Friday, October 19, 2007

What’s free in free education?

Since the dead C.W.W. Kannangara recently celebrated his birthday, I thought I’ll recycle an old blogpost I never quite completed..
Sri Lanka is said to have a free education policy, the state providing education at primary, secondary, and undergraduate levels free of charge. But is that really what is meant by the term ‘free education’ ? after all its Sinhalese equivalent is ‘Nidahas Adhyapanaya’.

Now, the word ‘Nidahas’ – as people who speak Sinhalese would know – is a reference to freedom and not price. (See Free Software for a similar analogy)

That, I believe is the spirit in which education must be approached in this country. Instead of focusing on the provision of education, the government must shift its focus on making sure that education is received.

Sadly due to visionless and insecure set of politicians, and an even more insecure set of ‘undergraduates’, the freedom to learn in this country – at least when it comes to higher education – is non-existent. There is no real ‘free education’ in Sri Lanka.

Each year more than 200,000 odd Sri Lankans sit for the cursed A-Level examinations, out of which a bit more than 50% of come out on top, all of whom are eligible for University entry. Yet the 15 state universities in Sri Lanka can only accommodate roughly about 16000 of those students. A pathetic 14 % of those who are eligible.

Few who couldn’t get into the 14% find places in the professional courses, or external degree programs. Those who can afford it go abroad, to US, UK, Australia, India, Malaysia and increasingly places like Belarus, Bangladesh and China (yes, china. we got so hooked up on blaming everything on the ‘open market’, that in some ways we are now more communist than china! take that.) Still others who could afford private colleges here attend them, severely limiting their choice of courses.

The rest of them are told to farm, the Mahinda Chintana would give fertilizer for 350. After all we are an ‘agricultural country’, our ancestors have been doing it for 2500 years, and it also boosts the ‘national economy’ and help our country become ‘self-sustained’ by 2010. Joy.

Reality though, bites.

Some time ago, I was quoted by a friend of mine on a Daily Mirror Article on Higher Ed. Reform (this is sort of me):

“I feel that you need to let private players into the market, and actively promote them via tax holidays, provision of land etc. I also feel a public private partnership model where existing public universities become affiliated with certain private colleges like the BIT system should be adopted. This is what's happening in India. Its win-win situations where more people get higher education opportunities.”

Now, I’m a tad bit misquoted here. I never mentioned BIT, which is an external degree. I also didn’t explicitly mention PPP’s, a conept I’m usually not fond of.

I am more interested in seeing existing universities (in addition what they are already doing) be accreditation bodies and award not external degrees, but internal degrees with no difference being made whether students are internally studying in the university or not.

That’s what’s happening in India and here in colleges like APIIT, ACBT, ANC, etc. with internal degrees of Monash, Staffordshire, and Westminster offered here. Surely that can happen for local universities, and if these institutes are able to measure up to the standards of say, Monash, they can’t be far off from say um, Sabaragumwa.

This I’m afraid is the only way of increasing access, we can’t wait for the bright day when ‘corruption would stop, mismanagement would stop, and state become efficient’ like quasi-socialists or people in the JVP-backed ‘Antharey’ feels.

Its time to step out from moronic idealistic beliefs and face reality – higher education in this country sucks. Not enough people can access it. Just ask the President and plethora of ministers who send their kids to universities in the UK.

I won’t quarrel with Kannangara, he made a policy that might have suited his time. What’s clear now is that it’s no longer suited, certainly not in higher education. Changes quite simply must come and if anyone (or any party) has the balls to make it an issue, I think it can be done.

Time to put 'freedom' back in 'free' education.


Mister X said...


People in the country seems to think that higher education in Sri Lanka is the best! And often look down upon students doing external degrees like APIIT and ACBT, the attitude is "He/she couldn't get into a local University (pity, pity...)"

But having had a taste of the so called free education and the University system, it surely does suck!!!! Big time!!!

Not only does it cater only for a handful of people who are blindly studying to 'get into University' but it doesn't lay out any alternatives or directions for the society and country as a whole..

