The A’level crisis and draining our intellectual capital

‘Nothing has exposed the government’s ineptitude and inefficiency more than the crisis in the education sector. There seems to be no end to its bungling which it seems to specialize in. Education has become an unholy mess from school admissions to university entrance. The situation is no better in universities’…..Island Editorial, 10 September 2008

The anxieties faced by students who sat the GCE A’level recently and their parents’ fears on the uncertainties of the future of their children are current problems of immense proportion. The deadlock in negotiations with the boycotting paper- marking teachers and the ineptitude of the Government in not managing this issue effectively before it blew out of hand, have led to this national crisis.

The issues connected to salary anomalies of teachers did not spring overnight. This is a knotty problem that has plagued several past administrations as well. Teachers comprise about 240,000 out of a total of about one million of the entire public sector in this country and the origins of the their salary structure can be traced back to the creation of the Teacher Service Minute in 1995. Over the years, with ad-hoc increments and increases in salaries of several categories of public servants, during and outside budget time, discrepancies arose. Naturally , rectifying these complex anomalies needs to be done taking into consideration the entire public sector, particularly those comparable cadres in the education service (eg School Principals and officers from the Sri lanka Education Administration Service).

In the past, senior civil servants had been appointed into Committees and Commissions by successive administrations to address this issue. The current National Salaries and Cadres Commission, comprising respected and experienced officers with much administrative background, after extensive research and exhaustive consultations with all related parties, has proposed a just and rational formula to resolve the present malady. The inability and hesitancy of the Ministry of Education to implement this proposed scheme has led to the chaos we see.

In 1997 in a similar issue where A’ level paper marking was threatened, the situation was handled by the authorities with responsibility and finesse. The fundamental reason for having successfully managed the problem then, was that total autonomy and independence of decision making was vested in the Examinations Department. The Minister and the Secretary (a respected member of the former Ceylon Civil Service) at the time, authorised the senior officials of the Examinations Department to deal with the teacher unions with transparency and honesty, mandating them to clearly explain the borders within which they could accommodate the teacher demands . Had a similar approach been adopted today and had the unvarnished truth been told to the unions consistently, with no ambiguity or uncertainty, the present crisis could have been averted. The inadvisability of attempting to curry favour with union members and the dangers of playing politics with such issues are now visible.

Several thorny issues emerge from the mismanagement of the A’level . First, the A’level exam that had been scheduled for April until 2005,was shifted to August with the change of administration in November 2005. Once again this was done to accommodate some irrational demands made by teacher unions .The April exam had enabled students to begin classes three months after the O’level and moreover, post A’level students were able to apply for local universities and other institutions like SLIIT (Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology) well before the academic year commenced. The same convenience applied to those who had the funds to seek university admission overseas. When the exam was rescheduled for August, that prospect was pushed back to another year. For instance, students who will receive their A’level results this year ( hopefully at least at the end of 2008),will be able to apply to local and reputed foreign Universities only in 2009.Whereas they would have been able to do so in September 2008,had the exam been held in April this year.

Second, the grave uncertainty of obtaining a university placement looms. In 2007 out of 121,462 eligible students only 18.634 (15%) obtained placements in universities. In 2006, 164 students with 3A grades and 1464 students with 2As and B grades did not get any university placement. Students who had very good results with B and C grades could not find placements in Srilankan universities. (see Tables 1 &2).

It is within this scenario that the myopic and regressive policies of not liberalizing higher education in this country must be viewed. It is in the context of the deserving but deprived A’level student that decisions to disallow reputed overseas universities (or their campuses) to establish themselves must be assessed. This type of pathetic Government policy and the current A’level crisis have opened the flood gates to an influx of numerous foreign Universities .Through their ‘middle men/women’ these Universities and Colleges have found amongst our students, an excellent market and a thriving business. Today, numerous higher education fairs continue to entice hundreds of students and their parents . Faced with the uncertainty of local university entry, parents will scrape their meagre savings to give their children a university education, even at a cost unbearable to them. The latest estimate is that there will be a drain of about Rs 22 Billion in foreign exchange as a result of this mass exodus of students for overseas higher education.

The universities that are peddling their wares in Sri lanka today are from countries like the USA, UK, Australia, Malaysia, China, Russia, Lativia ,the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and Nepal. (the last three with GDP incomes below that of Sri lanka). Some campuses are located in remote parts of those countries, great distance away from the capital cities. Planes and boats have been chartered by these agencies to ferry selected students . Entry criteria to some of these universities are as unimpressive as three simple A’level passes. Some will even consider students with no A’level results. This type of eligibility criteria speaks volumes for the quality of the institution and the education it imparts. But it is this type of ‘Hobson’s Choice’ that parents are left with. In addition to losing our young intellectual capital in this manner, middle class professionals and enterprising members of the corporate and private sectors are also seeking their fortunes overseas, migrating to educate their children, thus compounding the brain drain.

Let us view this happening in the context of the higher education revolution that is taking place around the globe. Countries like Egypt, the UAE, Qatar, China, India , Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore have opened their doors to foreign higher education giants like never before. Intellectual icons like Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and LSE are invited and actively solicited by these governments to set up campuses in those countries. Benevolent and forward looking leaders are pouring billions of dollars into higher education, particularly for science, technology and math. Partnerships are being established between the universities of those countries and reputed institutions like INSEAD (the famous Business School in France), the Sorbonne, MIT. According to the London-based ‘’Observatory on Borderless Higher Education’’ China is leading the race in international higher education with increasing numbers of foreign campuses attracting star class researchers and academics. South Korea heads the expenditure for higher education (2.6%GDP ) twice as much as the Western governments. (Sri lanka spends about 0.7% of GDP on university education)

The Indian Prime Minister, while publicly proclaiming that their universities are ‘dysfunctional’ ,has embarked on the boldest education reform since Jawaharlal Nehru. The largest government contribution towards university reform has been made this year with more than US $ 20 Billion committed annually for the next five years. Meanwhile higher education authorities are discussing with delegations from Columbia, Stanford and Cornell universities modalities of setting up campuses in India. Although the Indian Government maybe hamstrung by its unwieldy and somewhat inert bureaucracy ,and although it will face flak from its ideological opponents , this is still the biggest and boldest higher education innovation seen in recent times.

All these countries are attempting to prevent their students leaving their shores for higher education because they know that only a few will return. China and India are already luring their graduates back home. University academics are being enticed with irresistible job offers , research grants and funding schemes, because those governments have prioritized expanding and strengthening their human and intellectual capital. The contribution that progressive higher education makes towards economic growth is well established , and almost all developing countries are making headway in that direction.

Sam Pitroda (Chairman of the Indian National Knowledge Commission) spoke for Sri lanka as well, when he said, ‘’..there is still resistance at various levels in Government to new ideas experimentation,..external intervention, transparency and accountability due to rigid organisational structures and territorial mind set…’

Tables 1 & 2 (Source UGC)

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