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The Presidential election took place on January 8th, and by dawn of the 9th it was clear that Maithripala Sirisena had won. All sorts of rumours began to circulate in the early hours, when there was a hiatus in the issuing of results, but that passed soon enough.

We were called then to Green Path, to the office of the Leader of the Opposition, to discuss arrangements for the swearing in, the last time it turned out that all those who had come together to support Sirisena were treated with respect. But I am not sure whether I blotted my copybook irredeemably then when I raised an object to Ravi Karunanayake’s proposal that Ranil Wickremesinghe should be sworn in as Prime Minister immediately after the new President had taken his oaths.

Ranil, who was lounging at the head of the table, shot up sharply when I spoke and declared that there was nothing against him being made Prime Minister straight away. I realized then that Ravi had obviously been prompted to speak, but no one else objected, though they did accept my point that Ranil could not become Prime Minister until there was a vacancy. But Ravi said he would speak to Lalith Weeratunge, who had seemed helpful about the handover, and get him to persuade D M Jayaratne to resign.

That did not happen, so when Ranil was sworn in as Prime Minister at Independence Square there was no vacancy. That did not matter much in practice because obviously members of the previous government had accepted the decision. But it seemed to me a bad precedent, and indicated exactly how anxious Ranil was to affirm his position as virtually the equivalent of the President. Read the rest of this entry »

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light

Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!

It is the business of the wealthy man

To give employment to the artisan.

It was not only in Sri Lanka that, from the inception until very recently, Vocational Training was seen mainly in terms on Technical Education. This is understandable in that this constituted the bulk of what were seen as vocations in earlier days. This was to ignore the socially common use of the word ‘vocation’ as denoting an occupation to which one was committed. On the contrary, vocation when used in conjunction with education or training was seen as equivalent to the word job, such training being designed to find employment. And, to venture into social theory, those who needed to find employment were concerned about blue collar jobs – as opposed to those who, from the gilded halls of the 19th century British university, glided into an occupation, even if it was only smoking.

What might be termed class structures in education continued for a long time in Britain, the most class ridden of societies, at least until the last quarter of the last century, except possibly for Sri Lanka. I still recall the scorn for polytechnics, and the horror at Oxford when these became universities.

Sri Lanka, the last bastion of imperialism, has continued with the dichotomies that Britain has got rid of. We still think of degrees as a precious commodity, to be confined to a very few. Though finally, eight years ago, what was termed the National Institute of Technical Education became a university, it produced hardly any graduates until the last couple of years. And though things are now changing, there is still a tendency to work towards academic qualifications, without stress on practical applications.

We still think in terms of the dichotomy of working with hands and working with the mind. The assumptions of superiority that this dichotomy caused were regrettable. But the division was understandable when the bulk of real work was done in industry and agriculture, with those not engaged in active work functioning at a vast remove physically and conceptually. And it was they after all who decided, as Lewis Carroll might have put it, what words meant.

All that has now changed. The expansion of the middle class has been accompanied by an expansion of what might, to extend the class metaphor, be termed middle level occupations. In addition to work based on technical capacity that is more sophisticated than what was considered the preserve of the blue collar worker, a large proportion of the economy in many countries, and certainly in Sri Lanka, is now based on services. However, while traditional universities develop sophisticated technology skills, there is little training in government educational institutes in Sri Lanka to cater to the service sector. And the general education provided by schools and universities has proved unable to satisfy the needs of many employers. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.30640274In 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.

Read the rest of this entry »

10 Jan 2015The most important issue facing the new President is to restore confidence in the governmental process.

For this purpose it is necessary to establish systems that work according to the Rule of Law, and with full accountability to the people. In this respect it is vital that Parliamentary control of legislation and finances be restored.

This does not mean strengthening an Executive based in Parliament, but rather strengthening Parliament to be an effective check on the Executive. This means strengthening the power of ordinary members of Parliament, both government and opposition.

Measures to ensure this were the principle component of the Standing Order changes I had proposed last year, changes which the Speaker ignored in contravention of the existing Standing Orders. My main purpose was to strengthen Committees of Parliament by streamlining them and ensuring that they were not chaired by members of the Executive. In the case of the Finance Oversight Committees, the PAC and COPE, the chair was to be a member of the opposition.

But ensuring open discussion in committees is not enough. It is also necessary to give them teeth, and for this purpose we should ensure that the Executive either follows their recommendations, or else gives reasons in writing as to why this is not desirable or possible. The same would apply to the petitions committee, the directions of which are now simply flouted by the Executive.

