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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Higher education is about policy, not politics

 “The most daunting challenge for undergraduates can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middleclass families thousands of dollars.
By Upali Tennakoon
 “The most daunting challenge for undergraduates can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middleclass families thousands of dollars. And give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.
Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down. Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who have done just that. Some schools redesign courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is it’s possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education cannot be a luxury – it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”

Skyrocketing costs
This is what US President, Barack Obama said on the issue of skyrocketing higher education costs, recently. America is a country where educational fees are extremely high. That is why he said education should not be a luxury and that it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford. In the speech, he has stressed the need for absorbing more students to the educational institutes that provide higher and tertiary education.
When I came across this speech, I was compelled to think about the present situation of Sri Lanka’s higher education, which is now in turmoil due to many reasons. Even though the leaders of the country often make big noises about ‘development’ and ‘miracles’ the higher education is crippled and moribund.
What is the reason for that? This is of course an important question. If the government is keen to develop roads and construct high-rises, why does the same government turn a blind eye to the problems that cripple the education system? In my view, successive governments which ruled the country during the past two decades used and abused the education system and that annoyed students to a large extent. Under the present government, that situation has exacerbated causing disappointment and dissatisfaction among university students.
Needless to say education plays a pivotal role in the development of a country. It is much more important than constructing highways and fancy overhead bridges. It is a long term investment and may not provide the immediate results to be used to entertain the ‘gallery.
Sadly, in Sri Lanka, the outcome of this ‘long term’ investment is unbelievably tragic. The current chaotic situation in the education sector will definitely result in far reaching consequences that could have severe adverse impacts on the country’s future. 
Even though the undergraduate education in State Universities is free, the educational opportunities, unfortunately, are extremely limited. Admission to the university system is based on the highly competitive GCE Advanced Level examination, a stumbling block for most students. Even among those who get through, only an extremely limited number gain entry to universities.  Most often children from remote areas are deprived of their educational rights one way or the other. This is the reality, which most of our political leaders find a bit too hard to digest.

Looking for alternatives
As a result of this lopsided education system, many students are compelled to find other means of acquiring higher education. Some go abroad to pursue their higher studies in foreign universities.  This is obviously a costly exercise. Others enrol themselves at the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) or at state-owned autonomous degree awarding institutes or study as external students of state-run universities or perhaps at private higher educational institutes, which conduct classes and exams in Sri Lanka on behalf of foreign universities. But a large percentage of students give up hopes of higher education and search for alternative measures.
Our political leaders loudly boast that the level of education in Sri Lanka is far better than that of India, which has already emerged as an economic superpower not only in Asia, but also in the world.
It is true that the education system in India currently represents a great paradox. On the one hand India has universities and educational institutes that rank among the best in the world and on the other hand there are a considerable number of schools in the country which do not even have the basic infrastructure. Having said that, it has got to be acknowledged, Indian professionals are considered among the best in the world and are in great demand. This indicates the inherent strength of the Indian education system. Can we say the same about Sri Lanka?
In China, the education system is streamlined and it is one of their biggest strengths. By the end of 2004, China had 2,236 schools for higher learning, with over 20 million students; the gross rate of enrolment in schools of higher learning reached 19 per cent, which is much better than that of Sri Lanka. Postgraduate education is the fastest growing sector in China, with 24.1 per cent more students and 25.9 per cent more researchers than the year before.
But in Sri Lanka, the situation is worsening day by day and the government is nowhere near to coming up a solution. The crisis of the education system starts from Grade 1 admissions. More than 1,500 schools are on the verge of closure due to shortage of students. Many schools do not have even the basic facilities to carry out day-to-day operations. Adding to the misery, AL results were also bungled by the education authorities this year. Students have lost confidence in the Examinations Department and the Commissioner’s conduct was severely criticized. The Professor, who is considered as the architect of the Z-Score system has also received death threats.
The university sector is completely crippled. While the authorities and students are pointing fingers at each other, the entire university education has gone astray. There are more than 40,000 unemployed graduates whose future is still a question mark.  

Lack of basic infrastructure
Even though the government has established new universities, they do not have basic infrastructure to carry out academic activities. When the infrastructural problems affect the academic activities, students start protesting against the university authorities. When students protest, the authorities cannot maintain discipline in universities and this becomes a vicious cycle. If the country wants to get rid of this vicious cycle, we need to identify the root cause to this.
The problems in the higher education sector are not irredeemable. Most of the problems currently crippling the education sector can be rectified through proper administrative measures. Politics, which is now a major hindrance to the education sector, should stay out of the administrative process.
The government has a pivotal role to play in this process. While keeping its hands out of the administrative process, it should facilitate and strengthen the education sector. The government should realize that the money it spends on education is a long term investment which should be done wisely and prudently.

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