EDUCATION: WHERE ARE WE HEADING? ARE WE MISSING THE WOOD FOR THE TREES?

12 November 2012 06:30 pm - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Dr Uvais Ahmad
The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) has ended its three month old strike action ostensibly demanding higher salaries for the university teachers. How futile or otherwise this entire FUTA exercise had been will be debated for sometime by all stake-holders who were affected by this action. The spokesman for FUTA while announcing the calling off of the strike had said that it was done in order to ensure that the students are not affected adversely by their Trade Union action. Ironically he also went on to state that if the concerned authorities do not live up to the promises made at discussions held to resolve the issues which led to the strike, action will be taken to resume the struggle until a satisfactory solution is brought about.
The fact that universities in the country constitute a very important factor in the preparation and training of resources that are necessary for development, university teachers have to be cared for, and all inducements provided to get on with their undoubtedly daunting tasks in this age and time in order to deliver education efficiently. They need to be abreast of developments taking place around the world in their fields of specialty. This is absolutely necessary to ensure that their products will be able to face the modern day challenges in a technology driven world. The authorities should be sensitive to these needs. Every endeavour must be made to meet their legitimate demands so that they could carry on their unenviable tasks in a way that would prove useful to the country at large.

" Brain–drain has been a term quite in vogue from the time when our education system was able to produce talented intellectuals who found plenty of opportunities to make a significant contribution in various fields of human endeavour both in Sri Lanka and outside our country "

Brain–drain has been a term quite in vogue from the time when our education system was able to produce talented intellectuals who found plenty of opportunities to make a significant contribution in various fields of human endeavour both in Sri Lanka and outside our country. It is very well known that the best of our brains are now functioning with great acceptance and recognition in many parts of the world, not only in the western hemisphere but also across Asia and the Pacific right up to the Fiji islands and Tonga. Several of them had been eminent professors and lecturers and other highly distinguished people who once served in our own universities and other national establishments.



Quite a few of them went onto serve with distinction as international civil servants with the UN and other international Organizations. We are indeed proud that our intellectuals found international acclaim and brought immense honour to our nation, but it is absolutely necessary for the authorities in the country to ensure that we do not become the poorer by the exodus of brains which are necessary to bring about qualitative improvement in the delivery of education. This makes it incumbent on those in charge of education to accept the fact that since the university teachers constitute the cream of our intelligentsia saddled with the task of nurturing acutely needed resources to take the country forward, should be an adequately motivated lot. It should, however, be clearly understood that strike action in the education sector should as far as possible be avoided and all efforts taken to resolve outstanding issues through negotiation and compromise. This is especially because teachers are not only responsible to impart knowledge but also to instill values that would make children to grow as responsible and peaceful citizens.

The Mahinda Chinthanaya, which is by and large an expression of national priorities in respect of all activities that impart the country as a whole, declares in no uncertain terms the goal of making Sri Lanka the educational hub in the region. When I read about this a few years ago I was overwhelmed by the thought that we are on the right track and will be pursuing a realizable objective given the fact that we have had a splendid track record in the field of education ever since we received independence in 1948. It has to be noted that Singapore, Malaysia and India have also made steady progress in developing themselves as Centres of Excellence in the field of education.

It is pertinent to recall that when Lee Kwan Yew became head of the state of Singapore about 50 years ago, Singapore was only a small hamlet surrounded by sea and comprising of three ethnicities – Chinese, Malays and Tamils of Indian and Sri Lankan origin. Fishing was their main occupation. Except the sea they had no other resources to talk about. At that time Lee Kwan Yew held Sri Lanka (Ceylon at that time) as a role model and declared his intention to make Singapore another Ceylon. Today we find this futuristic and persevering statesman of Singapore had made this country the envy of entire Asia.

From the outset he relied upon the creation of an educated and informed citizenry. He targeted the schools as the starting point to impart a sound value based education to the new generation of Singaporeans who have subsequently given their shoulders for the development of their country. Lee Kwan Yew never relented until the country had a sound education system with committed teachers and an energetic student population driven by an urge to excel in their studies and serve their nation. It is indeed strange that now we may have to look at Singapore for inspiration to develop our own educational programmes.

