The Economist has already run two key stories on the on-going FUTA agitation – a sign of how much the world is focussing in on Sri Lanka’s unprecedented debacle of education.
Lest we forget, Universities in Sri Lanka remain closed, the entry of students to tertiary education is in an unholy mess, we have done away with basic IT literacy and English training for undergraduate entrants, the conduct of 5th year scholarship exam is mired in controversy and the subject of an active CID investigation. This invariably means that results of the exam will also be contested. The marking of recently conducted Advanced Level answer scripts has been indefinitely postponed. Down the line, this will add to the existing maelstrom over University admission. Media reports suggest the questions in the Advanced Level Buddhist Culture paper had leaked out before the exam commenced and that several question papers in the school term tests for Grade 10 and 11 in the Gampaha Education Zone were leaked in July. In addition to all this, Transparency International and other civil society groups have repeatedly flagged with damning islandwide research significant corruption around Year One school admissions. Around the time when parents hunt for schools to enrol their children, there is invariably a flurry of media reports around the frustration, favouritism, fraud and fear that governs the process, and how even in comparison to the year before, it’s got significantly worse.
At five critical junctures in Sri Lanka’s current education system – primary school admission, the Grade Five scholarship, Ordinary Level exam, Advanced Level exam and University Admission – the system has completely imploded, with no immediate relief or remedy in sight. And all the government literally has to say is that all this is a vast conspiracy to tarnish its name.
The immediate chaos around this madness is evident – there are water canons blasted on students in Colombo, there are thousands of teachers on the streets and there are parents protesting outside the University Grants Commission. The lasting, longer-term effects of all this is harder to accurately predict. At a time when our President in Iran is touting Sri Lanka as a model for others to emulate, the irony is that within the country, this imagined model is unravelling apace. The government has repeatedly said it is working towards making Sri Lanka a ‘Knowledge Hub’ for the region. This is quite simply not going to happen. Given the scale of the crisis, what we are looking at is an unprecedented challenge of civil unrest fuelled by disadvantaged and demoralised youth. Youth who have nothing to lose. One disturbing future scenario is a return to the violence of the late-80’s. While this could be convenient over the short-term for those interested in regime change, with FUTA’s struggle supported not only for its own significant merits, but as a powerful vehicle for a larger political change in the near term, the greater danger is that this unrest and systemic breakdown is already a foundation for the violence collapse of democratic governance and the rule of law years hence. Use a flawed, failing system for parochial gain, and one risks enduring political, economic and social chaos no matter who is in power. Address the flaws within the system, which will take a longer time, greater investment and sustained agitation, and those in power will be utterly powerless to stop change.
Towards this, and in addition to the core issues driving FUTA’s on-going agitation, perhaps we need to revisit and revise Kannangara’s submissions for educational reform in ’43. He stressed the value of addressing the emotional well-being of students and the importance of teaching English, in addition to Tamil and Sinhala. There is enduring value in these tenets. Today we can add to his central vision the value of teaching (new) media literacy from secondary school upwards, and for those currently eligible for or enrolled in tertiary education and vocational training, basic ICT skills.
Yet the government seems to think what is essentially a total breakdown in our education system is a temporary glitch in Sri Lanka’s pristine post-war perfection that it can tide over with liberal servings of water cannon and empty promises.
It is wrong. It is very wrong.
Published in the print edition of The Nation, 2 September 2012