Declining Quality of Education ; A Myth?

Posted on June 23, 2009  /  7 Comments


Modern mysteries of education

By Dr Harsha Aturupane, Senior Economist, Human Development Unit, South Asia Region, World Bank

Prof. J.E. Jayasuriya, in whose honour and memory we are meeting today, was a man of outstanding gifts of intellect and character. He laid the foundation of the academic education profession in Sri Lanka.

As a university don, he had a lasting impact on his colleagues and students. He also made wide-ranging contributions to the formulation of education policy in the country during his tenure as the Chairman of the first National Education Commission, through his publications, and through his influence on generations of students, some of whom became the academics, researchers and policy makers of the succeeding generations.

It is in the nature of time that a generation arises who knows of a giant of the past, not through personal acquaintance, but only through the prism of his publications, and the writings and the verbal lore of his colleagues and students. I represent one of the members of that generation, for I have the misfortune of not having met or known Prof. Jayasuriya. However, I have the good fortune to have read some of his publications, especially the fascinating explorations into the past contained in “ Education Policies and Progress during British Rule in Ceylon “ and in “ Education in Ceylon: Before and After Independence. “ And, of course, I have seen the high esteem in which his former pupils hold him as an academic and as an individual.

In this lecture, I would like to select one of the most impressive aspects of his many contributions: the forward-looking nature of his thinking on education policy. In that context, let me pose the question: what are the main constraints to the development of Sri Lanka’s education system, in the first decade of the twenty-first century ? And let me proceed to answer this question in terms of some stories which appear to be cardinal characteristics of our society and of our times.

Pessimistic Public

A great myth of our time and society is that the quality of education in Sri Lanka has fallen. This myth is paraded in the newspapers, on radio and TV, in the speeches of influential individuals and opinion makers, and in popular conversation. The myth, in fact, is not supported by evidence. Every indicator of education access, and nearly all the indicators of education quality, show positive progress over time. Enrolment rates have increased, survival and completion rates in basic and secondary education have risen, learning outcomes are improving, and a higher proportion of students are pursuing senior secondary and higher education. University graduates are more skilled and technically competent than the graduates of earlier generations, and in a wider and expanding range of subjects.

Education also continues to generate strong economic and social benefits. Men and women enjoy high returns to their investments in human capital. Education promotes social mobility, both within the work-cycles of individuals, and across and over the generations. Gender empowerment and development are facilitated by education. The health of families and of children are improved by the education attainments of their parents, especially their mothers. Households with educated workers are substantially less likely to be poor than households with uneducated workers. And all these economic and social benefits of education can be demonstrated, and indeed have been demonstrated, through scientific studies.

The myth of declining education, it appears, is generated by several factors. First, there are unreasonably romantic views of the scope and potential of education. If only, according to this romantic view, people are properly educated, they would be virtuous and good. A further fallacy contained within this romantic view is a reference to one or two admired individuals of the past, juxtaposed against the behaviour of the average, or even less-than-average, person of the present. “There were moral giants in those days”, says this romantic fallacy, “and today we have only moral pygmies.”

This romantic position, unfortunately, is simply not true. Education can and does make people more cultured, more competent and more skilled. But education does not, as a whole and on the average, make people more virtuous. Schools and universities cannot play the role of the temple, the kovil, the mosque and the church. And one could plausibly argue that even the temple, the kovil, the mosque, and the church, appear to have a limited impact on the fundamental moral and ethical nature of human beings.

The comparison of a few moral giants of the past, with the average or even less-than-average person of the present, is incorrect. In every age and generation there are a few exceptionally great and good men and women. But comparing the peak of past generations with the average of our times is a logical fallacy. Either we need to compare the peak of past generations with the peak of our time, or we need to compare the average of past generations with the average of our time, or we need to compare the less-than-average of past generations with the less-than-average of our time. And on any of these comparisons, there is parity between our time and the past.

