Is Sri Lanka’s Education System Faced With A Crisis?

The Sri Lankan population has a literacy rate of 92 percent, higher than that expected for a developing country.

By Lakshman Keerthisinghe

Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive, easy to govern but impossible to enslave.
– Henry,Baron Brougham (1778-1868) Attributed

The Sri Lankan population has a literacy rate of 92 percent, higher than that expected for a developing country.

Modern education system in Sri Lanka was brought about with the integration of Sri Lanka in to the British Empire in the 19th century and it falls under the control of both the Central Government and the Provincial Councils.with some responsibilities lying with the Central Government and the Provincial Council having autonomy over others. The Sri Lankan population has a literacy rate of 92 percent, higher than that expected for a developing country.It has the highest literacy rate in South Asia and overall, one of the highest literacy rates un Asia. Education plays a major part in the life and culture of the country and the history of education in Sri Lanka dates back to 543 BC. It is believed that the Sanskrit language was brought to the island from North India as a result of the establishment of Buddhism in the reign of King Devanam Piyatissa from the Buddhist monks sent by Emperor Asoka  of India. Since then the education system evolved based around the Buddhist temples and Pirivenas (monastic colleges), the latter primarily intended for the education of clergy (even to this day) and higher education. Evidence of this system is found on the Mahawamsa and the Dipawamsa, the Chronicles of Lanka that deals with the history of the island from the arrival of Prince Vijaya and his followers in the 6th century BC.
With the on set of the colonial expansion in the island, first in the coastal provinces and then interior, Christian missionary societies become active in the field of education. The Church’s monopoly of education in the island ended following the Colebrooke Commission set up by the British administration. A standard system of schools were began by the British based on the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission in 1836, which is regarded as the beginning of the modern schooling system in the island. It started with the establishment of the Royal College in Colombo (formally the Colombo Academy) and lead to the formation of several single sex schools constructed during the colonial period, by the British Some of these schools were affiliated to the Anglican Church, these included S.Thomas College in Mount Lavinia and Trinity College in Kandy.
During the colonial times, late national heroes like Anagarika Dharmapala together with foreigners like Colonel Henry Steele Ollcot. and Madame Blavatsky of the Buddhist Theosophical Society installed Buddhist schools to foster Sinhala students with an English education rich in Buddhist values and also in order to bring Buddhism to life, at a time, it was slowly fading away from the people. Most of these schools were established in the capitals of the major provinces of Sri Lasnka.. The first of these were Ananda College (formerly English Buddhist School) in Colombo; Dharmaraja College (formerly Kandy Buddhist High School) in Kandy, Maliyadeva College (formerly Kurunegala Buddhist Institution)in Kurunegala;Mahinfa College in Galle, Musaeus College in Colombo; which were followed decades later by Vidakga Vidyalaya  (formerly Buddhist Girls College), Colombo; Nalanda Vidyalaya in Colombo;Mahamaya Vidyalaya in Kandy.. Sri Lanka also has many catholic schools such as St.Joseph’s College,St.Peter’s College, St.Bridget’s Convent and  St. Benedict’s College in Colombo and St Anthony’s College in Kandy. St.Aloysius’ College in Galle is now functioning as a government school.
In 1938 the education system in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was made free following the granting of universal franchise in 1931. The late Hon. Dr. C.W.W.Kannangara took the initiative in establishing free education when he was the Minister of Education. Under this initiative the government established Madya Maha Vidyalayas (MMV – Central Colleges) that were scattered around the island to provide education to all. The medium provided was either in Sinhala or Tamil. In 1942 a special committee was appointed to observe the education system and among the suggestions that followed, the following still play an important role:

•    i. Make available to all children a good education free of charge, so that education ceases to be a commodity purchasable only by the urban affluent.

•    ii. Make national languages the media of instruction in place of English so that opportunities for higher education, lucrative employment open only to small number of the urban affluent, would become available to others as well.

•    iii. Rationalize the school system so that educational provision is adequate, efficient and economical.

•    iv. Ensure that every child is provided with instruction in the religion of his/her parents.

•    v. Protect teachers from exploitation by managers of schools.

•    vi. Make adequate provision for adult education.

