Student unrest has been a significant feature of the socio-political landscape of Sri Lanka for several decades. Heightened unrest among university students at times resulted in tragic outcomes like the assassination of Vice Chancellors and the death or disappearance of many students.
There are several reports of past commissions that explain the causes of such unrest, the most prominent among them being the report of the Presidential Commission on youth of 1991.
Though it is not possible to rule out hidden political hands in some student protests, it is absolutely necessary to recognize the genuine grievances of students and find out how best we could address them. While poor employment prospects after completing their education often frustrate many university students and other youth, serious shortcomings of the education system often prevent students from securing a good education that meets the demands of their potential employers. In other words, well thought out educational reforms can rectify various shortcomings of the education system and prepare youth for the world of work, besides equipping them with other social and cultural attributes needed to live in a complex and challenging world.
Increased budgetary allocations for general and higher education announced by the Finance Minister last week is praiseworthy.
More resources for education can help improve educational facilities in the country. But there are no clear indications as to how the increased education budget is going to get translated into positive change in education. For instance, if the additional money is spent on more physical infrastructure rather than on human resource development, quality of education is unlikely to improve.
It is unfortunate that the education authorities do not talk about much needed educational reforms. They talk about more and better equipped schools. On the other hand, various reports of the national education commission over the last two decades talk about qualitative changes that are necessary in the education sector. They are not as tangible as laying the foundation stone of a new building or opening a newly constructed sports facility at a school. Yet, the learning outcomes of students such as new skills acquired as a result of the change of teaching and learning methods or the improvement of the profile of teachers can significantly change the outlook of students or the life chances of youth.
" It is unfortunate that the education authorities do not talk about much needed educational reforms. They talk about more and better equipped schools. On the other hand, various reports of the national education commission over the last two decades talk about qualitative changes that are necessary in the education sector."
It is necessary to allocate additional funds to improve the facilities in disadvantaged schools in rural and other marginalized areas such as urban low income areas or the plantation sector. But, funds are also needed to improve the profile of the teacher population. Teaching of languages, science, math and life skills is highly deficient in many schools across the country.
It is a well known fact that most students leave school even after GCE AL without a reasonable knowledge of a second language. This is in spite of the fact that the government has adopted a trilingual policy and that all three languages are supposed to be taught at all schools. It is also a fact that a majority of secondary schools have no facilities to teach the GCE AL science stream. Facilities for providing life skills training are equally poor in many schools. How many schools are equipped with a good school farm? How many schools have activity rooms where children can engage in hands on training in handicrafts, mechanical work, etc.? How many schools organise programmes aimed at achieving national objectives of general education? The answers to these questions cannot be very encouraging, to say the least.
What are mentioned above are a few areas of educational reform that are urgent, if we were to avoid student unrest that leads to unfortunate incidents involving students and the Police. The old psychological theory: frustration leads to aggression is almost common sense. But we tend to do little or nothing to contain youth frustrations arising out of poor educational opportunities and equally poor employment prospects. Disadvantaged young men know that many educational certificates in liberal arts take them nowhere in the employment market.
This is why they leave school early and start driving three wheelers or sell imported fruits on the pavement. Today, there are not many young men in the Arts Faculties of our universities. Most of them leave school or opt out of university education, not because they have no aspirations but due to their realization that poor quality education leads them nowhere. This does not, however make them less frustrated.
Violent youth protests pose a threat to democracy because even popularly elected governments may be tempted to suppress such protests, often leading to cycles of violence and counter-violence as we have witnessed in the past.
Rational policies aimed at bringing about positive change often do not bring instant results. Outcomes of such interventions usually become visible only in the long run. But popularly elected politicians naturally want to show tangible evidence of their work. This is one reason why they like construction projects like highways and multi-story buildings, instead of evidence-based policies and reforms.
"This is why they leave school early and start driving three wheelers or sell imported fruits on the pavement. Today, there are not many young men in the Arts Faculties of our universities. Most of them leave school or opt out of university education, not because they have no aspirations but due to their realization that poor quality education leads them nowhere. This does not, however make them less frustrated."
Yet, in the case of student protests largely motivated by frustrated aspirations, there is no choice. The government should embark upon a process of educational reforms in order to make education relevant and useful for young people, while at the same time facilitating the achievement of national goals of education such as social cohesion, innovation, critical thinking and innovation.
So, the additional funds allocated for education should not be wasted on physical infrastructure projects or unnecessary ceremonies but carefully utilised to improve the quality of education and address long standing inequities within the system. Education is too important to be left entirely in the hands of a few populist politicians.
There is an urgent need to activate the institutions that are mandated by law to formulate and implement rational policies in the education sector. It is hoped that the leaders of the country do not take this matter too lightly, especially if they want to avert yet another major political crisis in the near future. There are already enough warning signs around for all of us to see.
Writer is also the Chairman of National Police Commission