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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2403

Is the Free Education in Sri Lanka a reality or a myth

By Sarath N. Perera - Attorney-at-Law

Our motherland Sri Lanka is presently embroiled in a very serious situation concerning the Education System of the country, especially with regard to free education and private education. As education is fundamental to all, it is important and necessary for the society to understand where it stands in this whole controversy or the complex situation

As there is no universally accepted single definition for the word EDUCATION it is sufficient and fair by all if defined, as the process of facilitating learning or acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, habits, culture etc.

Due to the inseparable inter-connection of Education, knowledge and development, it is universally accepted that the development of a country goes hand-in-hand with Education of that country. Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara one of the greatest educationists in Sri Lanka and a patriot our motherland, as far back as 1932 declared that “If there is no proper education in a country there cannot be proper prosperity”. Anyway, now it is universally accepted that the best investment that a country can make is for the education of its people.

As we all know, the education provided at public expense is called free education and that provided at a cost to the students is called private education or fee education. In Sri Lanka, free education is provided by the State at national schools, provincial schools, pirivenas, state universities and assisted schools, semi government schools provide education at a subsidized cost. The international schools, private schools and non-governmental higher educational institutes provide education for a fee. Education being a service, the producer of that service has a cost to bear. If the State allows private sector to be the producer of that service it is nothing but fair for them to recover that cost. What we witness today in Sri Lanka is a mixture of the aforesaid free education and fee education or private education concerning which, people have divergent views. Some are of the opinion that, fee levying Education is destructive because it goes against the principles of free education. Hence both cannot go hand- in-hand in a country. It is clear that this view has put the cat among the pigeons.

The sole intention of this article is to give the society some food for thought with regard to these views in order to put the record straight. It is sufficient if it starts from the era of Dr. C.W.W. Kanangara a well respected and reputed former Minister of Education in Sri Lanka from 1931 to 1947.

With all due respect to Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara who is commonly referred to as the father of free education, it must be stated that he never said or wanted his policies or proposals to be considered as a set of exhaustive principles of free education and to be carried out in the future. In fact the society considered and construed his policies as principles of free education and used them for the welfare and the well being of the society with the approval of the majority in the country.

Though the right to education is fundamental to everybody, our constitution unfortunately does not recognize it as a fundamental right of the citizens of Sri Lanka. On the contrary International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights popularly known as ICESCR to which Sri Lanka is a signatory recognizes it as a fundamental right of the citizenry.

In the light of the above, each and everyone now considers the right to education not only as a moral right but also as a legal right preserved and protected by the law of the land. This is clearly evident by the large number of successful Fundamental Rights applications relating to education, decided by our highest temple of Justice, the Supreme Court. Unfortunately this right is subject to Judicial discretion due to the reason that it is not enshrined in our constitution. Therefore, in that sense it must be said that there is more to be done to make education a fundamental right in Sri Lanka.

Though ICESCR has divided the education into 3 parts namely Primary education, secondary education and Higher education, there is a basic similarity in all 3 parts namely the equal access to education for all. But with regard to higher education ICESCR has made provision for fee levying education as well under article 13 of that covenant.

In any event, generally Dr. Kanangara’s proposals or policies and ICESCR’s guidelines have unequivocally guaranteed the equal right to education for all. The question is whether this equal right for all, is available or a reality to all in Sri Lanka under the prevailing situation in our country. Before venture into this aspect of the matter it is worthwhile to consider the principles of Free Education and Fee Education.

It is commonly accepted that Free Education is education funded through taxation or by charitable organizations. For Free education is to be successful and meaningful it should and must be coupled with the equal opportunities for all concerned. If required opportunities to education are not available or denied to a section of the society, (which is a violation of all moral rights and legal rights to education of that section and therefore incompatible with the proposals of Dr. Kanangara and the guide lines of ICESCR) such education cannot be regarded as free education. For those who consider that the right to education for just one segment of the society is adequate for education to be called free education, then indeed Sri Lanka is no doubt a country with free education. No fair minded person will agree to such a partial concept of free education.

At present there are many private educational institutions in the country in addition to thousands of private tuition classes to provide education to the students from pre-school level education up to university level education on monetary basis. The parents of these students will never resort to private education of this nature if opportunities are available for their children at state funded schools or universities. In other words the first priority of the parents is to enroll their children in state funded schools or universities but the non-availability of that opportunity causes them to resort to these alternatives as there is no other avenue available to them. This situation alone is enough testimony to demonstrate the failure of the State to bear the cost of education of the student population in the country. The government and the critics of the government policies adduce numerous reasons for this failure of the State but what is important to the country is not the reasons for the failure but the resultant adverse effect of that failure. It is very clear that the end result of this failure of the State is the denial of State education to a section of the student population in the country.

