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Funding Fallacies in Education

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By Niyanthini Kadirgamar

The education system in Sri Lanka is often vilified as being outdated. But the demand for free public education has not relented. Primary and secondary schools have consistently seen high enrollments. Contrary to expectation, student numbers are increasing even in disciplines deemed less “employable”, such as the liberal arts. The Government, too, has responded to this increasing demand by pledging to accommodate more students at public universities.

At the outset, opening the gates for more youth to gain higher education seems to be a step in the right direction. However, without a corresponding increase in resources and capacities, such a move has placed enormous pressure on higher educational institutions. For the most part, university administrations and the faculty have not objected to UGC directives for expansion. The recent move by the University of Moratuwa Teachers’ Association, to voice concerns about the increase in student enrolment and their decision to refrain from work if the government fails to retract student numbers, stands out as a bold step and has awakened us to the troubling realities.

 

Flattening the curve?

Apart from making lofty promises in election manifestos about giving education a central place in Sri Lanka’s progress narrative, subsequent education budgets have rarely reflected those ideals. Contrary to the complaints of disgruntled taxpayers about monies being wasted on free education for ungrateful (protesting) youth, the education budget has remained dismally low. As depicted in the figure, government spending on education has remained constant at an average of 2% of GDP in the post-war decade, well below the South Asian average (3% of GDP).

Excluding Bangladesh, Sri Lanka’s education budget remains the lowest in the region. Schools and universities in our free education system are running at an efficiency rate that can put even the corporate pundits of efficiency to shame. They have endured amidst significant challenges imposed by dwindling resources. Already stretched to the limit, the system may soon reach a breaking point.

Successive governments have failed to restructure investments in the social sector, including in education. In the post-war decade, under the Rajapaksa government, funding for education dipped to a dismal low in 2012, triggering strike action as part of a broader campaign led by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) to demand for 6% of GDP for education. The campaign ended, failing to secure a significant increase in allocations for education.

In 2015, the challenge was taken up by the Yahapalanaya Government as part of its election drive, with a promise to progressively increase education spending within its five-year tenure. Once again, the promise was short-lived as budgetary allocations fell after an initial increase to 3.4% of GDP in 2016.

 

Budgets during a pandemic

Currently, we are facing a dire situation, which can only be partially blamed on the pandemic. An economic crisis precipitated by foreign debt repayment obligations was waiting to unfold even as the country elected a two-thirds majority government with a very low amount of government revenues available to spend. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s budget for 2021 was apathetic, neither acknowledging the pandemic nor acting to make amends for the nosediving economy.

In the Government’s post-COVID-19 policy articulations, education has been envisioned in relation to a knowledge economy, as if such a transformation is possible during a downturn. STEM disciplines are being given priority, along with allocations for expanding distance and vocational education. The 2021 budget failed to address the immediate challenges of preventing school dropouts by offering equipment and facilities for online learning and ensuring a safe return to physical classrooms.

In this scenario of unrealistic budgetary utterances, schools and universities will be pressured to tighten their belts further this year. A revision of expenditure items is inevitable and there are signs of transferring responsibility to educational institutions by pushing them to raise funds for survival. Underfunding the public education system to ruin will pave way for more privatization, with grave implications for access.

 

Unequal distribution

Shrinking public funding for education is only part of the problem as the unequal distribution of those meagre allocations pose a different set of challenges. Exhausted by months of engaging in distance learning, students and teachers are now nervously returning to unsafe schools and campuses to begin the academic year, with no additional resources to confront the pandemic or economic deprivation.

Amidst the overall neglect of the sector, general education has taken the hardest hit, well before the pandemic. According to news reports it was revealed at a recent Committee On Public Accounts (COPA) meeting, that around 200 rural schools were closed between 2013 and 2018. Further, concerns were raised about the quality of education in more than 5000 schools with less than 200 pupils. In such rural schools, shortfalls of primary school teachers, along with lacking space and basic sanitary/water facilities, were identified as key problems. The situation is alarming, given the “Nearest School is the Best School” project implemented by the previous government was supposed to address those very concerns.

