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A response to Dr. Harini Amarasuriya Re-examining the political role of education


22 February 2017 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


I would like to join Dr. Harini Amarasuriya’seffort to broaden the debate on private university education in Sri Lanka (Daily Mirror, 2017 February 13). Currently it deals narrowly and specifically with SAITM, and she suggests that we should first look broadly at the wider social role of education. She suggests that we should seek answers to specific issues like SAITM from these broader principles.  

Harini and some of her academic colleagues believe that education should not be designed to cater to market needs as, for instance, promoted by the World Bank. Instead, they believe in a political role for education (“political” in the broad sense, as in Political Science or Aristotle’s Politics).  
In this, Harini’s ideas borrow heavily from the early-twentieth century ideas of John Dewey, who wrote Democracy and Education in 1915. Dewey himself was riding on the American success story born of the Morrill Act of the 1860s, which created land grant colleges that took education from the elite to the masses. These were partly also the ideas that Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara himself fashioned into his reforms of 1939-1945, as illustrated by the quote Harini had reproduced in her article. Those were the heady days of Marxism, the Fabian Society and economic statism. Sadly, these reforms were undermined and could not have their full effect (see The Island [Midweek Review], 2010 June 23).  
Today, everything boils down to the crucial question that Harini herself poses: “Can anyone deny the relevance of these words more than 70 years later?” My answer to this is that, if they are in fact relevant today, then this must be a very limited relevance! The 1860s, 1915 and 1939-1945 are not quite 2017, are they?  

To start with, we must realize that the application of ‘general principles’ to ‘specific issues’ without considering the former’s appropriateness to the latter is questionable, especially when it comes to the social sciences, where the predictability of theoretical frameworks is far less than in the natural sciences. As I have shown, these so-called general principles are not without their own history (i.e., they too are ‘socially constructed’). They are not some perennial golden rules picked out of the air, like the oxygen we breathe or the theory of gravity. If their host societies themselves have since then moved on to ‘better things,’ why should we mire ourselves in their past constructions instead of moving on like them?  

The seventy years in question is a long time, and it saw significant changes. They saw the OPEC oil crisis, the Cold War ending, the Soviet bloc falling, non-alignment disappearing, Reaganomics, the personal computer becoming a part of mundane life, and globalization – we have to live in this reality even if we reject market fundamentalism. We must examine ‘relevance,’ rather than taking for granted that it exists.  

Any ‘relevance’ of this past is likely to be limited to objectives shared between the past and the present – it cannot possibly be related to the strategies designed to achieve those objectives. Objectives can be sacred and should be preserved. But strategies must be contextually appropriate and periodically reviewed and modified, even if the objectives are held on to. For instance, equal opportunity for all to enjoy a facility is a laudable objective, but how to fund the facility so that all who need it can enjoy it must be decided according to its own current context, not its past contexts.  
If Dr. Kannangara was a seasoned politician living today, what would he say? I am sure he will still try to give equal opportunity in education to all – his objective back then. He will probably also expand access, so that more, rather than merely the so-called ‘clever,’ will go to university – as a new objective. But would he also select non-fee-paying education – his strategy then – in spite of the history of our country that has been written into those 70 years? This history saw failure of exports (tea, rubber and coconut) with only Middle East labor migration and the shaky garment industry to compensate for it; dwindling foreign exchange reserves (from a comfortable forex surplus to a deficit); failed industrialization; huge international debt; a trebling of the population (from 6.6 million in 1946 to over 20 million in 2012); increasing costs of educational technology (not to mention other competing costs, such as healthcare); and the need to change universities from elite-access institutions (accommodating less than 5% of the 1946 post-secondary education cohort) to mass-access institutions (accommodating at least 25% of the cohort in the trebled, 2017 population), to meet the global shift from factory-based economies(which only required education in the three R’s) to knowledge-based economies (which require a university degree)?  
I doubt if he would have selected the same strategy today. I have more respect than that for his intellect, originality and bravery.  

