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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The education system in Sri Lanka is often vilified as being outdated.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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Features

Dangerous rail travel by tourists: Why not create an opportunity?

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Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China

Before the Covid Pandemic hit Sri Lanka, there was some debate and concern voiced about tourists standing at the door ways of trains and even hanging out, while the train is moving. Some pictures of a young couple hanging out of an upcountry train, while clutching on to the side rails, went viral, on social media, with debates of the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ reaching fever pitch. While certainly this is a dangerous practice, not to be condoned, If we ‘think out of the box’ could there be a way to make this seemingly popular, though dangerous pastime among some tourists, into an opportunity to be exploited. This paper aims to explore these options pragmatically.

By Srilal Miththapala

Social media, and even some of the more conventional media, were all a-buzz before the CoVid crisis, when some pictures of a young tourist couple appeared, hanging out of a Sri Lankan upcountry train in gay abandon, savouring the exciting moment. There were hot debates about this form of ‘promotion of Sri Lanka’, with many people talking about the dangers of such a practice, and that it would bring negative publicity for Sri Lanka if something dangerous were to happen. This part of the train ride, along the upcountry route, is arguably one of the most scenic train routes in the world.

And quite rightly so, I guess. I myself was one who joined the chorus who vehemently spoke against this.

However thinking out of the box, I got thinking – Can we create an opportunity here ?

The ‘new’, experience and thrill seeking tourist of today

There is no doubt that there is a new segment of discerning, younger, experience and adventure seeking tourists, emerging and travelling all over the world. They are very internet and social media savvy, seeking more adventurous and exciting experiences, and are usually very environmentally conscious. They are most often seen exploring ‘off-the-beaten-track’ holidays, planned out individually according to their needs and wants.

Through the ages, mankind has been pushing the limits of exploration: We have conquered land, sea and space. We have discovered many hitherto unknown wonders of our planet with our unabated thirst for knowledge.

Tourists are no different. To get away from their daily stressful life, they seek something different, even venturing into hostile or dangerous places to experience the excitement of discovery and the feeling of adventure. No longer is a clean hotel room with a range of facilities, good food and some sunshine good enough to a tourist.

According to booking.com, the yearning for experiences, over material possessions, continues to drive travellers’ desire for more incredible and memorable trips: 45% of travellers have a bucket list in mind. Most likely to appear on a bucket list are thrill seekers wanting to visit a world famous theme park, travellers looking to go on an epic rail journey or visiting a remote or challenging location. ()

Drive-reduction theory in psychology postulates that one is never in a state of complete fulfilment, and thus, there are always drives that need to be satisfied. Humans and other animals voluntarily increase tension by exploring their unknown environments, self-inducing stress and moving out of their comfort zones. This gives them a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. ()

Therefore, unknown thrills, adventures and the ‘adrenaline rush’ does attract travellers.

What have other countries done ?

As mentioned many countries are developing unique , memorable and thrilling experiences into their product offering.

A few are described below

Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge

Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge

Small groups are taken on a walk along the massive, arched steel structured Sydney Harbour Bridge . The dramatic 360 deg. view from the bridge, 135 meters above ground, of the harbour, and the nearby Sydney Opera house, while being completely exposed to the elements, is, indeed, a rare and thrilling experience.

Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China

In the northwest of China’s Hunan province, visitors can take a leisurely stroll along the walkway attached to Tianmen Mountain — 4,700 feet above the ground.

The glass-bottomed walkway is more than 300 feet long and only about five feet wide, providing an experience that is said to be exhilarating and frightening .

The CN tower Edge walk, Canada

The tallest attraction in Toronto lets people stand right at the edge of the CN tower and lean over. It is the world’s highest full circle, hands-free walk on a 1.5 m wide ledge encircling the top of the Tower’s main pod, 356m , 116 storeys above the ground. EdgeWalk is a Canadian Signature Experience and an Ontario Signature Experience.

A variety of unique trekking opportunities, in Rwanda and Uganda, allow you trek into the jungle to gaze into the eyes of the Gorillas in their natural habitat. It’s a completely unique African safari experience. This moment leaves a lasting and unforgettable impression, coming so close to this majestic wild animal.

