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National Education Policy: Professionals should design it and take its ownership

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Education is too important to be left to politicians who are not experts on the subject


An important TV talk show on national education policy

In a recent TV talk show on what should be the country’s national education policy, a selected group of politicians from main political parties had been seated on the stage. Presumably, it would have been thought that it was necessary to seat them on the stage to pick their brains on how the national education policy should be framed. 

In the opposite, some invitee-experts on education were confined to the front raw of the audience so that they could listen attentively to the wisdom imparted by politicians. The rest of the seats in the studio had been filled by passive onlookers who appeared to have enjoyed being present in person in a TV talk show (available at: http://www.lankachannel.com/aluth-parlimenthuwa-22nd-july-2015_f53fdbe5e.html). 


What if the role of the politicians were exchanged with experts?

It was the politicians who spoke mostly at the talk show. They even allocated time for themselves when the host was not willing to do so. Diverse views and heated arguments were exchanged, sometimes descending to personal levels, among those on the stage before an audience that was watching the proceedings helplessly with aghast looks on faces. 

It would have been a fruitful, productive and purpose-serving discussion, had there been two major changes in the logistics of the TV show. One change would have been to seat the politicians in the audience and the experts on the stage. It would have given an opportunity for experts to impart their wisdom and politicians to listen to them, seek clarifications on issues involved and improve their listening and learning skills. 

The second, a more difficult option in the current political scenario, would have been to give a piece of advice to politicians right at the outset that if they use it as a forum to advance their political supremacy, the purpose of the TV talk show would be instantly lost.


No country is happy about its education system

The current state of Sri Lanka’s education at all levels was something about which both the politicians and the experts had unanimously agreed. That was, it was in serious crisis and it needed quick and permanent expert fixing. This is an open expression of the displeasure of the population about the gap between what is expected and what is delivered by the system. 

In that respect, no country in the world today is happy about its education system and even the most advanced country in the world has some complaint about its education system. For instance, the US citizens are unhappy about the falling reading, math and science scores of the US school children in globally administered tests such as Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD. In all the three aspects, USA is ranked well below even the OECD average (available at: http://www.businessinsider.com.au/pisa-rankings-2013-12). 


China’s predicament in education

The highest score has been earned by students of Shanghai in China followed by those in Singapore. Yet, Chinese authorities are unhappy about the ability of its education system to produce thinkers who would match those who are produced by US universities which are always ranked very high in global rankings. 

For instance, at the centenary celebration in 2011 of China’s Tsinghua University which is ranked within the top 50 world universities, China’s President Hu Jintao expressed the desire that “Efforts should also be made to foster the all-round development of students and universities should enhance their innovative and research capability” and “students should maintain their individuality by thinking independently” (available at: http://www.tsinghua.edu.cn/publish/news en/6054/2011/20110425140446713208604/20110425140446713208604_.html ). 


Singapore wants its education to take the country to the next stage

Singapore which should be proud of scoring the second highest in all the three key areas has other complaints. On the eve of celebrating Singapore’s 50th independence anniversary in 2015, its Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says that the city state is trying hard to increase the inclusiveness of the university education from the current 30% of population to 40% of population and narrow the income gap between university graduates and non-university school leavers. 

His problem is to move to the next level of economic development. Says Lee: “My whole system should be different from what you get anywhere else in Asia. The others are catching up. So even as others step into where we are, we have to be at the next level (available at: http://time.com/3969196/singapore-lee-hsien-loong-interview-50th-anniversary/).


Crises are mothers of progress

Hence, being dissatisfied with the current education system is a blessing rather than a bane. It gives energy to a nation to push itself forward vigorously. In that respect, what transpired at the TV talk show is something that should be productively used by Sri Lanka. Untitled-5Crises are mothers of progress and not ailments about which one should keep on lamenting continuously. 

An important dictum in strategy has been that one does not have problems but a series of opportunities. It is up to the strategist to harness the opportunities productively to solve the problems. But to use a crisis as a stepping stone for progress, there should be a number of steps which Sri Lanka should take. Those steps involve following good public policy governance as this writer has emphasised in a number of articles in this series.


Knowledge is the wealth-creator today

Education policy is an important public policy because it involves the government’s intervention in education to build a knowledge-based society. Knowledge today is the wealth creator and those nations which have this asset in abundance are top on the list of progressing nations. That is why all nations today are aspiring to acquire this wealth-creator by investing more and more funds in human capital development of which education is one of the three key ingredients. 

The other two key ingredients are research, development and marketing on one hand and improvement of the talent base of society through training and skills development. Education at school and university levels produces an essential input for the latter two ingredients. 


Education is only one contributor to knowledge

But, how does knowledge come about? It comes from learning. Learning is imparted by all types of education – formal, non-formal and informal. Learning facilitates research and research brings about inventions. Inventions lead to technological advancements and technological advancements lead to economic growth. 