University education has changed irrevocably since then. It is no longer something that only the elite wish to have, nor something that only a clever few ought to have (let’s leave out for now, how we select this clever few). As a result, the demand is insatiable. To plan a state-sponsored scheme to fund it all up-front is ludicrous. To deny education to those who cannot be funded by the state is a crime against the nation.  

The private sector today is the huge, vibrant, change-seeking, risk-accepting, shock-absorbing segment of the collective public effort, generating the power for adaptation and responsiveness,driven by personal incentive – quite the opposite of the state sector (apart from hugeness). Are we still seeing the private sector through the ‘village mudalali’ concept that we imbibed from the 1970s Sinhala and Hindi movies? Even if this village mudalali concept might accurately represent its potentially exploitative behaviour, does it portray its enormous potential to contribute to the public sphere and the national economy? The state sector has had to change from provider to regulator: this is the economic truth that the Soviet bloc denied, leading to its downfall.

We have to leave behind the old-fashioned state-private dichotomy, which the British colonists introduced to our public life and which they themselves have jettisoned from their own domestic politics since then. We must understand that the state and the private are two intermingled components of the one-and-the-same public sphere. In fact, we have already done this,with varying degrees of success,in regard to telecommunications, mass media, banking, transport (except for the railways), healthcare and agriculture.

Indeed, even in regard to education, we have done this already at primary and secondary educational levels. Here,the private sector, including mass tuition classes, has become indispensable, cheap and democratizing – while the state sector gives students little more than‘registration’ for district quota allocation, an outdated curriculum and some kind of outmoded, submissive discipline that no one takes seriously. Even at post-secondary educational level, we have done this for the professional fields allied to business and finance; and it is only in the traditional state university courses that we hang on to the colonial state-private dichotomy.  

Even if education should fulfill the high ideals that Harini writes about (and I actually agree with her on this), these can still, and must, be combined with efforts that help enhance the graduates’ readiness to enter the market place of employment. A graduate that can fulfil the former but not the latter will go on to become unemployed or underemployed, and will be of no use to society.

I believe that the university sector should have diversity in it – not only with regard to where its capital comes from, but also with regard to its underlying philosophies. Some universities should be strong on the ‘liberal arts’ bend that Harini is proposing, while others should be strong on market responsiveness. Both should exist side-by-side and each should nurture the other. That way alone will our graduates inculcate the social consciousness that Harini values and yet go on to become employed, productive knowledge workers who contribute to society and simultaneously shape it.These are not mutually exclusive. In such a model, private universities would have no handicap merely because of having private-capital origins.  

The important point is that the academia and the whole student body come together as one, diverse university sector – rather than be segmented and segregated along the state-private dichotomy – and that is exactly what “rural socialist politics” in state universities prevents. (The term ‘rural socialist politics’ is not mine, and is borrowed from the writings of Anuruddha Pradeep, one of Harini’s anti-privatization fellow-travelers.) I have previously written more extensively on this model and how to make it affordable to the many (see Ceylon Daily News, 2015 November 12) and the important issue of social justice within it (see Ceylon Daily News, 2016 January 18).  
The state-private dichotomy in our minds must be replaced by the idea of one public sphere made up of state and private (and combined) resources. That is how,in the nineteenth century, our education system became enriched with private institutions like Vidyodaya, Vidyalankara and those set up by indigenous revivalism. The rural poor engage in rural socialist politics because it gives them a sense of security against the other, not because of any belief in political theory. Their wish is to enter urban life and benefit from the life chances that come with this. And what is required to achieve this is economic growth, not the curtailment of it. That is how politics and economics should entwine.  
To me, these are the ‘general principles’ that should help fashion the solutions to specific issues like SAITM. Today, we must rewrite Dewey’s book as ‘Democracy, Market and Education’ to suit our times. Shall we all do it, Harini?  
The writer teaches Medicine at the University of Colombo. The views expressed are his.  

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