The Politics of Education and Unemployment

Posted on August 3, 2007  /  0 Comments

The phenomena of unemployment has historically been a fashionable theme relentlessly subjected to dialogue in academic spheres and by almost all political parties that intended to gain power since post independence. One may construe this as a beggar’s wound universally exploited by politicians to gain political mileage especially in the epoch of frenzied presidential polls.In a way, what is wrong in it when even President Bill Clinton sang the same old song to advance himself from being the Governor of remote Arkansas to be the 42nd President of United States?

Like many Sri Lankan politicians who find the non-alignment between education and unemployment extremely mesmerising, even the U.S President pledged that by year 2000 the American students will be made competent in subjects such as Mathematics, Science and English, so that they may be well-equipped to be productively employed in the modern economy.

higher standards

Regardless of the campaign commitment, a research conducted in 2002 suggested that unless the nation (U.S) is able to bring even its least able workers to higher standards of education and skills, it is likely that average rates of unemployment will rise. Therefore, it becomes blatant that skills mismatch, while being a global dilemma adds glamour to political campaigns.

Three hypotheses compete to profess the phenomena of unemployment in Sri Lanka. They are skills mismatch hypothesis, queuing hypothesis and stringent labour market regulations. Skills mismatch states that the education system produces skills that are not job market oriented.

Queuing hypothesis argues that Sri Lanka’s unemployment is voluntary because youth wait for the so called “good” jobs. The other is the rigidities in the labour market resulting from outdated labour legislation.

Nevertheless, even after three decades of the above findings, it is quite pathetic that the above variables leading to unemployment have not been effectively arrested and countered.

The above elucidates the lack of attempt to harmonize the educational policies with that of the labour market requirements by successive governments in power. Therefore, it is worthwhile to probe into the history and the political-economy that led to skills mismatch and queuing into public sector jobs.

Under the British rule, English was made the language of government and law courts. Following this, the government undertook the spread of English education and established several colleges where the education was imparted in the English language. This enabled the British to source English educated local labour to execute colonial civil administrative services.

The colonial government of Ceylon, like other colonial governments, was mainly in the hands of European officials. Their numbers were small and too expensive to be imported.

Therefore, the lower administrative jobs were staffed by English speaking Ceylonese. The Coffee boom, together with the growth in tea plantations, stimulated a demand for English speaking employees in commercial houses, banks, wholesale and retail stores and in the government services and professions like law and medicine.

Therefore, we see that in the pre-independence era there was perfect harmonisation of education policies with the labour market requirements and never was the phenomenon of skills mismatch evident as the colonial demand for English educated labour was perfectly matched through the English educated few.


However, we discover the origins of the ideology of white collar jobs (good jobs) and the blue collar jobs (bad jobs) for the first time in history as the educated saw getting employed in the government sector a prestige.

However this did not lead to a queuing situation for good jobs, as there were limited demands for English speaking labour on the one hand, while on the other, the supply of English speaking labour was limited to an elite few who could send their sons to British founded schools for their secondary education and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for their tertiary education.

However, in the mid 19th century we find the origins of misalignment between the education system and the job market. In 1942, the free education system was introduced while the national language was made the medium of instruction in place of English.

The usage of the national language as the media of instruction in schools sowed the seeds of skills mismatch as the government sector demanded English educated for its civil administration while the suppliers of labour were educated in the national languages.

Also there was an influx of students for education due to the policy of free education. This created a situation of excess supply of labour thus giving the fragrances of the queuing hypothesis.

During the colonial period access to western education was an important weapon in the hands of the colonial bourgeoisies in order to maintain their elite position. At the end of the 19th century, the Sinhala-Buddhist middle classes were looking forward for their own modern educational institutions.

In 1956, with the introduction of the “Sinhala only Act” several steps were taken to expand the resources allocated to State education. Among them were the establishing of a wide network of State schools, providing education free of charge up to the university level, switching the education to national language at the university level and expanding the intake to the university in liberal arts.

The large scale intervention by the government in the education sector led it to a monopolistic status in the education market. Data for 2001 explains that of the total number of schools in the island (10548), 93 per cent (9887) were in the hands of the government while, 0.73 per cent (78) were private schools and 5.5 per cent (583) were pirivena schools. Data by student population for 2001 explains that of the 4.3 mn total student population, 4.1 mn study in government schools, while only 0.97 mn study in private schools.


With the increasing numbers of school enrolments, the government machinery became incapable of maintaining the qualitative standards as a result of dismal investments on education.

The expenditure on education as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product revolves at a low figure of 2.01 per cent-2.69 per cent. Inadequate exposure to English in schools and universities formed a cluster of educated youth devoid of sufficient English knowledge not demanded by the private sector.

As such we find that today’s unemployment is a function of educational politics played by governments since colonial times.

Ever since Sinhala was made compulsory for government jobs, Tamils realised learning Tamil was a futile exercise. Tamils traditionally placed great emphasis in the education of their children in part because of the solid school system set up by the Christian missionaries. Sinhalese hardliners allegedly attributed the high proportions of Tamils in the universities due to collusions between Tamil teachers and students.

