Basic questions to answer
In the late 1970s, a Deputy Commissioner of Examinations was prosecuted for interfering with the results of a son of a Minister and a son of a school principal. He was jailed. It was possible to prosecute him because the then Commissioner got wind of this illegal activity and moved for prosecution of this officer. Is this possible now? Can an officer who extends favours to a politician in power be ever prosecuted presently? This is the question before you and me today.
Let me also raise few other questions. When credible foreign universities offer places to Sri Lankan students for undergraduate studies, they presume that the Advanced Level results reflect the genuine talent of the student concerned. What would happen if the main foreign universities have doubts about the credibility of the A/L examination results issued by the Department of Examinations?
If a list of students is given by a powerful politician to the Department to ensure university entrance, can the Commissioner say ‘no’? If a powerful politician indicates to the Department that he/she wants best results from his/her area or his/her past school, can the Commissioner say ‘no’?
In this article, I share my thoughts on some aspects of the present status of governance and how it has affected the integrity of the Department of Education.
Proud history of excellence to a questionable entity
In 1952, one year after its establishment, the Department of Examinations had conducted eight local examinations and 27 foreign examinations. When the Senior School Certificate (SSC – as the GCO Ordinary Level was then known) was started in 1952, there were 53,000 candidates. The number of subjects offered was 60.
The Higher School Certificate (HSC) was started in 1945 and continued until 1963 when the examination became the GCE Advanced Level (‘A’ level). At that time only 31,011 candidates sat the examination, as compared presently with something in the region of 300,000.
In 1968, the Examinations Ordinance was enacted authorising the Department to conduct all public examinations. This indicates the nature and responsibilities cast on the Department whose integrity and recognition is absolutely vital for the nation and its citizens.
When the Department of Examinations commenced in 1951, its first head was L.L.K. Gunatunga (1951-59). Recently the 18th Commissioner took over. Seven of the former Heads of the Department are still among the living. Until the 17th Commissioner Anura Edirisinghe assumed office in 2005 as the Commissioner- General of Examinations, this Department had maintained the highest integrity. If at all there were any issues, they revolved around a few corrupt individuals who were dealt with severely.
With the appointment of Edirisinghe, the dark period started around 2005 raising many internal issues. We have witnessed the collapse of integrity of several other public institutions with one single wrong appointment at the top.
Fortunately, the media (in particular, the alternative media) closely monitored and reported unprecedented scale of irregularities in the Department since then. Unfortunately the authorities and the public did not take sufficient notice of it or meaningful actions to remedy the situation.
Jayasiri Withana (Ravaya) exposed through series of article an evidential trail of irregularities demonstrating how this department lost its credibility under the leadership of Edirisinghe. Let me share with you one instance how credibility of examinations came under serious challenge but no one was held accountable.
The then Principal of Rahula College Kithrisi Liyanagamage challenged the chemistry results of 2004 A/L results. Previously, the school had about 40 ‘A Grade’ passes but that year it had only nine ‘A Grade’ passes for the entire Matara District.
Those who analysed the results sensed some irregularity or at least a serious lapse. This led to a teachers’ meeting at which Edirisinghe was requested to review the results of 10 of the best students. Edirisinghe reiterated the accuracy of the results and said that if there was any change (even 1%), he would not stay in office. There was a review of result in the entire district, resulting in major changes. The 5As of Rahula College became 63 but Edirisinghe stayed on.
This, however, led to a committee being appointed by the President comprising former Supreme Court Justice Priyantha Perera, Gunapala Wickramaratne, a distinguished former commissioner and another but the report of the committee was never released to the public. What we heard was that the responsibility had been passed on to the “Optical Mark Reader (OMR) machine”.
Present A/L fiasco and refusal to identify errors
The present A/L saga was perhaps the worst of all. It had distorted the entire results. It should be remembered that there were two syllabuses for A/L last year – let me call ‘Old Syllabus’ and ‘New Syllabus’. For each subject, there were two different syllabuses, different examination papers, different marking schemes and different structures in every sense.
