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Change Independence Day to Sri Lanka Day – the day the free education scheme was passed in the Stat


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By Lacille De Silva

“The spurt in education which propelled Sri Lanka to achieve a high level of social development began even before the country gained independence,” it further adds – “Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara who held the portfolio of education during this whole period is one person responsible for initiating a series of educational reforms that created a lasting influence on the history of this country” – Education First, Ministry of Education.

The ‘Education Ordinance, No. 31 of 1939’ – a comprehensive ordinance covering all aspects of education to lay the foundation for a national system of education, was initially introduced purely on the initiative of the first Minister of Education Minister Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara (1931 –1947). This remains the basic law of education in Sri Lanka to-date. After much debate, steps had been taken by Dr. Kannangara to introduce the Free Education Scheme embracing primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. Free education is the sole contributory factor that energised social upliftment in the country.

The Pearl of Free Education

The then Indian government’s representative in Ceylon, who had walked up to the then Minister of Education Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara after he was able to get the approval for his Educational Reforms Bill in the State Council, had said: “Sir, you would be worshipped as a God if you had been in India”. It is time we Sri Lankans start worshipping Kannangara like a God. Kannangara belonged to the old breed of true patriotic national leaders. He was popularly known as the ‘father of free education’. Let me request all of you to call him the ‘Father of the Nation’, who sacrificed his whole life to give us ‘Free Education’. He was virtually the greatest benefactor, who committed himself tirelessly for a nationwide project, based on egalitarian principles to eradicate the unjust system that existed then and to install the free education scheme – “The Pearl of Free Education”. His goal was to ensure a genuine democratisation of education through the provision of equal opportunities for all the children, irrespective of social class, economic condition, religion, and ethnicity. He had stressed that a curriculum was needed for every child in the country to develop his “head, heart, and hands”. Kannangara had emphasised the need to develop (1) academic knowledge (2) aesthetic values and (3) practical skills.

As the Minister-in-charge of Education, Dr. Kannangara was responsible for implementation of the following:

(i) To make available to all children, a good education free of charge, so that education ceases to be a market commodity purchasable only by the affluent;

(ii)To make the national languages the media of instruction in place of English so that opportunities of higher education and lucrative employment, which was available only for the urban elite would be open to all others as well;

(iii) To rationalise the school system with equity and equality, so that educational provision is efficient and economical and accessible to every child;

(iv) To ensure that every child is provided with instructions in the religion of his/her parents, and is not taught any other except with the concurrence of the parents;

(v) To protect teachers from exploitation by owners/managers of privately owned educational institutions as the profession of teaching had to be accorded with dignity and respect if schools were to be well-staffed with dedicated teachers, and teacher training;

(vi) To make adequate provision for adult education;

(vii) Establishment of Central schools (since 1941[1941 3; 1945 – 35; 1950 – 50]) in locations outside major cities to provide high quality secondary education to the rural outstations;

(vii) Primary schools in every village within two miles;

(ix) Scholarship scheme with free board and lodging in central school hostels;

(x) Established the University of Ceylon, first fully-fledged degree granting university, by the Ceylon University Ordinance 20 of 1942;

(xi) Upgraded Pirivenas, educational establishments of Buddhist Monks;

(xii) Increased educational opportunities for girls;

(xiii) Abolished the practice (two tier school system) where English was taught to privileged students and the vernacular language to rural masses and introduced teaching English to the masses. His aim was to provide English education to the rural poor through central schools, without discrimination;

Eradicating social inequality

Dr. Kannangara always steadfastly stood his ground; I quote: “......no man should be insensitive to public opinion in discharging a public trust.... I shall do nothing else; not wave one bit. I shall do my duty according to the dictates of my conscience”. Dr. Kannangara had bulldozed his way accordingly to eradicate inequality that existed in society then. He had only been interested in everything that was beneficial to the people. Owing to this reason, Sri Lanka had been able to achieve the status of a country with one of the highest literacy rates among developing nations as a result of the free education system. This no doubt was a landmark achievement which opened the door for lower and middle class categories to reach their upward social mobility.

He delivered the key note address at the Asiatic Art and Cultural Conference held in Calcutta in 1947, where he had said, I quote: “ ....in spite of the fierce and most dogged opposition from a large and very influential section of the people of my land, in spite of abuse and calumny, vilification and ridicule, I have succeeded in obtaining the sanction of the State Council of Ceylon for a scheme of free education, providing all children of the land equal opportunities to climb to the highest rung of the educational ladder, from the kindergarten to the university, irrespective of the status of financial capacity of their parents and for obtaining for our national languages their rightful place in that scheme as an essential pre-requisite for building up a free, united, independent nation”. But what happened? Corrupt politicos who captured power after independence, began enriching themselves and failed to address issues of further improving the free education scheme, wealth creation, the elimination of poverty etc. Bureaucrats too started behaving opportunistically for their own benefit without executing public policies efficiently and effectively in the interests of the citizens.

