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Roadblock to the new normal

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Time to Break the Boundaries – Part III

BY Shivanthi Ranasinghe

ranasingheshivanthi@gmail.com 

(Part II was published last Saturday)

The Education Ministry is trying its best to reopen schools amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave. The Ministry announced its decision to reopen schools throughout the Island except in those areas under lockdown. This was met enthusiastically by neither the teachers’ trade unions nor parents. They are worried that schools functioning amidst the pandemic would pave the path to a “school cluster”. At the same time, the trade unions acknowledge that keeping schools closed indefinitely is also not the solution.

To emphasis the need to reopen schools, a trade unionist observed that online education had failed. This is debatable. Segments that have ready access to necessary devices and uninterrupted connection and with the familiarity of using these tools have had their lessons uninterrupted. They even had online exams. Most unfortunately, this situation is not true for all Sri Lankan children. 

Children in lower income brackets could not connect with the online classes. Even for those with devices, inadequate Internet coverage proved to be the issue.

The issue had been accessibility. However, this is only part of the problem. The fact that we could not reach out to all the children means that the status of our education on Information Technology (IT) related subjects does not even warrant a discussion. This thus exposes the extent our education had become outmoded even before the pandemic.

 

Our archaic education system

We are in the midst of the IT Revolution, which is rapidly evolving into the knowledge era. Electronic commerce (e-commerce) and online communications are some of the key components in the world today. It is increasing connectivity, generating real time businesses and reducing the time gaps as never before. Countries, irrespective of their economic policies, are now part of a global village.

The importance of IT and IT based systems has jumped since the pandemic. Work from home, distant education, banking services and even home deliveries became possible because of IT. Many governments have resorted to e-governance to serve the people more efficiently.

Yet most of our budding future generation is completely disconnected from this revolution. Therefore, our online education has failed not so much due to inaccessibility, but because of the lack of will to transform our education to be relevant to the economy.

Our education system is still stuck in the bygone industrial revolution. The fact that needs to be urgently acknowledged is that industries are increasingly becoming automated. As machines replace humans, the remuneration from these tasks is getting exponentially devalued. 

For four generations, free education has been made compulsory for every child in Sri Lanka. Yet, we are struggling to move on at the global pace. Our main foreign earnings are from the tea and garment exports and worker remittances from the Middle East. The tea leaf plucker, garment factory worker and domestic aid that slave away in the deserts are engaged in very mechanical tasks.

Each year we note that our tea exports are fetching fewer dollars. It is an industry that balks at paying their laborers a daily wage of Rs 1,000. We need to rebrand and aggressively market our tea. However, marketing is no longer confined to commercials or billboards. The best and most effective marketing now is on social media as product endorsements. 

Most of our garment factories are still labor intensive. This makes our production costs high in comparison to our neighbours with lower labour rates, giving them a competitive edge over us. To be competitive, we need to adapt technologies such as those that promote “Just In Time” production. This helps designers respond to fashion timely and allows buyers to reduce commitments on bulk orders by placing quantities to reflect actual demand.

Our workers in the Middle East are in hostile environments, without even the protection of the law. The contempt with which their services, considered menial, are treated is an affront to our entire nation. We export our prime workforce only to be re-exported broken souls, who had suffered horrific experiences. They often return to find their families torn apart. As extra baggage, we are now burdened with incompatible ideologies that threaten our way of life and even paved way to atrocities as the Easter Attack. Hence, the ensuring social costs far outweigh the actual monetary remittances we get.

Without a healthy foreign exchange flow, our capacity to invest in new technologies or industries becomes limited. This in turn reduces our opportunities to generate new employment. Without return on investments, we are forced to borrow just to meet day-to-day expenses. As our Gross Domestic Production (GDP) growth rate fails to keep up with the increasing National Debt, our interest rates also rises whilst our debt repayment schedules get shorter. This in turn devalues the currency, further adding to our debt repayment commitments. As the end result, we as a country get poorer.

It has been our tragic experience that poverty and associated social ills have nourished and even justified terrorism in Sri Lanka. Both Rohana Wijeweera and Velupillai Parabakaran were able to attract the youth afflicted by this unfair social platform for their macabre causes. Therefore, if we are to retain our hard-won peace, we must earnestly and urgently address the poverty in Sri Lanka. As such, our education system has a very important role to play.

