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Midweek Review

Situating Panduka Karunanayake’s ‘Politics’ of Education



by Sasanka Perera
South Asian University New Delhi

Panduka Karunanayake, Ruptures in Sri Lanka’s Education: Genesis, Present Status and Reflections. Nugegoda: Sarasavi Publishers, 2021 Pages; 280; ISBN 789553117793. Price: LKR 600.00 (with soft cover).

(This essay was initially written as the ‘Foreword’ for, Panduka Karunanayake’s book, Ruptures in Sri Lanka’s Education: Genesis, Present Status and Reflections)

As an educationist, once based in Sri Lanka, I had already read many of Karunanayake’s essays that have now been collected in this volume in their previous incarnation in the national press. This is not merely because we used to be teachers in the same university, but because we were both interested in the same issues, challenges and anxieties Sri Lanka’s education system had generated. I was also intrigued then and am also now that Karunanayake had opted to wade a considerable distance out of his speciality in Medicine into the messy and often thankless domain of public debate with his ideas that focused more broadly on education as opposed to his medical speciality. This is unusual for people with his kind of training, particularly in the local academic belief system where the popular assumption is that doctors should look after the sick and social commentaries should be left for social scientists and journalists. Thankfully, as the trajectory of these essays would indicate, Karunanayake began to transgress this kind of regressive thinking, at least 15 years ago, when he self-consciously decided to make the public sphere a forum for his ideas. In this context, my attempt in this Foreword is to situate these essays in the broader politics to which Karunanayake has consistently asked us to enter, though many have not.


Twenty-three essays

The 23 essays in this collection, about half of which have not been previously published, is a clear cartography of Karunanayake’s thinking on education. But, more importantly, they also broadly sketch the landscape of Sri Lankan education with a focus on three main issues. These are the present status of the educational reforms initially implemented under the visionary leadership of C.W.W. Kannangara in the 1940s and after; the role private capital can play in Sri Lanka’s higher education sector; and the status and role of the university as an institution in Sri Lanka, not only as a space for advanced learning, but also as a place for reflection.

Kannangara is best known for the introduction of what is known in Sri Lanka as ‘free education’, a system that assured citizens an education from kindergarten to university at the expense of the state. An important vehicle in institutionalizing this system was the establishment of central schools (Madhya Maha Vidyala) in urban and semi-urban locations in different parts of the country as conduits through which the vastly rural populations in the country could be directed towards an advanced secondary education at school level, and prepare them for university and professional education. The issue today is not that ‘free’ education does not exist along with the institutional structures set up to achieve this. Instead, the issue is whether the broader ideas of citizenship that Kananangara visualized are being met? It seems to me that Panduka Karunanayake’s anxiety is whether the value of this system of education has diminished as a result of the country’s present-day educational authorities losing touch with the finer points in the ideals of Kannangara’s reforms even though all of them would have reaped the benefits of that system.


Kannangara thinking

Today’s schools in Sri Lanka – in my view – are not about building a sense of citizenship and public consciousness that goes beyond the basic utilitarian expectations of education such as literacy and basic disciplinary competencies. In this sense, such a system can be better described in the words of Ivan Illich than what was anticipated by Kannangara’s thinking. That is, in general, schools everywhere today are “designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends upon knowing that secret; that secrets can only be known in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.” What this regimented and linear scheme of learning refers to is the basic requirement of discipline that young people are expected to follow that would allow them to become an integral and unobtrusive part of the employment market. In this systemic setup in which both Karunanayake and I are also a part, it would be difficult to think in terms of humanity with a self-conscious sense of empathy. That is, in systemic and structural terms, this is not what is anticipated even though individuals still have considerable leeway to nudge their students – both in schools and universities – think out of the box, be reflective and conscious of one’s circumstances as they go about fulfilling the formal requirements of learning. In Sri Lanka’s context, it is precisely this reductionist system of learning that creates divisive, competitive and exclusivist notions of ethno-cultural and religious identities that have by now considerably subverted the more inclusive kind of Sri Lankan citizenship that statesmen like Kannangara envisaged at the time of Independence.