Present day opportunistic policies

Sri Lanka had enjoyed a comparatively higher per capita income and had been among the top three nations in Asia. Our neighbours, including Singapore, have outperformed Sri Lanka. In our country, the corrupt politicos, due to drastic reductions in funding, absence of national education policy, inefficiency, and politicisation, have contributed largely to the destruction of an excellent human capital development system. We do not have politicians of the calibre of Kannangara, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Sir Razeek Fareed and the like at present. The absence of such great men, who lack the public spiritedness, in a democratic state, has now deteriorated the country into a leviathan state, where law does not operate for intervention. The legislature too has become dysfunctional. They serve themselves at their pleasure opportunistically to redistribute the country’s wealth in their own favour. The opportunity was made possible by the departure of the British and having gained independence, but the present rulers have now begun seeking opportunities to enrich themselves. Aren’t we again in the stranglehold of the so called ‘liberators’?

The successive governments, infested with repressive, opportunistic, immoral, unethical, kleptomaniacal legislators since the 1970s had closed down 14 – 2007, 37 – 2008, 103 – 2009 and many more schools thereafter. It has been revealed that 25.97% of schools do not have teachers’ toilets, 26.95% do not have students toilets. Around 20% of schools do not have water and electricity. In addition, low salaries paid to teachers in schools and universities have adversely affected the quality of education.

Allocation for education

In a study carried out by UNICEF, it has been revealed that drastic reforms are needed currently in our system of education. UNESCO has stressed that a minimum of 6% should be allocated for the education sector from the GDP. It has been identified that the policies between successive governments and even successive ministers had disrupted the system of education, which must be reformed as a matter of urgency since “there is something fundamentally wrong with our present system of education”.  It is disheartening that the allocations too are far below the requirements, which had been even below 2% in certain years. Furthermore, it is the belief of citizens, various civil society activists and concerned trade unions that politicians have cut down treasury allocations drastically and do not give priority for the education sector. Unlike Dr. Kannangara, corrupt politicians do not bother to understand the domestic realities, needs, traditions, and aspirations. The new breed of politician that emerged after independence has disregarded the culture, beliefs, and political norms and do not share the same objectives and interests of their predecessors of the calibre of Dr. Kannangara.

The Presidential Commission on Youth Unrest in their report in the 1990s had mentioned that youth unrest would be a permanent feature of our society if the restructuring was not carried out in our education system. It had also said: “Certain types of ad hoc responses and a high degree of bureaucratic lethargy have prevented the education system from responding creatively to the problem of educated youth”. 

This no doubt was a feature of the post-independence political landscape, which has given rise to statism – the outcome of which is bureaucratic corruption, rent-seeking etc. Finally, statism has raised the operational costs having left ample room to manipulate public policy to enrich themselves at the expense of the citizens. In third-world democracies, bureaucratic corruption is viewed as “outright theft, embezzlement of funds or other appropriation of state property, nepotism … abuse of public authority”.

Lack of opportunity

All these has caused lack of funds, proper planning, ad hoc polices, deterioration of quality in schools and universities, lack of training of teachers, extreme politicisation etc. These have caused a serious mismatch of education and destroyed Kannangara policies already. It has also shown that a large number of students, around 50% drop out before or after GCE (O/L) examinations, without any formal vocational training or craft skills. The University Grants Commission statistics reveal around 80% who are eligible, do not have places in higher educational institutions. It has resulted in unemployment. UNICEF has found that more boys stop education than girls. Due to a mismatch of education received, we do not produce young men with the skills required in the job market. It has been revealed that owing to these reasons graduates are being employed in other jobs which require low levels of qualifications. Students who qualify for admissions, having sat the GCE (A/L), which is a very competitive examination, to enter universities, do not get placements, and only around 10% of students get admissions to universities. Sri Lankan authorities have notoriously deprived higher education to a large number of students. It is a serious crime. Only a limited number from affluent families leave the country for higher studies causing a severe outflow of foreign exchange too.

Need for change

All successive governments have overlooked the need improve the quality and relevance to modernise the education system to align with the changing needs of the emerging markets. 

Lack of resources and financial constraints are serious drawbacks to increase access to higher education. This has resulted in depriving about 120,000 young men and women annually, who have to abandon their ambitions to enter a university.

In a census carried out by the Department of Census and Statistics, it has been revealed that only around 30% of schools had computers in working order. The computer student ratio is 1:137. Since the 1970s, due to increased disparities, the quality of education available to the poor has become drastically low. Another drawback is the inequitable distribution of qualified teachers to disadvantaged rural communities and the shortages of science, maths, and English teachers.

It has been observed that the deterioration started setting in since 1970, due to a lack of rudimentary checks and balances, leading to large scale embezzlement and corruption. 

Politicians began grabbing larger pieces of the social pie without expanding it for the benefit of the citizens. At present, political culture has been twisted by the corrupt politicos for their own benefit. They craftily redistribute their stolen assets to change the political equilibria; for instance, making the corrupt more influential as they become richer. In Sri Lanka, corruption has produced extremely rich people.

Besides, because of corruption, the educational reforms introduced by Dr. Kannangara have been ruined due to inefficiencies, politicisation, mismanagement etc. During the past five decades, Sri Lanka has ended up with a bad political culture, because we have had predatory rulers and bureaucrats who have been closely affiliated to a kleptocratic assemblage.

Shouldn’t we therefore consider doing away with celebrations on the so-called Independence Day? Instead, shouldn’t we now start celebrating the day the free education scheme was approved by the British rulers in the State Council? 


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