Not so ‘free’ Education

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Much public attention has been focused on education these days. Perhaps controversy over and agitation on the SAITM medical faculty would have contributed to this situation. Obviously the latter agitation is intrinsically woven with much broader and deeper issues pertaining to education. Besides educating one’s offspring is a high priority among all Sri Lankans, including the most humble as it is perhaps the only means of moving up the social ladder.

The most articulated demand among the public is for ‘free education’. Yet what is free education? Judging by the demand and its justification ‘free education’ seems to be a misnomer for it is used as a synonym for education free of charge. Yet they are not synonyms.

There is also another view which equates free education with State or State-funded education. Incidentally there is no education free of charge today. Although State schools provide “free” education parents have to bear more than half the financial burden of educating their children. Facilities and other fees plus an innumerable number of ad hoc contributions cost them dear. Besides they have to pay tuition fees for extra classes outside the school.

Theme cartoon googled and added by TWImage result for education system cartoons

Added to this situation is the proliferation of fee-levying private schools which absorb a considerable number of children of school-going age. Pre-school education is entirely in the private sector. In tertiary education only about 16 percent of those qualified gets admitted to State Universities. There is a plethora of tertiary education institutes offering for a price almost every discipline except medicine.

Sound education

Even if the State funds the entire cost of educating a child it still will fall short of free education.

Freedom and education are two inseparably linked concepts. Education could thrive only in an atmosphere of freedom. Coercion, compulsion of any sort hinders development of creativity which is a goal of education. Education should be free of all myths and fallacies. It should be scientific. How can education that inculcates in children blind faith and obedience to natural and supernatural forces be free? Apart from any possible psychological benefits, what pedagogic value is there in talismans, Bodhi poojas and other spiritual blessings?

Education is a human right. It is the duty of the State to ensure that every child gets a sound education that is necessary to lead a good life. Whether it is funded by the State or not, it is the responsibility of the State to ensure this right.

Historically speaking education was a prerogative of the rich or the rulers in early stages of human society. It was either confined to the Brahmins as in India or the slave owners as in Greece. It is only with the development of productive forces that education began to spread wider. Public education as we see today is a result of capitalist development which needed educated personnel for its factories and offices. The much talked about Kannangara education reform also should be seen in this light. A little bit of reflection would show that the Kannangara reform was stalled half-way. It did not proceed or expand. It is primarily a shortcoming of the warped development of capitalism in our country.

National education policy

Now, let us have a look at the content and quality of education. Although we are approaching the 70th anniversary of independence we have failed to formulate a national education policy. Tinkering with policies continues with every change of government or even when different Ministers take over the subject of education within a single Government. The only consistence seems to be the movement towards shifting the burden of education more to parents according to the advice of international financial agencies, primarily the IMF and the World Bank.

The lack of equity in educational opportunities is tremendous despite the rosy pictures presented by Ministers and officials. Out of around 10,000 public schools with a student population of 440,000 only 350 have facilities to study Science for the Advanced Level examination. While the State has confined the majority of students to the Arts stream Ministers and public officials decry Arts graduates in public. Most of these critics themselves have only Arts qualifications or no higher educational qualification. Ironically some of the most vociferous critics are those that have excelled in public service through Arts of Humanities education. There cannot be a far outrageous injustice.

We often say lament our failure to evolve a national identity and achieve national unity and reconciliation. Yet have we pondered why we have not used education to inculcate values of national unity and reconciliation through education? On the other hand, the content of education we have imparted to the estrangement of national communities, especially through inaccurate or false interpretations of history or neglect of national culture and its traditions.

Quality of school education

There is a Chinese proverb which says that it takes only one person to plant a tree, one village to plant a forest but one needs the whole society to educate one child. This saying graphically illustrates the responsibility of the society for national education.

It also underlines the need for a holistic approach to education. Especially the needs of the economy should be considered in educational planning and education should provide at least the minimum human resources required for the development of the economy. Our failure to take such an approach has produced many incongruities where for example honors graduates in Agriculture have taken up managerial positions in commercial firms while there is a dearth of Agricultural specialists and researchers. (and so are some medical doctors who have become politicians and still some qualified doctors sell medical certificates and forensic reports without practising their profession -TW)

Another example of lack of holistic planning is the dearth of forensic experts and medical specialists in Geriatrics in a society in which crime as well as longevity of life are increasing.

There is also much to be desired in the quality of education. Best talents do not enter the education fields. Most of those who enter it also consider teaching only as a stepping stone to enter another more lucrative employment. The majority of teachers are disillusioned over poor pay, which is the lowest in our region. The private tuition menace is a result of this poor pay and the poor quality of school education.