Sri Lanka: Education at crossroads

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jan 27 16:59:47 UTC 2008

Education at crossroads

In December 2007, The Sunday Times published the Lalith Athulathmudali
memorial lecture delivered by former Secretary of Education Dr. Tara
de Mel and invited readers to send in their views on the educational
reforms. Published here are responses to Dr. de Mel's speech. Towards
education reforms that engage the public

By Sujata Gamage, PhD, MPA Coordinator, Education Forum

In her Lalith Athulathmudali oration of December 2007, Dr. Tara de Mel
concludes the address by saying:"I must reiterate that we have failed
in our attempts to 'reform' education. Over the years we have tinkered
with the system, but never had the courage for total change, a change
that would have enabled us to leapfrog into the club of countries
which have modernized their systems with a vision."
During the 1995-2005 period, Dr. de Mel had the unique opportunity of
holding positions of power under a minister of education who was also
the president of the country. Being a personal friend of the then
president certainly added to the influence that Dr. de Mel held over
the education domain during that time. Similarly, those who initiated
reforms under the UNP in the preceding period too enjoyed the luxury
of continuity under the powerful presidency of J. R. Jayewardene.

Students discussing an exam paper
Yet either regime failed to produce significant changes in the
education system. If we focus on the 1995-2005 period, a new higher
education act was discussed at length during that period but it never
saw the light of day. Key steps in education reforms such as the
multiple-book option for text books and transparency in school
admissions were initiated but disbanded since. The School Development
Boards act was finally enacted in 1997 as a weak piece of legislation
and was operationalized as a further diluted circular in 2005.

Why did the Kumaratunga regime or the Jayewardene regime fail to bring
significant changes in the education system?

Attributing the failures to a lack of courage is too simplistic. If it
was courage, then at least we should ask the question 'courage for
what?' Articulating a policy takes courage. More importantly, making a
policy your own and selling it takes courage. Reforms have failed, I
believe, because policymakers in succeeding governments have not been
able to get out of their elitist shells and engage with the people,
while anti-reform elements such as the JVP have played their natural
ease with ordinary people to the hilt to derail most new initiatives.

This behaviour of policymakers has remained remarkably consistent.
Typically, a policy consultation or announcement would take place in
an air-conditioned room with like-minded people in attendance.
Overnight, the ideas could be trashed by the JVP or another group with
a few posters strategically placed, with nary a response from the

For example, an excellent analysis of the education system carried out
by the ministry with World Bank assistance was launched in the local
World Bank office in Kollupitiya. It was trashed immediately by the
JVP as a Tara-Harold report, Tara de Mel being the secretary of
education and Peter Harold being the World Bank representative at that
time. None of the opponents attended the launch. They may not even
have seen the report. A couple of millions of dollars worth of work
with careful analysis by a mostly local team was reduced to nothing
overnight for the lack of a basic understanding of public policy by
those sponsoring those studies.

In public policy, we broadly categorize policies as redistributive,
regulatory or distributive. Redistributive policies are about
deliberate reallocation of resources, typically from the haves to
have-nots. Regulatory policies are about affecting behaviour of
individuals or groups and distributive polices give tangible benefits
to smaller groups of people. The intended outcome of a policy can be
economic development, environmental preservation or the well-being of
citizens and all such good things, but, such outcomes invariably
affect different individuals and groups differently, depending on the
type of policy.

With education being perceived as the greatest social leveller,
education policies in whatever form are always perceived as
redistributive policies. Ideology is critical in redistributive
policies. Leadership is important but ideology drives the process. As
we saw in the CBK era, all the President's power could not drive
education reforms because the JVP was able to win the ideology battle
without even a sign of a fight from the government.

There was a brief moment in the education policy process where the
policymakers did seem like they were engaging with the public. For
instance, in the early stages of the higher education reforms carried
out through the IRQUE project (or the project to improve the quality
of undergraduate education), there was sufficient money allocated for
communication. YA-TV, a young group of producers hired by the project,
designed and carried out a multi-media campaign that involved TV and
radio programmes, newspaper ads and essay competitions. The unique
feature of the campaign was its focus on conceptualizing and
communicating in the local tongue. The main slogan of the campaign was
"Akurata Aruthak", an expression that conveys the idea of a meaningful
education but will not yield to a translation as attractive as the
original. The language, the ideas, the actors and the activities all
had an appealing home-grown look and feel with a touch of edginess
that made the presentations attractive. The campaign worked. People
were watching the programmes and talking about the issues.
Unfortunately the money allocated for communication was a drop in the
bucket in the $50 million or so allocated to IRQUE. The campaign
stopped abruptly and IRQUE continued on as a dull dogged effort,
hardly scratching the surface of the problems in higher education.

Why don't policymakers pay more attention to communication? Why don't
they allocate sufficient money for communication? Why don't they use
the government channels for the purpose and engage the public in a
language they can understand with genuineness that they can

The reason is probably the discomfort of most policymakers in venues
outside the rarified Taj like atmosphere away from people of like
mind. Even as I write I am aware that I am thinking in English and
writing in English to an audience who are removed as I am from the
realities of education of the majority of Sri Lankans. But we don't
need to go far to see the realities these people face. In a discussion
series organized by the Forum we heard from school principals that
represented the non-super schools in Colombo.

A unique feature of the discussions organized by the Education Forum
is that we think in Sinhala and do in Sinhala. We are fortunate to
have Viluthu, a centre for human resource development, as our partner
bringing the sentiments of the Tamil speaking people under the
somewhat limited interpreter situation that we provide. It would have
been perfect if we were all able to move easily from Sinhala to Tamil
to English, but, so far we are not so blessed.

At first it was rather strenuous to organize a discussion in Sinhala
and Tamil alone. The Wijesekera key board is a challenge and emailing
is not viable if everybody else is not using Unicode fonts. Yet, as
time went on we began to realize that thinking in one's own language
or talking in one's own language about others who speak that same
language, does make a difference in our own in what you hear and what
we say. The stories and images you hear feel more real. The words that
come out of your mouth too are more meaningful. Sometimes the
technical words don't come so easy because the Sinhala language has
not been used in policy circles, but with English thrown in as
necessary, the ideas flow more naturally.

Our focus on Sinhala with Tamil translations has led to discussions
that flow naturally with participation from stakeholders who are the
true foot-soldiers in the education of our children, the principals
and teachers. Some of the principals are friends and we continue to
inform each other and debate. Enough is said about the Forum. We can
do our bit to hear from the stakeholders and pull together a few ideas
but policies have to be owned by policymakers.

Mr. Jayewardene's regime had the courage to articulate an education
policy that can be traced to the white paper of 1981 but the regime
did not have the courage to own the policy and to communicate it. So
was Ms. Kumaratunga's regime but the anti-reforms forces managed to
derail both with their superior ability to communicate. In the present
president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, we have a leader who is perceived as a
man of the people, but does he have the courage to give leadership to
an education policy, or any policy besides a war policy?

(Dr. Sujata Gamage served as a university teacher and researcher in
Chemistry in Sri Lanka and USA before moving on to career in higher
education policy and planning in the USA. Since returning to Sri Lanka
in 2002, she has served as the Director General of the Technical and
Vocational Education Commission, consultant to the University Grants
Commission. She now keeps busy as an independent scholar in education)

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