Disparities in resource allocation within the public education system have become even more pronounced with the pandemic, as some schools continue to fail to provide the most basic levels of hygiene – running water for washing hands. Students from rural locations and low-income households who have fallen off the grid in the haphazard transition to online learning and may not return to school this year. Without social welfare support and the incentives needed to arrest the economic decline, more children may end up the same way. The situation is especially bleak in war-torn regions where investments on education for the generations of children and youth battered by violence are yet to materialize.

 

Human capital logic

The World Bank announced an ambitious human capital project for Sri Lanka in 2019. Its plan for the public education system is based on the flawed assumption that the country’s economy was transitioning from a rural economy to an urban, “globally competitive” export-led economy. Human capital is the underlying thinking that has informed the reshaping of investments in education globally for the last several decades.

Proposed by the Chicago School of (neoliberal) economists in the 1960s, human capital theory assumes a linear relationship: greater investments in education enable more years of education, which, in turn, create opportunities to earn higher incomes, resulting in greater productivity. The obsession with measuring the success of education systems by the ‘rate of return’ and ranking countries based on the Human Capital Index (HCI) followed. In order to achieve higher HCI, education systems, including curricula, pedagogy and evaluations, needed to be reformulated to deliver the skills or competencies required to be a productive adult in the workforce.

Human capital is a flawed concept at many levels. Correlating more years of education and productivity, productivity and incomes, and productivity and earnings, have all been contested over the years. According to critics, access to formal paid employment is shaped by structural factors such as class, gender, race and caste, which are neglected by human capital theory. Furthermore, such a narrow understanding of education restricts the space for other ideals like democratic citizenship.

Nevertheless, human capital has entered the local policy discourse, from SLPP’s election manifesto to the President’s address at the inauguration of the new parliament, and even in the President’s meetings with unemployed graduates and education authorities where he stressed upon the development of human capital as the most valued asset. There is a clear convergence of the Government’s vision for education with World Bank’s policy prescriptions.

 

Confronting budgetary challenges

The current crisis in the education budget is a result of the decay in public investments over the last couple of decades. It has left the sector more vulnerable to shocks imposed by the pandemic and economic depression. How can educators respond to the budgetary challenges? There is an urgent need to confront the fallacies in both the thinking and allocations of funds and to resist the top-down approach to implementing the education budget.

(Niyanthini Kadirgamar is a PhD student in Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Kuppi is a politics and a pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.)



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Foreign policy dilemmas increase for the big and small

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‘No responsible American President can remain silent when basic human rights are violated.’ This pronouncement by US President Joe Biden should be interpreted as meaning that the supporting of human rights everywhere will be a fundamental focus of US foreign policy. Accordingly, not only the cause of the Armenians of old but the situation of the Muslim Uyghurs of China will be principal concerns for the Biden administration.

However, the challenge before the US would be take this policy stance to its logical conclusion. For example, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of the most heinous crimes to be committed by a state in recent times but what does the Biden administration intend to do by way of ensuring that the criminals and collaborators of the crime are brought to justice? In other words, how tough will the US get with the Saudi rulers?

Likewise, what course of action would the US take to alleviate the alleged repression being meted out to the Uyghurs of China? How does it intend to take the Chinese state to task? Equally importantly, what will the US do to make light the lot of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny? These are among the most urgent posers facing the US in the global human rights context.

Worse dilemmas await the US in Africa. Reports indicate that that the IS and the Taliban have begun to infiltrate West Africa in a major way, since they have been compelled to vacate the Middle East, specially Syria and Iraq. West African countries, such as, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mauritania are already facing the IS/Taliban blight. The latter or their proxies are in the process heaping horrendous suffering on the civilian populations concerned. How is the US intending to alleviate the cruelties being visited on these population groups. Their rights are of the first importance. If the US intends to project itself as a defender of rights everywhere, what policy program does it have in store for Africa in this connection?