As his writings suggest however, Karunanayake does not absolve himself from this overall scheme of things. But by critiquing what needs to be critiqued and being reflective of what could be changed, he is attempting to offer specific avenues of hope by entering the public domain with his ideas rather than becoming a voiceless prisoner within the prevailing system. Decision-makers in Sri Lanka’s educational system today seem to have conveniently forgotten the basic implications of education to young people that Jiddu Krishnamurti outlined in Education and the Significance of Life. As he noted, “while one is young is the time to investigate, to experiment with everything. The school should help its young people to discover their vocations and responsibilities, and not merely cram their minds with facts and technical knowledge; it should be the soil in which they can grow without fear, happily and integrally.” This was also the kind of broader education the Kannangara reforms anticipated beyond its hoped-for impact on people’s social mobility.


Second Theme

The second theme that runs across some of Karunanayake’s essays focuses on the possibilities of opening Sri Lanka’s higher education to private investment. His general position is that private capital does have a role to play in the country’s university education system, which is not a popular position to hold in Sri Lanka’s public and often noisy debates on education. Most educationists in the country argue that the burden of university education in terms of both planning and costs of delivery should be the responsibility of the state. I am sympathetic to this idea as long as the state also takes the responsibility to guarantee the quality of education at all levels, the competence of teachers, equity of access and finally that the education offered by universities also creates a broader sense of citizenship as opposed to parochial-minded individuals. But we know from experience at both school and university levels in Sri Lanka that the state has not been able to fulfill these ideals. In such a situation, to chant the mantra of an exclusively state-led higher education makes little sense. What Karunanayake proposes for Sri Lanka is a private university sector based on what he calls an ‘indigenous model.’ But even in this call, he does not envisage the abolishment of the state system. What he visualizes instead is a parallel system.

Karunanayake’s arguments in support of private education is not leaning towards unmitigated privatization. Instead, what he favours is what might be called an ‘enlightened infusion of private capital into higher education’ which might expand the country’s higher education opportunities as well as areas for social justice. The post-1977 liberalization of Sri Lanka’s markets has ensured capital influx into many areas of the national economy. The healthcare sector is one of them. Education at the school level and college level training for universities overseas have also seen an expansion in the private sector. One cannot simply assume if a country’s economic policies embrace capitalism and its people seem to prefer it, only selected areas – like higher education – might not be impacted by these schemes. Such a position is simply not sensible. Privatization of university education does not necessarily have to mean inequitable access. Its potential ill-effects can be controlled to some extent by appropriate state policies that guarantee access through scholarships and financial aid schemes. After all, it is not that such schemes have not been successfully experimented with in other parts of the world. But this area has merely remained an area of anxiety and virulent argumentation in Sri Lanka’s public sphere where nuanced reflection has generally been absent. It is to this contentious debate that Karunanayake’s essays that deal with privatization of university education beckons us. One does not need to agree with him. But what he writes in this matter is worth reflecting upon.


Status of universities

Karunanayake also reflects on the status and role of the university as an institution in the Sri Lankan context. But his reflections are not only about how universities must function as competent forums for advanced technical training in different disciplines. This is certainly one of the most important roles universities can and should play in contemporary times. More importantly, he also wonders how universities might also be spaces for reflection. It is about the university’s role in the first sense referred to above that states, including the Sri Lankan state, have paid considerable attention to. Technical education offered by universities has traditionally focused on this aspect in any case. But its over-emphasis in contemporary times, its popular acceptance by most people today and state support to this hegemonic understanding of the university has degraded its once-cherished ideal as a place of reflection and responsible social and political commentary. While Karunanayake is in agreement that universities must offer technical competencies as he himself does as a medical academic, he does not believe it must necessarily be offered at the cost of reflection. To put it more simply, his opinion differs considerably from many of his and my colleagues in the Sri Lankan higher education sector whose only focus is on training individuals for the needs of the market, an attitude shared by most students as well. It is truly unfortunate the present moment in the 21st century, many of us have lost sight of the fundamental difference between a university and a technical college.


