Failures in education drag the country down

Thursday, 17 August 2017 00:09 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


When the country received independence in 1948, the administration and education was of extremely high standard. In 1956, the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike Government made Sinhala the Official Language and converted education to Swabasha, including in universities. The transformation completely disrupted education and administration, the educated left the country, education standards crashed and our degrees were no longer recognised abroad

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe spoke at ‘Roadmap to Improve the Investment Climate,’ setting a target to leapfrog 40 places in World Bank’s Doing Business Index. 

According to the PM, Sri Lanka’s standing out of 190 countries is as follows – Paying taxes stand at 158, Enforcing Contracts 163, Ease of Doing Business at 110, and the country is one of the most protected countries. The PM further informed that the above mean that Sri Lanka is the least inefficient country in South East Asia. However, by global standards, Sri Lanka was one of the most liberalised countries in 1977. How did this situation arise?Untitled-2

Pointers to the answer emerged during the past few weeks. In the bond scam the real culprits were within the Central Bank and the Government itself, as shown by the mountain of assets collected by a top executive over a long period, which confirmed that bond issues over the years have been money-spinners for some Central Bank staff. In another scenario, BOI approved a huge investment without verifying on investors, forcing the entire Board to resign.

How did this happen?

After independence, the country’s rulers were interested in getting into power and continue by any means, by bribing the public and the fellow politicians. Politics became a business rather than a process of decision-making for the advancement of the country. While politicians made money, others found supporting politicians was the easiest and fastest way of becoming rich, leading to the corrupt and thugs running their illicit businesses with the blessings of politicians.

The electoral system demands candidates drawing votes from the entire district, requiring canvassing, public meetings, and posters costing large sums of money, forcing the candidate to obtain external support irrespective of calibre. In selecting candidates, party leaders were only concerned of ability to draw votes. Voters never worried about the quality of their candidates, they were more concerned about getting a job for their child or being bailed out of Police custody when apprehended. None were concerned about the education of the candidates or the ability to drive the country towards economic prosperity. 

Demanding public

Over decades people have been pampered and demand free education, free health service and Government employment with pension rights. The farming community demands water for cultivation, free fertiliser and a high price for their products. So-called urban homeless are free to put up sheds anywhere, by the sea, railway and other reservations, also in marshlands. When moved out they demand permanent housing, free. Small traders feel urban pavements are their right, are reluctant to move into purpose-built shops. 

Meanwhile, MPs and ministers, most with only basic education, get luxurious vehicles, lavish housing, offices, trips around the world and percentages from contracts. Senior Government staff not to be outdone by their masters have demanded and received additional allowances, housing and vehicle permits to sell.

Degrading public morals

Most citizens are basically honest and would wish to achieve their aspirations honestly and peacefully. But people are forced into corruptive practices; in admitting children to a school and in dealing with local authorities in household land matters. If people are presented with a way of getting their reasonable aspirations honestly and honourably, it would lead to an honest society.

PM’s concerns

The Prime Minister is concerned that tax collection is low. When tax defaulters get apprehended, they negotiate with tax officers through a third party. Tax officers are concerned the new tax bill will end their privileges.

Dealings with prospective foreign investors is the responsibility of senior Government staff, but their poor English, communication skills, contract documentation, and inability to understand project reports disappoint and discourage foreign investors, leading Sri Lanka to be the lowest inefficient country in South East Asia. Investors discover that local authorities, UDA and other departments are extremely corrupt and demand payments for every activity. 

Poor standard of Government service

Our Civil Service at independence was of very high standard. The collapse of the service commenced in 1971 when Colvin R. de Silva, then Minister for Public Administration in the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Coalition Government, brought in outsiders as ministry secretaries. Although the new members were of high calibre, it opened the door to a practice that was exploited by subsequent ministers to employ their stooges. 

Today, while a few senior administrative staff are acceptable, the majority are poor, lacking in English and communication skills. Government staff are the products of our university system, having received education in Sinhala/Tamil. They are capable of conducting routine administrative matters with the public. But dealings with prospective investors are in English and they need to be conversant in documentation, contract negotiations, international contract law and administration. The deficiencies hamper administration and investment promotions. 

