Enrolling in the University of Life
Unemployed graduates are a resourceful lot. They can organise themselves into an association, they can mobilise hundreds of their members to turn up in Colombo to be tear gassed and water cannoned, and they can even persuade a few of them to go on hunger strike. They are creative. They know how useful the backing of a political party eager to strike a blow at the Government is for their campaign. That’s smart. They are also quite adept at wooing the media, judging by coverage of their protests.
I am all in favour of collective action, and I wouldn’t ever argue that people shouldn’t go out on the streets to make their point. It is their right. But that’s not the same as sympathising.
What makes unemployed graduates different from other Sri Lankans who don’t have jobs? They are fewer than 25,000 people out of more than 450,000, according to the latest figures from the Department of Census and Statistics. That’s a tiny number. Why hasn’t Sujith Kuruwita convened a Union of the Unemployed? What makes him and his pals special?
The answer is free education. They have received three years of teaching at a university, and without having to pay for it.
I benefited from the same policy in England, and I feel even more grateful for it since Tony Blair started making students pay tuition fees. They now have to contribute up to Rs. 600,000 per year. Although this is small change compared to what education costs in some countries and there is a very sensible system in place to ensure that people who need them get loans that only have to be paid back once they are earning a reasonable amount, I sometimes wonder how emerging from university with a significant debt burden would have altered the choices that I made.
Having studied Mathematics, I might now be investing somebody else’s money or filling in their tax returns. It makes me feel a bit queasy.
Why do people think that the State owes them employment when it has already forked out for their education? Getting to study until the age of 21 is a great honour, and I would have thought that this would be even more obvious to Sri Lankans, given that a much smaller proportion of youngsters are given the opportunity here. The participation rate stands at around 5%, I’m told, while it is more than 40% in England. It seems perfectly ridiculous to me.
The State means all of us who pay taxes, of course. I believe in the importance of public services, but there have to be limits. Sri Lanka has one of the biggest public sectors in the world, employing more than one million of its population of 20 million. That’s mad. It’s even sillier when we remember that the labour force is only eight million, the rest being children, pensioners and the sick.
If the Government is going to employ so many people, it should at least make an effort to ensure that they are all doing something useful. But it doesn’t. It is too busy trading promises with the Opposition, both sides claiming to be the saviours of unemployed graduates. Mahinda Rajapaksa reminds people that the UPFA has provided 400,000 jobs since its 2004 election victory, while the UNP planned to cut numbers by 300,000 when it was in power. Ranil Wickremasinghe pretends that this isn’t the case. It is quite pointless. Unemployed graduates are simply encouraged to demand jobs from the State, as if that were the natural thing to do.
I think that it is morally outrageous. Many Sri Lankans are struggling to make ends meet, the vast majority of them not having been given the opportunity to study after leaving school. That’s sad. What of the other 425,000 people out of work? They are being asked to contribute to making the lives of a handful of unemployed graduates easier, through the ever increasing number of levies on goods that they need for their very survival.
The usual excuse given is that degrees aren’t relevant to the jobs available. Quality of teaching is another issue that is often raised in Sri Lanka. Unemployed graduates complain that there is a lot of learning by rote and little in the way of skills training.
The World Bank seems to think so too. It is funding another one of those projects that look as though more effort was put into dreaming up a catchy acronym than deciding on the content. The Improving the Relevance and Quality of Undergraduate Education project, otherwise known as IRQUE, has been going for the last five years, at a cost of some $51 million.
This baffles me. I studied at Oxford University, but it is not for what I learnt from my teachers that I believe it to have been an invaluable experience. Indeed, I would have been better off if I hadn’t bothered to rush back from early morning outings on the river to struggle to avoid dozing off in lectures and sit baffled in tutorials while some odd professor with near zero capacity to convey understanding said things like ‘Now, who can show that if every sequence in a metric space has a Cauchy subsequence then it is totally bounded?’ I suppose that I must have been able to answer by the time it came to exams, after a few weeks poring over textbooks, but I had forgotten again by the end of the summer. That doesn’t seem such a bad thing to me.
A handful of my peers went on to pursue the subject professionally. Most of us never intended to be mathematicians, viewing the course as an opportunity to develop the ability to think and solve problems, while being exposed to people and ideas that we would not have encountered otherwise.
I’m not suggesting that nothing should be done to improve content and delivery. Of course attention is needed. This is true of universities in England, and I am sure that it is so of Sri Lankan institutions as well. It is just a question of working out what.
We are regularly told that students need to focus more on English and Information Technology. That’s a good idea, but let them do it at school where everybody can benefit. Unemployed graduates really ought to be capable of learning these subjects by themselves, given the materials available. They shouldn’t need to have it taught to them in places like the University of Peradeniya.
This brings us to another problem. I suspect that part of the issue in finding jobs is the increasingly common belief that the only things worth doing in life involve sitting behind a computer.
Sri Lanka needs people capable of working in its fast expanding service industry and running manufacturing businesses. However, there is also a need for talented and energetic youngsters to engage themselves in agriculture. These three sectors occupy about one third of the workforce each, but there is a vast difference in how they are viewed. Agriculture is considered backward, for the unfortunate. Parents go to tremendous lengths to help their offspring get out of rural areas and into what they see as modern jobs in offices. This may be sensible at an individual level, but it isn’t a good strategy for the country as a whole. The economy needs agriculture.
It is a sector in which there is considerable scope for people with talent and energy. They just need a bit of encouragement.
This is but one example. I use it merely to illustrate the need for people to keep an open mind and be ready to work towards something other than the easiest or most obvious target.
I don’t mean to dismiss the problems of unemployed graduates either. It is undoubtedly very difficult to live without a job, especially in a country where there is no safety net to provide a basic income, but there are choices to be made in responding to this situation. I believe that they are capable of doing a lot more than begging the Government to rescue them. They should shake off the influence of people who want to use their plight for other purposes and apply themselves to more relevant problems than what to write on their placards and what slogans to shout on their way to the Presidential Secretariat. Let unemployed graduates do something worthwhile in exchange for what Sri Lanka has done for them. If they do, they are much more likely to find a way out of their predicament.