While everyone is trying to be either an Engineer or a Doctor, we don't realize the importance of other professions such as agriculture, mining etc. which is the lifeblood of the nation.

The people who somehow get into Uni, get out of it with a BSc, or BA attached to their names and then hit the road demanding jobs.
This is the attitude that is being cultivated in our students... just as education is being spoonfed, they don't have the ability to discover themselves, and to find a career that can be useful both to them and the country.

What we need is a change in the attitude of the people in Sri Lanka, but practically you can't change that overnight, so we need a proper education system that caters to the country as a whole, and actually helps to build a strong person rather than hindering their growth by pressurising them into learning something that they are not even sure whether they are interested in.

Free or not, the education system in SL needs to change!

Aravinda said...

Hi Deane,

This is an exceptional wisdom for a 21 year old to show. We expect this type of wisdom from 60+ year professors. You should be an extremely intelligent youth. If we had another hundred youths in this country like you we would have been a Singapore today.

I wish you all the best!

Patriot said...

you are like the browns who support british, you only want big people to learn, whats wrong with poor also learning? that is why free education is good.

Deane AKA ~CC~ said...

Thanks Aravinda for the kind words.. i'll take the comparison with a 60+ professor as a compliment :).

mister x. thanks for the comments,
i'd say the lifeblood of SL, would be the services sector and not so much agriculture though.. but you could be right, if there are trained people in such disciplines like agriculture, maybe they can create efficiency in the um.. vocation.

Demanding jobs, i couldnt agree with you more. this is largely the insecurity im talking about. its a fear of not getting a job, that drives the anti-private-college university clans..otherwise there is not a single justifiable reason for not changing policy.

and patriot.. what are we ever going to do with you guys...

look around machang, all the 'big people' are not here. they are studyin abroad. at least in higher ed. even secondary school they mostly attend international skools.. the policy doesn't screw them. its precisely because those who cant afford to go to India, study at ANC,ACBT that you need this policy shift.. so that other colleges can come affiliated to say, Colombo Uni which can offer internal degrees of Colombo uni in their colleges. Because the students don't have to pay the exam fees in 'pounds' and because the affiliation wont cost the institute much in terms of standards they have to maintain, etc. the course fees can be low... certainly much lower than in those institutes i mentioned..

Sam said...


i think what you really means is, you dont want people with money to learn.. right?

Guess what! Free education DO NOT Guarantee education for poor people.

Dilina aka Dili said...

Most Excellent post Deane. Frankly I don't think theres much to comment on. You've covered most of the bases quite well.

Unfortunately though things wont change. Maybe never. At least as long as Sri Lankans expect everything to come to them free and on a silver platter.

I get where patriot is coming from. The only escape the poor of Sri Lanka see is free education through uni. because its all they can afford and its the best ticket out. Thing is universities turning into accreditation bodies need not be turned into a business venture.

I notice you've left out the Open University of Sri Lanka.Id like to have heard your thoughts on that. Something like OUSL could fit quite well into a an accreditation scheme where training centers could be opened regionally for students to train and learn when they can. And then they would also serve as exam & testing centers for degrees that are accredited by the various universities.

Deane AKA ~CC~ said...

Thanks for the comment Dilina

Something i didnt mention is 'free education' is not necessarily 'free' as in price either, it costs all of us something to educate these 16,000 students. that is through taxes, which all of us (including the poor) pay. So although its 'free' at point of delivery, its otherwise its not free in any sense of the word.

I think the OUSL can fit into the scheme, but why not other universities as well? why not colombo or peradeniya?. it's also a question of credibility,i think BIT failed because of that, an 'external degree' didnt quite cut it.

Also, i really do think it can be done. i mean the universities would continue as it is, they'll take the 16 k students a year and in addition to that they will serve as accreditation bodies which will, without doubt expand access through private colleges which will make use of that accredition.

it would be really hard for anyone to disagree with this and i think there is a growing sense of a need 'to do something' among common ppl as well.

But then of course politicians can get really creative when they want to do something stupid. but if somebody's willing to stand up for it, i think its possible. And that's the reason i advocate for this, otherwise what is better i think is complete privatization of universities and go for a ' voucher scheme '. which is not conceivable at this point. so its a good transitional policy.