‘University and society’

It is in this spirit that Karunanayake, in the chapter titled, ‘University and Society: To Tango or Not’ refers to Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s ideas on the ideal university as a place for the “promotion of liberty of mind or freedom of thought” which “has little to do with the protection of privilege or call for conformity.” It is the same idea that Rabindranath Tagore also promoted in the early twentieth century in his essay, . ‘Ideals of Education’ when he noted, “universities should never be made into mechanical organizations for collecting and distributing knowledge. Through them the people should offer their intellectual hospitality, their wealth of mind to others, earn their proud right in return to receive gifts from the rest of the world.” It is possible to dismiss these ideas as old-fashioned, and to argue the university’s role today is to merely fulfill the requirements of a technical education. Support for this reductionist idea comes from within the university as well as from within the country’s governance structure. It is precisely the poverty of such thinking that has diminished the overall intellectual value of Sri Lanka’s higher education even though in selected fields, the technical training offered might be on par with what is provided in other parts of the world. It is heartening to note that Karunanayake has brought this important cluster of thinking to forums of pubic debate through his writing.

Karunanayake’s collection of essays enters public circulation as a body of reflections linked to his training, social background and ideological positions at a time Sri Lankan society in general and the country’s broader education system in particular are experiencing profound and multiple crises. In this difficult context as a university teacher, what come to my mind are the following words of Rabindranath Tagore outlined in his essay, ‘Ideals of Education’: “I try to assert in my words and works that education has its only meaning and object in freedom – freedom from ignorance about the laws of the universe, and freedom from passion and prejudice in our communications with the human world.” By bringing his ideas, concerns and ideological positions as a specific form of politics into public discourse away from his twin comfort zones in academia and medical practice, it seems to me that Karunanayake as a fellow university teacher is striving to live closer to the words of Tagore than to the disruptive hegemonic politics of our times.

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Midweek Review

Rajiva Wijesinhas’s ‘Exploring India’



Reviewed by Goolbai Gunasekara

When a professor, a novelist, a writer, a politician, an educator, an international speaker, a teacher, a former university Vice Chancellor and a respected academic writes a book on travel it jumps, perforce, onto the “must read” list for all serious readers. Add to the above that he is much in demand as a judge at Literary Competitions, both in Sri Lanka and the UK, and when one tops it all by mentioning that he is also a Gratiaen Prize Winner, one realies that here is a Modern Day Renaissance Man (His various careers are naturally not in given order of importance).

Rajiva Wijesinha dates his long love affair with India to his boyhood when he accompanied his mother, the well-known Girl Guide Commissioner, Muktha Wijesinha, to Madras when she was on Girl Guide business. Arriving in modern Chennai, he took off by himself on a tour in which no other teen-aged schoolboy would be even remotely interested. That Rajiva was considered a child prodigy was accepted at the time, but his intellectual curiosity exceeded all normalcy and has led him down unusual avenues of exploration for the next 50 years of his life.

With having an Indian father, who was himself an academic, I thought I was pretty high up on the ‘know India’ landscape scale, but after reading ‘Exploring India’ I realize I have barely scratched the surface of understanding the scope of that vast and intriguing country. India’s ruins and architectural marvels and many that are off the beaten track are revealed with a love and understanding of that great sub-continent’s history.

Punctuated by excellent photographs taken through the years of his travels, fascinating descriptions of cities, palaces, forts, temples and varied historical sites make “Exploring India’ difficult to put down.

Parts one and two describe his travels as a student and a teacher along with educational and academic perspectives. Parts four, five and six comprise intensive sightseeing of both old and new India. While this book is mainly about India, Rajiva takes in his tours of the other SAARC countries in section seven of this comprehensively written book. Such an undertaking would have been impossible had not Rajiva kept detailed diaries all his life. He was preparing to write this book from his teen years, perhaps!

