ISSN 2330-717X

Sri Lanka’s Education Mafia – OpEd


By Shenali Waduge


Undeniably something is wrong somewhere and that somewhere is our education. The stock exchange is supposed to be ruled by the mafia, perhaps even the sports arena, so too is present day politicos and it is no exaggeration to say that there is a mafia controlling the education of Sri Lanka. Our objective is to view all areas of discussion and to determine how best we can address these areas instead of delaying action through blame tactics.

What is on paper is never practiced and what should be practiced is never relevant to all. This is what ails every area of polity in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

Making promises to win votes and then forgetting to fulfill those promises is part and parcel of the lies that all politicians make. This is why they say we get the politicians we deserve because we have voted them in. If people stand up for their rights, if people demand politicians stick to policies and make policies that are relevant to the nation we would be on a proper sustainable journey.

The grievances of University Teachers (Federation of University Teachers’ Association)

The magnanimity of carrying out a strike since 4 July 2012 to fight to save State education has to be commended but is that the real scenario? The demands certainly raises questions as does the fact that most academics have chosen to disassociate themselves from the strike not willing to hold students as hostage – something the health sector doctors should take a lesson from.

The main thrust of FUTA demands camouflaged behind the grandiose suggestion to bring Sri Lanka’s education allocation to 6% of its GDP was voiced only after the salaries and perks of academics were publicized leading the public to question what the fuss was all about.


Nowhere does any state allocate 6% of its GDP towards education. The US allocation is 5.4%, in the UK it is 5.6%, Canada is 4.8%, Australia is 5.1% while in India it is 4%. True Sri Lanka’s allocation has seen a downward trend but we need to explore the reality behind this scenario just as we need to wonder whether FUTA is using this as a slogan for international and local media attention. Our interest is aroused further when FUTA demands that the Government recognizes the profession in par with the Sri Lanka Administrative Service while also insisting the Government allocates and allowance upto 30% of their basic salary for those not living in university quarters, provide internet and broadband allowance, childrens’ education allowance upto 2 children to be able to send them to private/international schools. FUTA would have received our admiration if it had insisted that all hostels be upgraded, toilet/washroom facilities improved, library services developed and other infrastructural deficiencies addressed before any of their personal demands!

We do not deny that academics need to play a crucial role in human resource building. The sad situation is that by virtue of officials functioning as “yes men” to politicians over the years they have handed over their rights to politicians creating the present crisis. Should we not blame ourselves for allowing politicians to walk off with the power that initially rested with us?

Qualifications, Salaries, Teaching Hours of Academics and Teachers

The question of qualification has also emerged. To be appointed as a professor one must have at least 10 publications in ISI and Scopus level internationally indexed journals with a PhD from a good ranking university. It is said that the majority of “Professors” in Sri Lanka do not meet this criteria. This then calls for a thorough investigation and a total clean up of the entire university system starting from top down and not bottom up as is often the practice.

Sri Lanka’s university system has 386 Professors, 79 Associate Professors, 1929 Senior Lecturers, 1556 Lecturers and 326 academic support staff in 18 universities. With about 4000 lecturers, the UGC claims over 550 academics have broken their bonds and not returned to Sri Lanka. What the UGC must next answer is what have they done about it instead of using these figures for argument purposes. It was a former UGC Chairman now a member of something called the Friday Forum who cancelled the 500 Indian Government scholarships offered through the Indo-Lanka Accord after securing placements for his own daughters!

Globally teachers are said to be paid the least. Comparing salaries against industry salaries is unfair just as it is to argue comparing teacher salaries with their overseas counterparts.

American schools start generally at 7:30a.m. with teachers coming at least a half hour early to write the days objectives on the board, to allow a quick tutoring session for the weak. Lessons are 40minute and school ends at 3:30p.m. Teachers do not leave school along with their students, they stay behind to prepare work for the next day often as late as 5p.m. Teachers never leave class without setting the classroom, making notes, assignments and activity handouts. Even weekends are spent in planning and marking work. In the US teachers spend an average of 50 hours a week on instructional duties, including an average of 12hrs a week on non-compensated school related activities (grading papers, advising students, parent counseling etc). Teachers are rigorously evaluated, they have to be regularly re-certified and they have to meet complex state and federal standards and they are expected to qualify as well. Is this the practice in Sri Lanka by teachers or academics for them to compare themselves with their counterparts?

