By Rathindra Kuruwita
Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha who initially defected from the Rajapaksa regime along with President Maithripala Sirisena and later supported Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last general election said while he was ‘glad’ the change was made said the incumbent government too like the previous regime was making the mistake of doing ‘too little too late’ in terms of reconciliation.
Q. You are planning to publish a book on education, a collection of your old essays. Did you choose to publish the book at this time for a specific reason?
A. When I found myself without a formal occupation in August, I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on the past and engage in some assessments. A publisher agreed to bring out three books, though two of them are in fact collections of articles. The most important of these, is on Reform, Rights and Good Governance, and it will be available at Godage’s from the 22nd, when it will be launched by the Speaker and Sarath Amunugama.
There is another book on poetry, and also a new book, currently being serialized in Ceylon Today on The Rajapaksa Years: Triumph and Disaster. The first part of this, Success in War, will also come out later this year.
In collecting old writings, I remembered that I had thought of doing the same with my writings on education several years ago. I had prepared something earlier this year, soon after I ceased to be Minister of Higher Education, which put together a lot of ideas which built on my earlier experiences too. Given that the situation has got much worse than it was a decade back, I thought it desirable to publish the earlier essays.
After all I have more experience in the different aspects of this field than anyone else, given the work I have done in Secondary and Higher and Vocational Education – I spent much of my decentralized budget on this last when I realized how badly it was neglected – so an overview such as my book should be helpful for planners. But whether anyone plans on the basis of knowledge and past experience is a moot point, when one considers how keen the system is on reinventing wheels and ensuring that they are square.
Q. Making Higher Education available to as wide a section as possible of the Sri Lankan population is an objective that you have tried to achieve for a long time. How can Sri Lanka, with its constraints on resources, expand education in a large enough scale?
A. The most important step to take is to allow for alternative systems of delivery. While the principle that everyone must have access to free education should be an absolute that does not mean that we need uniformity or banning of private education. Obviously even those who claim that allowing private education will damage the State system must realize how hypocritical their argument is, since education in Sri Lanka is now provided most prominently by tuition masters.
We must allow for alternatives, in the provision of education, in the development of materials, in the training of teachers, and also educational administrators. Unfortunately we now have monopolies in all these areas, at least in theory, which means that the alternatives, which are inevitable when you have a corrupt and incompetent monopoly, are secretive and therefore, cannot be monitored.
But the alternatives are killed, as those who made money on school books did so effectively to the multiple book option proposed when Dr. Tara de Mel was Secretary. And I realized why when I found that the English medium books I produced cost less than half the Sinhala and Tamil medium books did, even though we were producing far fewer and those should have been much less, given economies of scale.
Horrendously, the Ministry tried to stop me putting additional information into the books, on the grounds that they had to be uniform with the government texts, and I even had the audit attacking me about this – even though the contract suggested that we provide additional information to students, given the appalling lack of general knowledge in the established system. In effect the bureaucrats in charge wanted a lowest common denominator approach, which means that every year knowledge and skills decline – and the capacity of teachers too diminishes.
Q. Teacher training is one of the most important factors in improving our education standard. This has been acknowledged by almost all parties. So why have we not been able to properly train teachers in an adequate number?
A. It is because we have a sausage machine mentality where everything has to be uniform. Take for instance what is happening at Pasdunrata, which was the flagship for English teachers, and which produced excellent English teachers in its first few years. First, Mr. Lokubandara got rid of its principal in the days when he thought that he had to rescue education from the mess Ranil Wickremesinghe had made – whereas in fact Ranil was a good Minister of Education, the only job in which he excelled. Then the Ministry insisted on a uniform syllabus, so that the trainees had to do their other subjects in Sinhala, which of course, reduced the time and the incentives to improve their English language skills. Now, most recently, the Ministry has decided to accommodate many other subjects there, which will dilute English learning further. The staff and students have protested, but I suspect no one reads their letters. I tried to get Tara de Mel to get former President Kumaratunga to intervene, since she was genuinely interested in education and was strongly supportive of our efforts to introduce the English medium, but it seems she has no authority in this area. Why she allowed education to be entrusted to someone with little knowledge in the field, in the days when she had some input into Cabinet formation is beyond me, but as I told her at the time, her capacity to relax when a crisis is over has been her bugbear all her life.