I would take this principle further, to promote consultation as well as accountability at local levels. The Local Government Act should be amended to ensure involvement of People’s Representatives in Committees of Pradeshiya Sabhas and Local Councils. I have already suggested amendments in this regard to the Secretary of the Local Government Ministry who had consulted me about the Act. It will also be necessary to define clearly the areas of responsibility of local government bodies, and to give them powers to work effectively in these areas.

In addition, given the number of administrative decisions made at Divisional Secretariat level, there should be consultation mechanisms at Grama Niladhari level, with mandatory feedback at the decision making level. This is the Divisional Secretariat, and I am glad that Mr Sirisena’s manifesto declares the centrality of this level, and the need to ensure coordination of services. With regard to this I have been working together with several Ministry Secretaries on a UNDP Project to improve delivery of services, and I hope the next government studies the excellent report produced by Asoka Gunawardena and implements its recommendations. Certainly we must get rid of the ridiculous system introduced by Basil Rajapaksa, of handing over development funds to Members of Parliament to spend virtually at will, with no coordination and little reference to the plans of the Line Ministries.

Line Ministries should be strengthened, and this requires reducing the size of the Cabinet in accordance with clear rationales, as pledged in the opposition manifesto. We cannot have many ministries dealing with similar subjects, and we cannot have ministers doing what they want – and in particular accepting unsolicited bids for projects, which has become a feature of the way the present government runs things – without adherence to well developed plans. It is imperative that a Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation be set up, and given teeth on the lines of the suggestions the Secretary to that Ministry and I forwarded to Mr Lalith Weeratunge at the end of 2009.

I have stressed governance issues, because these seem to me the most important in terms of safeguarding democracy and promoting equitable development. For this purpose it is also essential to pass the proposed Freedom of Information Act, and to give it teeth through ensuring public accountability at all levels of government. In addition I hope we will also introduce the Bill of Rights which was promised in the 2005 Mahinda Chintanaya, and which the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights had got drafted by the end of 2009, but which has since been ignored. Read the rest of this entry »

grumpy 4The Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunge, explained to me how it happened. In 2010 the President had wanted to put this brother too into Parliament, but he had scoffed at the idea and said the prospect did not interest him. However, he had added that, if the President wished to give him other responsibilities too, he would be pleased to look after Urban Development.

So, after the election, the Ministry of Defence was renamed the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, and Gotabhaya went, as it were, to town. Colombo, which had suffered both from neglect over decades, and from ghastly makeshift barriers for protection of important places when terrorist activity was in its heyday, was transformed, and began for the first time in the last half century to look beautiful.

Gotabhaya was helped in all this by the hard-working military personnel he could employ. I had had some experience of this when, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management, I found that I had to coordinate work with regard to the many canals that wound their way through the city. The care of these, and their banks, were allocated to a dozen different agencies, and coordination between these was not easy. It was only the navy I found that had fulfilled its responsibilities swiftly and effectively, and the stretches in their care were the cleanest and best maintained.

With the Ministry of Defence coordinating action in this and other areas, development was swift. Gotabhaya also chose capable people to head the Urban Development Authority, and they were able to plan more coherently than most government departments, though it should be noted that there were still some shortcomings about coordination, especially when it came to working with local authorities not under the control of the government. Still, the UDA was quick to respond when difficulties were pointed out, and in this regard its work ethic was admirable.

This was a distinct advantage Gotabhaya had over Basil, who was not a team player at all. Perhaps because of his military training, Gotabhaya was able to identify and work with capable people. Of course in fairness to Basil it could be argued that he thought he had to do everything himself, because many officials he came across were inefficient, or incapable of taking quick decisions – unlike the military personnel Gotabhaya had worked with, both in his youth and as he took over at the Ministry of Defence. But whereas Gotabhaya was also concerned with training, and with ensuring a new generation able to work effectively, such concepts were beyond Basil.

This was another area in which the capabilities of the forces were well deployed. They were asked to take charge of a pre-University training course since it was noted that those who were admitted to universities, perhaps because of the purely academic training they had undergone in the struggle to get good enough grades for admission, had no soft skills. Read the rest of this entry »

presidency 30One of my Tamil friends was recently at Temple Trees to participate in the exercises the poor President is now engaged in to try to win hearts and minds. But the experience was surreal, for discussion of substance was it seems left to Basil Rajapaksa, whilst the President contented himself with assuring his guests that he had taken precautions to stop further crossovers. Whether this was through carrots or sticks he did not elaborate.