These are just a few. So there are already a range of unique, visitor attractions that thrill tourists the world over.

The CN tower Edge walk, Canada

Safety – the one overriding condition

All these thrill seeking, and seemingly dangerous tourist attractions have one common denominator that is never ever compromised – Safety.

Safety is of paramount importance in all these activities and are subject to stringent checks and review, periodically. All personnel who guide and instruct these thrill seeking tourists are well trained and disciplined.

Any equipment that is used for safety, such as harnesses and safety belts, are designed to the highest standards and are periodically tested. Nothing is left to chance and if there is the slightest semblance of danger, due to any unforeseen environmental conditions, the attraction is closed down temporarily. ( e.g when there are strong winds the Sydney Harbour bridge walk is suspended).

Such safety measures are an imperative necessity, because any unforeseen accident can lead to serious and grave consequences of litigation and even closing down of the attraction.

Suggested railings

So what about our train ride ?

The attraction of the Sri Lankan upcountry train ride (most often between Nanu Oya and Ella – the most scenic section) is the fact that a tourist can stand ‘on the footboard’ of the open train carriageway door, and feel the cool breeze against their faces while absorbing the beautiful hill country and tea plantations. This is something most western tourists cannot do back home, where all train carriageway doors are automatically shut when the train starts moving.

In fact I am told that some Tour Agents in Australia are specifically asked by tourists to arrange this ‘experience’ for them, when booking their tour.

So why not be creative and make a proper attraction out of this ?

Cannot we modify one carriage to have an open ‘balcony’ along the side where a person can stand ‘outside’ and ‘feel the open environment’? It could be fitted with proper safety rails and each person can be anchored to the carriage with a harness (like what is used in other attractions where the interaction is open to the elements). A special charge can be levied for this experience.

One factor that favours the safety aspect is that during traversing this stretch, due to the steep gradient, the train travels at a ‘snail’s pace’, unlike in foreign countries where speeds could reach 80-100 kms per hour.

This attraction could be used as an income generator for the Railway Department as tourists wanting to experience this ‘thrill’ can be charged a fee, for a specific time period that they could use the facility.

Conclusion

Although this may seem simplistic, in reality there may be several logistical issues that need to be addressed.

But, if there is a will, and the different departments involved can all see the opportunity, and get on to the same ‘wavelength’, cutting through the inordinate bureaucracy that usually prevails, then surely it would not be at all difficult.

But the overall point in this entire treatise, is that we have to ‘think out of the box’ and grasp at all possible opportunities that are available, especially as we gradually open up for tourists after the pandemic. We are quite used to ranting and raving about all the shortfalls that prevail.. But there’s so much that still can be done if there are a few motivated and dedicated people who can get together.

Tourism after all is really ‘show businesses’ and without creativity, panache, actors and showmanship, what is show business?

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Remebering Prophet Muhammad’s legacy – ECOLOGICAL WELFARE

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By Dr M Haris Deen

COVID-19 came and as yet remains, at the same time the world is plagued with another serious issue, that of global warming and other ecological disturbances. While remembering the birth of Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) let us recall the contributions he made towards the applying Islamic principles of Islamic welfare towards protection of the environment.

The Prophet of Islam (May peace be upon him) advocated during his lifetime the stringent application of Islamic principles in respect of ecological welfare. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) taught his followers to live on less, neither to be extravagant nor to be miserly and to protect animal and plant life and to worship the Creator by being merciful to His creations. He forbade the killing of any animal unless out of necessity to feed the people. Al Albani reports that the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “If the Hou r (meaning the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it”. Imam Bukhari reported the Prophet (Peace be on him) as having said that “if a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him”. It is also reported in Ibn Majah that once the Prophet (peace be upon him) happened to pass by his companion Sa’ad (May God be pleased with him) and found him performing ablution (wudu) next to a river and questioned him “Sa;ad what is this squandering? And when Sa’ad asked in return “can there be an idea if squandering (israf) in ablution?’ the Prophet replied “yes, even if you are by the side of a flowing river”.

