Were Tamils squeezed out of higher education by standardisation?

Posted on July 9, 2007  /  9 Comments

 A comment by one of our readers in another thread prompted us to bring this sensitive issue for discussion. 

This input (text and cartoon) is from Tamilnation.org is just to start the discussion. We not necessarily endorse it or otherwise.


“Everyone has the right to education… higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit” – Article 26.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

“In 1971, a system of standardisation of marks was introduced for admissions to the universities, obviously directed against Tamil-medium students (referred to earlier). K.M. de Silva describes it as follows:

‘The qualifying mark for admission to the medical faculties was 250 (out of 400) for Tamil students, whereas it was only 229 for the Sinhalese. Worse still, this same pattern of a lower qualifying mark applied even when Sinhalese and Tamil students sat for the examination in English. In short, students sitting for examinations in the same language, but belonging to two ethnic groups, had different qualifying marks.’

He observes that by doing this in such an obviously discriminatory way, ‘the United Front Government of the 1970s caused enormous harm to ethnic relations.’

This was not the end; in 1972 the ‘district quota system’ was introduced, again to the detriment of the Ceylon Tamils. The (Sinhalese) historian C.R. de Silva wrote:

‘By 1977 the issue of university admissions had become a focal point of the conflict between the government and Tamil leaders. Tamil youth, embittered by what they considered discrimination against them, formed the radical wing of the Tamil United Liberation Front. Many advocated the use of violence to establish a separate Tamil state of Eelam. It was an object lesson of how inept policy measures and insensitivity to minority interests can exacerbate ethnic tensions .’

(A.Jayaratnam Wilson, The Break up of Sri Lanka, C.Hurst & Company, London, Orient Longman Limited, 1988)

“…Nothing aroused deeper despair among Tamils than the feeling that they are being systematically squeezed out of higher education. They have complained particularly of the system of ‘standardisation’ in force after 1972, in which marks obtained by candidates for university admission are weighted by giving advantage to certain linguistic groups and/or certain districts…” – Walter Schwarz: Tamils of Sri Lanka – Minority Rights Group Report, 1983

“The Government should re examine its policies on university admissions with a view to basing admission on merit rather than on racial grounds. Tamil and Sinhalese young people alike will then have equal rights to university education on the basis of capacity rather than on race.

One of the major points of tension among many Tamil youth has been the implicit racial quota under present university admission policies which has barred many competent youths from pursuing higher education .” – Virginia Leary: Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka – Report of a Mission to Sri Lanka on behalf of the International Commission of Jurists, July/August 1981



  1. This may be off-tpoic. But I don’t see Senior or Junior Thondaman being worried about improving education in the estate sector. Can someone explain why. Don;t those tamil students deserve a decent education?

  2. Come on, both Snr and Jnr Thondaman has taken great efforts to improve the education in the estates sector. I had a field visit to hill country recently and was surprised to see the facilities available there. The schools might not be as good as the ones we have in Colombo but we should not forget that the conditions of estates sector few decades back. It is a definite improvement. I have heard that the education there is so good that estates find it so difficult to attract the younger generation as labourers. It is definitely good news. That is why people still respect Thondaman.

    However, it might be a different case in N&E. That is because Praba is more concerned in his ‘struggle’ than the education of Tamil students.

    Duminda Ratnapala

  3. This WAS a critical issue not any more. Thanks to the meddling by cack-handed politicians the university system in the country has been ruined and very few desire to get a local degree at a state university. Most students opt for foreign degrees or professional courses with ted to lead to a job rather than joining the ranks of the unemployed after completing a local degree.

    The same is true of the other big issue – the civil service. Now no one (except the most incapable) wants to join this once-elite institution.

    The private sector offers much better prospects.

    I feel there is now little point in discussing this issue anymore, save as a lament to the destruction that politicians post-independence have visited on once-august institutions.

  4. This could be a very good topic if you write this in 70’s.

    Actually the problem is still there but not with tamils. Mostly it affects to the students in Colombo now.

    As I know district quota is a big advantage to the tamils living in east to enter university because the cut-off marks for that districts are relatively law.

    Still the cut-off marks for Jaffna are little bit high, but I would like to ask do you think “tamils=jaffna people” as you indicated in the cartoon?

  5. I noticed a video by BBC that talks about the roots of the problem in Lanka and how it all started. The below link shows the documentary:-


  6. It Seems to be a good education thread with a lot of information. I believe you need to suck it up and learn to read, since you’ll find that as you get past basic level that the available resources for continuing to learn will narrow significantly if you don’t know the characters.

  7. I love looking at your site. Many thanks!

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