Food or Education, Take Your Pick

A protest outside a popular school in the Southern Province, where parents alleged that though they live in close proximity to the school, their children had been denied admission in favour of students living further away from the school.

H.G.S Prematunge

In the previous issue, the many matters that plague the Sri Lankan education system were discussed. Among the major issues that adversely affect the education system are the failure of the system to cater to labour market demands, inability of universities to meet tertiary education demand, brain drain and limited government expenditure on education.

Rigorous examination process and high competition for the higher education, disparity of access to quality education, unequal distribution of resources between urban and rural schools, poor performance in mathematics and science and overloaded curriculum will be the subjects of this week’s article on education.

Competitiveness

From grade five scholarship examination leading up to the A-Level examination, the Sri Lankan examination system is highly competitive. Students are over-worked with a cumbersome syllabus that they need shadow education to keep them on par with their peers.

S. Jayaweera in ‘Study on the Current School Curriculum and its Contribution Towards the Achievement of National Goals and Basic Competencies Identified by the National Education Commission’ reiterates that the school curriculum is insensitive to local conditions and affords no space for extracurricular activities and student participation. The teaching methods are out of date, not innovative and the examination system is still largely based on accessing students’ memorizing capabilities and not bent towards inculcating more practical skills suited to the job market such as problem solving or analytical skills.

Liyanage observes that to secure a good school in an urban area students from rural areas have to obtain 170 marks out of 200 at the grade five scholarship exam. Liyanage points out a disparity in selection criteria for various A-Level subject streams. For example, a student who wants to enter Commerce or Science stream has to obtain A’s or B’s for most of O-Level subjects. Similarly, a student who wishes to enter a so-called prestigious programme such as medicine or engineering at a local university, has to obtain 3 As.  A large number of commerce and medicine students cannot get into university even with 3 As.

Liyanage points out that this extreme competition adversely affects students’ psychology, especially since it enforces time constraints that prevent students from engaging in any other extracurricular activities. This directly affects their personality.

Lack of higher education opportunities

The A-Level examination is highly competitive. In fact, as discussed in the previous article Sri Lanka’s universities admit only 23,000 students annually, out of the 220,000 who sit for the A-Level examination.

According to 2016 University Grants Commission statistics although 160,517 students qualified for undergraduate courses only 30,662 were selected, leaving 80.9 percent to fall through the cracks. Liyanage observes that compared to other developing countries, the number of students that enrol in higher education is extremely low. Enrolment ratio in tertiary education for Sri Lanka was 19.8 percent in 2015.

Among those who do not qualify for university education, only a fraction enters private vocational and technical training institutes. Private university education is not cheap and only those on the top tier of society can afford foreign university education. Although some opt for degrees and diplomas offered by foreign university affiliated local institutes, this can only be afforded by the affluent. The rest have little hope of getting a higher education. This scenario offers a fine example for inequality of the Sri Lankan education system.

School vans are the preferred mode of transport for a majority of students living in the more affluent parts of the country.
School vans are the preferred mode of transport for a majority of students living in the more affluent parts of the country.

Disparity

Majority of rural schools lack qualified teachers, principals and other facilities. In ‘Social Inclusion: Gender and Equality in Education SWAps in South Asia: Sri Lanka Case study’, S. Jayaweera and C. Gunawardena point out that as such rural schools only offer arts subjects, rural students are denied science education, which in turn affects their socio-economic mobility. In fact, the  majority of the intake for 2017 was for the Arts stream, with 27,924. Interestingly, 63 percent of undergraduate enrolment was female.

Political interference in terms of allocating funds does not help the situation, according to ‘Education Participation in Sri Lanka: Why all are not in school?’ by N. Arunathileke and ‘Move Towards School Autonomy: Can School Based Management Help Achieve it?’ by W.J Perera.

As a result of this disparity these schools are marginalised. Liyanage observes that being ill-equipped and unable to retain their students, these schools are often forced to close down, depriving rural children access to education.

National schools, apart from government funding are amply funded by their respective alumni associations. But the majority of schools do not come under the purview of the Education Ministry and are run by provincial governments. They are funded by the central government. This is ideal breeding ground for mismanagement and political influence. Various infrastructure projects launched by the government to enhance the state of rural schools has only made matters worse, with political leverage being used to secure facilities for schools that do not need them. Liyanage points out that the process by which schools were identified for development as ‘centres of excellence’ in Navodaya School Programme was impaired and only 15 percent of the schools actually benefited from this programme.

Moreover, there is a sharp disparity between Colombo schools and schools in war-torn North and East. Studies find a correlation between the quality of the school and the number of drop outs.

Poverty and low educational achievement

In Sri Lanka, compulsory education is from age five to 14. Almost 90 percent in this age group attend school. But not all those who enrol in grade one finish their education. Although the national drop-out rate is 3.9 percent in the North and Eastern Provinces it is 15.8 Percent. Kamala Liyanage in ‘Education System of Sri Lanka: Strengths and Weaknesses’ points out that most of the drop outs lack skills necessary for employment.

There is a visible disparity across regions in student performance with regards to facilities, quality of education and teachers. In the paper ‘Education Participation in Sri Lanka: Why all are not in school?’, based on 90’s and 2000s data, N. Arunathileke points out that only 90 percent of poor children attend school. Despite the government’s many incentives, such as free text books, school uniforms and scholarships such as Mahapola for university students, the poorest of the poor still abandon education due to financial difficulties.

According to Liyanage, reasons often cited for non-attendance of school is lack off food and clothing, accessibility issues such as lack of transport and distance to school and lack of teachers.

Although urban residents have access to better facilities students of lower income families cannot gain full benefits because of their social and economic background. For example, the hostels are overcrowded and most students from rural low income families cannot afford accommodation outside the university. The going rate for accommodation is over Rs 4,500 per student and poverty stricken students can hardly afford three meals a day let alone accommodation. Most of these students abandon university education long before the end of the first year.

Rasanjalee Perera in her ‘A Sociological perspective of educational problems in Sri Lanka: Case in Colombo’ observes that students’ academic and social achievements are closely related to their mental health, which in turn depends on social, cultural and economic background.

(This e is the fourth instalment in a series of articles, discussing education related issues.)

Top