Though free education ensures every child is educated, adherence to academic based curricula as opposed to labour market demand skills means many graduates remain unemployed.

(The third in a series of articles on education related issues)

The Sri Lankan education system is not without merits. According to the World Bank collection of development indicators we have achieved universal primary education and gender parity, with 98.18 percent enrolment rate for males and 96.43 percent enrolment rate for females as at 2016. Sri Lanka has a Human Development Index value of 0.770, and ranked 76 out of 189 countries, in 2017, mainly due to our free education and health policy. In fact, as a consequence of free education Sri Lanka has achieved the third Millennium Development Goal of eliminating disparities in enrolment in primary,  secondary and tertiary education.

However, the Sri Lankan education system is plagued with many issues and the politicization of Grade One student enrolment is the least of it. Some of them are poor quality of education and disparity in access to quality education, inequitable distribution of resources between urban and rural schools, high drop-out rates, poor attendance, poor performance in mathematics and science, overloaded curriculum, lack of teacher training, lack of qualified teachers and unbalanced distribution of teachers, the politicization of recruiting of school teachers and administrative staff, inability of the system to cater to labour market demands, inability of universities to meet tertiary education demand, brain drain, lack of technical education and vocational training, inefficient administration, limited government expenditure on education, lack of clear national educational policy and politically induced unplanned policy changes.

Effects of war

Despite the nearly 30-year war, Sri Lanka was able to maintain one of the highest literacy rates in South Asia. Free education, no doubt, was a major reason for this success. In fact, our youth literacy rate is 98.77 percent, as compared to 89.66 percent in India, and 83.2 percent in Bangladesh. Apart from the Maldives, Sri Lanka is the only other country in South Asia recognized by the UN as achieving ‘high human development’.

However, the war resulted in the large scale destruction of educational infrastructure, and led to a scarcity of teachers, teaching materials, and much more. The focus on post war reconstruction has diverted funds away from education and existing resources are unevenly distributed, with limited access to quality education in war-torn areas.

Limited government expenditure

In the mid-1960s the government was able to spend about 4% of the GDP on education, resulting in a sharp improvement in literacy and school enrolment. Coupled with free education, changing the medium of education,  from English to Sinhala and Tamil, despite its racial implications, ensured across the board access to education.

However, the low economic growth in the late 1960s forced the government to reduce the allocations of funds for education to 3% of the GDP. The structural adjustment policies introduced in 1977 resulted in a further drop to 2%, according to ‘Education System of Sri Lanka: Strengths and Weaknesses’ by Kamala Liyanage. This only contributed to the increase in regional disparities in education.

Government expenditure on primary education in Sri Lanka was 32.83% as of 2016. Its highest value over the past 43 years was 34.27% in 1973, while its lowest value was 22.99% in 2013. Statistics show that the trend is towards allocating less of a percentage to education, which is not good news for the education sector.

Graduates of Sri Lanka’s universities, especially those from the arts and humanities stream struggle to gain employment as they lack the skills that are in demand.( photo courtesy
Graduates of Sri Lanka’s universities, especially those from the arts and humanities stream struggle to gain employment as they lack the skills that are in demand.( photo courtesy

Inability to cater to labour market

Most school leavers and even graduates lack necessary academic or vocational training and practical orientation skills considered essential in the private sector. The certificate oriented, the examination driven system encourages scholastic achievements while industry specific skills and competencies are largely neglected. The 1997 education reform was introduced with the hope of dealing with this issue, but lack of policy to back up the reforms resulted in its failure.

According to the Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey 3rd Quarter 2018, the number of unemployed persons is estimated at 346,998 for the period, with an unemployment rate of 4.1%. In the third quarter of 2018, 5.9% of those who have A/L qualifications are unemployed.

Liyanage points out the poor quality in maths and science education as a contributing factor the system’s failure to cater to the labour market. Sri Lanka ranks poorly in maths and science education, and despite talks of giving schoolchildren tablet PCs, it ranks poorly in internet access as well. She observes that although English is taught from Grade One to GCE A/L only 10% of the student population is capable of mastering the language and surprisingly only 01% exhibit writing skills. And even this is restricted to urban areas. Mastering English, most often the language of communication in the private sector is essential for employment.

In ‘A Study of a Few Recognized Educational Issues Faced by Sri Lanka at Present’, Ven. Minuwangoda Gnanawasa Thera identifies the major reason for the local education system’s inability to cater to the labour market, as the homogeneity of tertiary-level education. He quite rightly points out that most of the graduates are produced in the fields of ‘Arts and Humanities’. He observes that although the demand for science and technology students has been steadily rising supply has not kept pace. The public sector is already saturated with Arts students and they lack the necessary skills to be absorbed by the private sector.

Liyanage observes that the major reason for the unemployability of most Sri Lankan youth is essentially the mismatch between the skills acquired through the system and the requirement of the labour market. Graduates, especially those in the Art stream lack employability as they have little marketable skills. Liyanage also observes that the absence of linkages to the private sector has led universities to be too academic, which results in the high unemployment rate of university graduates. Local universities teach theory, but do not allow opportunity for its practical use. Universities are overwhelmed with radical politics and the attendant conflicts and the curriculum of most subjects are out of date by decades.

P Jayawardena explains in ‘Expanding Tertiary Education Critical to Sri Lanka’s ‘Knowledge Hub’ Aspirations’, that the local education system has failed to meet the evolving demands of a globalizing world.

Opening up the education to the private sector maybe an ideal coping mechanism not only for the systems inability to cater to the labour market, but also brain drain.

Brain drain

Sri Lanka has a large expatriate community, living and working abroad either as skilled or unskilled professionals, mainly in Canada, France, India and Australia, as well as West Asia.

Brain drain is, perhaps, the most adverse impact of the conflict, affecting not only education but the country’s labour force and development as a whole.

Undergraduates too have many demands and organize protests all the time.
Undergraduates too have many demands and organize protests all the time.

According to a 2014 Australian government report the strong local migration culture is driven by notions of prosperity; migration is seen as a ‘normal way to improve one’s economic situation or a means to navigate a crisis’. Australia is the most sought after country for higher education, with some 4,403 Sri Lankans pursuing degree programmes there in 2016, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). The United States and the United Kingdom are well behind with 2,797 and 2,507 students respectively.

A popular belief among Sri Lankan youth is that migration or international schooling enhances employment prospects. Such views are further reinforced by the fact that higher education in Sri Lanka is insufficiently equipped to address student demand.

According to a 2013 University World News report, Sri Lanka’s universities admit only 23,000 students annually, out of the 220,000 who sit the GCE A/Level examination. Some 12,000 Sri Lankan students reportedly seek university education abroad. According to 2016 University Grants Commission statistics although 160,517 students qualified for undergraduate courses only 30,662 were selected. This means that a staggering 80.9% fall through the cracks. In fact, this lack of higher education opportunity in Sri Lanka directly contributes to brain drain and foreign exchange outflow.

With greater demographic pressure and higher dispensable income, resulting from economic development, these numbers will only increase in the future. In this light, despite the resistance to private education providers, such government sanctioned institutions maybe the only effective way to curb the brain drain.



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