The State of the Free Education System in Sri Lanka: Confessions of a Disgruntled Student

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Image courtesy The Nation

I am one of the 243,876 lucky students who sat for the Advanced Level Examinations in 2011. It has been almost one-and-a-half-years since then, and I received my university registration form only yesterday (6 – 4 – 2012). I was privileged enough to receive A/L results four times in the space of ten months. For this, I am eternally indebted to the Examinations Department. The possibilities for further delay, once I start university are endless: the FUTA might decide to call for another trade union action; minor-staff may decide their wages are insufficient; fellow students may decide to oppose private universities by boycotting classes; and so on. The thought of how old I will be when I graduate is not entertaining[1].

Grand Promises and Disconcerting Realities

All state school textbooks carry an excerpt from a speech made by President Rajapaksa in 2010:

“Beloved Sons and Daughters, Many countries that lagged behind us at the time we gained independence have now passed us and gone far ahead. But, we must not be prepared to copy those countries or work according to the development models of those nations. Similarly, there is no purpose in continuing to lament about our lost heritage. What we shall do instead is to surpass them and reach a stage of overall development they have not reached, and show new paths and possibilities to the world. Dear Sons and Daughters, we are now engaged in building your future!”[2]

Our country’s education standard has been very bad for long. One must, however, be conscious of the distinction between ‘standard’ and ‘system’. Under this regime the education system, too, is fast decaying.

A cursory glance at the record of the organs of the education system – relevant ministries, the University Grants Commission, the Examinations Department etc. – over the past few years would suffice to understand how appalling the situation is. In 2008, GCE Ordinary Level students were made to redo Part II of the mathematics paper, because the first paper was declared unfair. The problems related to the 2011 Advanced Level Examinations are well known; students were so confused that over a hundred thousand students applied for re-scrutiny (this costs Rs 750). In September last year, Ceylon Teachers Services Union criticized the Examinations Department for proceeding to evaluate Grade 5 Scholarship examination papers, without conducting proper investigations into alleged wrongdoings.  Later last year, O/L science questions were leaked, and as a remedy all the students were freely awarded nineteen points (out of a hundred). Then there is also the controversy surrounding the Law College Entrance Examination. Add to these the numerous trade union actions led by teachers unions, shortage of teachers in schools and universities, occasional closure of universities, delays in releasing results and rampant corruption[3] we have an unprecedented mess in the system[4].

The worst part about the whole story is that relevant authorities are undisturbed by this colossal deterioration. In fact, they maintain that things are just fine.

The Minister of Education and the Minister of Higher Education are operating without any vision or long term strategy. This was evident when Bandula Gunawardena recently debunked the ex-Chief Justice’s verdict on the Z-score fiasco. When asked why he accepted the ruling at the time it was issued, the Minister replied, ‘I did not want to end up in prison for contempt of court’. S B Dissanayake who spoke to the awaiting students, back in January, during the University Students’ Leadership Training is said to have evaded the most important question of when university classes would commence. Instead, he chose to slam the JVP and the remaining fragments of the LTTE for allegedly disturbing academic activities.

None of our universities feature in any university ranking of repute. Fortunes of once great universities like the University of Peradeniya are on the wane. Little ‘new’ knowledge is being produced as a result of limited funding for research.

Poor quality uniform material has been distributed, the treasurer of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU), Nishantha Deshapriya, charged on the 23rd of January. He claimed that children have been given sub-standard, transparent material to stitch uniforms with. Some students have found the length of the material short, and inadequate to tailor a complete uniform.

Each new day a new controversy surrounds the education system, and each new day we sink to new lows. Parents have expressed their discontent, and the growing distrust in the system is becoming increasingly more evident. The irresponsible conduct of the highest authorities is not helping. How ‘we shall surpass those who have gone ahead of us and reach a stage of overall development they have not reached, and show new paths and possibilities to the world’ remains to be seen.

