We have had governance issues since the formation of the Government
Our educationists are now working with the Tea Research Institute, the Rubber Research Institute etc
There are so many international schools operating without any standard
If you have a closed economy, you can introduce price controls
Farmers are agitating for fertilizer
If you go for organic farming you must have an awareness programme
We are not basing our education on any country’s education system
State Minister of Education Reforms Susil Premajayantha in an interview with the Daily Mirror responded to questions on education reforms and governance issues. In somewhat hard-hitting remarks he was critical of the way the Government is administered at present. Premajayantha is a senior politician who recently completed his doctorate in public administration. Excerpts of the interview:
Q Recently, there was a workshop on the education system of Finland. There are talks about plans to reform our education system based on the Finnish model. How are you going to do it?
We are not basing our education on any country’s education system. There is a project called SESIP funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and some other organizations. They have given the opportunity to a set of educationists from Finland to come to Sri Lanka, study our education system and, if necessary, share their views with the National Institute of Education (NIE). That workshop is in progress. It does not mean that our education reforms are based on the education system of Finland.
Q However, are you planning to derive some insights from it?
Yes. In any country, we have three pillars in education –knowledge, skills and attitudes. In our country we are very rich in knowledge. Attitudes are also not bad. We have an issue as far as skills are concerned. Whatever children learn at every level- primary education, higher education, tertiary education or so- they are not in a position to practice. For that, they need skills. The main focus of education reforms is to improve skills and not downgrading the knowledge. You need the knowledge. We have to maintain knowledge. We have to improve skills.
Q How unique is the system of Finland in that sense?
Finland ranks first in education in the world. There are so many other indicators. You find countries like Singapore and Vietnam. They have converted their traditional education systems to stand up to the challenges of the 21st century. We are in the third decade of the 21st Century. Still we continue with the education system which we inherited from the British. In Britain, they have changed a lot. They have introduced STEAM education- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Still we have not done it. In these reforms, we are introducing that too. We give priority to our culture, history, geography, citizen’s education. Those are there. Students, teachers and parents are very much concerned about exams. Our education system ends up with exams. As a result, we find so much competition, heavy curricula, syllabus etc. Students seek private tuition apart from normal education. It generates so much of stress for students. In developed countries, they have reduced the weight of exams. What we should do is reduce that weight. We want to reduce the weight of textbooks. We want to introduce assessments within classrooms. Exams will be held as usual, but with some slight changes. The education system should be child-centred. We don’t replicate here an alien system.
Q What are the changes being planned for national exams?
We have practical sessions only for aesthetic and science subjects. We have practical tests for aesthetic subjects. After 1972, we don’t have such tests for science subjects. But we have questions on exam papers based on practical sessions. We need to improve that sector. Once students practice what they learn in their classrooms they can apply it whenever they are employed after graduation. As for university enrolment over 70 percent are from the arts stream. There are thousands of graduates passing out from the universities. But, they cannot meet the demands of the job market. We want to change that.
We want to introduce optional subjects based on locality. For example, in the estate sector, students are taught what is tea, what is the tea industry, how we manufacture tea. In gemming areas, they don’t know the science of gems. There are optional subjects specific to each locality. They can select one. Our educationists are now working with the Tea Research Institute, the Rubber Research Institute etc.
I went through the 1973 appropriation bill submitted by Dr. N.M. Perera and the 1978 appropriation bill by then Minister Ronnie de Mel. You find some turning points in them. In 1973, it was about the closed economy introducing price controls. There were so many import controls
Q Education reforms have been talked about for years on end under successive governments. But, hardly anything took off the ground. How realistic is it this time?
They were afraid to do it. This is a huge task, of course, after the introduction of the Education Act and the takeover of private schools in 1962. Some international schools started within the last two decades. They offer both local and foreign syllabuses. It is a mix-up. We want to have a clear-cut project for all the public, private and international schools. There will be a mechanism to regulate international schools. At present, private schools are regulated by the Education Ministry. There is no such regulation for international schools. The National Education Commission is also working on it. There are so many international schools operating without any standard.
With the development of science and technology within the next two or three decades you will find some of the professions disappearing. We have to mold our children accordingly.
Q Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said that the teachers’ struggle spun out of control because the issue was not politically dealt with. Do you agree with it?
For the past 24 years, they had this issue. When I was the minister between 2005 and 2010, we had several rounds of discussions. I am not in charge of that subject now. Recently, I had no such engagement. In my capacity I helped all the parties to reach some consensus, though. For the last one and half years, there have been no talks between the education authorities and the teachers. That is what he referred to. There was no discussion. If the authorities were involved in discussion with the trade unions, we could have resolved this problem without much damage.
We are in the third decade of the 21st Century. Still we continue with the education system which we inherited from the British. In Britain, they have changed a lot. They have introduced STEAM education- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Still we have not done it
Q Who is to blame for it?
The education authorities, the secretary, others officials and even the ministers.
Q The budget is criticised by people because there are no measures to address the cost of living. What is your view?