Among the plethora of pictures I found several which were of particular interest. The Fort of Jhansi, for instance, recalls an early heroine of mine (and of many Asian women). Pictures of Pakistan were particularly poignant as I had schooled in Karachi while it was still ‘Undivided India’ and had visited beautiful Lahore frequently as modern Pakistan was my family’s home in Sind before British haste messed up the Partition of India. Also in Lahore are tombs and works undertaken by Nur Jehan (another heroine) the famously manipulative and beautiful wife of Jahangir.

What is noteworthy about all these photographs is that they do not contain only the much pictured and widely reproduced tourist pictures. Little known aspects and lesser known attractions of India dot its pages. For example, Babur’s tomb in Kabul, the minarets of Lahore, monks at play in Bhutan, schoolboys in Thimpu wearing uniforms of sartorial elegance, the island temple of Pokhara in Nepal, etchings in the palace of Bikaner et al. All these go to enthrall a reader.

Buddhists will be particularly interested in one fact of which most of them are ignorant . While exploring the higher reaches of areas round Harrapa and Taxila, Rajiva heard of tribes that still practice Buddhism though he did not actually get to meet them. There he found wondrous examples of Gandhara Art. From Peshawar he walked up a hill to the monastery of Takht –i-Bahi, 2000 years old! In the area, high up in the Karakorum range, lies a fabulous engraving of the Buddha out of rugged rock.

The chapters are interspersed with well-known names, thanks to Rajiva’s many academic connections and also his contemporaries at Oxford. In Karachi he asked a gentleman why the men of Pakistan disapproved of Benazir Bhutto and was told that they felt diminished at being ruled by a women. Also they had heard that she went to nightclubs in England! Rajiva thought it prudent to remain silent about the fact that he had himself taken her to a nightclub in their Oxford days!

Rajiva’s accommodations in India causes the reader considerable amusement. As an inveterate traveler he often went along on whims of the moment without making proper bookings. This led him to sharing a berth on a train with an old man and his grandson and then in stark contrast to having Nirmali Hettiaratchi as a fellow guest at the posh Hyatt Regency in Kathmandu. He has had dinners with our High Commissioners in India like Sudarshan Seneviratne and Austin Fernando who must have been considerably bemused by the sweep of Rajiva’s fascination and encompassing knowledge of India. He has enjoyed stays with Oxford friends at Bishop’s Palaces and pleasantly relaxed teas in Karachi with Benazir Bhutto, his old friend from Oxford, who remembered his penchant for chocolate cake.

The educator in Rajiva is never quiescent. It surfaces all the time and his visits to India were often for literary and educational reasons. During the time he was a Member of Parliament, Rajiva was in in Delhi for an Indo-Sri Lankan Dialogue being held at the India International Centre. Our High Commission arranged for discussions with Indian Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, an old friend of Rajiva’s from her days as High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. The discussions were on the sad state of English in our country while India’s standards were zooming up by the day. Other well-known participants in the discussions were Nihal Rodrigo, Sajith Premadasa and Harsha de Silva. Mrs. Rao was happy to provide him with all the necessary aid but the Government of Sri Lanka changed and the scheme was very unfortunately dropped.

There are too many names, too many incidents, too many pictures, too many amazing stories to relate in a short Review. So let me just say “READ the Book”. India is our closest neighbour. Let us get to know her every facet as best we can. Rajiva Wijesinha’s “Exploring India” will do just that for the reader.

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Midweek Review

Making vocational training an impressive choice



By Dr. Ajith Polwatte

Globally, a significant number of young persons choose vocational and technical training so as in Sri Lanka as the way for developing a livelihood for their life. At the same time, the Government and non-governmental organizations trying hard to increase the enrollments for such training using range of methods, including media and other promotional programmes. This article presents some of the important things which the responsible agencies can adopt to make vocational training an impressive choice for youngsters as well as adults for them to be able to develop a livelihood.