 

The New Education Goals

We too can connect with the multi-billion-dollar e-commerce industry. It is important to understand that e-commerce is not confined to white collar jobs. Even our core industries on which a majority of our population survives on, such as agriculture, fisheries, construction and tourism can be vastly improved by employing IT-based tools as artificial intelligence, robotics and e-commerce.

To connect with this IT Revolution, our education system must transform itself to produce knowledge-based workers. Learning spellings or even a second language is no longer necessary. There are spell-checkers and translation applications to do that for us. At the same time, with search engines as Google and Siri, the need to cram information into memory has also got obsolete.

 

This means the Education Ministry has new goals. They must produce a workforce that is adaptable, analytical, innovative and creative in new environments. Test scores based on regurgitating facts are no longer the deciding factors in being gainfully employed.

These are not new thinking. In fact, the need to be part of this revolution has been on the discussion board for over 20 years. State Minister Ajith Cabraal’s Lak Mawata Muthu Potak (Pearl Necklace for Mother Lanka) discusses these issues at length. We are already onboard IT and Information System (IS) based platforms. Even the Sri Lanka tea auctions went online during the pandemic.

Today, IT is a promising one-billion-dollar industry in Sri Lanka. Other than a capital expenditure, the IT industry does not have a raw material cost as in the apparel sector. The garment industry, generating a USD 5.5 billion revenue, is the larger industry in Sri Lanka. Yet, it spends about USD 2.5 billion in importing its raw materials. As the IT industry generates its income from mostly skills and resources available at home, almost its net revenue is retained in the country.

However, it is obvious that only a certain segment of our society is engaged with this lucrative industry. Their wealth is naturally increasing and so is their social status. If adequate measures are not employed to include the other segments, the gap between the rich and the poor would also increase. This situation is too dangerous to be allowed to brew.

 

The New Normal – an Opportunity to Correct Abnormalities taken for Granted as ‘Normal’

The pandemic has offered the best possible opportunity for us to correct our course. Troubling or challenging these times maybe it is also a very unique period in our lives. The last time a situation as this arose was when the world was afflicted with the Spanish Flu. That happened in the last century and most probably the next pandemic might not be till the next century. It is with this frame of mind that we need to address the pandemic.

Authorities and experts talk of a ‘new normal’. However, what exactly is entailed in this ‘new normal’ is yet to be defined. It is not even clear if this ‘new normal’ is just to get through the pandemic or beyond it. Entities like Singapore’s famous Changi Airport are using the pandemic to revamp its Terminal 2. Likewise, many others are using this opportunity to renovate, re-engineer and remodel both their premises and business processes.

Instead of trying to bang the head on the wall, the Education Ministry too ought to consider this pandemic as an opportunity to resolve a long-standing issue – providing an equal education platform for all Sri Lankan children. Rather than trying to reopen schools in uncertain conditions and risk disastrous consequences, the Ministry must concentrate on removing the glitches in providing an online education to every single child. Without teachers to ‘spoon feed’ endless facts and measures to ensure rigid exam conditions, the syllabuses must focus on achievements based on analysis, creativity and innovation. This will serve the nation well past the pandemic.

This is truly a window of opportunity to correct many of the abnormalities as poverty that we had thus far taken for granted as ‘normal’. Once the pandemic ends and children return to school as regularly as before, we would lose the urgency to resort to online education. This presents the real danger of resuming a curriculum that is robbing our children of their childhood for very little return for their investment; and a curriculum that is not serving the national interests adequately.

Even before the pandemic, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was working to overcome these issues. He too noted that the cause for unemployed graduates is their degree courses that have little relevance to the economy. The country’s opportunity cost of deliberately making it hard to pass science subjects is significant, he observed. Therefore, he not only plans to increase the capacity of tertiary education, but also expand the courses to include vocational streams and other fields needed by the economy. The objective is to provide a tertiary education to all those who pass the Advanced Level exams.

The pandemic however has shifted this frame of vision that we need A/L results to qualify for a tertiary education. The response from our youngsters since the outbreak of the COVID-19 has been both astonishing and marvelous. Many came up with various developments and inventions to help Sri Lanka face the pandemic-related health and economic challenges. Their effort ought to be acknowledged academically. When a 14-year old converts an ordinary mechanical water tap into a motion sensor auto-water faucet, it is rather ridiculous to make him sit for Ordinary Level exams. Instead, he should have the freedom to skip ahead to follow the relevant courses. The Ministry should thus not only focus on increasing capacity of tertiary education but also avenues for students to access higher education.