This budget is the most difficult, challenging one after Independence. I went through some traditional budget proposals. I went through the 1973 appropriation bill submitted by Dr. N.M. Perera and the 1978 appropriation bill by then Minister Ronnie de Mel. You find some turning points in them. In 1973, it was about the closed economy introducing price controls. There were so many import controls.At that time, the entire world was facing energy issues. All the oil prices doubled. Imports were curtailed. Food queues formed as a result. We did not have sufficient export earnings at that time. We did not have such revenue from expatriate workers. The then government had to take measures to produce whatever was possible in this country.
In 1977, as a result, the J.R. Jayewardene government came to power with five-sixth majority. Ronnie de Mel introduced the open economy in his first budget. U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were the pioneers in introducing liberal, market economy. It was like a wave in European countries. We also tried to convert it into an open economy. The exchange rate doubled all of a sudden. However, free trade zones were introduced. There was no limit for imports. We, along with most of other countries, practised it until the pandemic hit us.
In developed countries, they have reduced the weight of exams. What we should do is reduce that weight. We want to reduce the weight of textbooks. We want to introduce assessments within classrooms. Exams will be held as usual, but with some slight changes. The education system should be child-centred
Q We have again introduced import controls. People fear whether it will lead to the era of queues. Do you think it is a better economic model?
I don’t say that. I just pointed out what had happened in the past. After practising such an open, liberal model for over 40 years, you cannot just switch on to some other system. I do not know how we can match liberal economy with price controls. Market economy and price controls don’t go hand in hand. If you have a closed economy, you can introduce price controls. We issued gazette notifications stipulating price controls. What happened as a result was food shortages. Then, we withdrew all the gazette notifications. Again, the prices went up. What we have to do is to improve our production. How are we going to increase production? We need to increase production of rice, vegetables and fish. How are we going to do it without fertilizer, be it organic or chemical? Farmers are agitating for fertilizer.
Q Do you mean to say that there is a mismatch in the way economy is handled?
We talked about education sector reforms. My opinion is that it takes at least ten years to bring about these types of reforms. You cannot have reforms in just two or three years. We were using chemical fertilizer and pesticides for decades. If you go for organic farming you must have an awareness programme. In our country, 35 percent of the population comprises farmers. We were self-sufficient in rice by 2015. We have to wait and see what would happen next. Then, we must plan to produce organic fertilizer here. We need some time to do it. Organic farming is a very good concept. The international community welcomes that policy. Implementation is the issue.
Q Today in the country trade unions are on strike. People are out on the streets participating in rallies organised by the opposition. Why is there such a mess in the country?
I did my master’s course in public administration way back in 2004. Recently I completed by doctorate in public administration. My concern is on governance. We have had governance issues since the formation of the Government. You have to select the right person for the right position. It is not only for the ministerial positions, but also for the posts of chairmen, directors, heads of departments and the secretaries. How many chairmen have resigned? How many secretaries have been changed? You must recognise the difference between defence administration and civil administration. There are so many retired military personnel given top posts. I don’t say they are not capable. There are people who are capable. The issue is that there are two different administrations. It is completely different in business enterprises. For example, in the corporate sector, do leading companies select their top management like this?
That is the success of the corporate sector. That is the weakness of the public sector. In the past, the respective governments appointed people like this. What happened to corporations? At one point in the past, the chairman of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) did not have G.C.E. Ordinary Level qualification.
Q When you make remarks like this, you sound so critical of the top brass of the Government. Why are you so critical of them?
It is not the government, but some decisions they took.
Q Why were you so critical of the government?
We are part of the people who supported to bring this government to power. We devoted our time and money. We appeared on stages. We explained things to the people. We had so many seminars to promote our candidate. But, you find some policies are contrary to what we told the people at that time. That is why a section of the government is critical of decisions taken.
Q Are you justifying their criticism?
I am not justifying it. They also played a role to bring this government to power. When we were in the coalition government under then President Maitripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, there was a move to have a partnership arrangement with the LIOC for the development of 85 oil tanks in Trincomalee. We vehemently opposed it. We opposed the leasing out of the Hambantota Port. Before taking any policy decision you must have a discussion and consultation with the parties in the coalition and get the ideas. That is how the former leaders ruled the country.
Q How do you compare and contrast the present government with the previous government as far as governance issues are concerned?
That is why we left that government. That is because we could not be with them further. Now, of course, it is very difficult, I believe. Regarding the rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the past, I was a Cabinet Minister for ten years under him. I was the General Secretary of the United People’s Freedom Alliance. I prepared the nomination lists of three presidents. I did not make any single mistake. We performed responsibility. There was no interference in our work by the then president. He allowed us to work. We were given independence.
Q We hear that there are plans for new political formations. There are talks that former President Maitripala Sirisena is trying to make a comeback. What do you think?
It is too premature to comment on it. It is true that people are not happy in the way we handle day-to-day affairs. There are some difficulties as a result of the pandemic. It is a challenging task. None of the governments had such a challenge since Independence. We were elected by people to take up all these challenges. We should be in a position to take them up. It is the duty of the politicians. You cannot pass responsibility to others.