In another Hadith narrated by Ibn Majah, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Beware of the three acts that cause you to be cursed: (1) relieving yourself in shaded places (that people utilise), in a walkway or in a watering place”.

The Qur’an in chapter 56 verses 68 to 70 states “consider the water which you drink. Was it you that brought it down from the rain cloud or We? If We had pleased, We could make it bitter”.

Prophet’s companion Abu Dhar Al Ghaffari (May Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Removing harmful things from the road is an act of charity” and in another Hadith authenticated by Albani, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “the believer is not he who eats his fill while his neighbour is hungry”. The Prophet further cautioned as reported by Tirmadhi and Ibn Majah that “Nothing is worst than a person who fills his stomach. It should be enough for the son of Adam to have a few bites to satisfy his hunger. If he wishes more, it should be : one third for his food, one third for his liquids and one third for his breath”.

Imam Bukhari reported an amazing story narrated by the Prophet (on whom be peace) that “A man felt very thirsty while he was on the way, there he came across a well. He went down the well, quenched his thirst and came out. Meanwhile, he saw a dog panting and licking mud because of excessive thirst. He said to himself. “This dog is suffering from thirst as I did, “So, he went down the well again, filled his shoe with water, held it in his mouth and watered the dog. Allah appreciated him for that deed and forgave him”. The companions inquired, “O Allah’s Messenger, is there a reward for us in serving the animals?” He replied: “There is a reward for saving any living being”.

Animals have a huge role in the ecological welfare system. The tenets of the Shariah Law towards animal rights make it obligatory for any individual to take care of crippled animals, to rescue strays and to guard birds’ nests of eggs’.

Sal Allahu Ala Muhammad Sal Allahu Alaihi wa Sallam. May Allah Shower His Choicest Blessings on the Soul of Prophet Muhammad.

Email: deenmohamed835@gmail.com

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Gypsies…to continue

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The original Gypsies, with Sunil (centre)

Of course, I know for sure fans of the Gypsies, and music lovers, in general, not only in Sri Lanka but around the world, as well, would be thrilled to know that this awesome outfit hasn’t called it a day.

After the demise of the legendary Sunil Perera, everyone thought that the Gypsies would disband.

Perhaps that would have been in the minds of even the members, themselves, as Sunil was not only their leader, and frontline vocalist, but also an icon in the music scene – he was special in every way.

Many, if not all, thought that the Gypsies, without Sunil, would find the going tough and that is because they all associated the Gypsies with Sunil Perera.

Sunil receiving The Island Music Award for ‘Showbiz Personality of the Year’ 1990

It generally happens, with certain outfits, where the rest of the members go unnoticed and the spotlight is only on one particular member – the leader of the group.

Some of the names that come to mind are Gabo and The Breakaways (Gabo) Misty (Rajitha), Darktan (Alston Koch), Upekkha (Manilal), Jetliners (Mignonne), Sohan & The X-Periments (Sohan), and the list is quite lengthy….

Yes, the Gypsies will continue, says Piyal Perera, and he mapped out to us what he has in mind.

They will take on a new look, he said, adding that in no way would they try to recreate the era of the Gypsies with Sunil Perera..

“That era is completely gone and we will never ever look to bringing that era into our scene again.

“My brother was a very special individual and his place in the band can never ever be replaced.”

Will Sunil join this scene…at Madame Tussauds!

Piyal went to say that the Gypsies will return to the showbiz scene, in a different setting.

“In all probability, we may have a female vocalist, in the vocal spotlight, and our repertoire will not be the songs generally associated with Sunil and the Gypsies.

“It will be a totally new approach by the new look Gypsies,” said Piyal.

In the meanwhile, Piyal also mentioned that they are working on the possibility of having an image of the late Sunil Perera at the Madame Tussauds wax museum, in London.

He says they have been asked, by the authorities concerned, to submit a PowerPoint presentation of Sunil’s achievements, and that they are working on it.

It’s, indeed, a wonderful way to keep Sunil’s image alive.

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