By Dr. Kumar David
The announcement of the GEC (A/L) examination results is the most anxiously awaited moment in the lives of senior year school students, their parents and teachers as these scores determine admission to all the faculties in all Lanka’s universities. This is the all important moment of their lives for about three hundred thousand young men and women who have made it through all the hurdles of the school system. The tension is heightened because only about one in ten, the top achievers, will secure admission to Lanka’s very constricted university space. If the examination results are inaccurate or improperly processed it is pandemonium; there is going to be hell to pay.
Add to this, conspiracy theories that I will come to in a moment, and you can well understand the anxiety and anger across all walks of life. Lanka still has a commendable system of free education from primary school to university and therefore it has been the key avenue of social mobility. Young people from rural and working class backgrounds have used free education as the ladder to professional achievement and better employment opportunities. Now a Pandora’s Box has been flung open and there is no telling how far the repercussions will spread.
What has gone wrong?
The A/L results were released in December 2011 and it was immediately detected that something was grossly wrong. Students and teachers who scan results with a fine toothed comb have thrown up countless contradictions; candidates have been awarded grades is subjects they did not sit, others have received cumulative scores before their individual subject results were known. A few mistakes always occur in such large undertakings, but this time the education department has admitted that something went hideously wrong on a large scale. The president, as is his dreary habit, appointed yet another presidential commission whose report evoked about as much confidence as the reports of all his previous presidential commissions!
The problem is compounded by two more factors, one peculiar to Lanka’s university admission procedure and the other relating to a transitional process. Admission to universities does not follow strict merit at the examination. There is a district-wise allocation system in place where students from less developed districts of the country get something of a leg-up in competing against candidates from, say Colombo, Jaffna or Kandy. Backward districts are assured of a certain number of places. In India they have the reservation system for backward castes and communities and the US uses an equal opportunities procedure. Strictly income based criteria are preferable to district based quotas, but nevertheless, the provision of enhanced opportunities for the underprivileged, for a temporary period of time, is appropriate.
The standard procedure is that a complicated formula is used to process raw marks taking account of different scoring propensities in different subjects (100% is not uncommon in mathematics, but not, say in literature) and then to assign a processed mark (the z-score). It is on the z-score that students compete for seats. The transitional problem that I referred to is what is called the Old Syllabus and New Syllabus conundrum. Understandably syllabi have to evolve with time and there will always be stragglers who will have to be accommodated after most of their peers have moved on. Therefore, it is natural that candidates will be sitting for different exam papers set on different syllabi for a transitional period of time. How then to compare the marks scored in these different examination papers?
Statisticians will say that Old Syllabus and New Syllabus candidates are two different “populations” whose z-scores should be derived separately and then reconciled by some meaningful process. Teachers unions insist and leaked information from the education department supports the view that both categories of candidates were pooled into a single population and the z-scores calculated by a common procedure. The outcome was a hideous distortion of the results as apples and oranges were indiscriminately pooled.
The argument in the public domain is a reasonable one: The education authorities had a full year in which to prepare, and make transparent to the public, procedures for dealing with and resolving these conflicts of interest. This certainly was not done to the satisfaction of a now irate public.
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These inconsistencies are bad enough and public anger is on the boil, but add to this a conspiracy theory, and the powder becomes explosive.
The private universities debate
A Bill to allow the establishment of private fee paying universities – they will invariably be in partnership with an established overseas institution – is being drafted in great secrecy and will soon be rushed through parliament. The ever pliant Supreme Court will certify it as an urgent Bill as it did with the foul 18-th Amendment to the Constitution and the recent Act nationalising 35 enterprises. The effect of the pending legislation will be the strangulation and burial of the public university system.
The universities, especially the JVP led student bodies, are on the boil; protest marches are breaking out frequently and the Minister of Higher Education, one SB Dissanayake, is threatening hell and fury against obstructionist forces. The case of the student bodies and the majority of the academic community is that what the government is attempting to scuttle Lanka’s entire university free education system. This reading is made against the background a sharp pro-business rightward turn in economic policy, allegedly concocted in cahoots with the IMF.
The suspicion that the government is bent on undermining the country’s university system, now 100% public, but for one hotly contested medical school, is justified. The allegation is substantiated by the treatment successive governments have meted out to the universities for decades. While neighbours like India, Singapore and Malaysia are proud of their public universities and venture to grow their best into centres of international excellence, Sri Lanka has simply starved its universities of: (i) funds (library, laboratory and lodgings), (ii) a research ethos and opportunities, (iii) national recognition, and (iv) international connections. The suspicion that the government wants, a by now problematic and potentially expensive public university system off its hands, and would like to delegate high-flyer slots to new fee levying private universities is justified. Then a second class rump public university system will be retained for the jako (derogatory Sinhala word for plebeian) classes.
In principle the establishment of private universities is a good thing; it expands opportunity particularly for those who can afford to pay, but if it is to be built over the dead body of the public universities by a government with step-motherly motives, well that’s another matter. Oxford and Cambridge or India’s IITs, JNU and IIS Bangalore would not be bothered if private colleges open; the competition will be second rate except in business schools. When you run your public universities to the ground instead of growing them into centres of excellence then privatisation is an entirely different story.
In this context the GCE (A/L) examination mess is being seen as a deliberate conspiracy by the government and the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to turn the public against the free education system and pave to rush through the new Bill. Though I find the conspiracy thesis a little far fetched it has taken a grip on the public mind. Swathes of public opinion buy into the conspiracy allegation; parent’s associations, teacher’s unions and grass roots bodies are mobilising for a showdown. The confrontation between the government and the student-teacher-parent combine may turn out to be a more serious conflict than currently meets the eye.