Ragging should be eradicated altogether – Prof. G.L. Peiris | Sunday Observer

Ragging should be eradicated altogether – Prof. G.L. Peiris

30 August, 2020

Education Minister Professor G.L. Peiris in an interview with the Sunday Observer assured that he would fufill President Gotabaya Rajapakse’s election promise to give a degree to all Advanced Level qualified students

The interview in full:

Q. Will there be any major reforms in the Education sector including universities?

A. There will be and there have to be major reforms. In the university sector we have very critical problems. We have about 184,000 students who have qualified for admission to the universities in our country. Today there is provision for only 31,000 students for entry to the universities. We are trying to increase the intake by about 15,000.But this means there is a shortfall of 153,000 students who are left out of the system. The only reason they are excluded is that infrastructure of university system is inadequate to accommodate them.

The University Grants Commission at present is working on a project to set up 10 new universities in different parts of the country and the Cabinet has identified the districts where they are to be established.

There is also an attempt to set up a ‘virtual’ university with 1,000 students to follow distance education before the end of this year.

The Open University at present has 45,000 students and we are trying to increase the intake by another 15,000. The drawback is the lack of IT and other equipment. We have decided to seek financial support of US$ 300 million from the World Bank in this connection.

This is a serious problem in the conventional university system.153,000 students who have qualified for university admission are excluded. Vocational training is also very important, because there are many who do not pursue a degree as there are many options for vocational training for good jobs in the country. The demand for vocational training right now is 240,000 but again there is a shortfall and currently the system is able to provide for only 175,000 of the 240,000. About 65,000 are left out and that is a very grave social problem.

The principal institution should be a university of vocational training with nine campuses called faculties in each province.

Under them there are 40 technical colleges catering to about 200 different trades such as carpentry, cooking, beauty culture, wood work and many such subjects.

We have good buildings but we do not have proper equipment and more than that the critical issue is lack of qualified staff. At present we have 500 vacancies which need to be filled as a matter of urgency to make the optimal use of the physical assets available in the system.

I have already spoken to the High Commissioner of India. India has wide expertise in this area of skills development and the response has been very encouraging since India is willing to help us. With regard to formal university education and the vocational education there are many changes to be made at present. This would be one of the urgent priorities for the Education Ministry.

Q. The President in his Election manifesto says that every student who passes the GCE (Advanced level) Examination will be assured of a degree. Can you explain how the government is going to implement it? And how many years will it take to complete it?

A. It has to be done in several ways. For that you have to increase the intake to the formal conventional universities. Then you must expand the ambit of distance education to help students to be partly employed. If you create such opportunities for them in a conventional university system they will not be able to benefit from it because they are not full-time students. So you must make provisions for them also.

In today’s world, university education cannot be confined to the students full time upto 19 to 23 years. You have to provide opportunities to them to improve themselves and to achieve social mobility, while they are employed. So there is to be an expansion of distance education via Open Universities and other similar institutions and that’s why I referred earlier to the institution which I call the ‘virtual’ university. So that is the way to cater to students who have demonstrated their competence to benefit from education. The current system cannot adequately cater to them.

Q. Every government changes its policies, and as such do you think there should be a National Policy for the Education sector?

A. Definitely. There should be a National policy for Education. I think one of the problems in Sri Lanka is everything has become hugely politicised. But in a mature democracy it should be possible to identify certain areas where policy is formulated not on the basis of short term political consideration.

Not only the term of narrow political consideration, but taking a longer-term view in the national interest is important. It’s to be central planning in the areas and you need medium term, short term and long term vision. In the interest of making a real progress of the goal you have to ensure there are no changes from time to time.

When governments or ministers change in a subject like education continuity is important. So the national policy in regard to the Education system is an urgent necessity for the country today.

Q. Making graduates employable is still a challenge. What is your comment on this?

A. We have to immediately undertake priority reforms of the curriculum as there must be a link between education and employment opportunity. The body of knowledge that is required must have a practical value and it must enhance the student’s ability to obtain a good job, get a decent income, raise a family, build a house and live with dignity in his country. But if you find a system which produces graduates who cannot find employment then there will be serious social problems. The government is now doing its maximum. But there should be discussions with the private sector to ascertain what skills are required in the market place.

Education needs to be more structured to develop those skills.

Otherwise there is a mismatch between education and employability and that is dangerous. So we have to modernise the curriculum. One of the faults in the present curriculum is that it has replaced a heavy premium on memory. Students are required to commit notes to memory to retain in their minds and then to reproduce it at examinations. That is not the meaning of education. Education promotes one’s critical faculty to think independently and to apply knowledge for the practical problems in life.

But the present curriculum does not fulfill those expectations. There must be radical reforms of the existing curriculum. That is being undertaken immediately. I have prepared a Cabinet paper which will be presented to the Cabinet next Wednesday on curriculum reforms. It is essential. If that is to be successful there must be an inclusive consultation and it cannot be done only by the top level.

What we should to do is to present a set of tentative ideas and then have an islandwide discussion with the stakeholders such as the parents, teachers, students, Alumnai Associations, PTA Associations and Civil society organisations to get their response, their ideas and thoughts. That will be conducted at district level and we will invite people from the Divisional Secretariats. It is only after gathering these responses from the community, at large, and we will formulate the final policy. Accordingly, the curriculum reform is very important.

Part of that will be ‘language’ training. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has emphasized the value of science and technology and also English. There was one of the changes made to the Education system by the Rajapaksa government between 2010-2015.Until then there were only three streams. Arts, Science and Commerce. He added the fourth stream technology. That is to cater to the needs of modern society.

English training is also important in the interest of the student. Today in Sri Lanka we have a situation where there is a high degree of motivation for one to learn English. The problem is we don’t have teachers in sufficient numbers, to work in schools. The problem is to train the trainers. Figures are rather disturbing. According to an Assessment test done in 2019, 38% of students failed in English, 35% in science and 29% in Maths, English being the weakest. And there is also a disparity in the quality of teachers. In rural schools about 55% of the teachers teaching English need further training. But in the urban schools only 29% teachers teaching English need further training. These are all changes necessary to improve the Education system in our country.

Q. Do you think it is possible to hold the O/L exams in December?

A. We will be guided purely by the health authorities as the paramount concern is the health of the student. From this week schools will be open daily. We will be guided by the advice of the Health Ministry.

Q. For the first time preschool to higher education; all sectors have been brought under one ministry. Is there any special reason for this?

A. There is a reason. Human Resource Development is the principal emphasis of this government. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had stated that the future of this country depends on the quality of human resources. There are five Ministries, but one single Ministry is entrusted with the overall responsibility for human resource development which will be helpful in the point of view of coordination and rapid implementation. That is the purpose of consolidating five sectors into one Ministry.

Q. As the new Education Minister have you discussed the issue of eradicating ragging from universities?

A. There should be policy of zero tolerance for ragging. Because today you have a situation where parents are, sometimes reluctant to send their children to the university. They may be physically mauled or they may out to be mental wrecks. We have a duty to eradicate ragging altogether. Criminal offences are criminal offences even if they occur within the premises of universities or outside. Ragging must be stopped in universities. It is an expression of sadisim and it does serious damage to the society, in general.