The politicisation of the government machinery required political influence to gain employment in the public sector. Education was no more seen as the pre-requisite for gainful employment in the public sector.

MPs were given powers to select candidates to fill up limited government vacancies. A letter of recommendation from a local MP was made a pre-requisite for a government job and often the lists of government vacancies were sent to the MPs.

This served as an effective mechanism for preventing those entering the state sector that held different political ideologies. With this kind of practice the public sector got infiltrated by political puppets which ultimately led to the collapse of the public sector while countless frustrated educated migrated.

During this era more than 1.2 mn Sri Lankans seeking regular work was unable to find it. At that time the private sector was not large enough to accommodate the large numbers of unemployed and the plea from the opposition for a change received support from the youth.


The new regime of 1977 was instrumental in dismantling the long-practiced welfare state and introducing open economy developmental model. With the liberalisation of trade, the private sector was seen as the engine of growth. By 1982, the total unemployment rate dropped to near 18 per cent and during the first term of this era, more than half a million jobs were created in five years.

But still the eighteen per cent unemployment rate was troublesome. Much of the unemployment and underemployment was structural and it stemmed from a longstanding mismatch between skills that a modernising economy needed and those provided by workers seeking employment.

Further, the Sinhala-only education excluded many applicants from internationally oriented and tourist-sector positions that required English. The second term of this regime was one of the most turbulent periods in Sri Lanka’s modern history. The out-break of the Tamil militancy together with the Marxist youth insurrection brought the country to a virtual standstill during 1987-89.

All forms of governance and law and order were crippled during this time resulting in a near state of anarchy. The rebellion was mostly led by disadvantaged youth from rural areas of the country, especially the Southern province, where unemployment has traditionally been highest.

Youth unrest was also a contributory factor in the Northern secessionist conflict which began in the early 1980s and continues to date. Tamil militancy in the North-East together with the Marxist resurrection in the south made the private sector lose their confidence in the stability of the economy.

All universities in the south were closed most of the time from 1987 through 1989. Closing meant that the supply of newly trained personel virtually dried up in medicine, engineering and other fields requiring a university degree.

Unemployed and underemployed youth are prime recruiting targets for militant groups. Some years later a report issued by a commission strongly indicated the mismatch between employment opportunities and education being provided to the most volatile segments of the society.

Irrespective of the opening up of the economy in 1977 with the view of enabling the private sector to play a lead role in generating employment opportunities, the “wait and see” approach of the private sector slowed the expansion of the same.

After July 1983, about 15,000 factory workers, 3,500 plantation workers, 10,000 self-employed persons lost their jobs immediately as a result of the riots. Contraction of the tourist industry did cost at least 30,000 more. Government figures in 1982 projected job creation rate at or above 200,000 per year, reducing unemployment to about 3% of the labour force.

However due to the volatile environment, by 1988 unemployment topped to the one million mark, and virtually all the ground that had been gained by the open economy reforms was lost. This made the successive governments to take a lead role absorbing the unemployed graduates to state sector as promised by them in their political campaigns.

This signaled the commitment by the successive governments to provide the unemployed graduates employment in the State sector. This again led to the queuing of graduates to state sector jobs which we call the queuing hypothesis.

Irrespective of the demand for English educated youth by the private sector which continuously holds responsible the education system for skills mismatch and the queuing of graduates to public sector jobs due to their inability to meet the language requirements of the private sector, the politicians of successive governments have been turning a blind eye to this fact.

Data for 2005 with respect to government schools explains that three or more subjects for at least one grade are taught in English medium in 362 schools distributed throughout the island, while 9325 (95.9 per cent) are single medium schools.

Data also explains that less than 1 per cent of the students (33795) study in English medium in any grade, while 73.6 per cent (2902157) study in Sinhalese, 25.5 per cent (1006460) in Tamil.

The above data explains the approach taken by the successive governments to counter the gap between aspirations of the private sector and the education system. Another factor that leads to skills mismatch is the lack of computer literacy. Computers offer exciting approaches to teaching and learning that was not even dreamt of twenty years ago.

However, for a school to have access to internet facilities the basics such as electricity, computers, land phones and internet connection is a must.

Data for 2006 explains that, of the 9851 schools surveyed, only 76 per cent had electricity connection, 26.2 per cent land lines, 6.2 per cent internet connection, 4.1 per cent email facilities, 29.6 per cent desktop computers, 0.5 per cent laptops and 2.3 per cent had multimedia projectors.

Therefore we find that irrespective of the inspiring speeches made by the politicians thus promising to align the education system with that of the labour market demands, in reality much has not been done.

Policy making in Sri Lanka has typically been geared by ulterior political motives thus making the innocent general public the victims of such. Many tend to blame the education system for the prevalent skills mismatch.

However, one should appreciate that the Sri Lankan education system was once regarded as the most advanced in the Global South. Political conflicts imposed a cost on the education system that is difficult to measure thus transferring such into severe labour market costs. Therefore, it is high time to re-align the education system with that of the job market requirements.

Sajith de Mel


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