By Muttukrishna Sarvananthan
There is considerable opposition from the university students as well as university teachers to the establishment of national or international private universities in Sri Lanka. The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) and the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) are at the forefront of this opposition. This opposition is based on the false pretence that such private universities would erode the so-called “free education” in Sri Lanka. The hearts and minds battle against and for private universities, in my view, is a battle for and against monopoly in education.
As we have argued in the previous think piece titled The Myth of Free Education, the so-called “free education” (free health as well) in Sri Lanka remains only metaphorically and not literally. Behind the contrived threat to free education remains chilling insecurity of university students and teachers who detest competition to their future or current professions and jobs resulting from potentially better quality student output from the private universities. We could discern this fear psychosis from the fact that students passing-out of private (English-medium) international schools in Sri Lanka are legally barred admission to public-funded universities or higher education colleges (such as the Sri Lanka Law College) or to public sector employment (such as the Sri Lanka Administrative, Foreign, or Planning Services, for example), which has not elicited protest from university students or university teachers.
The paranoia against students of international schools (beginning with the agitation against the erstwhile North Colombo Medical College during the 1980s) is part of the much larger POLITICS OF ENVY towards citizens who are entrepreneurial, independent (of public ‘free’ hand-outs), and upwardly mobile. According to this politics of envy, only the students passing-out of public schools and graduating from public universities are bhumiputras (daughters and sons of the soil) and “patriots” who deserve the patronage and privileges of the state. This is also part of the political narrative of the Rajapaksa regime itself typified by the anti-West and anti-UN (occasionally anti-India as well) hysteria whipped-up regularly for parochial political gains. Ironically, while the University Grants Commission (UGC) has been eager to recruit a handful of students from overseas to some of the universities in Sri Lanka in the past couple of years, hitherto it has not even considered permitting students from international schools to the local universities. Why is this duplicity?
It is true that education in Sri Lanka, at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, is chronically under-funded. However, additional public (state) funding is not the appropriate way to enhance the quality of education at all levels because such public funding will only perpetuate the insular, lethargic, and deliberate dumping-down of quality at schools in order to increase the school and university teachers’ earnings in the private tutories market. Since university teachers are the ones who set the question papers for the G.C.E. A/L examinations and do the marking of answer scripts they have a captive market in the private tutories throughout the country. If the FUTA and IUSF are altruistic about protecting free education by increasing public funding to schools and tertiary educational institutions they should also campaign for the abolishment of private tutories because most of the tutories are fleecing innocent students and their parents. Therefore, desperately needed additional investments in the education sector should come from the private sector and NOT the public sector in order to improve the quality of education.
Many people argue that the government should clamp down on corruption (which drains public finances) and wasteful public expenditures and investments (such as the beautification of the City of Colombo, huge and rising defence budget, Hambantota air and sea ports, Mihin Air, etc) and commit that money for public education and public health, inter alia. I do agree that there is rampant corruption and astronomical wasteful expenditures by the Rajapaksa government and those have to be tamed. However, the call for stamping-out corruption and wasteful public expenditures in order to commit more public money for public education and public health is a negative argument; one wrong cannot justify another. Instead, the champions of free education should convince the general public by positively arguing how and why enhanced public expenditures on education will improve the quality of primary, secondary, and tertiary education in Sri Lanka.
In my view, the policy debate on the admission of private universities in the country should not be framed in terms of preservation/protection versus dilution of free education; instead it should be framed in terms of competition versus monopoly for increasing the accessibility to prospective students and at the same time improving the quality of university education.
Competition was the bedrock of human civilization according to the Darwinian Theory of human evolution. Of course, not everyone on earth may agree with Charles Darwin’s theory of human evolution. Monopoly, either private or state, is detrimental to human welfare according to the fundamentals of economic science. According to a Tamil dictum keerai kadaikum aethir kadai vendum (even a shop selling green leaves need a competitor). In political principle and practice state monopoly is inherently anti-democratic that would lead to autocracy.
The state monopoly in education in Sri Lanka has dumped-down the quality of primary, secondary, and tertiary education in the post-independence period.
In fact, the admission of private hospitals in Sri Lanka since the late-1970s has improved the quality of free public health service throughout the country because of greater choice that has diminished the pressure on free public health service. In the same way, I believe that the admission of private universities could improve the quality of public universities as a result of competition for student admissions that would diminish the pressure on non-fee-levying public universities.
In the present circumstances, state monopoly is synonymous with monopoly of the Rajapaksa family. How come those who oppose monopoly of political power by the Rajapaksa family champion the cause of state monopoly in education (and indeed in other sectors as well)?
Muttukrishna Sarvananthan Ph.D. (Wales), M.Sc. (Bristol), M.Sc. (Salford), B.A. (Hons) (Delhi) hails from Point Pedro, Northern Sri Lanka, and a Development Economist by profession and the Principal Researcher of the Point Pedro Institute of Development (PPID). He has been an Endeavour Research Fellow at the Monash University (Melbourne, Australia) and Fulbright Visiting Research Scholar at the George Washington University (Washington D.C, USA.) as well. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org