Q. Successive governments have been claiming that they want to change school and university curriculum to better suit changing job markets. How successful have we been on this and as a person who has held positions of power on education, would you say that there is a systemic resistance for such changes?
A. Yes, those who have to implement reforms prefer to stick in their comfort zones and resist innovation. Indeed they prefer regression, as I realized when I found that at Sabaragamuwa for instance Milton Friedmann had been removed from the syllabus after I ceased being Dean. The reason I think is that the lecturers relied on the notes they had got when they were at university, and Friedmann was not taught then. Students, who are at least aware of modern thinking, told me sadly that they studied Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes.
And of course with no necessity to learn English properly and keep up with modern learning, some of those who are stuck in the mud do not realize their predicament. As President Kumaratunga put it at the first Sabaragamuwa Convocation, we must be the only country where the frogs in the well dig deeper and deeper into the mud.
Q. You have been one of the first MPs to leave Mahinda Rajapaksa Government to support Maithripala Sirisena. It has been now almost a year since the change of the Rajapaksa administration, how do you feel about the new government?
A. I am still glad the change was made, because I think those who were destroying President Rajapaksa were getting more and more influential with each passing day. I could not for instance believe that he could have completely ignored the attack on Chris Nonis and taken the side of Sajin and Kshenuka. But having said that, this government failed to keep most of its promises and is not at all interested in the systemic changes needed to promote good government. Sadly they were only concerned with the election and with jobs for their boys, and even the type of corruption exemplified by the Central Bank Bond Scam. The poor President has had to forget several pledges made in his manifesto, for instance the commitment to improving services through Divisional Secretariats, and instead we are subject to ill thought out decisions that are reversed at will, depending on whom Ranil Wickremesinghe is most angry with or most frightened of at any given moment. This is no way to run a government, and I think the President must now be regretting his hasty decision in August which gave the UNP so many seats, whereas a more balanced Parliament would have served his Reform Agenda better.
Q. What do you think should be government’s main areas of focus on education in 2016?
A. Curriculum reform based on study of best practice, new Acts for Education and Higher Education, and more professional teacher training with a clear focus on outcomes and monitoring. It is also vital to strengthen school based administration, for which government should also move to school based recruitment of teachers, and entrenching extra-curricular activities and the development of soft skills, not concentration on rote learning.
Q. You were once the Secretary-General of the Sri Lankan Government Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process. The Missing Persons’ Commission said that it will visit Army camps to investigate alleged illegal detention and torture in these camps. Do you think that this is an indication that the country is moving in the right direction regarding investigating human rights abuses?
A. I welcome any strengthening of the Paranagama Commission, which has done a great job so far, though I am sorry that it has been shorn of some of the expertise that enabled it to produce such a good report. It is horrifying that government suppressed that report, and allows far less professional critiques of our war effort priority, to the extent of expressing appreciation of partisan attacks on us without highlighting our capacity, as exemplified by the Paranagama Commission and the lawyers led by Desmond de Silva, to deal with our own problems. Of course, the Rajapaksa Government did far too little too late, but now it looks like this government is doing the same, failing for instance to act on the Udalagama Commission, even with regard to the killing of the youngsters in Trincomalee as to which there is no doubt that indictments should be made. When I recommended this seven years ago, the then Attorney General told me that he would not get a conviction, but I told him that was not the point, it was vital that government made clear its rejection of such practices by at least bringing charges.
I heard someone say that the government attacking or meekly accepting attacks on Sir Desmond was because it wanted to embarrass the Rajapaksas, but that is no way to promote reconciliation. The President, who gave his wholehearted support to the war effort, but who realized that in the last couple of years the Rajapaksa Government had lost its way, should make it clear that he is concerned with reconciliation, not retribution or political revenge. And he must certainly stop his Foreign Minister virtually admitting that our forces behaved appallingly, and thinking that he is not betraying them because he claims that they only followed orders. We need transparency and honesty, but not political revenge through betrayal of the signal achievement of our forces, as well as the political leadership between 2005 and 2009.
Ceylon Today 24 December 2015 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/89-113142-news-detail-im-glad-regime-was-changed.html