Sri Lanka’s system of education is facing the challenge of making education relevant in the knowledge economy which is evolving in the context of the global economy. The kind of knowledge and skills in demand are significantly different from those that had currency a few decades ago: factual memory is replaced by reasoning; clear handwriting is replaced by fast keyboarding; punctuality as a behaviour is increasingly irrelevant in flexi-time work patterns; loyalty-seeking bosses are replaced with team leaders; and competency of global languages and cross-cultural behaviours are filtering the unilingual in job markets. In essence, individuals and systems that are not responding to markets are marginalized.
The costs of mishandled issue of relevance, the need to effectively link education to work life, are multi dimensional. They are reflected in the low rates of effective transition of high school children to tertiary education (about 20% of the eligible); the overwhelming wastage of resources and two years of study in Grades 12 and 13; exodus of students overseas (costing over Rs. 50bn a year); and frustrated unemployed and underemployed youth who are lost in the market place. Surely, the evolution of a healthy knowledge economy is hampered.
This phenomenon is attributed to many reasons, most of which are not systematically studied or supported by research. In the absence of quality research in education, most reasoning remains confined to experience-based collective thought. Such reasoning point at inadequacies in curriculum development, text books and teacher guides, teacher-quality, resources in schools, role of principals, system of education administration, and the like. Essentially, these are factors internal to the system of education. According to the most recent results available in the Global Competitiveness Index, Sri Lanka’s ranking between 2006 to 2012, in quality education has declined from 3.4 to 4.1 (scale = 1-7); country rank in quality of math and science education declined from 42 (2008) to 72 (among 166 countries); and ranking of university-industry collaboration in R&D declined from 68 to 119th position. These are more reliable conclusions than our experience-based assertions.
What is rather clear is that the quality of education has been declining in the last decade. A significant cause is found in the weakening relationship between the system of education and the industry. The point that I wish to highlight is that the isolating system of education is destined to decay. Before it is too late, we must recognize that the rigidities inherent in inward-looking systems are harmful. Attitudes such as arrogance, proprietorship, omniscience, and procustination are rather cancerous properties of educational bureaucracies. They can be democratized in rather organic systems by introducing elements of open system characteristics.
In other words, the system of education in Sri Lanka has long suffered from its inability and reluctance to link with its environment. Without delay, it must invite its multiple stakeholders to involve in re designing education policy directions. It must work with employers both government and private, with investors, with different political parties, with different ethnic communities, with professional groups and civic society. The government and the Hon. Minister of Education are inclined to initiate a long-term and meaningful dialogue with-the key stakeholders of education-.
A range of issues await consultation with stakeholders of education. Some of them are: (a) reducing unfair burden on students (b) how to provide a balanced education (c) increasing students’ success rates in languages, science and mathematics (d) increasing access to professionals to provide their services to the functions of education (e) increasing research and publications in education (f) shifting teaching methods toward student-centred learning (g) linking education to work life (h) improving students awareness of career opportunities (I) channelling more resources to schools and modernizing class rooms and other facilities (j) obtaining stakeholder participation for planning and management of schools (k) teacher education and ICT skills of teachers, (I) increasing accountability and transparency in education, and (I) improving the quality of education so that students acquire competencies that are valid in tomorrow’s markets.
The National Institute of Education (NIE) is responsible for curriculum development, teacher guides, training of teachers, providing higher learning opportunities for teachers and officers in education, and carrying out research and publications in education. With the recent change of government, an attempt is being made to charter the way forward. The newly constituted Council of NIE is taking steps now to
Set up a forum for stakéholder to mount a dialogue on issues of education and contribute to action plans;
Invite the private sector to contribute financially to intensify the process of improving school facilities, research work and publications;
Invite the private sector to undertake endowment professorships in the various branches of education at the NIE;
Seek participation of private sector and foreign agencies in an effort to upgrade the Meepe Education Centre of the NIE to a fully-fledged International Centre that caters to the needs of the sector with options in education including Masters and Doctoral degree programs.
Thus, the months ahead may witness a series of new steps towards more democratic and participatory approaches to education development in our country. I urge the support of our valued stakeholders