A second factor that contributes to the idea of a decline in the quality and standards of education is purely the herd instinct. It has become normal, in the newspapers, on radio and TV, in the speeches of influential individuals and opinion makers, and in popular conversation, to state that the quality of education has fallen. It is what everyone seems to be saying, and hence it is what everyone says! But of course, like most ideas generated and propagated through the herd instinct, it is simply not true.
A third factor, and the only piece of empirical evidence advanced to support the notion that education quality has declined, is the widespread and growing prevalence of tuition. Ironically, though, tuition is actually the result of an education system which has improved faster than the country’s economy.

More and more individuals are being educated. But the higher education and economic opportunities available for these educated individuals are not expanding that rapidly. Hence, an increasing number of individuals are competing for a limited number of opportunities. And tuition becomes an additional resource in the competition for the limited higher education and economic opportunities. A fourth factor which contributes to the idea of a fall in the quality of education is that there has, in fact, been a decline in the relative position of the economy of the country. At the time of Independence, in 1948, Sri Lanka was one of the richest countries in Asia. Many economists at the time thought that Sri Lanka would become an economic success story and, in the due course of time, join the club of the world’s rich nations. Sadly, the country chose for many years an economic path that may have promoted a degree of equity, but sacrificed growth and performance, with the result that many nations in the developing world caught up and overtook Sri Lanka.

When a country’s relative position in the world economy declines, the interest and respect of other countries for its culture and institutions declines. We see this time after time. Intellectuals do not look at modern Greece or Rome for inspiration, in the way the world once looked at Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. When the economy of a country declines the institutions of that country, including its education institutions, become less influential. Then, even if the quality of education is rising in absolute terms, the respect and influence accorded to the education system falls. For instance, in the heyday of the British Empire, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were pre-eminent in the world. Today, although these universities continue to produce great academic work, the center of intellectual gravity has largely shifted across the Atlantic to the universities of the modern superpower, the U.S.A. It is also significant that the rising economic powers of East Asia have begun to develop strategies to establish “ world-class “ universities of their own in the future.

This relative decline in the economic position of Sri Lanka has affected the perception of the country’s institutions, including her education system, in the eyes of the world. Once, when Sri Lanka was a relatively wealthy nation among the developing countries, it was possible for the University of Ceylon to be a respected and admired institution. Today, there are universities in Sri Lanka which produce scholarship equal to, and in some disciplines perhaps even better than, the University of Ceylon in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. And the school system, taken as a whole and on the average, is certainly superior to the school system of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. But the universities and schools of Sri Lanka no longer command the respect and admiration of the 1950’s and 1960’s, because the country is no longer at the forefront of even the developing nations, let alone a member of the club of developed countries.

Whatever the reasons for the perception of a declining education system, it is simply not correct. And it is important that the community of education specialists and policy makers engage with the general public to correct this delusion.

Walking Waxwork

The popular culture of the country appears to contain a curious belief in the efficacy of the state over markets to deliver economic development. This belief has several manifestations. First, it is believed that the state is a benevolent entity which works for the good of all human beings, and at all times, with the “ good “defined by each individual according to his or her own views and preferences. Second, it is believed that markets are inherently evil, perhaps due to their association with the world of commerce and business. Third, it is believed that the state has a duty to provide employment to all those who seek jobs in the public sector, particularly if they are highly educated. This seems a particularly deep-seated belief. See, for instance, the discussion about a group of Sri Lankan people in a book written over one hundred years ago.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing, and the hankering after Government employment a positive disgrace. A boy whose education has been carried beyond a certain point becomes conceited……..he prefers to lounge about the courts, taxing his family for his support, till he can get some minor Government post, the demand for which is now far in excess of the supply” [Frank Modder in Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, Arnold Wright (ed.) (1907), page 297]. More than a hundred years later, the “hankering after Government employment” appears to continue with little change!

