Top priority for long-felt educational reforms | Daily News

Top priority for long-felt educational reforms

Sri Lanka, currently struggling to cope with severe socioeconomic challenges, has taken many short-term and long-term steps to solve them. It has been identified that education is the long-term solution to the problems that confront Sri Lankan society in building a dynamic, vibrant and a cohesive nation.

In considering the future of higher education in Sri Lanka holistically, however, it must be said that there are several issues which need to be addressed, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pointed out earlier this week at the Convocation of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. The world is currently in the midst of what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Building on the digital revolution that took place in the second half of the twentieth century, rapid technological innovations in a number of fields are converging to create transformative changes around the world.

The changes are taking place at exponential speed and are impacting almost every industry in every country. The ongoing global pandemic has only accelerated the pace of these changes. Every country, every government, and every institution involved in education should therefore take note of these important evolving changes.

Currently, required educational reforms are being examined on the basis of representations made by experts for the improvement of education reflecting the country’s political options, its traditional values, priorities and its vision of the future.

A study by National Institute of Education (NIE) stated that education stands at the crossroads today and the present structure of education, pace and nature of improvement cannot meet the needs of the present situation. Social life is passing through a phase which predicts a multifaceted crisis and the danger of erosion of long accepted values and the goal of democracy and professional ethics are being subjected to increasing strain. The future is likely to bring new tensions together with unprecedented opportunities with a demand for commitment to human values and social justice. In the face of the present multi-faceted crisis, the faith in education as the best investment for development and as the one field that affects the whole generation, the future of an entire nation for both individual and social progress or for both private and public good, still has many adherents.

The Constitution of Sri Lanka, in the Chapter on Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties states that the government is pledged to achieve the objective of “complete eradication of illiteracy and the assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels.” The principle of universal and compulsory education is therefore built into the Constitution.

The farsighted policy of free education pioneered by Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara had given an equal opportunity to youths from remote parts of the country to get higher education and produced a capable national knowledge bank which understood the aspirations of the people and social ethics and values of the country. However, with the rapid advances in the world, the need for educational reforms was recognized in the last few decades, but in spite of several national dialogues, a practical solution failed to be formulated so far.

Every child has the right to education and other fundamental human rights are dependent upon the realization of the right to education. Though we have achieved a high level of enrolment and participation, yet a policy adjustment will be needed to consider the removal of disparities and provide equality of educational opportunities by meeting the needs of those who have been denied an opportunity so far.

Addressing the new KDU graduates on Tuesday, President Rajapaksa emphasized the need to reform the country’s education system in order to create a citizen who can optimally contribute to the future world, the economy and development.

The universities should not simply be degree-awarding institutions. The President points out that the country, the economy as well as the graduates themselves should benefit from this. He urged the education authorities to introduce a new curriculum as soon as possible, giving priority to practical needs.

By improving local education system, it will be possible to educate many Sri Lankan youths who go abroad for higher education. They migrate seeking foreign education because higher education in Sri Lanka has insufficient capacity to address student demand, especially at the undergraduate level. According to a University World News report, Sri Lanka’s 15 state universities admitted only 23,000 students in 2018, out of the 240,000 who sat the university entrance (Aevel) examination. In the same year, some 12,000 Sri Lankan students reportedly sought university education abroad.

Two major decisions the government took last year were to give jobs to all unemployed graduates and to increase the university intake. The university enrolment has been increased from 31,000 to 41,000. The Open University will enroll an additional 10,000 students to their branches. The plans have been devised to register 10,000 individuals to follow degrees in Information Technology.

President Rajapaksa advised the officials to expedite the review process of the already drafted National Education Policy and implement it accordingly. He said that the current labour market discrepancies have occurred due to the fact that educational reforms that suit the country have not taken place for many years. There exist a large number of job vacancies in various fields in the country as well as internationally. But the education system has not created the manpower needed for the modern world.

“We cannot afford to lag behind. Our higher education system must adapt swiftly. It has to offer our students an education that will remain relevant despite fast changing circumstances and help them find gainful employment in future. Unfortunately, this is an area in which our universities and other higher education institutions need considerable improvement,” the President said.

“At the minimum, all graduates from our university system need to have some knowledge about new technologies and at least a functional familiarity with computers if they are to have a chance to build successful futures for themselves,” the President said. He urged the Vice Chancellors of all universities to introduce Information Technology and computer science to all students, regardless of the field of study.

“Irrespective of their chosen field of study, all students selected for university education are intelligent. Any lack of exposure they have to these subjects when they enter university is due to a failure in the education system rather than due to their own weaknesses,” the President said.

“Enhancing focus on research and development will also have a beneficial impact on the rankings of Sri Lankan universities internationally. Improving these rankings is important if we are to attract more foreign students as well as attract and retain talented faculty members at our universities,” the President added.

New reforms should create a background to facilitate access to education for the children who were left behind to reach their expected academic destination without age restrictions. Former National Institute of Education (NIE) Director General Dr. Upali Sedere pointed out in a research paper that disparities were evident across the provinces, districts, and communities. Regional income inequality has been increasing in Sri Lanka during the past few decades. The Western Province represented 5.7 percent of the total land area and 28 percent of the total population, but the Western Province contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased from 43 percent to almost 50 percent in a decade. Meanwhile, contribution made by three other provinces together, namely Sabaragamuwa, Central, and Uva to the total GDP decreased from 24 percent to 19 percent. The Western Province alone contributed to two-thirds of the services sector in Sri Lanka.

The President emphasized that it is every child’s right to have an equal opportunity in education irrespective of their ethnic and religious differences and added that it is the government’s responsibility to raise a productive citizen to the country.

New reforms should create a background to facilitate access to education for the children who were left behind to reach their expected academic destination without age restrictions. The President proposed the practical implementation of a student-centric education system instead of the existing exam-centric education.

Technology will play a key role in every single economic sector in the future, the President said and told the new graduates that, at minimum, all graduates from our university system need to have some knowledge about new technologies and at least a functional familiarity with computers if they are to have a chance to build successful futures for themselves.

“That is why I have requested all the Vice Chancellors to immediately introduce IT and Computer Studies as subjects for all of their students, irrespective of their field of study. This will give them much better prospects of finding lucrative employment or succeeding in their own businesses after they graduate. Alongside familiarity with technology, possessing a knowledge of English is another critical requirement for our youth. If any young person has a sound knowledge of English and has access to the internet, there is no limitation on what they can learn because there are so many resources available to them online, free of charge.”