It does not follow from the foregoing that issues of a kindred kind would not be confronting the US in other continents. For example, not all is well in Asia in the rights context. With the possible exception of India, very serious problems relating to democratic development bedevil most Asian states, including, of course, Sri Lanka. The task before any country laying claims to democratic credentials is to further the rights of its citizens while ensuring that they are recipients of equitable growth. As a foremost champion of fundamental rights globally, it would be up to the US to help foster democratic development in the countries concerned. And it would need to do so with an even hand. It cannot be selective in this undertaking of the first importance.

The US would also from now on need to think long and deep before involving itself militarily in a conflict-ridden Southern country. Right now it is up against a policy dilemma in Afghanistan. It is in the process of pulling out of the country after 20 years but it is leaving behind a country with veritably no future. It is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban once again and the commentator is right in saying that the US did not achieve much by way of bringing relief to the Afghan people.

However, the Biden administration has done somewhat well in other areas of state concern by launching a $1.9 trillion national economic and social resuscitation program, which, if effectively implemented could help the US people in a major way. The administration is also living up to the people’s hopes by getting under way an anti-Covid-19 vaccination program for senior US citizens. These ventures smack of social democracy to a degree.

The smaller countries of South Asia in particular ought to be facing their fair share of foreign policy quandaries in the wake of some of these developments. India, the number one power of the region, is in the throes of a major health crisis deriving from the pandemic but it is expected to rebound economically in an exceptional way and dominate the regional economic landscape sooner rather than later.

For example, the ADB predicts India will recover from an 8% contraction in fiscal 2020 and grow by 11% and 7% this year and next year. South Asia is expected to experience a 9.5% overall economic expansion this year but it is India that will be the chief contributor to this growth. A major factor in India’s economic fortunes will be the US’ stimulus package that will make available to India a major export market.

For the smaller states of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka, the above situation poses major foreign policy implications. While conducting cordial and fruitful relations with China is of major importance for them, they would need to ensure that their relations with India remain unruffled. This is on account of their dependence on India in a number of areas of national importance. Since India is the predominant economic power in the region, these smaller states would do well to ensure that their economic links with India continue without interruption. In fact, they may need to upgrade their economic ties with India, considering the huge economic presence of the latter. A pragmatic foreign policy is called for since our biggest neighbour’s presence just cannot be ignored.

The Sri Lankan state has reiterated its commitment to an ‘independent foreign policy’ and this is the way to go but Sri Lanka would be committing a major policy mistake by tying itself to China too closely in the military field. This would send ‘the wrong signal’ to India which is likely to be highly sensitive to the goings-on in its neighbourhood which, for it, have major security implications. A pragmatic course is best.

In terms of pragmatism, the Maldives are forging ahead, may be, in a more exceptional manner than her neighbours. Recently, she forged closer security cooperation with the US and for the Maldives this was the right way to go because the move served her national interest. And for any state, the national interest ought to be of supreme importance.

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A Sri Lankan centre for infective disease control and prevention

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The need of the hour:

BY Dr B. J. C. Perera

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

On 01st July 1946, the Communicable Disease Center (CDC) of the United States of America opened its doors and occupied one floor of a small building in Atlanta, Georgia. Its primary mission was simple, yet highly challenging. It was to prevent malaria from spreading across the nation. Armed with a budget of only 10 million US dollars, and fewer than 400 employees, the agency’s early tasks included obtaining enough trucks, sprayers, and shovels necessary to wage war on mosquitoes.

