Today, September 08, is World Literacy Day. According to the UNDP’s definition, literacy rate is the percentage of people aged 15 and above who can, with understanding, both read and write a short, simple statement about their everyday life. In Sri Lanka we currently enjoy a literacy rate of over 96% , higher than that expected for a country with our income level. We have enjoyed high literacy rates for sometime. The question is why we have not moved much beyond basic literacy.
Sri Lanka is small country with a high population density. Our natural resource endowments are grossly exaggerated. Our true endowment is our people. What we need to do is to enable that population to engage with a global economy with confidence, a confidence that allows them to retain a uniquely Sri Lankan identity.
Three simple policy objectives would suffice, I believe, and they are:
1. A decent pass rate at the GCE O/L for school leavers (current rate is 37%).
2. Proficiency in ICT and English, and entrepreneurial in attitude in our school leavers.
3. Freedom to choose from a variety of private tertiary education and training,
with a few world-class public institutions serving as exemplars of quality and champions of a uniquely Sri lankan identity.
A decent pass rate at the GCE O/L
Our school completion rates are impressive but misleading. Ninety seven percent (97%) complete primary education and 82% complete Grade 9, the basic secondary education completion point, but when it comes to testing time in Grade 11 at the GCE (O/L) exam, the the pass rate is only 37%. A pass at the GCE O/L requires passes in six subjects including passes in language and math. It is a shame that a country that was able to achieve adult literacy ahead of others is not able to at least a 50% pass rate at Grade 11. Our completion rate is body count that has no meaning. More public resources need to be devoted to improve the pass rate.
There are several Asian countries that provide a substantial of their primary and secondary education (or general education) through the private sector. (Korea for example, http://www.wes.org/ca/wedb/korea/kssecond.htm). However resource-strapped Sri lanka may be, it would not be wise for us to rely too much on private means for General education. Without sufficient growth in the economy, people would not have enough money to pay for private education. We have an extensive network of schools and institutions and we have the not so distant memory of Central Schools in their heydays. It is indeed possible to revive our education system. The teachers are the key. More respect for teachers, better professional development opportunities and higher pay should be a priority. Nobody understands this better than our current minister of education, President CBK herself. Unfortunately, her practices do not match her wisdom in policies. Otherwise why would her government ask the Department of Education to absorb half of the unemployed graduates as teachers, when the data clearly show that what we need is fewer teachers better distributed with better pay?
What is lacking is not policies or money but an overall consistent policy on broader economic and social issues, and a redirection of government resources. The redirection should include a strategy that divests government resource to what government must do and allows the private and civil society do what they can do better. We need a president who is an education president in word and deed.
Proficiency in ICT and English and an entrepreneurial attitude in our school leavers
This is an area where private sector and civil society can do a better job than government. Government institutions would be the last places to provide an environment conducive to to learning ICT know-how, English and the attitudes that we require. Our teachers and the teacher-trainers themselves are products of an insular education system. They very likely have not read or heard anything beyond what was required to pass the exams. It will be a long-time before our recruitment-pool improves with people who have engaged with a world beyond our exam-centered education system. ICT or English education at the hands of the government institution will become another note taking exercise.
However, there seem to be several new private initiatives that cater to the hunger for ICT and/or English in creative ways. I am waiting for the delivery of a package by Sakvithi Ransinghe that is supposed to help you learn English on your own. There are many other packages. After trying out Rosseta Stone, Linguaphone and several other packages I feel that home-grown material might be more suited for several young people in my life.
ICT in the form of always-on internet might be better still. A young group of people I know come to my office after hours to ‘do computer” as they say. After an initiation into the basic mechanics of using a computer we just let them browse the internet as they please. They have been emailing each other, going to chat rooms, and down loading music and pictures of Sharuk Khan and having a good time. They are not hung up on English but using what English they know to explore and innovate. What we are seeing is a remarkable phenomenon, I think. The phenomenon of the Internet serving as a medium that hones ICT, English and attitude at the same time. I am yet to see some literature on this topic.
3. Diversity in private opportunities for school leavers, with a few publicly-funded world-class institutions setting high standards of quality in education and training for the tertiary education sector.
In almost all countries over the world young adults are expected to bear some cost of their further education after leaving school. At the tertiary level true free education is an education where you have the freedom to choose when where and what you choose to study. Availability of private opportunities does not mean that governments do not fund tertiary education. The extent varies. In USA, close to 80% of the enrollments are in public institutions. In Korea it is the opposite with 80% attending private institutions. In areas of national importance where the private initiates may not be forthcoming, public institutions may take the lead. Public institutions may also serve as exemplars of quality in a public-private landscape. Of the top ten universities in Asia all but one are publicly-funded. In Sri Lanka too we need to focus on building world-class universities while allowing the private sector and professional associations to fill the gaps in Tertiary education needs.