The Larger Picture: A System Gone Wrong

The free education system no longer serves the purpose it was created for: making education the inheritance of the poor.[5]

The sad reality is that people are paying for education. I paid. Everyone pays. My parents would mock me that my typical school day starts with Jesus and ends with money[6]. Everyone pays to be granted entrance to a state school. This amount is generally known as ‘the gift for school development.’ Depending on the district, the school and the grade, this required gift may vary from five-thousand to a hundred-thousand and more. Securing admission in a leading school for Advanced Level is a ridiculously costly exercise. And there are a thousand other payments one makes to the school throughout a calendar year – sports fee, school development fee, teachers’ day celebration fee, till-collection, and you-name-it-they-have-it. There were many whose families sacrificed meals to meet such demands. Some poor students were repeatedly at the receiving end of belittling remarks of the school administration as a consequence of their inability to produce money at will.

Private tuition centres and the so-called personal tutors have seemingly become part of the (free) education system. Especially in the Advanced Level classes, it is impossible to survive without taking private tuition. In the Advanced Level classes, now, one does not simply get taught at school anymore: one is only given guidance to find the best personal tutor for each subject. I did not have a physics teacher for the greater part of my Advanced Level days; my mathematics teacher only covered a half of the syllabus at school – the rest was taught during early morning classes for which we paid; my chemistry teacher was a genuine person with little experience.

The Grade 5 Scholarship Examination is conducted yearly to serve two purposes: a. to provide opportunities for promising students to join better schools, b. to provide good students, from poor backgrounds, financial assistance. While the first purpose is fulfilled to some extent, the second never is. To be eligible for the monthly allowance, one’s family must have an annual income of below Rs. 48, 000. Everyone cheats by bribing the Grama Niladhari, whose verification is the only external reference required. Poor students gain very little from the Grade 5 Examination, for the exam is highly competitive and requires additional training and preparation. Additional training, of course, costs a lot of money.

The district quota system that is in place for university selection is also flawed. First, a district quota system should only be a temporary measure: the permanent solution is a national merit system complemented by equal distribution of resources. Second, since there are privileged schools in every district, it is the elite of those districts who benefit from quotas than the most backward in those districts. Third, it helps rural elite at the expense of urban under-class.[7] Finally, the district quota system, like the Grade 5 Examinations, is subject to abuse and manipulation. Many schools are willing to keep the attendance register updated if one offers money and influence. Such students take classes in areas like Colombo and Kandy throughout their Advanced Level and rob the quota allocation of students from less privileged districts, who study with severe limitations. The district that I am from is notorious for this malpractice.

While I have presented examples from my personal experience, such trends are common to all parts of the country. Pointing out all the flaws in the country’s education system is beyond the capabilities of this author, and also the scope of this article. However, I hope the above mentioned examples prove two fundamental flaws: 1.the state education system is no longer a ‘free system’, 2. it is not helping the neediest of students.

The FUTA Strike and the Future

The trade union action organised by the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) was significant for many reasons. Between July and October last year the FUTA campaigned for a pay hike, university autonomy and academic freedom, increased funding for education – the 6% of GDP for education demand – and policy reforms.  The major achievements of the FUTA struggle were building up a national movement, creating countrywide public discussion about education and raising awareness on the state of ‘free’ education in the country. Indeed, it was also a timely reminder for university teachers themselves as to the role they are expected to play in the country.

Yet, the FUTA struggle did not deliver on its promise. The manner in which the trade union action was called off was anticlimactic to say the least. Just as the struggle began gaining steam, it was stopped dead on its tracks. After obtaining a few, nominal, promises from the government, the FUTA ended its trade union action on the 12th of October.