Nowhere are allowances paid for paper correction, paper setting, exam supervision and even lecture visits over and above one’s salary. Academics are given fully paid sabbatical leave every 7 years that extend to 2-3 years or more, air fares even for the spouse are covered by the state, they are not disallowed from lecturing privately, providing consultations, involved in projects with these earnings are tax free, they enjoy more holidays than other public sector personnel. More often much of the scholarships awarded to academics are simply to advance their own personal careers than to provide any quality to the service offered to students.

The gross salary of a Probationary lecturer is Rs.51,316 while a Senior Professor earns Rs.126,536 and the take home with all the accrued allowances is something that will raise the envy of other public servants. Though together we can only wonder what qualifications politicians possess to enjoy the best of perks while being the main cause of waste and corruption. No one will grudge payments to academics or teachers if the quality of their teaching depicts results through the students they make into tomorrow’s leaders.

Waste, Corruption, Mismanagement and Politics

One aspect we all agree is that billions of money is being wasted by the State on tamashas suggested by “advisors” seeking to pocket profits for themselves at the cost of the country. It is a fact that the tax defaulters are the very people close to Government. Over 80% taxes are paid by the ordinary citizen. Yet, these very rich defaulters are given tax holidays and tax concessions knowing that they continue to default payments to the state.

While public revenue is just 14.3% of the GDP the expenditure is double. To allocate 6% towards education the Government needs to find Rs.272billion.

It is unfair to write-off FUTA as a body being politically backed to cause unrest in universities. They have highlighted some discrepancies and one such is the discontinuance of the scheme to encourage foreign students from 48 targeted countries. While the gesture to market Sri Lankan universities is commendable what the Government idea mavericks have failed to do is to consult the academics to derive criteria to select the foreign students which has led to the entire intake obtaining poor grades at the examinations. This lack of synergy and communication flaws has cost the Government USD12,000 per student.

At the same time while FUTA is asking for all decisions of the university education to be taken by university academics. That is exactly what is happening. All the decision makers of the UGC are made by university lecturers. In most countries it is the universities themselves who have to find funds for their survival – their Governments do not get involved. The appointments are contract and if they do not perform their contracts are not renewed. In the case of Sri Lanka, the Government is allocating funds and if the funds that are allocated is not spent wisely it is the academics more than the Government that must shoulder responsibility.

Governmental waste is nothing confined to Sri Lanka alone though it certainly does not excuse how our politicians function. So far the US Presidential ad campaign has cost over half a billion dollars while 46million Americans (22.3million households) live on food stamps. If US administration cuts over 70 of its programs US would save over $4.2trillion.

Who is to shoulder blame for Sri Lanka’s education crisis? Is it ONLY the Ministers in Charge of Education? Is it they who have leaked the scholarship examination paper in advance? Is it they who set question papers erroneously? Is it their folly that has resulted in re-correction upgrades to close to 3000 A/L students? Is it they who write the text books and plan the syllabus and curricular? Obviously not, therefore changing Ministers is unlikely to resolve the problem and it is the officials who have been offering a lackluster service who must go forthwith.

The bane for all developing nations is the misuse of political power. Trade unions inside universities have become a perfect political tool that uses students for their own political gains. Brainwashed youth are unable to read through these political motivated trade unions. One wonders who sponsored the t-shirts with 6% save education slogan! When will youth question why these unions prefer to have student as guinea pigs instead of helping them to improve their knowledge of English, help them acquire soft skills needed for employment and nurture behavioral attitudes that working environments desire above one’s paper qualifications. Instead youth are only encouraged to take to the streets bellowing demands against a Government.

School Admissions

Let us next come to the fiasco associated with Grade 1 admissions. The 1mile radius is non-existent for all those with political clout and influence. Private schools that openly declare non-admission to Non-Catholics and Non-Christians are willing to sacrifice that “policy” for a humongous “donation”. Free education is all but in name – we do not appreciate that what is free is being paid by the State through taxes paid by ordinary citizens. It is good to assess the income groups before awarding school uniforms though it is part of the free service alongside the text books.

