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Free education at the price of independent thought

2011-11-01 20:43:56
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The concept of free education was proposed and implemented by C.W.W.Kannangara in 1944 and has resulted in a high literacy rate. In fact, it is much higher than expected of a developing nation. Despite this, Sri Lanka’s unemployment rate ranked at 5.8% last year. A number of nations worldwide offer free education but only a few of them offer this free service up until higher education. Much to the merit of our education system, Sri Lanka is one such nation. The concept of free education was proposed and implemented by C.W.W.Kannangara in 1944 and has resulted in a high literacy rate. In fact, it is much higher than expected of a developing nation. Despite this, Sri Lanka’s unemployment rate ranked at 5.8% last year.
The quality of any education system can be judged on the basis of the quality of the graduates it produces. The employability and well roundedness of the graduates are a reflection on the quality of the system. In light of the current unemployment rate, it is arguable that there is a direct link between this rate and the quality of the system.
Hence, though education is free, one wonders as to its true quality and whether it sufficiently prepares students for the challenges of the working world. The common perception is that the current system only encourages note taking and memorizing and does not instil self-education nor develop other essential skills. In fact “spoon feeding” is a popular phrase that is used to criticize the existing system and it is a fact that it does happen. This is not to say that all universities and lecturers adopt these methods, there are indeed several exceptions. However, it appears to be a minority.
The system is further criticized as one which does not encourage questions or innovative thinking. This is evident in a statement made by Mr Dayananda, the former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce who indicated a need to improve the quality of education as well as adding a greater emphasis on creativity. Therefore, the popular view is that our education system from primary to higher education does not cater to the needs of potential employees. The private sector alone looks for a series of soft skills including communication and problem solving skills, punctuality, teamwork etc which they complain are not commonly found in graduates of the local system.
Hence, authorities should perhaps focus on revamping and restructuring at least the university curriculums and incorporate the development of soft skills in undergraduates as it is clearly a public and national concern. UNICEF recommends that a nation should allocate at least 6 percent of their GDP for education, yet the local figure has been less than 4 percent and has steadily declined in the past few years. Such an attitude does not paint a prosperous system which provides quality education for present and future generations.
Paradoxically, there appears to be another catalyst behind the unemployment phenomenon in Sri Lanka which is not directly related to the education system and is illustrated by the high unemployment rate of graduates. The reality is that most graduates refrain from accepting certain jobs in the hopes that a better opportunity would present itself. In fact, there is no job shortage as such but simply that graduates voluntarily opt to be unemployed until a “better” job opportunity comes along. It is unfortunate, but true that most graduates expect high paying, plush jobs immediately out of university without an ounce of experience. Considering the different qualities and qualifications employers look for in potential employees, it is clear that this is not a realistic expectation.
On the flipside, one must acknowledge the view point of a graduate as well. The A/L examination in this country is extremely competitive and to gain entrance to a university requires a successful combination of time, effort and commitment. Subsequently, as an undergraduate, a student will commit another 3-4 years of their life in order to obtain a degree, and consequent to nearly 2 decades of schooling, it is normal that some graduates may consider settling for substandard jobs over what they deserve, to be unacceptable.
However, at the end of the day, what we must realize is that surviving in the working world does not depend solely on academic qualifications. It depends largely on personal capacity and individual strengths. Having a degree, be it a local one or a foreign one, is only a stepping stone and not an automatic qualification for a job. Such academic achievements must be supplemented with relevant experience and such can be obtained via internships and voluntary contributions in order to market oneself successfully and secure employment.
Hence the glaring deficiencies in the system must be identified and the relevant authorities must take immediate action to rectify them. However, I believe that those benefitting from the system should not rely on the system alone, but be prudent and supplement their academic qualifications with as much experience as possible, for it is only then are they adequately prepared to face the challenges of the working world successfully.


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