In the last few articles in this series, before we know whether or not the Reforms this country needs will be taken forward or not, I will continue to look at the pledges in the President’s manifesto which have been ignored. The most important had to do with structural and political reforms, and of these the Government only bothered about one, leaving half a dozen undone.
But there were also very practical measures, which are equally important if we are to develop as our people deserve. Way back in the seventies the Economist I think described us as the only underdeveloped country that was still under-developing, and in 2001, the then Australian ambassador said he had never known a country go backwards so quickly, as we had done, during the period he had been here. That was one reason that motivated me to vote for the UNP in the December Election, though the way the LTTE ran circles round the government that took over soon caused worry. Still, I think it was a good thing we had a change then, since I think it also put the SLFP, in its PA incarnation which then changed to UPFA, back on its toes.
Development, when he experienced it, came largely through construction, as with D. S. Senanayake and his dams, the Mahaweli in JR’s time, and then the devotion to infrastructural development in rural areas under both Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa. But while we must continue grateful to the last, both for bringing us security, and for his development programmes, in the last couple of years it became clear that not enough was being done with regard to Human Resource Development.
Attempts were made in accordance with the manifesto, but there was no sense of urgency. There was a draft of a new Education Act ready in 2010, but it got bogged down in endless discussions, with quibbling about details and no determination to move on essentials. With regard to Higher Education, the Ministry, under its dynamic Secretary, produced a draft for a new Act but this sank in the bowels of the Legal Draughtsman’s Department, and by the time it emerged there was no stomach to modernize as is so urgently required. There was no coordination either with the Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Education, where officials created a dozen empires, with a host of agencies all doing the same thing. None of them however worked on trainer training, so these institutions never had sufficient staff.
I was pleased then that we were able to come up with very coherent principles in the President’s manifesto. I would have preferred more details and specifics, but the ideas were good to work with, and I was thus able, within six weeks, to produce a draft for a new Higher Education Act that dealt also with vocational education. Unfortunately this was ignored after I left. I did not want to interfere after I had suggested the new Minister go through the draft and then send it out for observations, so it took sometime for him to read it. By the time he did, he said elections would come soon, so there was no point in doing anything – which is precisely what I mean by no sense of urgency, since had discussions commenced a couple of months back, the University Grants Commission could have had recommendations ready for a new Minister.
Amongst the areas addressed in the manifesto were
a) Delays in schooling
b) Inequity for rural children
c) Lack of vocational training opportunities
d) Reorganizing Higher Education to promote Economic productivity
e) Restructuring of Arts courses
f) Autonomy for Universities
I was able, after consultation of those with experience in the field, to produce plans in all these areas. Three capable Vice-Chancellors and the Colombo Professor of Law helped with a new Higher Education Act that gave greater autonomy while increasing accountability. We also tried to simplify matters for students by establishing branches of the UGC in Districts. These would provide information and advice, and allow for applications and appeals to be lodged and presented without the need for long journeys to Colombo.
A sub-committee of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Heads of Institutions very quickly prepared a paper as requested on restructuring of courses and making students more flexible. I also prepared a Cabinet paper on, if not avoiding delays at higher levels, providing productive learning opportunities during the periods now wasted after Ordinary Level and Advanced Level examinations.
This involved setting up Divisional Level Centres that would teach English and Computing, so that students who had neglected these – often because their schools did not have sufficient of good teachers – could catch up. I had also hoped, in accordance with another pledge in the manifesto, that these could become tertiary education centres too for those who could not gain admission to university.
In particular they could be used to overcome one of the principal problems we now face, which is the lack of teachers in essential subjects in rural areas. When we started the Affiliated University Colleges English Courses, I was able to use the best students to work in the pre-University General English Language Training Centres I was also in charge of. Often we had difficulty finding good teachers in distant areas, but the best of the AUC students proved admirable, and later went on to teaching careers at Technical Colleges – another potential source of teachers, if only we had better coordination mechanisms.
But in addition to all these, there is need of reform in a vital particular, which are the school as well as the university curriculum. We do not do enough to develop initiative and problem solving skills. The fact that students are selected for better opportunities on the basis of exams that are catered to by mass tuition classes speaks for itself.
We know that our students who are exposed to different systems do well. In those university faculties which encourage individual thought and group synergizing, students improve by leaps and bounds, and are able to compete with anyone in the world. We find too that students who go abroad for tertiary education, or work at institutes here which have modernized curricula for degrees and diplomas, also develop skills that hold them in good stead for productive employment. But we are still producing far too many graduates who want nothing but a government job, and then do not contribute actively to the productivity of the institutions for which they work.
Radical rethinking then is needed of employment expectations, in both the public and the private sectors. We need to start at school level to introduce a curriculum that brings out the best in children, without subjecting them to rote learning and passivi