It is good news indeed that the National Human Resources Development Council (NHRDC) has been rescued from obscurity and placed under the Ministry of Policy Planning, Economic Affairs, Child, Youth and Cultural Affairs, under the guidance of the Prime Minister himself.
NHRDC was established in 1997 as per the provisions of The National Human Resources Development Council Act No. 18 of 1997 with the overarching purpose of initiating, promoting, and participating in the implementation of policies relating to human resources development. By statute, the council is represented by secretaries of ten key ministries and all heads of education authorities, including the National Education Commission (NEC), Ministry of Education (MOE), Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC), National Apprenticeship and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA) and the University Grants Commission (UGC). This representation gives the council an excellent vantage point in regard to human resource development in the country. Its previous placement under the Ministry of Science and Technology, followed by variations of the Ministry for Skills Development, did not do justice to its purpose.
NHRCD is off to a good start, but …
With its reincarnation under the Ministry for Policy Planning, NHRDC is well placed to play a more central role. Two recent publications by the council give us an indication of its direction. First is the ‘NHRDC Statistical Bulletin of Education’ which brings together data on general education from the MOE, vocational and professional education data largely form the TVEC and university education data from the UGC. It is good to have a publication that brings together the data from what essentially seems like three policy silos.
“Increasing the allocation for education to 6% of GDP” is the topic of the second document. Education expenditure captured in the GDP is the sum of all financial resources devoted to education as the result of choices made by governments, enterprises, and individual students and their families. The use of GDP as a measure of government allocation for education, clouds the financing issue unnecessarily but, leaving that discussion for a later time, it is important to recognise the step taken by the NHRDC to give inputs to the Government on allocation mechanisms.
Both documents indicate the readiness of NHRDC to bring together the hitherto segregated sectors of general education, tertiary vocational and professional education and university education. However, the organisation and content of the documents show that NHRDC needs a more strategic approach.
Wish lists in place of strategies
NHRDC had adopted the usual practice of getting key stakeholders in each sector and essentially asking them how to spend an increased allocation for education in their sector. Four committees have been constituted and consulted and they have done their duty to come up with some excellent ideas for spending money. However, the recommendations are presented as a wish-list segmented across the four areas of – i.e. pre-school education, school education, tertiary vocational and professional education and university education. Unfortunately, no attempt has been made to bring these wishes and the few policy tools together under the umbrella of a pivotal strategy or strategies for human resource development in Sri Lanka.
This lack of a strategic approach is, I believe, due to two major flaws in the committees’ world view – namely, a myopic view of tertiary education and a command and control approach to school education.
Myopic view of access to tertiary education
The section on higher education sector begins with the claim that higher education is the apex of any national education system and access issue is framed as access to university education. Professional education is bundled with vocational education and set apart. This short-sighted view of tertiary education is unfortunate.
For those seeking advancement in their careers, a charter in their profession is the apex qualification, and such chartered professionals may or may not hold an academic degree. Those with a chartered professional qualification often follow a Master’s in Business Administration from a university to complement their professional training. If I am not mistaken, the present Chairman of the NHRDC is a case in point, and he should take the lead in convincing the academics that professional qualifications are considered just as important as, or more important than, degrees in the workplace of today.
A unifying qualification framework is a must
A national qualification framework is a mechanism for connecting segregated systems of qualifications, but Sri Lanka is yet to develop a truly national qualification framework. The National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) framework which was introduced by TVEC in 2002 follows the Australian and New Zealand frameworks closely. The NVQ reserves Level 1-6 for certificates, diplomas and higher diplomas, and Levels 7-10 for degrees and above.
The qualification framework developed by the Ministry of Higher Education in 2010 with World Bank assistance develops its own qualification framework leaving vocational and professional qualifications to be integrated as an afterthought. Such integration is made difficult from the beginning due to the fact the NVQ put its degree parallel qualifications at Level 7 and the higher education sector sets degrees at Level 5.
