The need for education reforms


Those who are interested in sorting out the mess that our whole education system has got into would heartily welcome the genuine interest shown by the new President in prioritizing its importance and the need for its improvement. We also welcome the prompt response by two stalwarts in the field of education, Professors R.P. Gunawardena and O. A. Illeperuma, whose invaluable opinions and proposals are published in The Island of 12.12.2019. RPG discusses ways and means of implementing the President's idea set out in his election manifesto that all those who qualify to enter university would be found placement in the university system, which by any means is a tall order. OAI focuses mainly on school education and his proposals are very sound and feasible, particularly the suggestion that the total schooling curriculum could be reduced from 14 to 12 years and the admission age so that students could graduate by about 21 years of age.

There are few other problems that plague school education. The syllabuses for all subjects from year one to GCE A/L are unnecessarily too heavy for the respective ages of the students. A significant part of the syllabus that is taught is of little use for higher education or to find employment or to develop into a good citizen. In any case nobody could retain such vast amounts of knowledge long enough to be of any use to anybody. Because of the size of the syllabus even the conscientious teachers and studious students do not have sufficient time to teach and learn. The students are compelled to seek private tuition and teachers are available to meet this demand. These syllabuses could be trimmed down to a good degree which would benefit students, teachers, parents and the government in terms of time, energy and money. If the syllabuses are reduced teachers would be able to do the lessons in the school itself and even help the weak students. There would be no need for private classes, thereby lessening the burden on the student and poor parents. Education would be made more affordable to the poor.

Child educationists like Jean Piaget believe that play meets the physical, intellectual, language, emotional and social needs of a child. Further they say children's curiosity and imagination naturally evoke learning when unfettered. It is obvious that our primary schools and their learning programmes do not attempt to provide such a learning environment. What we have is prison like classrooms and teachers who try to pour into children's heads subject material laid down in a so-called curriculum that give no freedom for the development of a child's curiosity, creativity and self-learning ability. Thus, the foundation laid during these formative years is suitable for rote learning rather than development of creativity, self-learning and problem-solving abilities. Therefore, changes are indicated in the primary education system in the year one to five sector. Here too these changes could be beneficial not only from the education point of view but also in expenditure for the government and parents too. The present school education system is a heavy burden to the student, parents, teachers and the government. The main reason is the unnecessarily and meaninglessly heavy and large curriculum, which could be trimmed without compromising standards but with great benefit to all stake holders.

As mentioned earlier providing entry into the university system and degree programmes for all those who qualify, though desirable, would be far more difficult. The means by which this could be achieved according to RPG's proposals are the optimum use of existing physical facilities, expansion of open university system, elevation of some government higher education institutions to university status, and expansion of private and foreign participation in degree awarding higher education programmes. At present more than 150,000 qualify to enter university but only about 17% gain entrance. If all who qualify are to be provided with an opportunity of university education or gaining a degree qualification it would mean catering to more than four times the present number. As RPG says it may be possible to put to maximum use the existing physical facilities, for instance as he suggests by working from 8 am to 8 pm without a lunch break. Similarly, the physical facilities available for expansion of the open university system, elevation of higher education institutions to university level etc., may be adequate though there could be problems like accommodation for students and staff, adequacy of services like sanitation and sewerage etc. in the existing buildings. These issues may not be insurmountable. But one major problem would be lack of qualified academic staff.

In the subjects where teacher-student contact hours are high like in medicine and science teachers and technical staff cannot be expected to work from 8 am to 8 pm. In the faculty of Humanities where teacher-student contact hours is less a larger number of staff may not be necessary to run the courses from 8 am to 8 pm. Staff shortage is a problem faced by most of our universities at present. Universities must not lower their recruitment criteria in order to overcome these problems. Half-baked teachers would result in half-baked graduates and the whole purpose would then be lost.

The other issue that could snowball into a major confrontation is the employment of all those who pass out as graduates, which would be in the range of 150,000 per year if this plan is implemented successfully. Higher education, if it is to be meaningful. must produce employable graduates. Creation of employment is very much linked to the growth of the economy. The knowledge and skills of the graduates produced by the higher education system must tally with the required qualifications for the jobs created by the developing economy. What this means is economic planning, creation of employment opportunities and higher education programmes must be linked and work together in planning and implementation.

Intake into professional and technical courses will have to be based on the country's needs in those fields, and the growing economy must have the capacity to create employment opportunities for those graduates. On the other hand, non-technical graduates must be trained to fit into jobs where problem solving ability would be the main requirement, and here too the numbers must be tailored to suit the projected employment generation. New degree programmes should not be started as a solution to the university admission problem unless the planned economy would create jobs for those who graduate in those fields.

The President in his election campaign may have spoken about the need to admit to the university all those who qualify to enter, because he could see the need and he knows the value of education for the progress of the country. Yet, standards cannot be compromised due to lack of planning. Economic planning and development, employment generation and higher education development must progress hand in hand. In this regard first and foremost it is imperative that the foundation of education is strengthened by overhauling the school education system from year one to GCE A/L.


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