English education

The truth behind the present divide and associated issues stems from the elites of both Sinhala and Tamil irrespective of whether they were Buddhists, Hindus, Christians or Catholics who did not want the non-elites to enjoy education and learning. The Sinhala and Tamil elites did not want non-elites to gain English education, enter university as it would challenge their status in society. Nevertheless, in today’s global climate we cannot stress enough the need for English and IT knowledge. Learning English does not equate to mean one should compromise the place given to one’s main language or the cultures associated with it. This is how the politically motivated trade unions in universities have misled the youth. To be educated is not to simply to have a piece of paper. University education is much more than coming out with a bachelors or masters degree.

Tuition, Examinations and Competition

The tuition menace is nothing but another commercial enterprise created to fleece parents and continue the present system of memorizing notes and little output at the end of the day though practically every child attends tuition. It is due to the inefficiency of the State that private institutes have cashed in on offering services that are no better while nothing is being done to monitor their services.

Examinations have turned into competition amongst parents which is affecting the mental status of their children. That competition is relevant to school donations, gifts to teachers, type of lunch box or water bottle brought even registering students for courses without finding how legitimate they are.

For university teachers, teaching should mean far more than reading or explaining a text. It is an adult forum where both teacher and student engage in discussing the subject matter exchanging differences of opinion and appreciating those differences. Tolerance and appreciation of both parties is tested. University education is not about giving notes, memorizing those notes and duplicating the exact notes given by one’s tutor in order to obtain the highest marks! The same should apply to school education as well. Nevertheless, we are well aware that very few teachers even encourage children to put forward an opposing view and children too are forced to suppress their desire to counter the teacher for fear of retribution.

Increasing salaries does not necessarily increase a teacher’s ability to teach if he/she did not have that ability when recruited. Therefore, if we had proper systems to recruit talented teachers and if they had been poorly paid then there is an argument. Nevertheless, we need to sincerely accept that our teachers lack quality. Therefore, simply increasing their salaries is not going to improve the quality of their teaching. Teachers who take up teaching as a job are not teachers and the Government needs to stop the ugly practice of offering wholesale jobs for graduates as teachers when they obviously lack the ability to teach and will only contribute to their own frustration as well as that of the students.

Sri Lanka’s education curriculum

It is essential that Sri Lanka’s curriculum address key requirements. Students must be self-directed learners – they must understand the basics of right and wrong. Curriculums must engage students skills and talents and depart from the present trend to memorize. Students must be encouraged to explore, question, investigate and evaluate their work.

Way Forward

University education in Sri Lanka began in 1942. 70 years on we are still searching for solutions to put education on track.

Advisors and consultants living and working in Colombo do not understand or feel the need to tap and nurture the inherent talents of children in rural areas. The schools they attend are often neglected, the infrastructure they deserve is never allocated, teachers are not trained yet the motivation to learn remains alive in these children. There is no requirement for new schemes and systems that eats up billions of rupees unless we properly evaluate the present systems and completely annul those that are irrelevant. Half-way programs spell further dangers to an education system that has become a convenient tool to completely destabilize the future generation of Sri Lanka.

The problems that exist are many. University students are involved in politics when they should be working towards completing their degrees. There is an overload of information which is not structured to tap the students skills and talents and instead encourages memorizing. The tuition enterprise has added to the failure with nothing constructive coming except fleecing parents. Loss of faith in the school system rests with not just the Government or the Ministers in Charge. The academics in universities, the teachers at schools, the parents and the students themselves are equally accountable. The situations become aggravated and blown out of proportions by trade unions, political parties and external forces. When a student is ragged and perhaps dies from the ragging it is not the Government or the Minister that should take the blame but the academics in whose power it is to put an end to ragging. Similarly, it is for academics to stop politics taking place inside universities and if academics do not play politics themselves attempting to win support of politicians much of the confusion that exists would not take place at all. The need therefore is for all these segments to accept their accountability and thereafter to devise ways to come out of the mess that has been created.

Teaching is not a PROFESSION. It is or rather should be meant for ONLY those teachers who love being with children/young adults, who enjoy engaging with them and encouraging them to learn. If teachers do not have creativity, adaptability, resourcefulness and thoughtful planning it is highly unlikely they will succeed as teachers and children are unlikely to get anything out of their teaching as well.

It is now time to stop the blame game and start cleaning up the mess that is Education and bring it to a level that we can feel proud about because we are dealing with Sri Lanka’s future.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own

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