When Sri Lanka received independence, its administration and education were of an extremely high standard. Our graduates from the Arts and Medical faculties were considered equivalent to British university standards and were globally accepted. The English writing capacity of Arts graduates surpassed their British counterparts. They completed their postgraduate studies at British universities.
The country enjoys the free education introduced by C.W.W. Kannangara, who emphasised that everyone needed to learn English to operate in the modern world. The Free Education Bill of 1944 recommended that education be free from kindergarten to university, the mother tongue be used as the medium of instruction at primary schools and English be taught in all schools from Standard III. But he also wondered, with increasing costs, how long the country could afford free education.
Sinhala as an official language
In 1956, the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike Government made Sinhala the country’s official language and converted education to ‘Swabasha’, including offering Arts courses at universities. The transformation completely disrupted education and administration; the educated left the country, standards crashed and our university degrees were no longer recognised abroad.
University lecturers with poor English were not acceptable for further training at foreign universities. The conversion to Sinhala resulted in education standards crashing from the highest to the lowest level in South-East Asia and resulted in two insurrections and a 30-year war.
School admission and education
Every parent is concerned about their child’s admission to a better school, oftentimes obtaining bogus documentation and making the child repeat the same lies at the school admission interview. This corrupt practice is the starting point of the child’s selfish life, continuing from admission to extend to success in the Grade 5 Scholarship Exam and other examinations, overtaking everybody, continuing to university admission and employment, making a mockery of free education.
Education is based on books supplied by the Education Department and students are tested on their ability to memorise textbooks. Children are fine-tuned by their tuition masters to answer question papers in the exact way demanded by the examiners. Descriptive answers are confined only to the essay in the language paper. The development of the child’s manual and operative skills, writing and speaking, the ability to search for information on the internet beyond the textbook is not considered necessary in the education system, although most students possess mobile phones and are well-versed in their use.
Integrity of citizens
A major problem facing the country is the poor integrity of citizens, a by-product of the education system. The populace, from the highest to the lowest levels, is selfish and prepared to make money irrespective of morals.
Current doctors and engineers
The public were victims when doctors, educated at local universities, revolted against SAITM for the fear of losing their monopoly and privileges. They forgot their oath and harassed the poor public, but continued their private practice. CEB engineers, demanding additional coal power plants that pollute the country, which brought them additional money, finally had to be settled by the President. Are both situations results of a selfish life learnt from the school and university days? Both medical and engineering graduates seem to think that they are the cream of the country’s intelligentsia and are superior to all others.
Limited opportunities for science education at schools
As of 2013, out of 10,012 schools only 868 (less than 10%), had facilities to teach A-Levels in the science stream, while 1,900 schools offered A-Levels in the Arts and Commerce streams. The result of this was that out of the 471,000 students who enrolled for the A-level, the majority studied in the Arts stream in the Sinhala medium.
Arts students entering university are aware of the poor employment possibilities, resulting in nearly 30,000 Arts students following business administration in Sinhala. Meanwhile, a few with some English knowledge follow accountancy and statistics in the English medium and become eligible for jobs in the private sector.
Over the decades, while the world’s universities surged forward, ours remained stagnant, resulting in not a single local university breaking 2,500 in the World University Rankings. They failed to introduce the skills demanded by the industry, resulting in unemployable graduates. Meanwhile, the country suffers from a labour shortage. Newspapers are full of vacancies but few applicants; construction companies are forced to employ imported workers. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, 497,302 job vacancies are available in the private sector.
Today over 60,000 arts graduates expect government jobs offering permanency with pension benefits, which is only possible by inundating the Government with continuous demands and protests organised by the JVP, enabling the party to have a stranglehold on university students which is bolstered through ragging.
Conversion to English medium
Although Bandaranaike introduced the Sinhala medium to win the 1956 elections, over the decades the failures resulting from the transition have become glaringly evident. Unfortunately, extremely few people are demanding that English medium education be reinstated. Even today, a public speech or an article in the newspapers demanding a change in the medium of education is rare.
For over 60 years none of our politicians had the backbone to reverse the policy. But Chandrika, Bandaranaike’s daughter, introduced an English stream at schools in 1996, but the Education Department failed to move forward. Today, although some schools have an English medium, the country does not even have a single teacher college training teachers in the English medium.