Basil’s idea of substance of course leaves much to be desired. As the villagers where I spent the last weekend were saying, with regard to the sudden lowering of fuel and gas prices, the President thinks they are all babies. But at least the President, I still firmly believe, loves the people, and his tragedy is that he seems to love more those who do not share his own instincts and affections. But Basil it seems has nothing but contempt for them, for he thinks nothing of their future. As one shrewd Indian commentator put it with regard to the manner in which Kshenuka Seneviratne destroyed the goodwill Dayan Jayatilleka had built up, she ignored those without glamour except to ask them, when a crisis loomed, for their votes.

Kshenuka of course, unlike Dayan who could provide leadership to various causes, had nothing to offer in exchange. Basil has much. But the piling up of largesse in the form of sewing machines is not convincing, and the President should know this from the fact that, as my friend put it, the people of Uva took the sewing machines and voted for the opposition.

Basil’s answer to the request to cite some industries in the North was that, if he did that, he would have to sell the country. Since he is widely perceived as having done that already, beginning with his foolish handover of freehold to the Shangri-La Hotel, and since developing factories will cost much less than the fantasies that have been constructed in recent years, he only succeeded in upsetting his interlocutors further. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26476412I was delighted to find that the small group with which I am working are not the only people putting forward suggestions for reform. Recently I was sent a document prepared by the Pathfinder Foundation which puts forward a policy agenda for political parties. The Pathfinder Foundation is I think run by Milinda Moragoda, who is also an adviser to the President, so it looks like his advice too is not taken seriously.

 I think the ideas they have put forward are most interesting, and potentially productive, and I have urged that they too issue short, compact recommendations for different subjects, since that will make their ideas more accessible to all. With due attribution I might make use of some more of their proposals, but here I will look at what they have written with regard to ‘Education, training and skills development’. I find myself in agreement with almost everything they say, and I think it worth reproducing that section in full here –

Sri Lanka can no longer depend on a growth strategy which leverages low wages. The next phase of development will have to be driven by more skilled labour and technological upgrading. The lack of human resources could well become the binding constraint which restrains the country’s development prospects.
The current education system has been successful in terms of attaining very high participation rates, including for girls. However, learning outcomes have not been aligned with the needs of a rapidly modernising economy. Education, training and skills development should be better aligned with the country’s development strategy i.e. the needs of those sectors which drive the growth model.

  1. Shifting the focus of the entire education system from exam-based learning by rote to one where there is emphasis on fostering creativity, creative thinking and innovation.
  2. Strengthening Maths, Science and English education.
  3. Aligning training and skills development to the priority sectors of the country’s development strategy.
  4. Increasing investment in tertiary education on the basis of a pragmatic and non-ideological approach to public, private and mixed provision.
  5. Restructuring and upgrading the multitude of learning and skills development institutions and schemes (lessons can be learnt from East Asia and Germany).
  6. Reforming the state-owned Universities in order to make them internationally competitive.’


This however is a brief synopsis of what needs to be done, so I thought I should divide it up into two or three areas, and expand on the suggestions. I will begin with the content of education at schools, and then look at what are termed school services. Then I will look at higher education and also vocational training.

Colombo Post 7 December 2014 –

SriEquity for children through quality education Lanka has every reason to be proud of its record on education, in comparison with those of other countries in the region. But we should also remember that we had a similar leading position many years ago, and others are catching up. Indeed other countries in Asia have forged ahead, so we really need to stop making comparisons with those who started off far behind us, and should indeed concentrate on making things better for all our children.

For the fact is, educational disparities are still excessive. Another problem is that our children are not getting the type of education needed in the modern world. And we have done little about ensuring acquisition of the soft skills essential for productive – and lucrative – employment.

Unfortunately those who make decisions on education now do not take these problems seriously. The manner in which education reform has been delayed indicates that those in charge of the system have no interest in change. This has been the case for most of the last three quarters of a century, following the seminal changes made by CWW Kannangara when he was Minister of Education, and make equity and quality and variety his watchwords. Though there have been some exceptions, notably when Premadasa Udagama and EL Wijemanne and Tara de Mel were Secretaries to the Ministry, given the self-satisfaction of most of those in authority, even their contributions were limited.