The education sector trade unions were the first to raise the issue of major irregularities in the results. Then the results were not released. When the President directed the Department to issue the results, the Department issued it within one day.
Let us start with the main three errors in the AL results. When the trade unions and candidates raised issues, the Minister of Higher Education and the Minister of Education made hilarious explanations.
First it was said that the mistake is only about the district ranking and not about Z-score. But, up to now, no explanation was offered as to why the district ranking had gone wrong. Then Prof. Raphel O. Thattil, who played a major role in introducing the Z-Score, challenged the mode of calculating the Z-score.
Those who are familiar with the mathematical calculation of Z-score are aware that the Z-score is a calculation based on standard normal distribution of certain figures (in this instance, marks) of an identified single population/pool. It may be technically difficult for a person without some mathematical knowledge to understand but it is not difficult to understand that the Z-score for a subject is based only on that subject of one examination of one syllabus.
The Department appears to have taken the Old Syllabus subject and the New Syllabus subject (e.g. Old Syllabus chemistry and New Syllabus chemistry) into the same pool in calculating the Z-Score of that subject.
If a score of average/mean is to be made, such can be mathematically done after calculating the Z-scores separately and then averaging it with an acceptable formula. Instead, what appears to have been done by the Department is to take some unknown method to calculate “combined mean” erroneously. To me the entire Z-score crisis is this.
When Prof. Thattil and many other mathematicians pointed out this basic error, there was an aggressive humiliation of them in the Government media, which is the propaganda machine of the Government.
The second error is that results of a subject were not released. Many candidates who offered the Russian language did not get the results. Students at Rahula National School of Alawwa, known to be among the best in the Arts stream in the country, particularly for languages suffered seriously when their Russian language marks were not given.
Among the students was an outstanding student with 2 ‘A Grade’ passes (German language and Logic). If she had obtained an A Grade with high Z-score, probably the best student in Arts might have come from Alawwa, and not from the Hambantota District.
First the Department said the answer scripts were misplaced and later said they were found. How were they misplaced? Who has found them and how? Besides this, those students had now received (after two weeks) their results without district ranking and island ranking!
The third error is individual-based. For the first time in the history of public examinations in the country, thousands of candidates received distorted results. Students received results for subjects they have never sat for. Hundreds of students did not receive full results for their subjects. Private candidates did not receive results for many weeks.
The Government or the Department of Examinations has failed to tender any explanation to many of those errors that occurred in respect of individual results, such as not entering district or all island rank, omitting Z-Score, and mixing up of subjects.
The uncertainty and confusion was such that public began to wonder whether the results were completely manipulated or whether the results were handled by an amateur group without any experience in examination work. Undoubtedly this cannot be a simple computer error.
The correct results are imperative. For the sake of governance, it is also imperative to let the public know how the results were distorted in the most important competitive examination in the country. The biggest error is therefore that failure on the part of the authorities to offer any valid and logical explanation. Probably it will not have happened unless the public demand it.
From the J.R. Jayewardene era, we have seen the President appointing a committee whenever a complex issue arose, but whether those committees ever addressed the main issues remains unanswered.
Responding to the present A/L examination problem, President Rajapaksa appointed a committee headed by a ministry secretary, two vice chancellors and two others but did not include a single retired Commissioner of Examinations.
A/L results was an issue where the Government was under real challenge; this could have led to a public outcry against the Government itself. In other words, the Government has a political stake in the issue – very much more than the best interest of the 300,000 candidates.
In such circumstances, any committee appointed should have credibility and acceptance along with public confidence. The committee’s mandate and approach should be objective. There should not be any doubt about its work and should not allow people to think that it will whitewash the failures of the Government/Department of Examination.
I do not wish to say anything general about the members of this committee, because at least some of them have shown independence in the past. However, take the case of Vice Chancellors appointed to the committee.