After all, education is not confined to school or classroom. Thus, if students cannot come to school, then the Ministry should consider ways to turn the living environment into an education base. A simple, temporary remedy might be to involve temples and other premises with hall capacities to allow neighborhood children to gather and continue with their online education. This will give children the much-needed break from the isolation caused by the pandemic as well. Any cluster of such a circle would be small and manageable. 

More imaginative changes would be to encourage children to take on investigative projects based on their environment. For instance, though nearly 50 percent of our population is engaged in agrarian industries, our education curriculum does not reflect it. This would be a very good opportunity to involve children in the many debates and developments revolving in the sector. 

For the past couple of years, a very strong nationalist sentiment has been building in the country. If we allow ourselves, then the pandemic can be made into the much-needed opportunity we need to turn around our country for the better. In this context, the education sector (Ministry and teachers), parents and students each have an important role to play. Over the past months, we saw many instances where our youngsters rose to the occasion. Hopefully our education sector and parents too will have the strength to meet this courage. 

(Concluded)

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Opinion

Reminiscences of Colombo University Arts Faculty and Library

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Whilst extending my felicitations to the University of Colombo on the centenary celebrations of the Faculty of Arts and the Library of the University, I would like to record my contribution towards these two units as the Registrar of the University.

It was during Prof. Stanley Wijesundera’s tenure as the Vice-Chancellor (VC) in 1980 that the proposals for the buildings in respect of the Chemistry Department, Physics Department, New Administration, Faculty of Law, Faculty of Arts and the Library were mooted and submitted to the Treasury. At that time it was the National Buildings Consortium that assigned the Consultants and the Contractors for the new buildings to be constructed. Within that year the Treasury allocated sufficient funds for the Chemistry, Physics, Faculty of Law and the New Administration buildings. However, no funds were allocated to the Faculty of Arts and only Rs. 7.5 million was allocated for the Library building.

With the funds allocated the Chemistry, Physics, Law Faculty and the new Administration buildings were able to get off the ground. The construction work in respect of the other two buildings could not commence due to non-allocation of sufficient funds, even though the consultants and the contractors and already been selected.

As the Minister of Finance at that time was from Matara, he was more interested in getting the required buildings for the newly established University of Ruhuna completed, which was in his electorate. This meant that the University of Colombo would not get any funds for new buildings other than those buildings where the construction work had already begun.

The university needed a building for the Faculty of Arts very badly as this Faculty had the largest number of students. The Vice-Chancellor requested me to draft a letter to the Minister of Finance. Accordingly, I drafted a letter and submitted to the VC for his signature. He told it was an excellent letter, and he signed without a single amendment and submitted same to the Minister. The Minister approved the releasing of the funds. Now the consultants to the building project studied the area required for the building and found that a small portion of land was necessary from the land of the Planetarium. My efforts to get the land from the person in charge of the Planetarium, the Senior Assistant Secretary and the Secretary himself were not fruitful. I told the VC of the position and that he would have to speak to the Minister in charge of the Planetarium, Mr. Lionel Jayathilaka. He got the Minister on line and addressing him by his first name and informed the Minister of the problem. The Minister immediately got it attended to. However, when the construction work started, they found that the additional land area was not necessary.

At that time, the payments to the consultants of building projects was 15% of the total value of the cost. So, in designing the building they tried to add various unnecessary items to jack up the cost. When the first phase was completed, the building looked monstrous and it was like a maze, as it was difficult to find your way out once you get in. I requested the architect to add some coloured tiles on the floors and the stairway and a few decorations on the walls. The university had a never ending tussle with the contractor as he was like Shylock asking for more, when everything had been paid. He tried various tactics but did not succeed in getting anything more as I was adamant not to give in.

When the second stage of the building project came up, I told the consultant to drop all the unnecessary items and have a straight forward building. This was done by the new contractor at much less cost to the university.