‘We may have ended our strike, but our campaign to enhance and protect the public funded education system in this country is far from over,’ wrote Dr Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, the president of FUTA, the day after the strike came to an end.  For a long period of time FUTA remained silent, following the promise. Even the regime’s complete disregard of FUTA’s proposals in Budget 2013 did not provoke a strong public note from the trade union. Verité Research, a private research firm and think-tank, on Budget 2013, notes, ‘the total allocation for all education is 163,400 million in 2013 (1.88 as % of GDP). This is a nominal growth of 5.9% from 2012 and implies a decline of almost 2% in real terms as the GDP deflator for 2012 is expected to be about 7.8%’. The signature collection campaign launched by FUTA has only attained a little more than 1/5 of its initial target, and the numbers have been stagnant for long. Very recently, however, Dr. Dewasiri revealed that FUTA will re-start their public agitation campaign. Hopefully, learning from its last year’s efforts the union will be more effective this time around.

Some have criticized FUTA for failing to win the support of a large portion of the academic community, and have prescribed that FUTA should have ‘convinced’ this group before launching the strike. This group has been, wrongly, referred to as the ‘middle ground’ – those who neither supported nor sided with the establishment. The middle ground among academics – or, passive onlookers – is, in fact, a snap shot of the new Lankan majority: a population characterized by apathy and selfishness. The academics who did not participate in the trade union action were perfectly aware of what FUTA was campaigning for: what they needed was not convincing, but the willingness to stand up for what is right.  If the government had heeded FUTA’s demands for pay hike, the middle ground would have certainly been happy.

FUTA’s demands, as we saw, resonate well with the masses and therefore have immense potential. For over a hundred days, FUTA succeeded in holding the attention of the public – the ordinary people; something that the resistance against the impeachment of the Chief Justice did not manage. Academics, and university students, have a vital role to play in how the future shapes itself. Discussion and debate on state education must be sustained with greater civil participation. Strategic thinking must go into utilizing the positive outcomes of the trade union action – an invigorated group of university teachers; a far more mindful public; the forming of an informal alliance among other trade unions and civil society groups – so that (at least what is left of) the momentum is preserved. Sri Lanka needs an active FUTA.

Rethinking Education Reforms

The system badly requires a complete overhaul. However, badly planned reforms can do serious damage. Thus, the need for meticulous planning and implementation cannot be overstated.

Reforms must enhance the education to better fulfil the founding objectives. Principles of fairness and justice must form the basis for any attempt at mending the system.  The concept of reverse discrimination must also be given due thought, especially when changes are made to the district quota system. Democratising institutions of education is also an important task. Furthermore, there must be a concerted effort to protect education from political influence.

The public must realise its role as the primary stakeholder of the state education system. Academics should be given the responsibility of taking education forward. It is only them – not politicians – who can bring positive change.

More of Elijah Hoole’s work can be found at www.storiesofthewind.tumblr.com


[1] Minister of Higher Education, in a rare moment of enlightened thinking, very recently suggested that the university admission age be reduced. See:
Dasun Edirisinghe, Academics welcome reduction of university admission age, The Island –

http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=71423

[2]An extract from the speech delivered by President MR at the historic Water Filling Ceremony of the Magampura Port on 15.08.2010

[3] The highest number of complaints the Bribery and Corruption Commission has received is against the education sector. See: Transparency International Sri Lanka, Corruption Rampant in Education Sector,  http://www.tisrilanka.org/?p=10610

[4] There has, generally, been a breakdown in almost all state institutions. It is the education and health systems that have suffered most.

[5] Ahilan Kadirgamar, ‘Patrimony of the Rich’ to the ‘Inheritance of the Poor’: 6% of GDP in State Investment for Education, The Island – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=58409

[6] In Tamil the words rhyme: Yesu (Jesus); kaasu (money). My school is a state-funded Catholic School.

[7] Devanesan Nesiah, A Review of Quotas in University Admissions, Grondviews – http://groundviews.org/2012/10/04/a-review-of-quotas-in-university-admissions/

  • policyminded

    Mr Hoole, a very well written and insightful article. You capture a lot of complex issues in such simple terms. I hope your personal journey in furthering your formal education continues successfully. Perhaps you could suggest some of the reforms you would like to see made

  • vengad2012

    I appreciate your courage for listing out the major drawbacks in the education system of our coutry. Though I am a Sri lankan , I was made to continue my Higher secondary education in some other foreign country due to these issues.