" Unfortunately, when we consider the chaotic condition in which we find our education system at all levels from the pre-school to university, one cannot but wonder whether making Sri Lanka the regional educational hub is only a distant dream "

A large number of Sri Lankan students are undergoing higher studies in Singapore and Malaysia along with countries like Australia, U.K. and the United States of America. This is done by draining away valuable foreign exchange, a sizable portion of which had been earned by unskilled workers both men and women, sometimes under extremely trying and exacting circumstances. If the Mahinda Chinthanaya objective of making our country an educational hub in the region is to become a reality we should not only retain our students in the country but also entice a large number of foreign students to pursue their studies here.



Unfortunately, when we consider the chaotic condition in which we find our education system at all levels from the pre-school to university, one cannot but wonder whether making Sri Lanka the regional educational hub is only a distant dream.

Some of the events that have unfolded before us in recent times are indeed disturbing and unless measures are taken to arrest such trends our children will face a bleak future.  
  • Teacher pupil ratio has become staggeringly high especially, in the smaller classrooms making it virtually impossible for teachers to provide individuals attention to students.
  • Prolonged and enforced delays are experienced in the correction of answer scripts.
  • Question papers set by the concerned authorities for the terminal examinations are replete with errors.
  • The university teachers supported by the university students went on strike and they are poised to strike again.
  • Evaluation criteria are found faulty.
  • Discipline in schools leave much to be desired.
  • Tuition has become a must for most of the students from primary to G.C.E A/L classes. It is also a fact that most teachers depend on private tuition to augment their small salaries to make ends meet at a time where the cost of living is rising by the day. It has also to be noted that some teachers reserve their energy during class hours in order to expend it at tuition classes. This is a dangerous trend and the authorities must find a way out of it by reviewing salaries of teachers and adopting strategies like performance based inducements.
  • There is also a severe threat of Principals and teachers going on strike and taking to the streets demanding promotions and wage increases.  
This is certainly not a comfortable or attractive educational scenario for any country aspiring to become an educational hub in the region. It is an absolute necessity to first put our house in order, in respect of education in its entirety. We need to have a holistic approach to educational development. Although education has been compartmentalized into various segments like primary, junior, secondary, tertiary and university for the sake of convenience, we need to look at education as a whole and ensure that no weak links exist.  All those involved in education must bear in mind that a weak and disabled education system as we witness today cannot produce the right calibre or undergraduates to the universities and a discontented set of university academics cannot produce graduates of high calibre from the students who are not disciplined, irresponsible and ill-prepared when they enter the portals of high learning.  

" This is certainly not a comfortable or attractive educational scenario for any country aspiring to become an educational hub in the region. It is an absolute necessity to first put our house in order, in respect of education in its entirety "

One of the eye catching slogans of the recent FUTA strike was the demand for a 6% increase of in budgetary allocation for education. This is a reasonable demand and would have won a lot of sympathy and support from the general public. Facilities in the universities for both teachers and students have to improve. Senior lecturers have to be supported financially to do their research work on a regular basis. They should have sufficient exposure in other developed countries through attendance at seminars and other educational conferences. The students too should be provided with facilities conducive for learning. Large allocation of funds are needed not only to improve the quality of education but also to effect improvements at all levels within the school system. But what happens to this demand for a higher allocation for education. A recent editorial in the Daily Mirror recently titled “Into the valley of death, marched the 6%” tells it all…

Shakespeare in his play Hamlet says “something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Those who critically examine the education system in the country cannot be faulted if they borrow a few words from Shakespeare and declare that “something is rotten in the state of education in this country”. It is this “something” that has to be identified and addressed. The sooner this is done the better.

The writer was a Principal of two leading colleges, Director of teacher education in the Ministry of Education and UNESO educational advisor for the Asia Pasific region

  Comments - 1

  • Yoosuff Ali Wednesday, 14 November 2012 06:08 AM

    Dear Dr. Ahmad,
    I must say the facts in your artcile could not have been presented any better. If you will permit me sir to add, even after 45 years of nation building, Mr. LKY still feels there is much more to be done to enhance the education system in Singapore. Where national education policy is concerned, ideas evolve at the "think tank" level and the ministry is tasked to drafting up the short and long term action plans. These plans are then diligently debated amongst the people through the media and then in the parliament before adopting for implementation. Surely there is a limitiation on the extent to which criticisms or objection will be entertained. This goes on to prove there is a "system" in place to put the thoughts ("chintana") in to action. The system is strengtherned by the unshakable accountability of those in responsible position.


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