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#766, 25 June 2002
Education System in Sri Lanka – I: The Problems
N Manoharan
Research Officer, IPCS

Sri Lanka stands as an island amidst the “anti-education societies” of the Third World . Its literacy rate is over 93 per cent with females not lagging behind at 87 per cent. The education index is 0.84; combined gross enrolment for primary and secondary education stands at 92 per cent (HDR, 2001). Thus, the education statistics of Sri Lanka are the envy of even the most developed countries. But, does this mean all is well with the Sri Lankan education system? Education, in fact, is afflicted with certain grave problems that require immediate attention. 



The state of higher education is the most worrying. The existence of ‘unsatisfied social demand’ for university education remains an important issue. Tertiary enrolment ratio is only 6 per cent and a mere 2 per cent of the student community remains full-time students. There are only 13 universities with the capacity to admit around 13,000 students each year as against 75,000 qualified aspirants. As a result, there is tremendous pressure for university admissions.



At the same time, the employability of passing out graduates is another problem. Recent studies show the relationship between the level of education and employment is an inverted-U. In other words, the university educated remain unemployed or underemployed for longer periods. This is due to the limitations in the capacity of tertiary education to respond to the changing employment markets, both local and international. The monopoly over higher education by the state, and its provision in local languages has resulted in the mismatch of the education system with world realities. Increasingly globalised and private sector markets want individuals with strong interpersonal, English language, and transferable skills, apart from specialized expertise in some discipline. The Sri Lankan universities do not inculcate such skills in their graduates.



Though the Kannangara Report of 1943, which laid the foundations for a national system of education advocating English as a second language, its implementation failed for two main reasons. Firstly, guided by electoral considerations, the politicians associated English with “social elitism”, and hatred was created against English among the rural community. With the enactment of the “Sinhala Only” Act in 1956, nationalization of schools and adoption of swabasha in universities in 1960, English was sidelined. Secondly, this caused the problem of lack of quality and committed English teachers. The absence of a formal recruitment system of English teachers has given way to exploitation of the system by political leaders by appointing their own supporters as English teachers. Thus, English teachers are dominated by less qualified ‘English Assistants’. Apart from being the language of information technology, banking and financial transactions, foreign trade and travel, English is the only common medium between various ethnic groups in the island. Lack of a common medium has already created a communication gap between the majority and minority communities in the country.



The next major problem is the ‘free education’ policy. Every Sri Lankan can obtain education free of cost from primary to university level. The rationale behind the subsidized education system was equity. Free education has undoubtedly enabled high literacy rates, gender parity in education and the impressive statistics mentioned earlier. But, the children of more affluent families seem to derive larger benefits from the system than those from humble backgrounds. Poor students face problems in meeting the “hidden costs” like sports, uniforms, stationery and commuting. The only alternative left to them is to drop out. A recent survey shows 20 per cent among the poor drop out by grade five. The ‘equity-driven model’ has also resulted in bureaucratization, politicization and stagnation of the education system. There is neither accountability nor academic freedom in this model as education is centralized, owned and controlled by the state.



Disparity between geographical regions in education is yet another problem. The Presidential Commission on Youth Unrest (1993) highlights “unfair distribution of schooling facilities between urban and rural sectors” as the main cause for the unrest during 1987-89. The schools in rural areas remain understaffed, as qualified teachers prefer to work in urban sectors. School infrastructure in backward areas is conspicuously poor. Though students in the backward districts are given preference in university admissions, this is generally manipulated. Students of forward areas get themselves admitted to schools in backward areas only to sit for the Advanced Level (A/L) exams by producing fake residential certificates. This has resulted in deprivation of university education to students from the backward areas. 



Despite these problems Sri Lanka does not seem to have any long-term National Education Policy. The National Education Commission (NEC) was set up in 1991 to formulate a clear national education policy. But, it did nothing substantial except for submitting an ‘initial report’ in 1992, and a two-part report in 1995. These documents failed to evoke public interest and discussion. Even the detailed “Reforms in General Education” released by the NEC in 1997 and the much hyped “General Education Reforms-1997” Report by the Presidential Task Force on Education in 1998 failed to give a thrust to evolving a long-term and sustained policy on education. 

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