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Changing O/L and A/L exam dates: More action essential for best results

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By Prof. R.P. Gunawardane

A decision is reported to have been made to change the dates of the GCE O/L and GCE A/L exams with effect from the year 2023. According to this proposal O/L examination will be held four months early in August instead of December and the A/L examination will be conducted seven months early in January instead of August every year.

This plan if implemented properly with the necessary changes in the university admission process coupled with the streamlining of the university academic year in the university system would considerably reduce the delay in the time required for graduation. It is also necessary to develop a well-organized academic program to keep the O/L students occupied after their exam until the A/L classes begin in January next year.

History

In this context, it is of interest to go into the history of these examinations briefly. GCE O/L examination has always been conducted in the month of December every year without any interruption. However, there were number of changes to the period of GCE A/L examination. The GCE A/L examination was held during the month of December until 1970. During this period practical examination for those offering science subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Zoology) was held in April the following year. These practical examinations were held in the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya at the time.

In 1972, the GCE A/L examination was shifted to the month of April mainly because of the disruption of education due to the insurgency occurred in 1971. This examination was held in April until the year 1977. During this period yet another significant development took place. Practical examination for the science subjects at A/L was abolished deviating from accepted international practices.

Until the year 1977 it was possible to admit the students who qualified for admission to universities in October the same year. At that time the universities had a regular academic year beginning October and ending in July making the transition from secondary education to tertiary/university education smooth. As a result, the students at the time did not waste much time awaiting admission to the universities. In 1978 the GCE A/L exam was shifted to August for unknown reasons making students to wait more than a year to enter the universities. From 1978 the GCE A/L examination was held regularly in August every year until 2001.

During 2000-2001 period extensive discussions were held in the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and the National Education Commission to review the exam time tables in order to reduce the waiting time for students. After careful consideration of all the issues involved it was decided to conduct the GCE A/L Examination in April with effect from the year 2002.

With the implementation of this scheme the backlog of admissions was also cleared by admitting two batches in the same year. After implementation of this plan the GCE A/L exam was conducted in April every year until the year 2007 making it possible to admit students to universities in the same year. Then supposedly due to administrative reasons this exam was shifted back again to August in 2008, and it is continuing up to date.

Issues

When A/L examination is held in August, it is not possible to begin A/L classes for the fresh students who sat GCE O/L exam in December until September the following year. The class rooms and teachers would be available for the new students only in September. As a result, those who sat O/L examination in December wait for nearly 9 months wasting valuable time in their prime years. Similarly, after A/L examination in August the students have to wait till September or October the following year for admission to Universities under normal circumstances. This state of affairs can be further aggravated in situations where there is a backlog of students waiting to enter different faculties of the universities.

In these circumstances, those students who were fortunate enough to be selected to the universities had to wait periods up to 2 years at home wasting their valuable time. As explained earlier time lag occurs in several stages – after O/L examination, after A/L examination and also due to delays in admission to individual universities. In addition, due to strikes and other disruptions in different universities/ faculties further delays are encountered.

Fixed Academic year for universities

A disturbing feature currently prevailing in the University System is that different universities adopt different academic years/semesters due to various reasons. What is worst is that in the same university different faculties are adopting different academic years resulting in a chaotic situation. It is worth noting that no other country in the world has such a disorder in the university system. An internationally accepted fixed academic year (September/October to June/July) is being practiced in all the countries in the world. Thus, this situation has to be corrected by synchronizing the academic years in all the faculties and the universities in our university system in order to obtain the best benefits from the proposed changes in the national examinations.

It must be stressed that changes in examination dates alone will not solve the issue of long delay in graduation. Simultaneously, the academic year of the universities also should be fixed. Once it is fixed it should not be changed under any circumstance except in a national calamity like the Covid-19 pandemic. Even in such a situation the necessary adjustment should be temporary and restricted to that particular year only.

Thus, the university academic year should be fixed like in all the other countries from September to June (9 -10 months) beginning 2022. Like our school academic year (January-December) this should not be changed under any circumstance. If there are disruptions due to strikes etc. course material should be displayed on line, alternative arrangements should be made for practical/clinical training and the exams should be held as scheduled. This is very essential to get the new batch admitted on time.

In order to implement this program, the examination department and the University Grants Commission have a prominent role to play. The results of both O/L and A/L examinations should be released as early as possible within two months. The admission process should be streamlined to complete the selection process expeditiously by getting the universities also involved in the selection process.

It is a national crime to waste years of precious time of our young generation. Thus, it is absolutely essential to implement an action plan to reduce the waiting time of students at the GCE A/L stage, the university admission level and in the undergraduate program. This will facilitate the smooth running of the higher education system in Sri Lanka.

 

Status of medical education

Related to the same issue, it has been highlighted recently that medical graduates spend a very long period to become consultants due to long delays at various stages of their training program in addition to the delays encountered in the university admission process.

Due to the current status in higher education those who study medicine would be wasting about 5-6 years of their prime time between their O/L exam and the beginning of the internship in the medical career. Even after that they have a long way ahead to become medical consultants.

There is a waiting period before the placement for internship appointment. Then, there will be another waiting period for post internship appointment followed by exams by the PGIM and foreign training. Foreign training component has to be organized by the trainees themselves and there is no formal help or methodology. Even after going through the foreign training program, they may still have to wait for a considerable period of time for their consultant appointments. By that time, he or she will be past 40 years having less than 20 years left to serve the nation as a medical consultant. At this stage this person has spent almost 35 years of continuous school education, university education and professional training. This is rather a pathetic situation prevailing in Sri Lanka today.