Private English medium schools
International schools made an entry into Sri Lanka a few decades ago, catering mostly to children of expatriate families. When the JVP-led revolution in the late 1980s forced the closure of government schools, parents found solace at private schools. Today private English schools are everywhere, although the quality of some of them are questionable.
Elizabeth Moir School
The following is based on a news item which appeared in the Daily FT. Elizabeth Moir School (EMS), Colombo, claims that “based on the IGCSE examination their students were offered places at top UK universities such as Imperial College, UCL, LSE and Durham.”
According to EMS, a student was selected to read Computer Science at Stanford, which is currently second in the world rankings. Another was offered the chance to study Veterinary Science at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, the first ever Sri Lankan to study Veterinary Science at Cambridge. The student achieved 11 A* grades at her IGCSE examination and won the World Prize for English Language, the seventh time in 12 years a Moir student has won this award. All of the above were Sri Lankan students.
According to the Principal of Elizabeth Moir, one reason the university applications of students from Moir stand out, enabling them to receive offers from top universities, is the school’s internship program, which enables all students to gain work experience related to their intended career.
“Internships broaden students’ horizons by providing practical experience of what they learn in the classroom and offer clear evidence of candidates’ interest in their chosen course,” the Principal said.
Admission to EMS is not based on high marks in an admission examination. What EMS proved was that any above average student could be guided and taught to reach a world-class standard. EMS has a student-teacher ratio of 5:1, combined with a system of ‘no student is allowed to fall behind’. Thus, our doctors and engineers’ claim that they are the country’s best brains holds no water.
Prime Minister’s economic policy
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe launched ‘Vision 2025’ in September 2017 to transform Sri Lanka into the hub of the Indian Ocean, backed by a knowledge-based, highly competitive, social market economy by 2025.
The policy expect to raise per capita income to $ 5,000 per year, create one million new jobs and double exports to $ 20 billion per year. This would be achieved by 13 years of education; after the GCE O/L exam, students will be directed to higher education, vocational education, jobs and training. The country will develop strategies encouraging the use of digital and emergent technologies to become globally competitive to drive the nation towards a digitally empowered economy.
The MOE also introduced a ‘Smart Classroom’, claiming 4,500 schools are provided with ‘Schoolnet’, the largest computer network, providing internet access as a teaching and learning platform to students and teachers. But can the PM’s dream be realised without English?
The UNP is silent in widening the English stream in schools. Surprisingly, the JVP’s manifesto during the last presidential elections proposed education in Sinhala and Tamil as well as in English. The SLFP cannot be expected to reverse the Sinhala medium started by their first PM.
Opportunities for further education
The Sunday newspapers are full of advertisements offering further education opportunities at local and foreign private universities. Some offer a combination of doing a few years locally and the balance at a foreign university. They all have one common factor: this education is in English. So the students who studied at Government schools need to improve their English accordingly.
Changing the medium of instruction in schools to English will require teachers capable of teaching in the English medium. To achieve this all teacher colleges need to be converted into the English medium, but the current lecturers are not competent and will require retraining. If the country was to wait until teachers are trained by the Ministry of Education, the transition would take decades.
Training Education Ministry officials
The biggest obstacle is the staff of Education Department and the ministry, who lack English proficiency themselves. However, a solution now seems possible. The Education Ministry recently signed an MOU with the Postgraduate Institute of English of the Open University to improve the English skills of lecturers, in-service advisors, assistant directors and other officers from the ministry and successful officers will be eligible for a Master’s degree.
Vocational training in the north and east of Sri Lanka
The German and Swiss governments, together with the Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Training, has been supporting 15 vocational training institutions in the north and east since 2012, offering a wide range of training programs in food processing, construction, automobile mechanics and electrical installation that are run in collaboration with the private sector. All courses include work placements for trainees to gain practical knowledge and experience in their fields. Among the collaborating organisations are Jetwing Hotels, which offered work experience to 60 students with 42 former students already recruited for jobs in Jaffna.
English and computer literacy
In a survey carried out to assess the English proficiency of Grade 8 students, 8% of students scored over 80% and the balance 92% failed to score 50%, with the majority scoring only 25%. The results indicate the failure of English teaching at schools. The high scoring 8% would have earned proficiency at home, with their knowledge far above the examination level. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, as of 2015, 25% households have a computer, 42.0% in the urban sector.
