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In considering the crisis that has hit our education system so comprehensively in the last few months, I have begun to wonder whether we have not been the victims of our own success. We were doing extremely well with regard to mass education when we got independence 64 years ago, in part because of Kannangara’s visionary reforms, but also because he had a high standard to aim at through the private and public schools that were flourishing at the time – thanks to Anglican missionaries, Catholic educationists, and determined Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim social visionaries led by Colonel Olcott.

So we rested on our laurels, and thought the percentages in the education system, and our literacy rates, fantastic, and particularly so with regard to girls. We were far ahead of not only other South Asian countries in this regard, but of most Asian countries too. And though many have overtaken us, and the others are catching up, we still feel complacent.

The effect our initial success may have had came home to me when, in Islamabad recently, I was given a presentation on the system they have developed by the Pakistan Army Public Schools & Colleges Secretariat. They started by telling me that the army had decided to set up schools way back in the seventies because, in may areas in which they had stations, there were no good schools. Indeed in some areas there were no schools at all.
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Having looked at one example of rent seeking, in an unusual format, in the field of education, I came across another that was also quite illuminating about the way in which we allow ourselves to be exploited. This, also startling, case of abuse came to my notice when I went through the documents sent by the National Lotteries Board, after they had been examined by the Committee on Public Enterprises, and been found wanting.

What I read seemed to suggest appalling waste, and I hope very much that COPE will include strong strictures in its Report and recommend strongly that better systems be put in place. Though the aberrations that came to my notice had occurred a decade ago, and I don’t suppose there is any way in which the money wasted by government can be recovered, there are lessons to be learnt.

In particular it seems clear that there should be measures to ensure more careful assessments by Cabinet or any Committee it appoints about proposals made in Cabinet papers. As far as I can make out, what happened then was that the Minister of Economic Reform, Science and Technology had a discussion with ‘Norwegian Authorities’, who were not specified, and then put a paper to Cabinet to ‘set up a scholarship fund to provide scholarships to needy students in the country through an innovative lottery project’. Why the Minister of Economic Reform, Science and Technology should have been concerned with lotteries or with scholarship funds is not clear, but it seems that the question did not occur to Cabinet. Perhaps the word Norwegian was seen then as a sign sent from God, or the Prime Minister, so the Cabinet then approved setting up a Committee to ‘negotiate suitable terms & conditions with NORSE TIPPING Norwegian Lottery and make suitable recommendations’.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2020
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