Vice Chancellor of Colombo University (Prof. Shanika Hirimburegama) came on public platforms during last election to politically support President Rajapaksa. She has defended the Government in almost all the challenging political issues.
Another stakeholder in the examination mechanism, though not a member of this committee, is the Chairman of the University Grants Commission, (Prof. Gamini Samaranayaka) who was also on the same political platforms, defending this Government at any cost.
In my view, some members of the committee have an enormous vested interest in the Government and such members will always consider the interest of the Government, rather than independent judgment. Such persons will want to defend and protect the image of the Government. Undoubtedly the public and trade unions will raise doubts on the findings of this committee, even if the committee addresses some of the main issues.
Who is to be blamed and who is accountable?
It is interesting to note that no one is held accountable for the mess. This is the usual pattern of governance today in many institutions, which are plagued with corruption, maladministration and irregularities. Hard earned reputation, once collapsed, is not easy to regain.
Anura Ekanayaka retired with a pension and obviously there is no likelihood of him being held accountable. When these issues were raised relating to the last A/L examination, a Minister said the Department of Examinations is independent and therefore, the Government cannot interfere with its work! This statement was just proved wrong with the present Commissioner General Pushpakumara assuming office.
This is a department which never welcomed politicians even for functions. This occasion was graced by the Education Minister, who was entangled with the controversy of the Department itself. The new Commissioner virtually bent down before the Minister Gunawardana, disclosing the true nature of the character and demeanour of the new Head of the Department.
We have witnessed what happened to the Judiciary with the appointment of former Attorney General S.N. Silva as Chief Justice (CJ). When he was appointed as CJ, there were two motions on his professional misconduct before the very same Supreme Court. Nevertheless, President Kumaratunga appointed him purely on political considerations.
This example demonstrated that a single bad appointment (as head of an institution) is sufficient to ruin the institution beyond repair. The same fate has now befallen on the Department of Examinations. This department has crumbled, reminding us of one eternal truth; an institution cannot run on its own without integrity of those who run it.
Who should be a head of the Examinations Department? This was once answered by the respected former Commissioner, Gunapala Wickramaratne in his article titled ‘Perceptive Encomium to Examination’ (souvenir published by the Department to celebrate its 50th year – 2001):
“…There is an unwritten law not to advertise the post of Commissioner General but to select from within or outside, an officer with administrative ability, very high quality character and higher quality of independence and integrity… The Commissioner General is the head of a department quite distinct from any other heads of the public service. The credibility and public confidence in evaluation and certification depend on the degree of realisation of and the dedication and commitment to the onerous responsibility…”
The degeneration of the public service and institutions did not happen overnight. The 1972 and 1978 Constitutions and those who administered them were mainly responsible for this decay; nevertheless we had some individuals who were not prepared to bow down to pressure and were not motivated by vested interest.
Honourable individuals constantly realise that the Government’s policy and individual conscience are two different things. Though the Government policy can be manipulated, the conscience of decent human beings cannot be manipulated. Unfortunately, most of the high positions have been filled today not on merit and objective criteria but purely on political connections.
The objectives of institutions can easily be manipulated to suit the appointing authority – the political chief. The appointees have a vested interest in the political master’s survival and do not care about their legitimate duties. They believe that the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ (policy) has to take precedence over their conscience and values.
The crisis of the Department of Examinations is thus a yet another reflection of the present status of governance and nothing else. The sooner the public realises it, the better it is. The A/L mess demonstrates how the decay of governance can affect the future of a nation.
The conduct of the Head of the Department reminds us of the famous quotation of Thomas Jefferson, scholar and statesman, who once said: “Never suppose that in any possible situation or under any circumstances that it is best for you to do a dishonourable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you... Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises, being assured that they will gain strength by exercise... and that exercise will make them habitual...”
(The writer is a Constitutional Lawyer, Eisenhower Fellow, Senior Ashoka Fellow and former Executive Director of the Transparency International Sri Lanka.)