Universities should introduce compulsory English medium education or face redundancy; It is not the resources, but the political will that stands in the way
There is a draft Higher Education Bill prepared by the stakeholders of universities which has now been submitted to the President and the Ministry Secretary. The primary purpose of the bill is to de-politicise universities, by granting more powers, including the appointment of Vice Chancellors to the university Senates.
All that sounds good. To put myself, a journalist, in the shoes of the university staff, if we had our day we could well ask for more professional rights and respect for professional integrity (Of course, better salaries as well).
However, those reforms will do little to rectify the biggest problem that besets our universities: A large proportion of our graduates are not employable.
They are so because they are taught in the Sinhala medium (or Tamil, for that matter). Facts speak for themselves. Following is the result of a census of the employability prospects of the graduates of all national universities in the year 2012: The employability of Arts graduates is 31.5%, Management 65%, Science 68.7%, Agriculture 69.5%, Medicine 89.9% and Engineering 95.1%.
"According to the ministry of higher education, 52 per cent of the graduates of the Peradeniya Arts Faculty, the largest of the country, earned less than Rs. 20,000 monthly"
The number of science graduates produced by the local universities is still small in comparison to Arts graduates.
As the survey suggests, two out of every three Arts graduates are unemployed. Given the lion’s share of Arts graduates in university intakes, unemployment figures translate into more than half of the graduation class of every academic year.
Successive governments have recruited 40,000 unemployed graduates during the recent years. Their salary bill alone amounts to Rs. 24 billion a year. Those decisions driven by political considerations are not good economics. They perpetuate a culture of mediocrity and dependency.
"If universities did not commit the self-destructive blunder of exponentially expanding their Sinhala medium intakes since the late 1950s, at the expense of quality English medium education, Sri Lanka could well have been saved from two ruthless youth insurgencies in the South. "
However, the solution is not difficult to decipher: Revert to compulsory English medium. In other words, do away with the vernacular education.
The very idea of graduate education in the Sinhala medium is open to question. If ever, very little of world literature in economics, political science, international relations and sociology has been translated into Sinhala. Nor does a student who relegated himself to the vernacular medium have language proficiency to read the foreign text.
The student is condemned to earnestly cram the notes of his or her equally mediocre tutor; upon graduation, he or the would find him or herself unemployable; join the picket line before the Fort Railway Station and finally be hired by the government, before the next election.
Even those who get a job are hired for peanuts. According to the statistics of the ministry of higher education, 52 per cent of the graduates of Peradeniya Arts Faculty, the largest of the country, earned less than Rs. 20,000 monthly.
"Even for those who get hired, the chances of career mobility are extremely limited. A few vernacular medium graduates succeed in climbing the corporate ladder and a few have soft skills to do so"
Any corporate recruiter would tell you that without a decent level of English proficiency, even a first class degree holder in the vernacular medium is not worth the paper it is written on.
Even for those who get hired, the chances of career mobility are extremely limited. A few vernacular medium graduates succeed in climbing the corporate ladder and a few have soft skills to do so.
However, those same graduates could perform better than their English medium counterpart in a standard IQ test. It is not that they are dumb; they are made to look so by the vernacular education.
Nothing but the universities and the government can change this dismal status quo. However, none of the successive governments and senior professors in the universities have thought it was worth doing that in a concerted way. It is a crime that the policy makers and educationists have led those gifted children of the nation, most of whom come from disadvantaged and rural families, along a path to nowhere in the name of Sinhala and Tamil medium education.
Once this cycle of events kicked into action, it created dangerous by-products. Our graduates who have been cut out from the world of knowledge read vociferously antiquated socialist refuse and draw inspiration from the far- more dangerous ideologies of the far-left. (They cannot read The Gulag Archipelago to have a better feel of those ideologies since the Soviet Union which indulged in a worldwide brain-washing of willing captives in the Third World during heydays, did not translate Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece into Sinhala.)
If universities did not commit the self-destructive blunder of exponentially expanding their Sinhala medium intakes since the late 1950s, at the expense of quality English medium education, Sri Lanka could well have been saved from two ruthless youth insurgencies in the South.
Sinhala medium education in universities is an unmitigated disaster. Senior academics should know that better. Private sector, except in the cases of affirmative action, shuns the ill-fated graduates. Save the upper echelons of the academia (And a few elite faculties in Moratuwa, Peradeniya and Colombo), the rest is filled with substandard products.
They perpetuate mediocrity.
Many of those lecturers would find it hard to find a place in competitive private sector if they were ever to leave their university posts. They are part of the problem, rather than being a solution.
They perpetuate the system of vernacular education, simply because they cannot teach in English.
Universities should make English language proficiency a prerequisite in hiring lecturers. When IELTS scores are a requirement for a basic post-graduate degree, it is mind- boggling, why universities do not have something akin to that in their hiring practices.
It is not simply the limited public investment that has rotted our universities. They are destroyed within, due to the lack of vision.
Not even 16 per cent of GDP, let alone 6 per cent would help fix this mess. The solution is a proactive and determined reintroduction of the compulsory English medium education. Universities should make it compulsory for every student to take, at least half of his/her degree course in the English medium and earn half of their course credits from English medium courses.
What we take, for granted, and often ignore is that, Sri Lanka has an excellent infrastructure for English language education, which has survived the decades of official neglect.
Those facilities could be put in use. Sri Lankan students, who go to study in Russia and China, pursue their degree studies in those languages, after one year of intensive language training. Sri Lanka with its centuries- old English heritage should be better positioned to teach its graduates in English and our students who are daily exposed to the language should be able to digest it.
However, it is not the resources, but the political will that stands on the way.
Sri Lankan higher education has sacrificed quality, big time, in favour of equity. By doing so, it has yearly churned out graduates, who are now unemployed or underemployed. We have now seen that equity without quality, at best, could help kids from disadvantaged groups to become kachcheri clerks and nothing more.
Policy makers should reintroduce English education and make it compulsory in the university education, before expanding it into the secondary and primary education. The latter is a far too ambitious effort, but we had those infrastructure, sixty years back before the Swabasha education dismantled them.
English would address many ills in the higher education.
It would halt the decades-long erosion of the quality in university education. It would equip the students with a more cosmopolitan world view.
It would make them tolerant, though that does not mean, hazing in universities would disappear overnight. (For that the universities should enforce the law of the country within their premises).
It would also address the false sense of entitlement in students, who tend to think higher education is their monopoly. It would train them to compete with the students produced by private universities and those returning from foreign education.
More than anything else, they would know what it is like having a quality education. At present, they hardly have it.
Sri Lanka cannot afford to remain the Frog in a Well, of her own Political Making. English is a necessity to keep up with the Rest of the World, which is becoming more and more globalised.How did Singapore become what it is now?They did not throw out English Language Education. This helps to keep all the Ethnic groups together.Education in Sinhala and Tamil did not benefit the masses as was expected. It created the JVP and the LTTE which were made up of unemployed graduates, who could not hope to compete with the more affluent, who had access to English, and the rest of the World.
Rienzie de Livera Tuesday, 07 April 2015 06:07 PM
Mr editor what you say is hundred percent correct. These students the brains of the country are taken for a ride, by the power hungry politicians after independence. Now their children are educated in foreign countries and international schools. How many young men and women read your editorial and understand the true side of the story.All what we can say is .. IT IS A SAD STORY.
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