In a candid interview with Dailymirror, Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam responded to the accusations being levelled against the government of adopting a lethargic attitude with concern to bringing those with corruption charges to book; explained the reasons behind the UNP’s haste to go for general elections and the steps taken to streamline the education sector: Following are the excerpts:
Q What are the main issues in the education sector that require urgent reforms?
The main issue that needs addressing is the admission procedures in schools, it is also the biggest burden at present. It needs to be streamlined and we will introduce the necessary changes to the process within the next few weeks. We will also take steps to increase the budgetary allocations to the education sector by the end of the year. Currently, its only 1.8% but we will systematically increase it up to 6%, so that more facilities can be granted to the students.
Following the introduction of certain restrictions, we have managed to control collecting money in schools this year. By next week, we are planning to release a set sum of finances to every school so that the necessary maintenance operations can be carried out without burdening the parents.
Politicization of the education sector too needs to be grappled with. I might not succeed in completely eradicating this menace during these few months. But this six-month period needs to be considered a transitional phase during which, the wrongs committed during the previous regime are to be rectified.
Afterwards, restrictions should be imposed in a way that would completely prevent politicians from making interventions into the education sector.
It is also important to achieve a qualitative development in the education sector while making necessary updates and changes to subject streams and providing necessary training to teachers and Principals. These steps cannot be implemented altogether in a matter of a few weeks or months, we need to adopt a systematic approach.
QWhat will become of the National Education Act, which was being prepared by the previous government? Would you carry it forward?
Many things were spoken of during the previous regime but nothing was done. We have recognized the importance of a national education policy and are planning to revise this idea and consider the recommendations and proposals made when drafting the Bill, that was prepared by the previous government. However, it is not something that should be rushed into – it needs careful consideration and the outputs of education sector professionals, parents, child psychologists, education experts etc.
QDoesn’t the restriction imposed by the new circular issued on the admission of children to certain grades result in an injustice to some students?
No, irrelevant of that circular we have instructed the school authorities to admit students if and when a vacancy existed. Most accusations are being made by those who are interested in squeezing 50-60 students into a single classroom. That is not a conductive environment for studies and also this does not help curb the high demand for popular schools, which results in the closure of smaller schools at the provincial level. The infrastructure in provincial schools too needs to be developed and that can be induced only through encouraging children to attend those schools and giving them reason to remain open.
QWhat is to become of the contentious 1000-secondary school development program?
Many issues have been raised concerning this program. Although the relevant officials had taken steps to classify the schools, they had not carried out a thorough ground-level study on the practicality of the program in certain cases. As a result, students in some areas were forced to travel many miles to get to a school even though they had access to a school closer to where they lived. This had resulted in a majority of students dropping out of school and the school that was chosen to be developed under the program, to close down due to dwindling student turnout. In such situations, I have advised the provincial education authorities to restructure the program. Some have initially been reluctant, but I have instructed them to prioritize the needs of the students.
QWhy had no action been taken against Principals in certain popular schools who have been charged with bribery and corruption?
It is inaccurate to say that no action has been taken because we have already taken steps to issue a circular in which we would instruct all principals regarding inquiries that would continue against them to cooperate with the investigators and we have specifically named those with charges of bribery and corruption.
The principals too have requested an appointment for a discussion on certain areas of that circular which they wish to clarify during that meeting, they agreed to return the money that was illegally obtained to the students. It is based on that agreement, we have halted the implementation of rigorous action against these principals.
Our motive is not to reprimand the heads of schools. It is humanly impossible to take action against them at once. The current system is steeped in irregularities and it cannot be set straight all at once. But it is systematically being steered in the right direction. As a result of the circular, most principals now visit the Ministry and consult us before commencing collecting funds in the school. They have requested for more time to implement the new regulations and have agreed to work in adherence to the guidelines set by us. So we will give them a second chance.
It is not a case of suspending the process of taking action against them – they would continue. We will ensure that the laws are strictly enforced on any education sector official who violates the set regulations and abuse their power.
Moreover, it will not be an easy task to recruit new qualified and experienced principals in a jiffy, if we reprimand all the Principals at a stretch.
QWhat measures have been implemented to ensure exam paper leakages don’t recur?
All necessary steps have been taken to ensure that they don’t recur. I have had a discussion and instructed the Examinations Commission to take every necessary step to ensure no loopholes are left with concern to protecting the confidentiality of the examination papers. Most allegations have been levelled at the former Examinations Commissioner and it has been claimed most of these issues emerged during his tenure.
However, even with concern to appointing paper-setting panels, we have clearly instructed that only those with appropriate qualifications should be appointed and not to favour anyone with political affiliation. We also changed the eligibility criteria that needs to be fulfilled by those fit to be appointed to paper-setting panels, particularly for A/Levels, as they must possess a doctorate or similar higher degree on the subject, their seniority will be considered and should have clean track records. While steps have been implemented to ensure it doesn’t recur, I should note that if such issues recur, strict action will be taken against all those who will be held responsible for the situation.
Q What about taking action against the previous allegations on exam paper leakages?