Uneducated into administration

During the JVP-led insurrection in 1987/1990, universities were mostly closed and the Government’s counterattack resulted, killing over a hundred thousand people, including 1,550 university students. When universities reopened, existing students had to be cleared to make way for the four-year-long queue. 

Students were pushed out as graduates, although their knowledge was inadequate, by lowering pass marks. The private sector refused to recruit these graduates, who were absorbed by the Government. Today, these so-called graduates, recruited around 1985, have completed over 20 years of service and occupy senior positions in Government. These staff, without proper education, writing skills, IT knowledge or English, have contributed to the current impasse. 

Correcting the situation

Thus correcting the situation would require:

a. Senior Government staff be filled with officials with a high knowledge of English and administration. 

b. Force existing staff to acquire same knowledge. 

c. Improving moral standards of population. 

d. Improve university curricula to international levels.


When the country received independence in 1948, the administration and education was of extremely high standard. Our graduates from the Arts and Medical faculties were considered equivalent to London University and were accepted. The English writing capacity of Arts graduates surpassed their British counterparts.

Sinhala as Official Language

In 1956, the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike Government made Sinhala the Official Language and converted education to Swabasha, including in universities. The transformation completely disrupted education and administration, the educated left the country, education standards crashed and our degrees were no longer recognised abroad. University lecturers with poor English were not acceptable even for further training in foreign universities. 

To counter the problem, local universities award post-graduate degrees among themselves. But none of their research papers are published over the internet. In 2016, over 200 final year students of Jayewardenepura University had not attended a single lecture, but over 100 were allowed to sit for the final examination.

Poor education

Most rural schools educate only in Arts stream, without laboratories nor teachers. Arts students constitute bulk of the university entrants; lack English, IT and other soft skills. In addition universities produce large numbers of external graduates, who demand jobs from the Government. Over the decades while the world’s universities have surged forward, ours have remained stagnant and failed to introduce skills demanded by the industry, resulting in unemployable graduates. 

Meanwhile, the country suffers from a labour shortage, newspapers are full of vacancies, but few applicants; construction companies are forced to employ imported workers. The situation is aggravated by politicians who promise their supporters with Government jobs, making them not accept available jobs. Also, there are over one million three-wheel drivers earning good money, they have become family bread-winners and discourage sisters from accepting available jobs. 

Free education

The country enjoys free education due to the efforts of C.W.W. Kannangara, the Minister for Education in the State Council from 1931 to 1947, introduced in 1944. Kannangara emphasised that everyone should learn English in order to operate in the modern world.

The Free Education Bill recommended that:

a. Education be free from Kindergarten to the University. 

b. The mother tongue should be used as the medium of instruction in the primary schools.

c. English should be taught in all schools from Standard III.

When the Free Education Bill was presented, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who graduated from Oxford University debated and voted against the Bill. The same Bandaranaike to acquire power in 1956 promised to make Sinhala the official language and went further by converting education to Swabasha, including universities. The conversion of education from English to Sinhala resulted in crashing education standards from the highest to the lowest level in South-East Asia and resulted in the ethnic conflict and war. 

Current education

Under the current education culture, students are expected not to question the presented subject matter, but accept blindly and present same at the examinations in the expected format. The student best at memorising texts and the ability of presenting the same as expected gets the highest marks. The students are helped by the tuition teachers. 

The exams avoid descriptive answers, claiming marks would be based on the judgement of examiners. The examination system discourages students from researching for knowledge and developing writing skills. The same system continues in universities. Unfortunately there is no relevancy in education to produce human capital, and they are non-acceptable to employers.

Meanwhile, nearly 500,000 students being educated in private English medium schools do not seem to have an employment problem, possibly due to their parents being affluent. Upon completion some would obtain further education abroad and others follow a vast array of courses offered by private institutions and find employment with the private sector.

Lowering standards

The continuing lowering of our university standards is evident as none of our universities are within the first 2,000 in World University Rankings. According to the rankings, the best university in Sri Lanka is the University of Colombo which ranked 2,113 in 2017. However the same university was positioned 1,682 in 2012, showing it has downgraded 500 positions in five years.

Failure of education dragged the country down and graduates are unsuitable for available jobs. The situation was exploited by the so-called socialist parties resulting 1971 and 1987/90 insurgencies. The party loyalties continue ragging and brainwash university freshers especially from economically-deprived backgrounds, to revolt against every government, latest being supporting the GMOA’s protest against SAITM.