It later advanced, slightly changed its name, and transformed itself into the much-acclaimed and reputed Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It became a unique agency with an exceptional mission. They work 24/7 to protect the safety, health and security of America from threats there and around the world. Highest standards of science are maintained in this institution. CDC is the nation’s leading science-based, data-driven, service organization that protects the public’s health. For more than 70 years, they have put science into action to help children stay healthy so they can grow and learn, to help families, businesses, and communities fight disease and stay strong and to protect the health of the general public. Their are a bold promise to the nation, and even the world. With this strategic framework, CDC commits to save American lives by securing global health and America’s preparedness, eliminating disease, and ending epidemics. In a landmark move, the CDC even established a Central Asia regional office at the U.S. Consulate in Kazakhstan in 1995 and have been involved in public health initiatives in that region.

More recently, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), was established. It is an agency of the European Union, aimed at strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious diseases. The core functions cover a wide spectrum of activities such as surveillance, epidemic intelligence, response, scientific advice, microbiology, preparedness, public health training, international relations, health communication, and the scientific journal Eurosurveillance.

Still later on, the African CDC (ACDC) was born. It strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions, as well as partnerships, to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.

All these organisations are autonomous, independent, and are confidently dedicated to hold science to be sacred. They play a major role in advocacy and work in a committed advisory capacity. With the cataclysmic effects of the current coronavirus pandemic COVID-19, the contributions made by these institutions are priceless. What is quite important is that they are able to provide specific recommendations based on the latest scientific information available for countries and nations in their regions, even taking into account the many considerations that are explicit and even unique to their regions. All these organisations have been provided with optimal facilities and human resources. The real value of their contribution is related to just one phenomenon: AUTONOMY.

Well…, isn’t it the time for us to start a Sri Lankan Centre for Infective Disease Control and Prevention (SLCIDC)? It should be formulated as an agency constantly striving, day in and day out, to safeguard the health of the public. Science and unbending commitment to evaluation of research on a given topic should be their operating mantra. It would work as a completely apolitical organisation and what we can recommend is that it would be directly under the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, unswervingly reporting to and accountable to the President. It would consist of medical doctors, scientists and researchers but no politicians of any sort, no non-medical or non-scientist persons, no hangers on and no business persons. All appointments to the SLCIDC will be made by the President of the country, perhaps in consultation with medical professional organisations.

The prime duty of the SLCIDC would be to assess the on-going situation of any infective issue that has any effect on the health of the public. The organisation will undertake in-depth examination and assessment of a given situation caused by an infective organism. They need to have all relevant data from within the country as well as from outside the country. There will not be any vacillation of the opinions expressed by them and their considered views should not be coloured by any consideration apart from science and research done locally and worldwide. Their considered opinion would be conveyed directly to the President of the country. They are free to issue statements to keep the public informed about the results of their deliberations.

We believe that it would be a step in the right direction; perhaps even a giant step for our nation, not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but also on any major problems of an infective nature that might occur in the future.

 

This writer wishes to acknowledge a colleague, a Consultant Physician, who first mooted this idea during a friendly conversation.

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Kudurai Madiri Pona

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The big jumbo has come from the French land and as the French themselves say it is ‘annus mirabillis’ the miracle year, finally, and finally the wait is over. The world will now see the Big- Bus that we all waited for so long to see. As the years roll by, none would talk of delays regarding the delays on delivery dates and how late the bird flew in. These would be like words written on a blackboard, erased forever. But the aeroplane will grace the sky and, perhaps rewrite all the records of commercial aviation when the mega-miracle A380 dominates the international air-routes.

Singapore Airlines went into the record books as the launch customer. Some of my old friends from SIA would fly the A380. Perhaps, Luke would, too, and this story is about him. Luke of yesteryear and how he first flew as a cadet and how young Luke and I went romping the skies in our own special way, writing a few new lines in the flight training manual.

Luke was from Johor Baru, in Malaysia. His roots were in South India where years ago his grandfather had done a Robinson Crusoe and ended up in the Malayan Peninsula. Luke was named after one of the four Gospel scribes. Luke really isn’t his name. It is a pseudonym, I use just to give him some anonymity. Not much protection, but one is to three are playable odds. Like in Rumple stiltskin the manikin, you are welcome to guess the name.

