm of university administrators in Australia who wished to set up courses within this country. There were experts in nursing and in teaching who would have done much to enhance the skills of our students. But nothing was done to help them, and we are now struggling to satisfy the need for developing expertise in these fields. Unfortunately, when we bring up the subject of pedagogical skills in the Consultative Committee, we find resistance despite the efforts of the Minister and the Secretary to get things moving.

I should note however that there are signs of improvement, with more attention to English and soft skills, though perhaps these should be spelled out more carefully, with greater attention to training of trainers in these areas. We should also look at good practice in the past, as with the courses in thinking and self-expression developed by Oranee Jansz when she was Co-Coordinator of the General English Language Training programme until that was swallowed up by the universities, who then deployed the funds for capital expenditure for the most part. Indeed they have only themselves to blame if a similar course had to be started by the Ministry of Defence, which at least knows how to develop initiative and pride in work. The pity is that the universities are not prepared in general to learn from best practice, their own or that of others, which is why we must hope the innovations the Minister is trying to introduce will take root.

There is much to do in these fields, Mr Speaker, and we cannot afford to move slowly. I hope therefore that this Ministry is not stinted of funds, but that better systems of accountability will be introduced – including, as I have long suggested, sharing the accounts with the students, who will be our best safeguards against corruption – and more effective monitoring, as we have suggested in COPE, to make sure that the learning process is constantly upgraded, and that its products are able to serve the nation imaginatively and with a range of skills, as D S Senanayake wanted over half a century ago.

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