In a fast-changing world, the absence of English and computer skills among lecturers and students has deprived them from conducting research over the internet. The same situation is evident in Government administration; officials only carry out wishes of politicians.  

Way forward

Correcting the current corrupt society will take a long time. But when the public is allowed the opportunity to achieve their goals honestly and dishonesty is punished, the country will acquire a fair and peaceful society. This could be achieved by doing the following:

Demanding English proficiency at all levels: All administrative staff in Government should acquire an English proficiency level determined by an examination held with the British Council and failures be moved out. In advancement in administrative service, proficiency in English and contract formulation and administration be made compulsory.

Conversion to English medium: The country is in a mess today due to the selfish policy change of Bandaranaike to win 1956 elections. But for over 60 years none of our politicians had the backbone to reverse the policy. Chandrika, daughter of Bandaranaike, introduced English stream in schools in 1996, but the Education Department failed to proceed. Today, although some schools have an English stream, the country does not have even a single teachers’ college training teachers in English medium. 

The current Government too is silent about introducing English stream in schools. The PM is more interested in issuing tabs to students. Surprisingly, the JVP’s manifesto during the last presidential elections proposed education in Sinhala/ Tamil and in English.

Language of instruction need be revised as envisaged by C.W.W. Kannangara and the school syllabi to be modified from book-learning to research based learning and development of basic skills. Initially children could be given option of studying in Sinhala/Tamil or English medium. Later with the availability of teachers and demand, medium could be adjusted. Admission to universities should only be on reaching a specified standard of English. 

The biggest obstacle to change would be the staff of the Education Department and the Ministry, who themselves lack English proficiency. All teachers’ colleges need to be converted to teach in English medium. But current lecturers are not competent and would require retraining. At the beginning of conversion, the country may require English medium teachers from India and could be replaced when our own reach sufficient competence.

School admission and education

The problem affecting every parent is the admission of the child to a better school, requiring bogus documentation and making the child repeat the same at the school admission interview. This corruptive practice is the starting point for a selfish, self-centred life expected from the child from admission, success in Grade 5 and other examinations, overtaking everybody, continuing to university admission and getting employment, making a mockery of free education. This corruption is so widespread, currently the Ministry of Education is holding inquiries against over 10 school principals in leading schools.

The school curricula are not upgraded and most rural schools lack basic facilities. Currently, the Government is busy supplying rural schools with electricity, water and toilets – the biggest problem being the shortage of funds. Meanwhile, parents resort to corruptive practices to admit their children to a popular school. Then why should a facility in high demand be given free?

The problem could be solved by introducing three categories of schools:

a. Free schools – Where education, school uniforms, text books and a mid-day meal be given free. 

b. Nominally paying schools – charging a nominal monthly payment and text books be given free. 

c. Paying schools – Charging a monthly fee and an admission fee depending on demand. 

Grade V test would be open only to students from free schools and nominally-paying schools. The collected admission fees could be utilised to upgrade poor schools. 

University education 

State universities get the best students, but teaching in Sinhala and poor English prevents students and lecturers from researching over the internet. Students are not trained to apply their subject knowledge to different contexts and situations or to impart rational thinking skills nor imparted with useful work skills – this is the result of most lecturers being involved in income generating activities for themselves neglecting improvement of subject matter.

To correct the situation students being admitted to universities should obtain a specified standard in English and computer literacy. Even in Arts faculties over 50% subjects should be taught in English medium. University lecturers should be forced to improve English knowledge and teach in English, emphasising on self-development through rational thinking and gaining skills. Universities should be given targets to raise themselves in World University Rankings and achievers should be given bonuses and for failures increments and promotions be curtailed.

Improving standards

Improving rankings in the Doing Business Index would require improving English and management skills of current Government staff, who are notable of their reluctance to change. The country’s construction sector employs the most uneducated who have incorporated technical advances. Years ago carpenters worked with hand tools, which are now replaced with electric tools. 

If poorly-educated carpenters can improve their skills, surely teachers, university lecturers and Government staff too could improve. If the Government fails to implement methods to improve the quality of Government staff, our rankings of Doing Business Index will continue to crash. But everything is not lost, our future students could always find employment in Chinese factories at Hambantota.

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