Vocational training is referred to as training of persons for specific occupations in the industry. In Sri Lanka, with the inception of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) system, the vocational training system has improved significantly nevertheless, due to number of reasons, still it is not impressive enough to be an alternative choice for youngsters. They still view vocational training as “inferior” product to other educational choices thus as said before, responsible agencies in vocational training sector are compelled to spend resources to promote vocational training.

There are several things which would help making vocational training a good choice for young persons. If a vocational training system lacks the factors discuss in this article, people say the system is inferior thus cannot be trusted as a pathway for life success. Let us discuss those factors which would determine choosing a vocational training program a better choice as discussed below.

Demand-driven courses

* Training centres with right number of courses and students to reflect good image

* Use of modern technology in teaching

* Up to date technology with appropriate level of digitalization

* Qualified, competent and committed Teacher / Trainers

* Attractive learning environment

* Merit-based enrollment

* Opportunities for extra-curricula activities


Demand-driven Courses

The term demand-driven is a bit familiar term in vocational training system of Sri Lanka (especially after inception of NVQ system) however, those who involve in training management need to understand the real meaning of the term. The “demands” are the work requirements or the expectations of the employers in the industry. In other words, it is what the work setup expects from the workers to do. The workers are supposed to fulfil those expectations thus the training centres need to train own trainees in such a way that they would be able to fulfil those expectations. Then such courses are titled as “demand-driven” courses.

Due to internal as well as external pressure factors, not all courses run by training centres are demand-driven. Internal factors include staff issues, available equipment and buildings, etc., whereas external factors include needs of the general public, opinions of influential persons, etc., which are referred to as “social demands”. Especially, the public sector training centres tend to deliver “social demand-driven courses” due to the said pressure factors. Social-demand driven courses not always ensure employment but real industry-demand driven courses ensure employment within or outside of the country. The outcome of vocational training should be a gainful employment and earnings thereof thus when youngsters making choices one of the key determinants would be the assurance of an employment upon completion of training. Designing of courses thus shall be based on industry needs rather than social needs. Therefore, it is better making all the vocational training courses “industry-demand-driven” towards the march for a better vocational training system.


Training centres with right number of courses and students to reflect good image

There is a proverb called “small is beautiful”. Though there is a perceived truth behind this proverb, the vocational training setup has exceptions. When a training centre provides 1-2 courses, there would be no room for social interaction thus the centre becomes an unattractive and monotonous place for the trainees. Also, the unit cost of training increases as few numbers of trainees are trained. Whereas if a centre is able to provide around 10 courses instead of few courses it can get “economies of scale” thus unit cost of a trainee decreases. As large numbers of trainees are trained, social interaction increases which makes the training centre a livable and attractive place to general public. Most people love to be part of “big places” than “small places”. Big places mostly have opportunities for extra curricula activities than small places which makes a significant impact to people’s minds in making choices. Therefore, those responsible for vocational training better start thinking about “big centres” than smaller centres for the way towards a better training system. On the other hand, school leavers, for number of years in schools, used to be in a spacious environment with room for extra-curricular activities admire and expect similar environment in vocational training centres as well.


Use of modern technology in teaching

Use of face-to-face and “chalk’n talk” method of teaching in vocational training is no longer an attractive method for youth of 21st century. Modern teaching is based on mix method of internet, audio and video, simulations etc. In vocational training, mostly it should be based on practical approach than classroom-based teaching approach. Successful application of competencies at work is the hallmark of vocational training. Practical abilities matter at work which are supported by related knowledge thus teaching methods need to be improved to make vocational training impressive for the youth. Scholars A. Michael and K. Marinos (2018) of CityUnity College / Cardiff Metropolitan University, Larnaca-Aradippou, Cyprus discusses the value of using a combine teaching methods by considering class-dynamics and students’ personal learning style with in-class activities supported by modern audio-visual means as a positive factor to be able to stimulate vocational centre students’ learning appetite. Thus it is necessary to innovate modern approaches to teaching at vocational training centres of our country.