In the middle decades of the 20th century there were two rival and competing hypotheses concerning the effectiveness of states and markets in generating economic development. The hypothesis of the communists and the socialists was that their preferred economic system could generate prosperity at least comparable to the market economies, and with greater equity in the distribution of goods and services. The competing hypothesis was that the market economies could generate more prosperity due to the greater freedom and scope available for individual choice, hard work, creativity and innovation, mediated and coordinated through the “ invisible hand ‘ of incentives and information.

By the later decades of the 20th century ample evidence had accumulated that the market system was considerably superior to socialism and communism in producing prosperity and wealth. This was seen both between countries, and within countries over time. The most spectacular success stories among countries after the Second World War were initially the pro-market economies of Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. In addition to these countries, there was the U.S.A., the economic super-power of the twentieth century, and the market economies of Western Europe. In contrast, the communist experiment in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union could not replicate the economic success of the Asian Tigers and of Western Europe and North America.

Within countries over time, nations that had followed socialism or communism and then abandoned these policies enjoyed far greater prosperity and growth after they adopted market-oriented policies. There are many countries to serve as examples: China, India, the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and Vietnam are some of the best known. Moreover, Sri Lanka has enjoyed far greater prosperity and growth when the country practiced market-friendly policies than in the periods of socialism. The debate between market economies and socialism and communism is largely over. Socialism and Communism, as economic ideologies, belong to the museums of economic history. The socialist and communist periods in the former socialist and communist countries are preserved, like waxworks, in these museums. The very few countries left either practicing socialism or communism, or trying to implement these ideologies, are either poor and isolated, like North Korea and Cuba, or have oil wealth like Libya and Venezuela.

The economic discourse has now shifted away from the battle between the two types of economic systems. The modern discourse focuses more on the best means of maximizing the benefits of markets while also allowing the state to intervene to raise welfare and promote distributive justice. The role of the state is mainly to improve the framework of incentives and information in the economy; expand the production and supply of goods and services which are either public goods or have externality benefits, such as health, education and environmental protection; promote greater equity through re-distribution policies which have minimal negative effect on the efficient functioning of markets; and provide effective and adequate safety nets and safety ladders for the poor.

The greatest challenge before the education system is to improve the understanding of this reality among the next generation of Sri Lankans. The older adult generation, as a whole and on the average, appears to be locked in the time warp of the socialist hypothesis of the mid-twentieth century. Can the education system, through the school curriculum, and the influence of the universities on the intellectual culture of a country, bring the children and youth into the 21st century? I hope it can. If it does not, in any case the change will take place, as the younger generations of Sri Lankans are exposed to the rest of the world through travel, communications, the Internet and the global media. But it would be better for the education system to lead, accelerate and shape this process, rather than passively follow it.
The test of success, if the education system does lead and shape this process, would be the transformation of the voting population of the country to demand, not jobs in the public sector, but the creation of a sound economic environment that will produce an abundance of well-paid jobs in the private sector!

If the education system does rise to this challenge successfully, the economy of the country will benefit. If the economy benefits, and the relative position of the country in the world economy improves, the culture and institutions of the country will elicit greater international interest and respect. This, in turn, will benefit the education system. It will contribute, inter alia, to the creation of an intellectual environment in which the real and genuine achievements in the sphere of education can be properly and duly appreciated.

(These are excerpts of the J.E.Jayasuriya Memorial Lecture delivered recently by the author who says the views expressed are his and not that of the World Bank. He can be reached at


  1. i read it n enjoy ur talent.

    thanx n gain many courage 2 write many more artcles 2 get educate people.



  2. great read. a lot of truth……….

  3. Finally, some one has the guts to speak out in favour of our education system.
    I do hope this will open the space up for others who have benefited so much from our education system, and do belive in it, to come out of the closet and speak up.

    Nothing in the world is perfect. seeing only the faults will never help us move forward.

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  5. The economic discourse has now shifted away from the battle between the two types of economic systems. The modern discourse focuses more on the best means of maximizing the benefits of markets while also allowing the state to intervene to raise welfare and promote distributive justice

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