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Playing with the lives of young people

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Failed to reform the education system




Unrest among youth leading to political violence has been a major feature of the political landscape in the country over the last several decades.

A National Youth Commission comprising several distinguished persons was appointed in 1991, in the aftermath of the second JVP-led youth rebellion. The mandate of the commission was to investigate the background and the causes of unrest in the late 1980’s and make recommendations as to what State policies should be adopted in order to address the grievances of youth.

Among various recommendations, three stood out.
One was to abandon the infamous chit system and reintroduce competitive examinations as the method of recruitment to various positions in the Public Sector so that political and other forms of favouritism could be eliminated.

Secondly, the commission recommended that youth representation in sub-national political institutions should be increased so that they could participate in the decision making processes at least at a local level.

Thirdly, the commission explicitly recognised  the persisting inequities within the education system, in particular, rural urban disparities.
What is evident from the above is that the commissioners were convinced that the restless youth in the country had some legitimate grievances and that the State has a responsibility to address them in a rational and reasonable manner.

On the other hand, parallel to national level interventions initiated by the Youth Commission, there were also some institutional level actions to defuse tensions and heal the wounds, particularly among university students.
For instance, at the University of Colombo, various measures were taken not only to create opportunities to enable undergraduates to lead a full university life but also to address diverse problems they faced.

These included revamped student welfare services such as better accommodation, professional counselling, financial support to needy students, cultural programs, career guidance, language training and mentoring by distinguished alumini of the university and resuscitated student councils.
Various steps mentioned above were guided by the thinking of many distinguished academics at the time and their public image persuaded the political leaders at the time to heed their advice.

The university community saw a cultural renaissance in their midst. Professor Ediriweera Sarathchandra,  who was already retired at the time was invited back to the University of Colombo to be a cultural advisor to students.

His presence in the university, side by side many other leading artistes  who visited the university on a regular basis made a huge impact on university students. Professional counselling services no doubt helped save many lives of vulnerable and traumatised students.

The result was a period of stability and vibrancy within the university system against a backdrop of unprecedented violence and disorder in and outside the universities.




It is normal for adolescents and youths to face various emotional and relational problems besides social and economic issues. They themselves cannot often solve these problems and therefore need support from others, in particular, various institutions.





The proactive measures taken by the universities paved the way for the emergence of many culturally active and democratically oriented youth leaders in the university. Some of them not only did well in their studies but later became active politicians at national and sub-national levels. As is well known, today, some of them are key players in national and provincial politics. Young people naturally feel frustrated when they are deprived of opportunities to develop their full potential and participate in the decision-making processes.

This is understandable because their future prospects depend on such opportunities. In other words, it is almost natural for them to expect the State and various institutions to respond to their needs and grievances in a proactive, rational and reasonable manner. Yet, if one looks around the country, one does not get the impression that this is what is happening today.

It is normal for adolescents and youths to face various emotional and relational problems besides social and economic issues. They themselves cannot often solve these problems and therefore need support from others, in particular, various institutions.

But, it is highly doubtful whether many of the institutions that deal with children and youth in the country are up to this challenge. For instance, in spite of repeated calls, most of our public schools and universities do not have well developed counselling services.

As a result, many children and youth continue to suffer and, as occasional media reports show, some of them even end up taking their own lives under tragic circumstances.

Education system is key to resolving many of the problems faced by youth in the country. As I have discussed in several earlier articles in this column, we as a nation have failed to reform the education system in ways that could help address the problems faced by youth. For instance, education does not help many of them, in particular, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to achieve their life goals.

Even many of those who complete university education end up in poorly paid, unchallenging lower level government jobs that have little or nothing to do with the field of their education or training. In fact, many young men do not want to pursue higher education due to very poor employment prospects that university graduates have after their education.

The poor employment prospects that most of the young people face today are the result of both the nature of the  education system and the structure of the national economy. The agricultural and industrial bases of the economy are poorly developed. These two sectors do not generate many challenging, lucrative and stable jobs. Tourism and other service industries that are being promoted in recent years  do not generate such employment either. Meanwhile, the country does not seem to attract FDI to establish high value added industries or to diversify domestic agriculture. As a result, no new and challenging jobs for school leavers are created in the country.

It is natural for many youth to be attracted to diverse political parties, depending on their personal circumstances and ideological inclinations. While this is not unnatural, it is not desirable to treat agitating youth as enemies of society. In most situations, it is possible to engage youth in creative and constructive ways. It is best that institutions make efforts to integrate rather than alienate them further. We need to learn from our past experience and avoid mistakes as much as possible. This is good for both young people as well as others.
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