The previous government signed an MOU with India in 2011 for the ‘Setting up of a Three-Tier English Language Training System in Sri Lanka’. The Indian Government was to provide equipment, software and teaching aides for setting up a language laboratory with 30 computer units in each of the nine provinces to train teachers. In addition, the Indian Government offered 720 scholarships every year.
Consequences of Sinhala education
Sinhala education made the people of the country extremely selfish and led them to demand a high standard of living irrespective of their contribution. Sinhala newspapers hardly ever carry in-depth articles on economic issues or even public projects by the Government. The Sinhala TV news concentrates on protests by the people and politicians going at each other’s throats. The people have voted and elected 95 MPs without their O-Levels and some have become ministers. Can we expect them to look deep into a project and make correct decisions?
So-called educated doctors resort to strikes and managed to kick SAITM and private medical education out, giving them a monopoly within the health sector. Over the decades, the engineers at the CEB sabotaged power generation, insisting on coal power and purchase power from the private sector, which brought them financial gain.
The politicians are only interested in getting higher salaries, luxury vehicles, mansions to live in, duty-free permits to sell and commissions from all of their transactions.
The youth educated in Sinhala do not acquire skills nor the positive mentality expected by the private sector. University lecturers who repeat what they learnt as students have failed to develop students’ mentality to face and achieve in the knowledge-based, highly competitive, social market economy which is boasted about by politicians.
Meanwhile, Tamils and Muslims have learnt English and are acceptable to the private sector. Muslims are trade-minded and do not depend on government employment.
Bring back Kannangara policy
The only way out of the current miserable situation is to reverse the Bandaranaike policy of 1956 back to the C.W.W. Kannangara policy, which emphasised in 1944 that everyone needed to learn English to operate in the modern world, learn the mother tongue in primary schools and for all schools to teach English. Post-primary education will be in the English medium. Kannangara’s words are as relevant today as they were more than 80 years ago.
The situation is not unknown to the Ministry of Education. Their problem is how to amend the existing education, link the proposed system and implement the transition in a manner acceptable to the public.
The biggest hurdle in implementing an English-based education is the teachers’ poor English. A possible step would be to encourage existing teachers to undergo teacher training at private institutions, with education quality acceptable to ED. Those completing training can be transferred to schools conducting English medium classes, enabling them to transfer to a city school. Teachers at city schools maintaining their own position will be forced to learn English.
With the demand, the private sector would increase their capacity as well as quality, not easily possible with the Education Department. To counter the shortage of lecturers for teacher training colleges, the private sector can get teachers from India.
The jobless graduates currently demanding Government employment could be requested to undergo two years’ training at private teacher training schools to be absorbed as teachers, solving graduate unemployment.
Training the lecturers of training colleges and universities
Lecturers can be trained to enable English medium teaching, although some may be slow. If the Government requests the British Government’s assistance, the British Council would provide assistance as well as funding.
At universities, all subjects in the Arts stream need be taught in English as in the pre-Bandaranaike period. To transform universities from Sinhala to English all normal classes can be suspended, replacing them with English classes and the students would be expected to pass the proficiency test. The loss of one year for students would be negligible compared to their current losses due to frequent strikes.
English needs to be made a compulsory subject for the AL.
In addition, students aspiring to enter universities can concentrate full-time on English and reach the required standards. With the demand for English, the British Council and the private sector would move in to provide training. With the English-based Arts faculty, courses can be diversified to produce employable graduates.
With English-based education taking root, government staff in service would be forced to learn English and all citizens would communicate with each other. The youngsters with speaking skills can get part-time employment at call centres. With English-speaking skills, prospects for future employment in the Middle East would be roles as shop assistants instead of housemaids.
With English-based education offered at government schools, private International schools too would improve their standards, reaching the heights pioneered by Elizabeth Moir. The country’s students would be capable of reaching world standards, transforming Sri Lanka into the hub of the Indian Ocean, backed by a knowledge-based, highly competitive, social market economy.
Thus, the introduction of English-based education is the only way to upgrade skills and compete in the world. The most beneficial transformation would be to the Sinhalese who fell into the trap of Bandaranaike. But if politicians fail with the conversion, that would be the downfall of the Sinhalese and the country.