Education policy: A dire need for Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Education policy: A dire need for Sri Lanka

11 April, 2021
Pic courtesy of public domain
Pic courtesy of public domain

The education system is one of the most important elements in sustainable development and shared prosperity of a country.

Although Sri Lanka is considerably far ahead compared to other developing countries at school level education, a clear disparity exists between them and us in education and producing skilled professionals and technical experts to suit the job market of the country.

Therefore, a new education policy is long overdue and promptly required to keep up with the rapidly developing world.

As an encouraging and inspiring move, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has launched a digital platform, offering a great opportunity for the public to submit creative proposals and innovative ideas to formulate a new policy framework.

The President pledged a reform in education in Sri Lanka in his manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity’ to design and nurture knowledge-based human capital to suit the 21st century.

Skills development

It is a known fact that the current education system in Sri Lanka is outdated and falling behind many other countries concerning skills development, although the school level education is considered healthy.

Therefore, it is a salient fact that the system requires an urgent reform through a holistic approach to address key issues concerning this disparity. The country desperately needs an explicit long-term national policy with an effective strategy.

President Rajapaksa has established the Presidential Task Force on Sri Lanka’s Educational affairs that comprise an elite panel of intellectuals and experts in March 2020 and reinforced the panel again with more members in September, the same year.

The President emphasised the urgent need of reforming the University curricula to target the country’s job market and also to focus more on technology and information technology-related education.

According to available information, the task force has already outlined many viable and pragmatic new reforms. Concerning the said reforms at present, the habitual criticism by the opposition parties also cannot be seen as in other situations.

From what this writer gathered from various recent forums, many of the current proposals seem to be acceptable to most of the intellectual members of the opposition.

The important segments in the discussion are predominantly on the student-centered education system at school levels, activity-based learning, promotion of TVET education, University education to suit the job market, production of practical students rather than theory-oriented education, and several other relevant areas.

Most of these were envisioned in the Presidential Election manifesto that was reconfirmed at the General Election in August 2020.

It is known that Sri Lanka provides very high access to primary and secondary education for the past several decades, making the country’s literacy rate as high as any developed country in the world.

According to the World Bank Group (WBG) assessment, Sri Lanka’s net enrolment rate in the primary sector is 99 percent while it drops down to 70 percent in the senior secondary level that is considered exceptionally high for middle-income countries.

As per the assessment, the country’s average student attendance is 10 years compared to 6 years in other countries in South Asia.

Recurring issue

This means that the level of education in Sri Lanka is creditable although the level of quality of education in terms of skills and knowledge has to be reformed by upgrading curricula.

However, the recurring issue is that out of approximately 600,000 students who face the GCE O-Level examination, only about 20 per cent attend higher education institutions and another 33 per cent are absorbed into TVET education. The remainder of 47 per cent of them enter the extremely competitive labour market without any skill.

As an experienced business executive for over forty years, this writer can confidently declare that most of the private sector employers are concerned about the quality and significance of knowledge and skills of these students. Also, they are uneasy about the employability of the students entering the job market, even if they are graduates.

Their constant complaint and criticism are that the new entrants to the job market lack specific skills or knowledge. Even the attitudes of the students leaving schools or universities are often questionable as they are not given a proper understanding of the behavioral patterns of the industry when at school level.

The majority of employers declare that general education in Sri Lanka does not produce youth with up-to-date knowledge of methods, material, industry, and technology. Besides, important TVET education is not promoted at appropriate times in schools where students can be directed to job-specific technical education and training.

Most of the parents wait for the student to complete the secondary level education before deciding on TVET, as they expect their children to gain entry to university education.

It is a fact that entering into university education in Sri Lanka is extremely competitive compared to the number of students who sit for the GCE Advanced Level examination.

For example, in the year 2020, 360,000 students sat for the GCE Advanced Level examination and only about 10 per cent of them will be taken into universities.

Therefore, the new reforms must address this issue and educate both the parents and students and encourage them to make early decisions.

There is a large vacuum currently prevailing in Sri Lanka for mid-level skilled workers with job-relevant abilities. Employers say that prevailing TVET programs are irrelevant to skills they expect from the workers they intend to recruit.

Higher Education

Even those who have completed higher education often fall into this category. The mismatch between the skills supply and demand is an exceedingly crucial area to explore and provide immediate solutions.

Hence, the recently established digital platform will create a productive bridge for experts to respond in this regard. Education is an integral part of a nation’s growth and progress.

When the citizenry of a country is educated, they contribute to their families, the society they live in, and the country’s overall economy. However, in order to facilitate all these as responsible citizens, people need secure employment.

The leading issue in the Sri Lankan job market currently is the mismatch between the formal education and skills required for the jobs in the private sector that provides the largest number of jobs.

Among the range of labour factors, companies identify worker skills as the third most important after the work experience and employee turnover.

Particularly, at the entry stage, organisations look for skills more than educational qualifications when they recruit. The private sector considers that skills shortages as a major barrier to their productivity and growth.

This disparity arises from the weak alignment of curricula with competencies required for specific occupations. Also, the disproportionate number of students pursuing the trades in demand is a setback. Mostly, Sri Lankan students, after the completion of senior secondary level tend to chase after what they think is easier where they are ignorant about the low demand for such employment.

Consecutive governments have attempted to introduce reforms in the past. The authorities have long recognised the necessity of creating a system that suits the future. To build a solid human capital, the country needs to create a proper balance in school-level education and skill-based education. Hence, a flexible skills development system that can adjust to changes in demand must be available for the larger proportion of students.

With the new reforms, the government will no doubt will consider expanding senior secondary education opportunities by widening the study streams offered to students. As already known, attention would be given to increase opportunities to access the technology-based curriculum.

The elite panel with the proposals from the public receives through the newly established digital platform will consider broadening access to higher education while enhancing the quality of the education.

In order to succeed, the government will take series of coordinated actions on human and financial resources, academic practices, and administration of the entire educational system. Every Sri Lankan expects that comprehensive reforms will be undertaken to establish a quality education system.