The need for education reforms | Sunday Observer

The need for education reforms

18 June, 2023

Sri Lanka is well-known throughout the world for its free education system, along with the free healthcare system. Government sector education is free until university level and indeed, Sri Lanka’s education indices are often on par with those of the developed world. But some worrying factors in relation to our education system have prompted the Government and education authorities to take a second look at it.

First, our education system is heavily examination-centred, beginning from the Year 5 Scholarship Examination and moving on to GCE Ordinary Level (O/L) and GCE Advanced Level (A/L). These examinations put both parents and students under immense pressure and stress, affecting their physical and mental health. In the present post-Covid context, students have lost around three years of in-person education, which has also affected their mental well-being, apart from the postponement of examinations.

The very origin of, and the need for, these examinations expose some stark realities about our examination system. The very idea of having the Scholarship examination is to grant so-called “popular” or “better” schools in the cities to those students who score above a certain threshold, such as 175 out of 200 marks. The rest are virtually banished to their rural schools which do not have many of the facilities or the staff strength that city schools take for granted. This means that there is a wide gap between the popular schools and other schools.

The GCE O/L examination, generally held at the end of Year 11, determines the criteria for admission to the A/L classes. Out of the 350,000 or so school candidates who sit the exam, around 200,000 qualify for the A/L classes. The others are left in the lurch. Then, around 125,000 of them qualify for university admission based on their A/L results. But the State universities can only admit around 30,000 per year. Again, this does not address the higher education needs of the rest of the students.

This examination culture has compelled students to “cram” to ensure exam success, which may actually leave behind really talented students. Furthermore, the very concept of free education has been negated by the mushrooming tuition classes, which students attend to gain an extra edge at the exams. Thus it is really doubtful whether the present set of exams can actually “test” the aptitude and adaptability of students in real-world conditions.

It is in this context that President Ranil Wickremesinghe recently called for a decision regarding the necessity of the GCE O/L examination and the Year Five Scholarship examination. The President had raised the matter during the first discussion of the expert committee appointed to support the Ministerial Committee for a national education policy framework.

This is a timely intervention from President Wickremesinghe, who was an Education Minister himself. In fact, many educationists, child psychologists and paediatricians have pointed out that children as young as 11 cannot possibly handle the strain imposed by a complex exam such as the Year 5 Scholarship. Our educationists should study the alternatives adopted by certain countries that have done away with exams for young children.

Beyond that, the Government has a responsibility to ensure that all schools are developed to the level of so-called “popular” schools, thereby eliminating the mad scramble for both Year One and Year Six admissions. If all schools are equal, there will simply be no need for an examination to “filter” the best students.

The other most important factor is to create more educational and career opportunities for those who leave higher education at both O/L and A/L stages. This can be a combination of vocational, technological and foreign language training, with an eye on overseas jobs. It is also time to end the debate on private universities once and for all. The Government should take a brave decision to establish private universities regardless of the pressure from trade unions and various parties with vested interests. The abolition of SAITM has cost the country dearly in terms of the number of doctors who would have qualified by now. The very trade unions that campaigned for its abolition are now making a huge din over the shortage of doctors.

If private universities with established global connections and a reasonable fee structure are given the go-ahead, it will give a new lease of life to the thousands who are qualified to gain admission to State universities, but cannot due to intake limitations.

This will also save the billions of dollars spent every year by students who opt for overseas education. If at least 50 percent of them opt to stay here and study at private universities, it will be a massive relief for our fragile foreign exchange reserves. In this regard, we can take a leaf from neighbouring countries such as India and Nepal, which have a large number of private universities. Education is a field that does not stand still. It evolves continuously and we have to keep abreast of those developments to give our next generation a better chance