I saw ample evidence of the lethargy in the system when I was finally sent statistics with regard to teacher availability in the poorer Districts of the Northern Province. At first glance the situation seemed acceptable, but this was because statistics are collated on the basis of Educational Zones. These often combine urban and rural areas, so that it looks like there are sufficient teachers in place. In reality however teachers are concentrated in urban areas, and it is only when one checks on teacher availability in individual schools, or in Educational Divisions, as I do during Reconciliation Meetings at Divisional Secretariats that one realizes how deprived the poorer areas are.

It has been recommended by the Parliamentary Committee on Education, which has now been discussing reforms for over four years, that Zones be abolished, and Divisions treated as the unit of significance, but nothing has been done about this.

Another problem is the appalling paucity of teachers at Primary level. The teaching of English suffers worst perhaps in this regard, and this means that the victims of this have no hope at all of learning English. Given the manner in which syllabuses are constructed and implemented, the poorer children, who generally have no foundation, have no hope of getting one, let alone building on it. Though we tried when I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education to introduce remedial activity into the curriculum, this initiative was stopped in its tracks by the so-called professional educationists who took over after my term was cut short for political reasons.

But in any case that is not the solution, and we should be doing more to strengthen the training and deployment of primary teachers. But given that the Ministry has failed to solve this problem for decades, it is not likely that it has any hope of improving things on its own. However the idea of developing partnerships with private institutions, or even with Provincial Ministries, to increase supply is anathema to those who have enjoyed their debilitating monopoly for so long.

The same goes with regard to another eminently sensible initiative the Ministry has recently started. I refer to the establishment of a Technical Stream in schools, in recognition of the need to train students for the world of work that many of them could satisfactorily enter. Unfortunately this initiative is confined to a very few schools, and even in some of these there are not enough teachers. Unfortunately it has not struck the Ministry that it should also simultaneously instituted mechanisms to develop teacher supply. Read the rest of this entry »

presidency 21There has been much exultation in some quarters in Sri Lanka about the conviction of Jayalalitha, but I was glad to see that at least some articles also noted the need for stringent measures in Sri Lanka too, to combat corruption. One article however missed the point, in citing as an example of what needed to be dealt with firmly the Ceylinco case.

The failure to deal with that swiftly, and provide compensation to the victims of the scam, is indeed appalling. But that failure has to do with the delays, not necessarily arising from corruption, of our judicial system. Certainly we also need measures to make our courts move and it is sad that those have been forgotten. Though it is featured in the Human Rights Action Plan, as far as I can see no one has bothered about that plan following my resignation as Convenor of the Task Force to implement its recommendations.

But that is a different issue, and what we are talking about in Jayalalitha’s case is the corruption of politicians. Now this is nothing new, and it also happens all over the world. I remember the scandals in Local Government in Britain when I was a student, more recently we had the horrors of the Bush administration dishing out contracts in Iraq to agencies in which senior officials had interests.

Nearer home however aggrandizement seems to be excessive. The Jayalalitha case is about disproportionate assets, and in Sri Lanka too it is the inordinate greed of those who are plundering the state which has skewered development plans whilst also contributing to the increasing unpopularity of the government. And sadly government seems to be conniving at this corruption, given the mechanisms it has set up this year, with no transparency, to spend public money. Read the rest of this entry »

The Secretary to Parliamentary Consultative Committees sent me earlier this month the latest Report of the Special Consultative Committee on Education, asking for observations. This had happened previously, with the previous version of the Report, but they forgot to write to me. I did respond hastily, when I got that Report, only to find that I was the only Parliamentarian to have done so. However, since other Parliamentarians told me they had not got the Report at all, I am not sure that I can fault my colleagues.

Be that as it may, I thought I should this time write comprehensively, welcoming the many positive suggestions in the Report, and noting other areas where further reforms are desirable. I will begin here with the first schedule to my reply, which looks at areas in which the Report suggests excellent measures which should be implemented as soon as possible. They represent a consensus of all Parliamentarians, so there is no reason for diffidence or lethargy

I hope therefore that all those interested in education and the need to provide better services to our children will take up these proposals and urge swift action. I should note, since I am sure many will be concerned with other areas that are equally important, that the Report covers much ground, and they will find that other areas are also addressed. The classic vice of belittling some benefits that seem less important should be avoided, though there is every reason also to request action with regard to benefits that seem more important.
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Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2017
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