President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently echoed concerns raised by many educationists over the years, when he issued a presidential directive to adopt measures to enable students who pass the A’ Level examination, to enter university within the same year.
Educationists point out that one way to achieve this is to advance A Level examination from August to April, which was done in 2002, but reversed in 2007, despite considerable benefits. In fact, the A’Level exam was originally held in April since its introduction in 1969 up to 1977.
In his article titled ‘Why GCE A/L exam should be held in April’ which appeared in the October 27, 2016 issue of The Island, Peradeniya University, Emeritus professor; former Education and Higher Education Ministry Secretary and former National Education Commission Chairman, Prof. R.P. Gunawardane points out that the highly competitive A’ Level examination determines the future of our youth as it not only serves as the university admission test, but also serves as a barrier for entry into most of the tertiary education/training institutions.
Gunawardane provides a detailed history of the examination in his article. In the 1950s A’ Level’s predecessor, Higher Senior School Certificate (HSC) examination was held in December. It was replaced by GCE Advanced Level Examination in 1964, also held in December from 1964 to 1968. Those who secured minimum stipulated marks for the theory papers in the sciences such as Physics, Chemistry, Botany and Zoology, held in December, were allowed to sit the practical examination in April the following year.
A’ Level was shifted to April for the first time in 1969 until 1977. Gunawardane points out that, during this time, contrary to accepted international practices, the practical examination for the science subjects was done away with. However, it still enabled students who qualified for university to gain entrance in October the same year. And since the regular academic year of universities commenced in October and ended in July/August, students wasted less time waiting for university admission.
A’ Level exam was shifted to August for the first time in 1978 and the tradition was continued till 2002, when after much discussion between education sector institutions, it was decided that holding the exam in April is the best option to reduce waiting time of university hopefuls. Consequently, the A’ Level exam was held in April until 2007, after which it reverted to August.
Gunawardane points out that, when the A’ Level exam is held in August, it is not possible to begin A/L classes for the students who sit O’ Level in December, until September the following year. As a result not only do those who have sat the A’ Level have to wait till September or October the following year for university admission, but nearly nine months of those who have sat O’ Level is also wasted. He observes that this state of affairs is further exacerbated by the backlog of students waiting to enter universities. The backlog resulting from the time wasted after O’ Level and A’ Level and delays in admission to individual universities result in some students having to wait up to two years. Education authorities have been able to reduce the gap somewhat in recent years, but we are a long way from closing it.
Gunawardane also observes that different universities adopting different academic years/semesters and even faculties within the same university adopting different academic years further aggravates the issue. He points out that the internationally accepted fixed academic year is from September/October to June/July.
What should be done
In his 2016 article Gunawardane suggests a national plan to remedy the issue should require new A’ Level classes in all the schools to commence in April/May after the New Year holidays and the A’ Level examination to be held in April. He points out that this would enable students to commence A’ Level courses immediately after O’ Level results are released, saving at least six months of their valuable youth.
But such a change would be unproductive if the academic year of the university system remains unchanged. Gunawardane suggests that, in order to reap the highest benefits of such a reform a fixed academic year beginning in September/October every year and ending in June/July the following year should be adopted by all universities.
Scrap grade nine?
Most educationists feel that 13 grades is one grade too many for school education and that grade nine, when most subject matter is repeated ought to be done away with, so that students may gain university admission earlier. Graduation age should ideally be 21, as the December 9, 2019, The Island editorial points out.
In fact, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report, ‘Education at a Glance’, the average university graduation age in developed countries such as Australia, UK, New Zealand is 21. And the average starting age for university education is 18 in Canada, Australia, France, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, UK and US, where are in Sri Lanka it could be as much as 22, although authorities have been successful in reducing the gap in recent years.
Of course, any change is first met with reluctance and resistance especially by school administrations as they are forced to make do with limited time and space, especially during the three- month transition period. When the A’ Level exam was moved to April in 2002, school administrations were asked to make alternative arrangements such as after school classes to finish the curriculum. Gunawardane points out that many schools complied and the rest fell in line.
University closure resulting from politically motivated student movements is another major issue that complicates the time lag issue in universities. As the December 9, 2019 The Island editorial points out, authorities close universities at the first sign of trouble. No major reform will be of any worth if certain factions of the student population themselves work to undermine the benefits of such reforms. A more pragmatic and amicable approach to settling legitimate grievances of university teachers, non-academic workers and students should be adopted by university administrations in discussion with education authorities and students.
As a recent The Island editorial points out, the practice of postponing examinations due to protests has to stop. It is no secret that most of these movements are politically motivated. Ruhuna University Vice Chancellor Prof. Sujeewa Amarasena in a recent interview on TV Derana observed that student unions are controlled by University Students’ Federation, which in turn acts according to the whims and fancies of a major political party, which The Island editorial refers to as ‘bankrupt external forces’. Amarasena added that new students were annually ‘recruited’ to conduct protests, collect funds for their movements and carry out political propaganda.
To be continued…
(This article is the 22 nd installment in a series of articles which discusses education related
issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint. Part II of this article will be published in the next issue.)