- The 337,000 students after their A/Ls are now desperate to earn money
- It’s natural that between August and January school leavers should ponder on what they want
- About 30 years ago, specialisation remains limited by a narrow range of career opportunities
Between this year’s August and January, more than 337,000 students will feel like they’re lost. Having spent the better part of their lives (13 out of 18 years) memorising over and agonising a cluster of subjects they’ll perhaps never relish after they leave school, they are now wondering what to do next. A sizeable majority will, of course, write their A/Levels again, and among them the more determined will sit for it again should they fail. A few will opt out of the A/Level race and enter employment and/or a private institution. Five months is certainly a long time to not do anything and given the pressure from their peers to get involved in a productive enterprise, only a tiny minority will stay at home. This is as true for boys as it is for girls.
Sri Lanka’s social ethics are by no means Sri Lanka’s only, but they have become inextricably linked to the national consciousness. There’s a general aversion to idleness, but at the same time hard work isn’t looked upon as an end in itself. Productive employment, in other words, is never seen as its own virtue; 337,000 students, having been tutored in the best circumstances they can find themselves in (given their circumstances, which are very meagre), thus find themselves in a quandary where they desperately need money. Since youth unemployment has risen (15.5% in 2018 Q4, compared with 11.8% in 2017 Q4) and the economy is all but completely in recession, the fear of idleness is only too pervasive. At the same time, however, with the rise of the gig economy, they have a better chance at earning a buck by the side than their predecessors; Gen Z has, in that sense, much to be grateful for over millennials.
Because entry to State universities is so privileged, re-sitting for the A/Levels is the norm rather than the exception. While demographics have shifted and with them preferences, incidentally, the rift between the arts and sciences still exists: the former having the highest number of slots and placements, the latter enjoying the biggest demand from eligible undergraduates. The truth remains, however, that of the more than 10,150 schools less than 1,100 have enough facilities for science subjects in the form of laboratories and qualified teachers, from primary to secondary levels. This leads to a pathetic link between socioeconomic opportunity and choice of subjects. A study conducted by the Economic Review in 1982 concluded that of the 23 educational zones in the country, Moneragala fared the worst in almost every indicator. Old habits die hard and so do old percentages: at present, as one of the most unequal regions, it issues the least number of science undergraduates and the highest number of arts undergraduates.
In the more urbanised regions, of course, the clamour is for engineering first, medicine second. That is the prevailing mentality and will be so for a long, long time, even though our universities have diversified its subject baskets and offered a richer variety, incorporating new streams better suited for a new world: in 2013, for instance, one wouldn’t have been able to choose financial engineering, project management, and translation studies, because they were not available. They were introduced only after 2013, when the government introduced new subjects that were more aligned with new industries. Most of these industries gravitate towards self-employment. They reflect a shift regarding what is dignified employment and what is not; the thinking behind and under them is thus (inevitably) becoming part of Sri Lanka’s social matrix.
So what will the 337,000 do? No survey has been carried out, and any sample has to take into account inter-regional social, economic, and cultural differences. I think such a sample would be worthwhile, for three cardinal reasons. Firstly, the prevailing consensus is that the young of the country are misunderstood, that although they easily fall in line with age old prejudices regarding education and employment (for instance, the age old prejudice against arts subjects), they do so more out of compulsion. A survey would capture what they want and how the system is so tilted against them that they can’t do what they want. Secondly, the youth themselves have ingrained prejudices; a survey of the type I am proposing will make their consumption patterns, reasons for their low propensity to save, and their social and political priorities clearer.
Thirdly, it would shed light on what has always been regarded as Sri Lanka’s dominant status-achievement-work value matrix. The stereotype of Sri Lankans clamouring by the dozens and hundreds to public universities, hoping to graduate and then find jobs as government doctors and civil engineers (though we know there probably are gluts in both fields), isn’t as true today as it was, say, in the 1950s, when Bryce Ryan observed that Sri Lanka’s work ethic was conditioned by institutions of government, education, marriage, social class, and caste, but then some things never do change. At a time when anything can yield any income, it’s natural that between August and January school leavers should ponder on what they want. If they want to make money, they want to make it on their terms, constrained by the usual taboos.
What are these taboos? A random conversation with a random teenager will confirm the reality. The overwhelming goal of anything, everything, is social prestige. What is social prestige? That entirely depends, of course, on the person aiming at it, or rather his or her parents. And it differs from category to category, sometimes within the same category. A government job for some is the equivalent of an internship at a top private firm for another, even if in both cases the salary or allowance is no higher than Rs.5,000 a month (the usual rate at an audit firm). Nothing else is privileged, and little else is tolerated: the dominant ethic, as in most Asian societies, is five to six years in higher education, followed by two to three years of gruelling work, and, presumably, a lifetime spent earning Rs.150,000 + a month; that’s when marriage proposals get called. Those who fail to reach this standard have to do with leftovers. Even in holy matrimony. (In the US, unlike here, wedding announcements are the norm. Not marriage proposals. On the other hand, the dominant class aspirations reflected in both are the same).
The professions are almost always preferred to academics, because how else is money going to be earned? Professions call for specialisation, and in Sri Lanka, as Ralph Pieris observed about 30 years ago, specialisation remains limited by a narrow range of career opportunities. (Consider that the University of Ceylon saw it fit to inaugurate a chair of Business Management only after the Chamber of Commerce called for it in 1957). These are narrower than you think: if you want to be a doctor, it’s considered more dignified to be a government doctor, even if private hospitals offer several times the salaries at public hospitals.
For most teenagers, freedom from such taboos and stigmas hence comes in the period between August and December. Even then they’re not really free, but they want to earn money. Many of them do so as freelancers: the more talented they are, the wider their potential becomes.
Although a comprehensive review hasn’t been carried out, LirneAsia carried out something that came quite close, among young freelancers, three years ago. The results were startling: of all the freelancers, a whopping 73% came from the 18-27 age category. Most were from suburban areas, although a similar survey carried out by the same outfit found out that there was far greater awareness of freelance sites within this category out of rather than within Colombo. Most (92%) were male, but that may be because the stereotype that one must get into a job and not “play around with computers” holds more valid for females. 58% of those surveyed, moreover, were following degrees or diploma courses.
The diploma courses can be on anything. The sight of mushrooming Photoshop, Illustrator, and photography courses in the suburbs is astonishing. Less astonishing are those English language courses, an eternal reminder of how badly that language is taught in even the most elite of elite public schools. The latter often charge anywhere between Rs. 25,000 to Rs. 40,000, depending of course on the institution and the teachers. Most of them begin immediately after A/Levels finish, illustrating how dependent they are on a thriving market: middle class public school kids whose English teachers were unqualified for the task of getting them to read, write, speak. That these are structured to meet the demand from the 18-19 year segment is borne out by the fact that they end in December: in time not only for Christmas, but as significantly, for exam results too.