Wednesday, January 28, 2015

An uncalled for need of the hour

One of the lesser defects of Mahinda Rajapaksa's presidency was the lack of a proper education policy. The antics of both the Education Ministers (Bandula Gunawardena and S. B. Dissanayake) were paraded in the media, to the extent where they didn't do themselves or the government any favours when they claimed impunity for their actions.

In the meantime, our education system sagged. Crises unfolded and went. Protests were unheeded. It won't be far-fetched to say that while it wasn't mentioned prominently in the Maithripala Sirisena campaign, education was a prime factor in Mahinda Rajapaksa's defeat.

There were lessons to be learnt. We learnt, for example, that inasmuch as S. B. Dissanayake's initiatives in bringing private institutes to Sri Lanka were a must (of sorts), they weren't enough. Quantity mustn't replace quality, after all. Dissanayake's program was flawed not because it was a complete waste, but because outlay did not equal quality. Lack of quality and a proper regulatory framework was the main defect, coupled with the former Minister's lack of regard for what people were demanding.

We also learnt that while Mahinda Rajapaksa's regime (I am talking about post-2005 here) promised us that much needed Education Act, no initiative was taken in this regard. That's bad. An Education Act is needed and for reasons that are obvious to anyone.

Firstly, it must be noted that there were two main education reform drives, both instigated by the JVP insurrections. But these reforms were halfhearted. Civil society was not consulted, and neither was a White Paper issued. The focus of both reform programs was on gaining votes. In other words, education was looked upon as a vote-grabber, a means to an (unnecessary) end rather than a virtue in itself.

Secondly, education figured prominently in Maithripala Sirisena's manifesto. As with his other promises, his stance on education was (and is) largely based on ideals. Promises of protecting free education, strengthening rural schools, and supervising international schools are all fine and well. Sticking to them, however, is a different matter. We are after all talking about promises that were made by nearly every regime that preceded this one. Who's to say that things will be different this time?

Thirdly, it's no secret that education policies lag behind for the same reason that Sirisena's much scuttled anti-tobacco policy failed: vested interests. There is a private sector "presence" in the government, as influential as the tobacco and alcohol lobbies. We are talking about lobbies that amount to big bucks. We are talking about lucrative deals made to push back reforms. While I can't agree that the private sector lobby is as bad as the tobacco lobby, I must concede that we are all the worse off for its presence in our education discourse.

Fourthly, the focus has all too often been on higher education rather than primary or secondary education. The private sector doesn't only handle universities and institutes. The lack of a proper regulatory framework was the reason why international schools flourished and abuses of authority continued in schools. Until and unless we look into our schools and into how we can reform them meaningfully, we can't really hope to turn Sirisena's promises into realities.

Fifthly, reform is meaningless without necessary mindsets. It is true that much of the discourse on education is handled by those who "bow down" before certain habitual prejudices. Sri Lanka has much to gain in its education sector. What keeps it back from attaining end-target isn't the lack of institutional patronage, but the lack of a proper mindset needed to institutionalise reform.

As Rajiva Wijesinha has rightly pointed out, equity through quality education is key. Unfortunately, what keeps this laudable goal from being reached is the lack of a proper, top-to-bottom impetus to get rid of the one thing that hampers primary and secondary education: the popular-outstation syndrome. I've written about this before.

We look forward to change. We look forward to promises. If the past is anything to go by, however, promises have rarely equaled realities. That's sad. I continue to view Sirisena's presidency with an open (and cynical) mind, knowing quite well how politicians act and how they eventually begin to sag. In the meantime, however, I also continue to hope that education, a cornerstone in our national policy, will be given its due place.

Education reform is key. But we need a whole lot of other things. We need mindset-changes. We need radical change, top-to-bottom. And most of all, we need to ensure that reform itself isn't subject to change as governments pass hands.

It is for this reason that we need a proper Education Act. Without it, any hope for reform will dissolve the moment the regime changes. That will be antithetical to the spirit of education itself, I admit. Problem is, Sirisena's manifesto hasn't mentioned this. Hardly something to get consoled about, I should think.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.