The education market or the job market has no regard for self-imposed silos found in the public sector. A survey of jobs advertised in the newspapers carried out by LIRNEasia in 2012 revealed job openings in 40-plus sectors from accountancy, architecture, and aviation to logistics, to teaching and tourism. Whenever degree level qualifications are sought, equivalent non-degree qualifications too are specified. In some sectors, professional qualifications with or without experience are preferred over degrees. A parallel survey of educational opportunities advertised by the private sector in 2012 revealed the existence of 600-plus education and training programs offered by 200-plus institutions.
What we need is classification of qualifications by Level, with qualifications in each Level distinguished as to whether they belong to the vocational/professional track or the academic track. Articulation between the two tracks is essential in a qualifications framework. In Sri Lanka, private institutions have already taken initiatives in this regard.
Take the case of accounting education. According to a LIRNEasia survey, enrolments in the three major accounting bodies – Institute of Chartered Accountant of Sri Lanka (ICASL), Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) and Association of Accounting Technicians of Sri Lanka (AATSL) – totalled more than 100,000 students in 2011. AATSL is a particularly noteworthy organisation dedicated to vocational training but committed to ensuring multiple pathways of progression, academic or professional, for their trainees through MOUs signed with universities and professional bodies.
NHRDC is uniquely positioned to advocate for a single qualifications authority to develop and enforce standards for qualifications from GEC (O/L) to diplomas, higher diplomas or professional charters or academic PHDs, within a true Sri Lankan Qualifications Framework (SLQF). Such a qualifications authority would be responsible for informing and educating students at all levels about the full range of educational opportunities in public or private sectors in vocational and professional or academic tracks and facilitate smooth articulation and transfer from one qualification to another, across or within a track. The Office for Qualifications in UK is an excellent example.
Command and control approach to school education is not productive
Although the 13th Amendment to the Constitution devolves education administration to the provinces, except in the case of national schools and other selected schools, the provinces continue to look to the central ministry for direction and the central ministry continues a command and control approach to administration.
Initially, relegating authority to the provinces may take command and control efforts. The implementation of a voucher system for distribution of school uniforms is a case in point. The voucher system is expected to delink the inefficient distribution channels from the centre to the schools, but that delinking required a resolute action by the central ministry.
In that regard, it is disappointing that the Committee on Primary Education recommends that the pre-schools catering to children aged 3-5 should be brought under the Ministry of Education. Pre-school education is clearly a subject devolved to the provinces.
The recommendations for primary and secondary education include the ‘wishes’ of increasing teaching of science, technology, mathematics and English in schools and catering to special needs children, but the policy tools are rather sparse and limited to incentives for teachers in these key areas and more funding to strengthened NIE. By implication the central ministry is to drive these changes.
The principle of subsidiarity and concept of challenge funds should be applied increasingly
The National Education Commission in Sri Lanka in 2003 identified three adverse features which are significant sources of inefficiency in public education. They were: (i) extreme politicisation of the system at all levels (ii) lack of coordination within the Ministry and the agencies coming under the purview of the Ministry and between the Ministry and provincial authorities and (iii) inefficiency, ineffectiveness and indifference of officials and principals, and lack of motivation among teachers. These same issues are more or less identified by the NHRDC committees, except for the politicisation issue which the Yahapalana environment is perhaps expected to address. The wish-list of outcomes in the NHRDC report does not address these structural issues that hamper education reforms. It would have been useful to discuss why previous attempts by the Ministry of Education, with funding from ADB and the World Bank, had failed to deliver.
One unexamined solution is the diligent application of the principle of subsidiarity in education administration. According to the principle of subsidiarity, only those activities that cannot be performed by individual schools should be relegated to the divisional or provincial authorities, and only what cannot be performed by provincial authorities should be relegated to the national authorities.
Another useful principle is the concept of ‘Challenge Funds’, where increasing amounts of funds are transferred to provinces as funds distributed on the basis of performance. Provinces are essentially challenged to perform. This concept is used by donor agencies to disburse funds utilising market-based or incentive-driven solutions. If the benchmarks for performance, in terms of increased access to science, technology, math and English education and services for disabled students, can be developed, Challenge Funds can be disbursed across the nine provinces according to their achievements. The expectation is that provinces are better equipped to innovate if the incentives are sufficiently attractive. The recommended policy tool of giving incentives to teachers too is something that the provinces should be encouraged to innovate upon so they can discover incentives that work.