We first flew to Seoul. He, straight out of flying College, and yours truly, as old as the hills, driving the ‘Jumbo’ classic, the lovable 747. The first thing I noticed about him was his socks, black and white diamond shapes, a mini version of the flags they swing at Grand Prix finals – if Luke swung his feet, a Ferrari would pass underneath. That we sorted out the first day itself. In Seoul,he went shopping and the next day he was Zorro, waist to toe, black as a crow.

His flying credentials were all there, somewhat mixed up between what they teach in modern flying schools and how to apply the ‘ivory tower’ jargon to cope with the big 747. As for raw handling of the aeroplane, all his skills were intact, only they were in bits and pieces and spread in places like an Irida Pola (Sunday Fair). They had to be streamlined, the wet market needed to be modified to a ‘Seven-Eleven’ – that was my job.

The next round we went flying to Europe, his first run to the unknown, like Gagarin in his Sputnik, young Luke flew to Rome. The flying was same as before, a bit mixed up amidst the hundreds of aero dynamical paraphernalia that spelled out from the encyclopaedic collection of books that he had to study.

That’s when I decided to change the tide.

‘Luke my friend,” I said to him in a fatherly fashion.

‘You and I are from similar fields, you from Kerala and me from Sri Lanka. These Min Drag Curves and VFEs and WAT limits and VLEs are too much for us. Just remember when you pull the stick back, the houses will become smaller and when you push the stick down, the houses will become bigger, that’s climbing and descending this monster,” I explained the simple theory of flight.

“As for landing my friend, Kudurai Madiri Pona, just ride it like a horse.”

That was it. We flew, over Europe and he flew like a Trojan, bravely battling the weather and the overcrowded skies. Every time he came in to land it was pure and simple Kudurai Madiri Pona and the big jumbo responded and touched down on the concrete as smooth as a honeymoon lover.

On the way back, we flew via Colombo, that’s my home ground. I requested the radar controller to give Luke a very short ‘four-mile’ final. They know me well here and the controller said “No problem, Captain.”

I was depicting what we did in the Old Hong Kong Airport or what we do in the Canarsi Approach in New York; both, most demanding. A ‘four-mile’ final is a challenge for anyone. I was throwing him in at the deep end and I had no doubt Luke could manage. He came in tight and right, like Hopalong Cassidy and rode the horse straight and beautiful to do a perfect landing. Gone was the Kampong kid and his ‘Irida Pola’ flying, this was Takashimaya and Robinsons rolled into one, everything was in place, nice and shining and professional to the tee.

That was our little story, Luke the ‘jockey’ and me. Sometimes in the field of training, the script needs a little changing. New acts to be introduced to suit the stage. That is the essence of teaching, different hurdles for different horses. It wasn’t for Luke to learn what I knew, more so, it was for me to know who he was and what he could cope with. That part was difficult to find in the flying training manual, and so was Kudurai Madiri Pona.

The world has gotten older and young Luke now wears four stripes and flies in command of Boeing Triple Sevens, fly-by-wire and multiple computers. I met him a few times, flew as his passenger, too, with great pride. “Captain Luke is in command,” the stewardess announced, and silently and gratefully I said, ‘Amen’.

I saw him walking down the aisle, looking for me. Same old Luke in his flat and uncombed Julius Ceaser hairstyle. He came to my seat and grinned and shook my hand and lightly lifted his trouser leg and said,

“Captain, the socks are black and it is still Kudurai Madiri Pona.

I am sure Luke will fly in command of the gigantic A380 one day. That’s a certainty. It would be the zenith for any pilot. Luke is ready, that I know. He is competent, polished and professional and will wear socks as black as midnight. It’s nice that he remembers his beginnings. That’s what flying is all about, that’s what life is all about.

Kudurai Madiri Pona

– ride it like a horse. Some flying lesson.

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