In the case of advanced countries today, it has been found that between one-third and a half of economic growth they have attained have been due to the technological advancements they had had in the past. So, a country should foster technological advancements if it is desirous of having a high economic growth. Any economic growth not accompanied with technological advancements, as is the case of growth of Sri Lanka today, is short-lived and unsustainable. Thus, a country is required to enhance its investments in both education and research and development. 

Education will produce knowledge workers and research and development will foster technological advancements. These important aspects of human capital development to which education contributes partly were not touched upon by either the politicians or the experts. The discussion was wholly confined to school and university education and not to the human capital development at large.


Alison Wolf: Education doesn’t matter if entrepreneurship isn’t there

But the availability of knowledge workers and technology is necessary for economic development but not sufficient to attain that objective. For education and technology to do that job, there should be a different set of ground conditions available in an economy. This has been lucidly explained by Alison Wolf, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education of the University of London, in a book she published in 2002 under the title “Does Education Matter?” The subtitle of the book, “Myths about Education and Economic Growth” explains her thesis well. 

According to Wolf, the countries which have spent a great deal of money on education have got mixed results: Some have got higher growth, some no growth at all and some, negative growth. Thus, there is no clear relationship between educational attainments and economic growth. What is necessary is that a country should invest in correct type of education, build correct type of attitudes amongst its student population and have correct type of policies to translate that knowledge into commercially viable businesses. 

Finally, it is entrepreneurship that matters and to promote entrepreneurship, a country should have ground conditions that are helpful for promoting entrepreneurial spirits among its citizens. These ground conditions, though Wolf has not mentioned, are the protection of property rights, maintenance of law and order and adoption of market friendly policies by the government – the job of a proactive development state.


Sri Lanka’s schools don’t produce quality outputs

Experts at the audience of the TV talk show under reference were critical of the output which Sri Lanka’s school system has produced. With respect to language skills, one university academic was frank in revealing that those who join universities in Sri Lanka today are not the right university material because most of them have the deficiency of expressing themselves clearly even in their mother tongue. On top of this, universities have imposed as a policy that university courses should be conducted in English possibly to cater to a popular demand by students who desire their certificates to carry that they have done the degrees in English. 

When a student who is weak in mother tongue is inadequate in English, the process of expressing oneself gets retarded because one has to first think in his mother tongue, then translate his thinking into English and finally present himself in a language in which he is not competent. Another expert stressed the need for developing a balanced brain – the subtle side through math and science and intuitive side through arts and literature. Thus, the experts made a serious indictment against the school education system for which the politicians on the stage are alleged to be responsible.


A secretively-prepared National Education Policy

It was revealed that 25 Members of Parliament got together, consulted experts on education and prepared a national policy document on education for implementation by the previous government. It was also revealed that even after six months, the policy remained just on paper without a practical programme for its implementation. 

An expert in the audience who happened to be a senior professor and Deputy Vice Chancellor of a university confessed that the preparation of such a policy document was news to him despite his standing in the education field. What it meant was that it was a document prepared secretively by a select group of Parliamentarians without consulting those who matter in the education system of the country. 


Public policies should be made after wide consultation with civil society

This is a flawed method of public policy making. To be successful, a public policy should have been made openly, in consultation with experts in the field and those who are interested in the subject under consideration, with a policy owner who will take it forward. 

Since it is a policy concerning the future of the country, it should first be released in the form of a public discussion paper inviting views of all the interested parties. Open discussions should be generated by civil society organisations through media, public debates and public forums. Once those views are known, the policy document should be revised in the light of the proposals made. 

In this way, it becomes a national policy rather than a policy document prepared by a select group at the top and imposed on the rest of the people in society. With clear ownership of the policy by people of the country, the change of politicians from time to time will not adversely affect its implementation. 


The development of math and science base is a must

The development of math and science base among students has been the main thrust of educational reforms throughout the world today as demonstrated by global tests like PISA. In Sri Lanka, the majority of students have failed in these two subjects at the GCE (Ordinary Level) Examination thereby becoming ineligible to join the Advanced Level classes. 

It was revealed that, instead of improving the teaching of these two subjects at schools, an arbitrary decision had been made by political authorities to take out mathematics from the eligibility criteria for enrolment for the advanced level classes. This arbitrary decision was justified at the TV talk show on the ground that mathematics is not necessary for most of the occupations and there are many successful people in society who have not passed math at the Ordinary Level examination. 


Math will equip a person with logical thinking

The flaw in this argument is that it ignores the value of learning mathematics. Math will equip a person with logical thinking and that logical thinking is essential for a subsequent creativity of a person. 

When math is removed from the eligibility subject list, students will neglect learning math and as a result, the school system will produce students with a serious deficiency in decision making. If Sri Lanka is to move to the next level of economic development, it should necessarily develop its math and science base in its talent pool.


National Education Policy is too important to be left to politicians

Thus, education is too important to be left to politicians who are not experts on the subject. Education policy should be decided by experts and politicians should simply make available the needed resources and take political leadership in implementing the policy.  

Hence, the ownership of designing and implementing a national education policy should be taken by professionals and not politicians.

(W.A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com.)

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