After independence, the number of schools and the literacy rate of the people substantially increased. According the statistics available there are approximately 9,830 public schools serving close to 4,030,000 students, all around the island.
Higher education in Sri Lanka has been based on the several prominent Pirivenas during the local Kingdoms. The origins of the modern university system in Sri Lanka dates back to 1921 when a University College called the Ceylon University College was established at the former premises of Royal College, Colombo affiliated to the University of London. However, the beginning of modern higher education in Ceylon was in 1870 when the Ceylon Medical School[4] was established followed by Colombo Law College (1875), School of Agriculture (1884) and the Goverrnment Technical College (1893). The University of Ceylon was established on July 1, 1942 by the Ceylon University Ordinance No.20 of 1942 which was to be unitary, residential and autonomous. The University was located in Colombo and several years later a second campus was built in Peradeniyas. University of Ceylon became the University of Colombo and University of Peradeniya resulting in a more centralized administration and more direct government control, which gave way for creation of separate universities after the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978. Even though new universities of independent identities were created government maintained its direct control and centralized administration though the University Grants Commission. Late Hon.Lalith Athulathmudali as Minister of Education developed an initiative to develop the higher education of the country in the 1980s, the Mahapola Fund established by him provided scholarship and much needed founding to higher education institution to this day. Until amendments to the University Act where made in 1999 only state universities where allowed to grant undergraduate degrees, however this has since changed.
From primary to higher education, are primarily funded and overseen by three governmental ministries. Ministry of Education – For schools, pirivenas (Schools for Buddhist priests), Teachers Training Colleges and Colleges of Education. (Department of Examinations- National examination service comes under this Ministry), Ministry of Higher Education controlling  Universities, Ministry of Education Services administering the  supply of  the physical facilities required for general education and Ministry of Vocational Technical Training overseeing  vocational education and the technical colleges. However exceptions to this system exists. Mostly when it comes to tertiary education with several public universities and institutes coming under the purview of different ministries. These divisions have led to a high degree of mismanagement and inefficiency over the years
With the above backdrop in mind let us examine whether the education system in Sri Lanka is faced with a crisis situation at the present time. Universities are in turmoil, school education syllabuses are an issue and the latest fiasco to hit the education sector is the mess up created in the release of the A level results. Education policies and their implementation are probably the biggest issues that Sri Lanka is facing today as this deals with the lives of young people and their future aspirations. Undoubtedly the university system is getting increasingly politicized. The involvement of the J.V.P and other left oriented organizations in using the university student population to create instability in the university system to achieve political advantage in Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly apparent. These organisations should realize that an armed insurrection would never succeed in gaining political power in this country. Although there is a vehement denial of any such aspirations on their part, the present unrest at many universities based on minor problems faced by the university students indicates that there are attempts made in this direction by misleading the innocent student population. The government must act with absolute restraint and minimise the confrontations between the police and the protesting students. Force must never be used so as to result in death or grievous hurt to protesting students. Their problems must be addressed and solutions found without delay to nip the problem in the bud. The death of a student in any confrontation will undoubtedly anger the parents and draw the general public into the fiasco, which is the ultimate aim of these bankrupt politicians.  Counseling has to be undertaken at an increased pace with counselors trained in the field being utilised to advise the student population.
The syllabuses must be geared to produce employable graduates. Their skills must fit the demand in the employment market. This will reduce the tension in the minds of the students who fear of being unemployed after graduation. The higher education field has been constantly criticised due to the falling standards at state universities which has led to the production of a large number of unemployed graduates..
Training university students in military camps must be abolished forthwith. Although the government little realizes giving such training and exposure to military discipline for new entrants will definitely be an advantage to the left wing politicians who are aspiring to use the student population for a possible armed uprising. The decision of the President to withdraw the Private Universities Bill is laudable as this act has removed a reason used by the bankrupt politicians to create unrest within the university student population. All Sri Lankans must appreciate that the youth of this country are our children who are our future. Let it not be said that the Sri Lankan nation slept while a few self serving politicians and their outfits lead the student population of our country astray and to a disastrous situation from which there will be no return whatsoever as had happened in the past. It is with kindness, sincere understanding, giving a fair hearing to their problems and finding solutions that the student population can be kept away from the clutches and evil machinations of bankrupt political organisations but not with guns, bullets, knives or swords as Baron Henry Brougham very correctly said the educated can not and will never be enslaved.

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