In most of the other countries such delays do not exist. For example, in USA most students enter universities when they reach about 17 years. In USA, most professional programs are conducted at graduate level. For instance, medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and even education are conducted as postgraduate courses. In the case of medicine, you need to follow an undergraduate program which includes pre-medical requirements prior to admission to medical school. Then, they should pass MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) to apply for a medical school. Total period of the first degree and MD program is 8 years. Thus, they will be about 25 years when they complete MD. Their internship is combined with specialized training to become consultants. This training lasts for 3-5 years depending on the specialty, except in highly specialized fields such as cardiac surgery, neuro surgery, plastic surgery etc. which may take 6-10 years. For example, one can become a consultant physician at the age of 28 years and a consultant dermatologist at the age of 29 yrs. The situation is similar regarding the average ages of the medical professionals in most of the other developed countries and even in some developing countries. This means that Sri Lankan medical graduate spends over one decade more than an average medical professional in any other country to become a medical consultant!

In most countries students apply for admission to universities in their final year in the high school and similarly, medical students apply for internship and specialization programs in their final year in the medical school. They start the combined internship and specialization program immediately after graduation. They have a highly organized and coordinated systems with a fixed calendar to administer these activities annually.

All the delays encountered by the medical trainees are avoidable if suitable action is taken by the Ministry of Education, the UGC, universities and the Ministry of Health in a highly coordinated manner. Since medical students are graduating at different times in different medical schools at present due to variable academic years, it is extremely difficult for the Ministry of Health to find placements immediately.

It is a national crime to waste many productive years and precious time of our talented young generation due to inaction of our authorities. Thus, it is absolutely essential to implement an action plan to reduce this time lag to a minimum without any further delay. A dedicated and a highly coordinated effort is needed in this direction with the active participation of the higher officials of the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health and the UGC. Furthermore, it is essential that all the medical faculties have the same fixed academic year immediately so that internship appointments can be streamlined and expedited.

We have seen the rapid increase of waiting period and the delay at the different stages of medical training during the last several decades. It has now become a very serious issue affecting our young generation and the whole nation. Many generations of our highly talented young medical students have gone through this painful process without much protest.

Thus, it is high time for the civil society activists and particularly trade unions like GMOA and FUTA to take this matter up with the authorities and see that appropriate action is taken by the relevant authorities without any further delay.

(The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka)



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President picks up the gauntlet

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by Jehan Perera

By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.

President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.

But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.

13TH AMENDMENT

Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.

At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”

The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.

IRONIC PERSECUTION

It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.

On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.

An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.

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Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka

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Student union leader Wasantha Mudalige with prison guards

by Anushka Kahandagamage

Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.

School children as “drug addicts”

A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”

Bhikku students as “alcoholics”

The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.

The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.

University students as “terrorists”

The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.

The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.

Privatization of Education

The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.

The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.

Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

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Janaka…Keeping the Elvis scene alive

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Janaka Palapathwala: Recreating the Presley era…through song.......

For the past three years, local performers have certainly felt the heat, where work is concerned, beginning with the Easter Sunday tragedy, followed by Covid-19 restrictions, and then the political situation

Right now, there seems to be a glimmer of light, at the end of the tunnel, and musicians are hoping that, finally, the scene would brighten up for the entertainment industry.

Janaka Palapathwala, whose singing style, and repertoire, is reminiscent of the late Elvis Presley, says he was so sad and disappointed that he could not reach out to his fans, around the world, because of the situation that cropped up in the country.

However, he did the next best thing possible – a Virtual Concert, early last year, and had this to say about it:

“The concert was witnessed by so many people around the world, in 12 different countries, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who showed a great interest, around the world, to make the show a mighty success. Lasantha Fernando of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA, went out of the way to pull a huge crowd, in the States, to make the concert a massive success. Lasantha, by the way, has done many shows, in Minnesota, including a concert of mine, four years ago.”

Toward the end of 2022, the showbiz scene started to look good, with musicians having work coming their way – shows, sing-alongs, events, overseas tours, recordings, etc.

Janaka added that the Gold FM ’70s show was back after six years, and that the music industry is grateful to Gold FM for supporting musicians with such an awesome event.

“Also, the unity and the togetherness of the Sri Lankan western musicians, scattered around the globe, were brought together, once again, by the guidance of Melantha Perera.

“The song ‘Baby Jesus Is Fast Asleep’, written, composed and directed by Melantha, was a true Christmas gift to people around the world.”

Referring to his career, Janaka said that these days he is involved in a mega video production project.

“I intend to do a road show for a total Dinner Dance Promotion package, titled ‘Janaka with Melantha and the Sign’.

“Phase One of the project is already completed, and we are now heading for the second phase, where we plan to get Sohan Weerasinghe, Clifford Richards and Stephanie Siriwardane involved in the cast”.

Janaka also spoke excitedly about his forthcoming trip to the USA.

“I’m so excited to tour the USA, after three years. The ‘Spring Tour USA 2023′ is going to be different.

“I’ve done formal concerts, in the States, but this Spring Tour will be a series of Dinner Dances where I would be seen in action, along with the top ranked DJ of Washington D.C., Shawn Groove, and some of the best domestic bands in the States, and I can assure all my friends, and fans, in the US, that this new venture is going to be doubly exciting.”

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