The Library building was the last of the buildings planned in 1980 that was awaiting construction. When Mr. Richard Pathirana became the Minister of Higher Education, I spoke to the two engineers who were assigned the task of supervising the building projects of the universities, and managed to get the funds passed by the Treasury for the construction of the Library building. When the Minister came on a visit to the university, he told me that the building that should have been done for Rs.7.5 million will cost Rs.253 million. I told him that the Treasury never gave any money after approving the initial funding of Rs.7.5 million. Anyway, I had achieved what I wanted to do and the building was successfully completed. Now the furniture for the Library had to be procured. When quotations were called the suucessful tenderer had brought a sample of the study tables. I rejected this as it was inferior to what I wanted and asked the officer concerned to get the design of the furniture from the library in the University of Peradeniya. This was done and the furniture was installed. The official opening of the new Library was arranged. By that time I had retired from the position of Registrar and was the Director of the Institute of Workers’ Education. Even though I was instrumental in getting the building done, I was not invited for the function. That is gratitude!!

 

H M Nissanka Warakaulle

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Opinion

Ali Sabry bashing

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Justice Minister Ali Sabry has appealed to his critics to spare him from the criticism that he was behind the calling of applications for the appointment of Quazis for Quazi Courts (The Island/23.01.2021). In my view, the allegations levelled against Justice Minister Ali Sabry are unfounded and uneducated. If you are an educated and unbiased citizen of this country, you’ll understand it better. The applications for Quazis for Quazi Courts have been called by the Judicial Service Commission, an independent Commission chaired by the Chief Justice of this country. If you aren’t happy with this decision, you have to take it up with the Chief Justice, not the Justice Minister. He has no control at all over the Judicial Service Commission. In a way, criticising that Justice Minister influenced the Judicial Service Commission, chaired by the Chief Justice, tantamounts to contempt of the Supreme Court. Moreover, Quazi Courts have been in existence for well over 70 years, and it hasn’t affected the Sinhalese or the Tamils nor has it been incompatible with the common law of this country. If there is any serious discrepancy, it can be rectified. But I wonder why the calling of applications for Quazis has now become an issue. I also wonder if the removal of Quazi Courts was promised as a part of the subtle 69 mandate. This is not the first time similar allegations have been made. When Rauf Hakeem was Justice Minister, Member of Parliament Pattali Champika Ranawaka  made serious allegations that more Muslim students were admitted to the Law College and led many protests and ultimately a group of monks stormed the Law College in protest. He had charged that Law College entrance exam papers were leaked and criticised the then Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem for it. He  knew very well that Law College came under the Council of Legal Education chaired by the Chief Justice and  Attorney General and two other Supreme Court judges among others were  members of this Council, yet he had made these allegations with a different motive. Amidst international outcry, Muslim Covid victims have been denied burial. To make the situation worse, some vindictive, venomous elements are now trying to create another bad scenario that Muslims can’t marry either according to their faith, and tarnish the image of this country internationally and drive a wedge between communities. Therefore I earnestly ask the law abiding and peace loving citizens of this country to work against these vindictive, venomous elements.  

 

M. A. Kaleel 

Kalmunai. 

 

 

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Opinion

What do Northern political parties seek?

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Political parties, based in the North, are reported to be getting prepared to attend the UNHRC sessions next month. For several decades, the only thing they did for their constituents is to spread feelings of hate among them, against the government and the people living in the South. Today, we have two important issues where India is involved – re. the Colombo Harbour and the death of four fishermen. There is another perennial issue of Indians fishing in our waters. Have these parties uttered a single word on those matters? What do they expect to gain, or achieve for the Northerners, even if they could prove SL war crimes allegations at the UNHRC? Can they honestly say that they were not a party to the LTTE and other terrorist outfits which looted, tortured and killed hundred or thousands of civilians, both in the North and the South?

Other than shouting about the rights of their people, have they done anything for the wellbeing of the people in those areas? Whatever was given to the people were those given by the Government on a national basis. Excellent example is the conduct of C V Wigneswaran, who held the high position of Chief Minister of the Northern Province for five years – had he done any significant service for the people? Those parties never complain about India for the killings, torturing and raping done by the IPKF, or the damage and loss due to the activities of Indian fishermen.

India too overlooks all that, and to keep Tamil Nadu happy, forces the SL government to grant whatever the Northern Parties demand.

 

K SIRIWEERA

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