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The cliché of bad side of free education


20 September 2013 06:51 pm - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon

Prof. Chula Goonasekera’s thoughtful piece titled “Bad Side of Free Education” published recently in a weekend newspaper invites wider attention from policy makers and other stakeholders in the education sector. No doubt, it is a timely intervention to deal with a major issue facing this country today. Still some of the issues that the writer has raised in the article may not look that fresh, for the FUTA and its critics have dealt extensively on them, but require several careful re-readings; since meanings of conceptions can never be fixed or manipulated by the powers which govern.

Though not impressive enough, Prof. Goonasekera’s article has taken on some remedial measures for ills of free education as well. These solutions or similar to these are quite popular among technocrats of the government in reforming the system or opposition circles which aim to replace the ruling regime in future elections. For example the writer suggests that either the people should ‘denounce’ politicians who cannot run the system (sounding Platonic and heard from opposition benches) or the students should be given a repayable grant for educational expenses (technocratic idea of private funding, an idea emanating from neo-liberal reforms).

Here, while talking about available alternatives, the writer quite shrewdly shows us the access to ‘repayable grants’ could be the most possible alternative; since ‘denouncing’ bad politicians is the least possible task in any society, this seems a very (neo-)liberal alternative. Also the writer’s viewpoint on management of staffs, academic and non-academic, by way of keeping the most talented and efficient academics and removing the unproductive lot, and employing flexible mechanisms for administrative work approves the cost-cutting measures recommended by technocratic advocacy and not a novel idea anyway. However, the point that the education system requires ‘the best of the best’ to serve it remains a fundamental truth least supported by the rulers.

The good intentions of someone to reveal the ‘bad side of free education’, in the context of the government’s determined effort to hand over the job of producing and delivering education to the private sector inevitably can strengthen the attempts on redefining education as a ‘commodity’. And it is quite an intellectual misdemeanour on the public who are fed up with an inefficient state system and who for the time being fancy an efficient, uncorrupted private sector, which has no major social purpose other than profit maximization. Therefore the ‘bad side’ arguments serve the privatization efforts or can further strengthen the voices against free education. Hence, it represents, quite unfortunately, the interests of exploitative market-economics and egoistic politics.  

If the ‘free education’ is a menace destroying people’s tax money which any government can spend on various other projects such as ‘industrial development’ or ‘security of the state’, then, absolutely it is a very bad for the entire state; not just on the ‘government’ which is a replaceable arrangement to run the state for a fixed period of time. This writer, being a statist, would like to distinguish the meaning of the State and the Government clearly. For me the state receives prominence over the government. And in Sri Lanka governments after 1977 mostly have taken education as a burden on them, but we need to question whether it has ever become a burden on the State.

The idea of the State as is shown by many is a wider conception and encompasses all the systems within it, including the government and free education. And if something or some phenomena becomes a ‘burden’ on the state, it is a question for all the systems within it; since it is the ultimate institution that we all, barring our politics, race, religion, caste etc., have been compelled to live in as social animals. However, the falsity of propagation of free education as a ‘burden on the state’ is an egoistic myth promoting the interests of a certain class which can afford to buy even an entire government. And this fallacy is what the advocates of privatized education reverently use and politicos talks about lamenting on the soaring state expenditures.

Prof. Goonesekara and most of the others who support the idea that there should be a drastic restructuring of free education mostly find justification for attacking it on this argument, that it is an unnecessary burden on the government expenditure. However, there has not been a dialogue from those who want to debunk the thesis of free education about its contribution for the state building, the contribution it has made for the progress of the modern nation state, its democratic apparatuses and its entire function as the life giver of the system. Free education, because it was provided free has today made this state what it all looks like, its whole identity as a space of cultured human beings. The enormity of civilizational dimension of education is what is ignored ignorantly by the reductionists who superficially talk about its unbearable expenditure on the government. If someone really wants to talk about the bad side of something, he/she can freely choose among thousands of other topics; but when that choice becomes ‘free education’, at this hour, indirectly it strengthens the forces aiming to annihilate this system.

" If the ‘free education’ is a menace destroying people’s tax money which any government can spend on various other projects such as ‘industrial development’ or ‘security of the state’, then, absolutely it is very bad for the entire state; not just on the ‘government’ which is a replaceable arrangement to run the state for a fixed period of time "
Let’s ask the question; if the total expenditure on ‘free education’ is cut off and entire free education system is privatized, will the problems of an ailing democracy be over? Will this state then be able to provide equal opportunities for the poor, the majority? Or will the existing status quo of politics, economics and cultural harmony prevail then? Or will it not hasten another bloodbath (We have had enough)? In fact there is no guarantee that once this so-called ‘bad side’ of free education is scratched, there will emerge the genie of its good side – development, employment, democracy, good governance, a protest free society. Moreover, in facilitating the creation of the ‘imagined nation’ called ‘Srilankan’, education’s role so far is yet to be appreciated; and if the system of free education is to be halted at some point, this nation’s future would be decided by class cleavages which would become the more imminent cause for future social conflicts.

However, in our analysis, Prof. Goonesekera is never a conservative just to point out the bad side only and then prescribe private universities or fee levying universities as the panacea for all ills of free education. The entire piece has genuinely shown what is needed to be corrected if the quality of the education is to be guaranteed and unemployment is to be stopped. However, the entire argument is grounded on a superficial reading of ‘free education’ and its given meanings, and supports existing prejudices, though that could not be the intention of the writer.

The argument that education, school and university education are what one may utilize for livelihood is a technocratic policy measure. If someone wants vocational training, it’s again a matter of such education and individuals should be free to choose what they want to study. And nothing should be forced on the students by parents or the state.

Also the existing statistics on graduate unemployability and the English and computer skills needs to be revisited as these are quite not convincing since the graduates who pass out from any university are quite knowledgeable in English and computer skills today. Anybody can easily acquire working knowledge of these tools and ‘free education’ has not caused for lack of such knowledge. If these are the factors which make them unemployable, then the attention should be sufficiently paid toward them and not blame on free education, the system which guides this nation to its future. Because, free education is not just one dimensional phenomenon which should, compulsorily, contribute to make employable graduates, but is a wider system which contributes to sustain the entire system of the nation states in developing nations with functional democracies.

In fact what we really need to discuss, today, may not be the problem of the economic burden of the free education system on the government, which is more burdening on the state than education does; but, perhaps, the role of education on making this system a functional democracy. The reality, or part of it, could be that when democracy crumbles all other systems cannot sustain as they used to do previously, so the need of the hour is to talk about the bad side of the existing ‘democracy’; and to find out if the free education system has caused for such a dysfunctional and less democratic system which badly and externally is compelled to hand over the role of the state to the private sector. On the other hand, the need for a symposium on education as a common good and measures to upgrade its quality is badly felt today. The real threat on the State would be to ignore this structural necessity of preserving and upgrading the quality of a system fated upon its own survival.
 (The writer is an academic attached to the Open University of Sri Lanka), Email:

  Comments - 1

  • Jehan S Sunday, 22 September 2013 03:31 PM

    Private education's only goal is not "profit maximization", some people do get into the business because they enjoy it. "Free" education's goal is not only profit maximization but also indoctrination. Are you telling me the government is not interested in spending the least possible amount of money? Don't be naive. Don't be absurd. Government run education is capitalism at its worst. It's called a monopoly. -- where there is no competition and no incentive other than to indoctrinate and to maximize ministerial power and yes, profit too.

    I am not against universal education, I am against the government running it. I am against eliminating competitive pressure to perform. I am in favor of rewarding those who educate better.

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