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Friday Forum calls for red alert on education sector


Comments / 1252 Views / Friday, 31 August 2012 00:13


We are seeing action taken by trade union university academics and staff. All students, parents, teachers and public, have united to deal with the progressive decline in decades of mismanagement and politicised decision making in what is the countries most important sector.

From left: Dr. P. Uswatta, Rev. Dulip de Chikera, Dr. Selvi Thiruchandran, Prof. Saavthri Gunasekara, Jayantha Dhanapala and Abhilan Kadiragamar  Providing a strong basic easily available education is one of the important pillars of public policy as education has always been considered a public good. The educational system built over decades of social and state investment, along with commitment to provide free and accessible education is the reason why Sri Lanka has achieved impressive social indicators in education, health, life expectancy and equal opportunities for men and women. The high ranking levels of human development are most certainly down to education, sustaining these achievements and working towards greater progress in the education sector is the responsibility of the state.

The right policy planning and implementation requires the effort and interest of all those affected from students, parents, teachers and trade unions to the private sector and citizens. There is a collective responsibility to revitalise the education sector as an important public good and a necessary dimension of democratic and accountable governance.

The recent trade union action by the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) and public protests over the recent Z score fiasco, school admissions to grade 1, closure of rural schools, paucity of competent principals and teachers, politicisation of appointments in the education sector. Have all raised important issues and created an opportunity for a public debate and citizen participation in regard to reforms in education. The Friday Forum in a spirit of democratic engagement wishes to draw attention to what the group considers priority concerns that must be addressed and resolved to prevent further deterioration and a possible collapse of the state education systems.

Lack of priority for consultative policy planning

As it stands, education is regulated by a colonial Education Ordinance (1939) and post-independence legislation on higher education in the Universities Act (1978). There are various expert policy advisory bodies such as the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the National Education Commission who made many proposals to reform framework. The education sector has accepted commitments to achieve the goals and targets of international policy documents like the Millennium Development Goals.

What has been the case is statutory policy advisory bodies like the NEC have been sidelined and made dysfunctional. The UGC, which has lost its direction from the past, is today nothing more than a political appendage, functioning like a government department within the Ministry of Higher Education. Important legislation seems to be drafted in secrecy without sufficient analysis for law reform and policy formulation.

It is time to replace this type of ad hoc and highly politicised administrative decision making in the education sector, with rational and carefully crafted implementation of policy planning, based on the advice of education experts and competent professionals. The NEC and UGC must act as independent bodies and become effective channels for expressing a professional viewpoint that the government must respect.

Political appointments to key posts

There have been reports of violations of the Universities Act through persistent political interference in making appointments to the post of Vice-Chancellor and councils of universities. The Friday Forum board are aware of many instances in which qualified academics have refused to apply for Vice-Chancellor because of political manipulations of the appointment process. Their main qualification appears to be political allegiance to the regime and to the Minister of Higher Education. FUTA is trying to end this abuse of authority as this crisis is only deepening like a virus in the university system.

Political appointees are now helping the Minister to make arbitrary decisions regarding university matters in complete violation of the legally established procedures of the Universities Act. Vice-Chancellors, whose duty it is to be a point of contact with policy makers and authorities have turned their backs on legitimate demands of the academic community in their eagerness to please the political establishment.

Resources for education

The government of Sri Lanka currently allocate only 1.9% of its GDP for the entire education sector, the lowest allocation for education in South Asia.

Government spokespersons claim that in the post-war period, infrastructure development and energy are of higher regard instead of developing functional educational institutions. The government is closing schools in villages and cutting resources for state schools and universities rather than decreasing the growing resource gap. There is a perception that the private sector must be the engine of the path for Sri Lanka to become the ‘knowledge hub in Asia’, but the privatisation of education has thus become an excuse to undervalue the state education system.

Sri Lanka perhaps needs an appropriate new public/private (not-for-profit) partnership in resourcing education. Such a balance may contribute to knowledge generation and increased partnership relieving the pressure for admission in state schools and universities.

There are of course serious issues of teacher underperformance in both universities and schools. There must be a system of enhanced teacher training and performance evaluation for all staff. Both measures certainly require a commitment to higher investments in education. In Sri Lanka today, unregulated private institutions are mushrooming, leaving a private tuition education industry that prioritises profit rather than academic standards.

Militarisation

The education system should not be focused on producing regimented minds which do not question authority and who think that free thought and action amounts to mutiny. The insidious trend towards militarisation in the education system must be recognised as contrary to the public interest and halted by the government with immediate effect.

Some of the current ongoing concerns:

Media reports of possible military training for and designating of school principals with military ranks.

The cabinet decision that all public universities must hire the service of Rakna Lanka Ltd, a security firm with close ties to the defence establishment.

The installation of letter boxes in schools in the Kollupitiya area by the police by instruction from the Ministry of Defence for students and parents to make confidential reports and tips on risks, suspects, abuse and criminal activities.

The decision by MOHE to continue the leadership training to university entrants conducted by the military and military installations

Trade Union action of FUTA

The strike action launched by FUTA has clearly formulated a set of demands on strengthening public universities in the country. Unfortunately, the government has not displayed a commitment to engage in constructive dialogue to resolve the crisis as a matter of national priority.

How can they make Sri Lanka the ‘knowledge hub of Asia’ without any understanding of the basic goals of education in a democratic society. There is an over focus on IT, Science and Technology, undervaluing the humanities and social sciences has been recognised as a negative development in many countries in Asia including Singapore and China. Educationists throughout the world have recognised that funding cuts in education must not undermine the gains in the education that cannot me measured.

Dialoguing with FUTA and resolving the important issues raised, in the view of the Friday Forum and people of Sri Lanka, will provide an opportunity for the government to take education policy and management in a new and welcome direction. Failure to do so through indifference or misplaced priorities will harm both present and future generations.


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