Arjuna said...

I think we should not copy India's education system, it is a mess. we have better literacy.

MaXXa said...

Well the quality of the higher education may be not comparable with foreign universities, but still we find excellent products from local universities. Yes the educations shall be freely open to the private sector but there shall be a competent authority to monitor the quality of such institutions as well. Recently i saw a video in youtube and it is so pathetic to see the way the student of these institutions behave in classes and talk to their lecturers...

Deane said...

I wasnt going on so much about quality, just access. well, the USGC can be a regulatory body.. but its quite unnecessary IMO for colleges with foreign uni affiliation, they have to adhere to their standards anyway,

if the SL unis are willing to do the same, then of course either that particular university which affiliates the college or the UCSG can be the 'monitor'.

Arjuna, yes it is a mess in india for the most part, the govt even regulates the size of windows in schools, but in this particular instance in terms of colleges, they have got it right.

Anonymous said...

Dear All,
I think you all have seen & took time to talk about these issues writhing the SL Education system. Which is a great start! We also have to keep something in our minds that we can’t fix the back end of a problem with out fixing the font end of it. What I mean from this is, first of all our entire education system is an incorrectly designed (i.e. this was designed to make it tuff by scrambling everything into one little timeframe mainly to limit the access to limited infrastructure in SL). So it is clear that “infrastructure” within education is limited! Also outdated!!

Say if all universities accept this privatization or opens up colleges, one way or the other we increased the number of student enrollment into Universities & they successfully graduated…then what…? How are they going to find suitable employment?? This all needs proper planning, strategy to execute & also intelligent (vision) people to direct this for success! (Its all about 90% proper planning & formulating a strategy, but you need that vital extra 10% called execution).

Critical factors that I see that are vital to be address in this planning are, POVERTY, ongoing internal conflict in SL. I think it should not be an issue at all to talk about who can afford to go abroad & proceed with their higher education, because if someone can let them go (that’s the way it should be in Democracy). Please do remember something that there are some poor families who have sent their kids abroad by sacrificing every asset that they have (so its not only rich).

I think we still think very backward way… we need to go forward. Also many could argue that SL universities produced good assets to the society…great but cant see for the future, not that I am letting them down but that’s the truth. It’s all about “Globalisation” but our education systems still feeds some ancient bullocks to our children where you cant sell your self anywhere in the market. Globalisation is a global phenomenon & what we face in SL education system is a global issues not a domestic one, so why not Sri Lanka be part of it if the country needs to compete & go forward?

SL needs to re-write their strategy for primary, secondary & higher education. If it’s not now then it will be too late. I want to thank everyone who has shown his or her interest & concern for this matter.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone,

I think our SL education system has lot of loop holes,although it has several good points.

Very low % of students getting into universities.
Education is mostly based on exam point of view.
Exams measure the students' intelligent in some hours.
District wise selecton where city students affected in entering universities.
All students are appproached in same way in education.

For all of these i have a suggestion,weather it viable or not.Adapting american system of education.
In America, everyone can get education upto grade 12 for free.Each state ,each school from elementry to high school has no difference at all.So that no distric wide selection to universities.futher,Student's intelligent is calculated in very carefully with GPA(Grade Point Value system, which calculated from all 4 years performance of a student, in his all monthly,term exams ,home works,projects,and reaserch papers),which eliminates a student's fate is determined by a 3 hours exam paper.

A student can choose his course subject's difficulty level as to his/her ability to learn.A students can express him/herself through taking rigorous courses in his high school years or he/she can take more especially designed courses,if he/she is weak.In SL everyone needs to study same book,same course with same difficulty,thats why most students,especially weak students fail in their exams and life.

Eventhough in USA,students needs to pay thousands of dollors to university,students can get scholrships,grants,loans,work study programmes from federal government,private societies based on their familysituation,income,GPA,SAT/ACT scores,extracarricular activities,selection of major,ect.

I know,SL can't apply or invent american systems immediateley,but i thing this would a better idea to overcome educational problems in SL.