Up to date technology with appropriate level of digitalization

In Sri Lanka vocational training setup, use of up to date technology and application of digital methods in training and assessments is at lower level compared with developed countries. In training, as said before, ICT and online methods with mix modes need to be adopted. In assessments, it takes place as formative and summative throughout the course duration. Formative assessment are done on continuous basis by the teachers and the summative assessments are done by the certification body when national certificates are issued. During both of these assessment methods, it is better if online assessment tools be used where applicable. For formative assessment, one example may be the use of “Blogs” where students discuss and talk around an issue on internet-based Blog which the teachers monitor and give marks which are considered for pass marks. Blogs can be made social-media compatible so that with less cost students can access such assessment tools with lots of interest. These kind of modern assessment methods add value to vocational training setup. Designing Question Banks (Q-Banks) for summative assessments and releasing part of the Q-Bank to common practice (using mobile phones) may energize students to learn with enthusiasm.


Qualified, competent and committed Teachers/Trainers

Teaching is considered to be a noble profession which demands capacity in terms of knowledge and dedication. Also being updated with new development is mostly matter for teachers as knowledge is accessible via internet in modern world. Those who join teaching profession due to the fact that there are no other jobs make teaching at vocational training setup very unattractive. It is better industry practitioners in relevant trades could be brought in to the training centres and if vocational teachers could be sent to industry for exposures which would definitely increase of the quality of vocational teachers. Subject matter training and training-method training matter equally to be a good teacher. Vocational teachers are the first party who interact with students thus good teachers make good vocational training centres. Providing at least once-a-year industry exposure would increase capacity of a teacher to be able to teach well in the centre.


Attractive learning environment

Quality of vocational training mostly determines by the quality of learning environment. Quality of learning environment makes mainly the teaching and use of machinery, equipment and tools in teaching. In Competency based Training (CBT) introduced with the inception of the NVQ system tried to create a learning environment similar to what is prevailed in the industry. Thus the CBT method has been able to make a difference in the vocational training setup nevertheless it is still argued that there is a mismatch of technology being used in the centre and that prevails in the industry.

Due to several constraints, training administrators find it difficult to update training centres with new equipment. Nevertheless it is a good idea to be in par with the industry in the quest towards a better and impressive training setup.


Merit-based enrollment

Enrollment of a vocational training centre is such an important activity where the centre brings “inputs” to make “outputs” at the end of a training course. If a centre selects wrong “inputs” obviously the centre ends up with wrong “outputs”. Therefore, at the enrollment, the centre needs to select the most suitable, capable, committed and creative set of students who would follow the course up to the end. Therefore, a merit-based enrollment scheme is necessary with selection tests and interviews being held to select the best set of students. Then the training centre would be able to give the industry a good output of skilled persons who can actually work successfully.


Opportunities for extra-curricular activities

One of the things which make a good vocational training centre is the availability of room and space for extra-curricular activities i.e leisure sports, aesthetic activities, leadership and team building activities, literature, drama and arts activities etc. Training centre need to be large enough in terms of trainees to be able to build teams for these activities. Such social activities make training-life of students enjoyable which may have positive impact for proper learning at the centre. Extra-curricular activities inculcate soft-skills among trainees and training administrators better develop a system to recognize those soft skills for final pass marks.

The factors discussed above and the other positive things would contribute in different magnitude towards making vocational training centres impressive for the youth as well as for adults which encourage them to join vocational training centres. With these attributes in effect, people tend to see vocational training an impressive alternative pathway to learn vocations for life success.



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Midweek Review




By Lynn Ockersz


Once again, the growing multiverse is ablaze with light,

As night withdraws in a slow diffusing dance,

Leaving on all things on earth a sublime shine,

And the reminder comes,

That light is the essence of life,

Along with the hope that with every dawn,

Comes a whole new lease of life,

For the linking of hands among humankind,

And for marching towards a great new awakening for all,

Leaving none behind in a backward slide,

While every day becomes a time for a new resolve,

To bring big sparring minds to act peacefully as one,

And for putting behind the negative grasp of night,

That makes the spirit a lumbering carrier,

Of the cumbersome luggage of the past.



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