We don’t have sufficient evidence to take action against those allegations as the investigations cannot be continued under the currently available investigative methods. We have learnt that it’s the result of a collaborative effort of several personnel within the Examinations Department, but those accused cannot be pinned to the charges. If any individual or group possess credible evidence that can be used in the investigation, I urge them to provide it to us with relevant detail.
QWhy are you being accused of not consulting Teachers’ Trade Unions before taking decisions?
Who says so? It’s a false allegation. The former Minister didn’t give a single appointment to the TUs for the past five years. For the first two weeks since I assumed office, I held discussions with all of them and listened to their recommendations and proposals. But I cannot be having discussions with them every day. It’s unfair to state that I have not consulted them and has acted arbitrarily. I have welcomed their proposals but I have also been very frank with them regarding certain recommendations, which I don’t think are feasible. Every decision we make affects the futures of the 4 million children in this country, so we cannot make hasty decisions. They have to understand that.
QWhat do you think about the call made by certain TUs to remove the Military Administration Board in the military school?
The school exclusively to be attended by the children of military personnel was established with a certain motive. It is currently managed by the Education Ministry and the Military. However, the administration cannot abruptly be changed just because we wished to do so. We have changed the school head following an issue that emerged, while the other concerns have to be dealt with systematically because these are sensitive issues.
QWhy did the UNP make a decision on general elections when the decision to dissolve the Parliament clearly lay with the President?
The UNP has a right to take that decision because it had made the most significant sacrifice to ensure President Sirisena’s victory. The UNP played the major role for President Sirisena’s triumph. It is the UNP that came up with the 100-day program and all those who pledged their support to the common opposition platform agreed to it. Holding elections after April 23 is a promise made in the 100-day so we have to keep our promise, it is part of the peoples’ mandate. The President too in this situation believes the promises made to the people must be fulfilled, which includes dissolving the Parliament after April 23.
Q Is that wise to mention that most promises on the 100-day program have not yet been fulfilled?
Over 50% of the promises have been met with. The 19th Amendment was gazetted earlier this week and a decision on electoral reforms will be made by the end of the week. The Independent Commissions will be duly established.
I think the progress review should be carried out only after the end of the 100-day period. I don’t think any government has succeeded in achieving so much in such a brief period. Bankrupt politicos may make various accusations, but the people are well aware of how the country was governed during their regime. That was why we were certain of a phenomenal victory for the UNP at the upcoming poll.
QBut the SLFP doesn’t seem too keen on going for elections in April?
Those who worked to defeat President Sirisena are the ones who have an issue with holding the election before April 23. They are anxious to go before the people at an election because of what they have done and due to the state of their party which has currently split into two factions. To achieve their aim they keep harping on electoral reforms. We too agree with that need for electoral reforms, and I assure you they will be implemented promptly.
QWill the electoral reforms be introduced before or after the election?
It would be implemented before the election. But the Elections Commissioner has noted that the demarcations under the new system would take time. He said that it would take three months, even if the staff worked twelve hours daily. We cannot wait until then because we have to keep our promises and obtain the people’s mandate to continue with our work.
QAre the electoral reforms mainly based on Dinesh Gunawardena committee proposals?
No, absolutely not. We won’t make reforms to the electoral system based on the proposals of an individual who worked towards our defeat. We will absorb whatever positive recommendations off those proposals as well as from others. We will go for a mixed system mainly based on the proposals of those who worked towards President Sirisena’s victory.
QWhy is there a delay in bringing those with corruption charges to book?
We follow the available legal framework to take action against these individuals so it consumes certain a amount of time. We are not doing it for vengeful motives but to ensure justice is done to those who plundered State resources and public finances. But have no doubt, all those guilty will be brought to book.
QIs it true that the number of Ministers will increase up to 100 following the election?
No, the Cabinet will comprise of 30 Ministers and all other Ministers and their deputies will be kept at less than 40. Altogether it would add up to about 70 but it’s still a fair figure in comparison to the number during the previous regime.
We are not ready to listen to their hypocritical statements. They had 60 Cabinet Ministers, used hundreds of vehicles and the vehicle fleet of the President alone was around 1000.
Some of the former Ministers still haven’t returned their official vehicles and we have now been forced to resort to legal action to acquire them. Since we have controlled the expenditures in the new regime, I don’t think there will be an issue with the number of Ministers and deputies we are planning to appoint.
QWouldn’t the establishment of a national government result in the inclusion of Ministers of the former government charged with corruption, being involved with the new government too?
No, they would not be given any part in the new government. Currently investigations are continuing against those accused of such crimes. Charges alone are not sufficient. However, if any of the charges are proven, we will ensure they do not receive any responsibilities in the new government.
QFormer Minister Prof. Rajiva Wijesinghe says due to the obsession with elections, the Ministries are abandoned as the Ministers are at election meetings at the Temple Trees. Is this true?
No, the necessary policy decisions are carried out as necessary. But the Ministers are overwhelmed with work due to the upcoming elections, the 100-day program, investigations that need to be done into corruption within the ministries as well as the streamlining processes. So everything cannot be done together. With just 40 MPs, the UNP cannot be aiming for a lot and that is why we need to go for general elections and be armed with a fresh mandate from the people.