Way back in 1930s and 40s, educating their children was a mere formality or a social responsibility of the parents and as a result the net primary education enrollment ratio was less. Furthermore due to the low population in the country the student population was also less. In fact, in those days it was difficult to find required number of students for schools. At that time most of the parents provided education to their children expecting them to be in a suitable environment until they grew up and were ready to take charge of the parents’ properties moreover, very seldom they did expect anything in return from their children. Therefore there was no competition to enter into a government school or a state university. As a result of this social environment, Dr. Kannangara did not look beyond the state funded education and accordingly, did not take into consideration the now prevailing competition and ever increasing cost to provide education by the State. Anyway, on this matter Dr. Kanangara has clearly demonstrated his views when he said “The state can make educational provision only up to a point, if any individual or group is dissatisfied with the nature and extent of such provision such individual or group is free to make alternative provision at his/her or its expense”.

Currently the situation has drastically changed and parents consider giving education to their children is an investment for their future and the children too consider that the education is mandatory for them. The population of the country has increased rapidly causing the student population also to grow and as a result the primary education enrollment ratio has now become almost 100%. This situation has resulted in a stiff competition among children to enter state funded schools and higher educational institutes and as well as universities. Accordingly state expenditure on education too has increased drastically. This phenomenon is not limited only to Sri Lanka but common to all countries worldwide. That is the very reason why ICESCR by its 1976 declaration, mentioned about fee education.

With the ever increasing student population in the country and the associated increasing demand for education on the one hand and the failure of the State to provide necessary funds to meet the ever increasing cost of education on the other hand, (every year the State spends less than 25% only as capital expenditure out of the total expenditure on education) one questions, what alternatives are available to face this unfortunate and complex situation? Should the society forget about the predicament of the students who do not get the opportunity at state funded educational institutions and neglect them altogether on the basis that it is the Will of the God and by doing so destroy the principles or policies of free education OR is the society going to help them to transcend this unfortunate situation they are faced with. There is no doubt that nobody would accept the first one as a viable alternative.

From grade 1 to grade 13, the State by its commission and omission has denied a section of the student population the opportunity of State funded education. In addition to that, this segment of students is increasing annually is evident when you look at the ever increasing number of international schools and private schools right throughout the country. In the case of the higher education, the situation is worse. It is a known fact that out of the students who are eligible for university admission each year, more than 80% are denied that chance by the state universities as the facilities they have are extremely limited. In the light of the above context, if you take in to consideration the overall situation of education in the country it is the case of free education of a minority excluding the majority of the student population from access to free education. So in this context, as long as this disparity and discrimination exists nobody is entitled to boast that Sri Lanka is a country with free education. Therefore, it becomes clear that in Sri Lanka free education is not a reality but a myth.

The truth of it is not that the State is only violating the principles of free education in this manner but also acting unfairly and unjustifiably against the majority, by spending public money collected from the entire country by way of direct and indirect taxes for the benefit of a privileged section of the student population.

Against the said back drop, where the State violates the principles and policies of free education to the extent that free education in the country has become almost non-existent and at a time when the victimized students are trying to remedy this situation by resorting to private education it is regrettable to notice the emerging view of certain interested parties that private education is destructive and does not conform to the principles of free education. They are also of opinion that it discriminate against the students who are not capable of spending money on private education or less privileged students.

To get over this present situation in the country which has been created due to the failure of the State, the participation of the private sector is very vital and very much needed by way of private education based on terms and conditions imposed by the State on the basis of welfare, well being and steady progress of the society. By doing so, the artificial barriers presently imposed by the State in order to limit the education opportunities of the majority can be removed.

The main advantage of having private education in the country is that it helps the student population who are denied the facility of the education at state funded schools and universities. In other words, private education helps the country to keep and maintain the principles and policies of free education. If that is the case, it is obvious that the argument of private education is destructive of the principles and policies of free education do not hold water.

The other common, multifaceted and multi-purpose objection which has only an enormous face value, raised by some interested parties where they say that private education is unfair as only one section of the society is benefitted by it, which is not sustainable in a democratic society where all are not equal. Unless and until we create a utopian society where all are equal in everything this argument is baseless. In any case it is appreciated if one can pin point at least one advantage of abolishing the right of private education in the country which is beneficial to the students who are not in a position to pay for their education.

In any case if anyone chooses to objects to private education on the footing that it is a discrimination against the have nots he should without going in circles objects to the root cause of the problem which is the disparity in in-come generation prevailing in the country. If there is no in-come disparity there is no obstacle for anybody to access to private education. But unfortunately at the going rate, it might take generations to remove this disparity and nobody is prepared to wait so long to obtain higher education by destroying his or her own future.

Be that as it may, in the context of private education, as mentioned earlier fees is payable for education which is the cost of producing that service and that cost is the responsibility of the student concerned. In the case of the parents with less income, this can be shown as violation of basic policy of equal education for all. This situation can be overcome by granting scholarships, subsidies, grants and loans repayable only after securing employment at the end of their educational careers and allowing students to work within the university premises by providing them academic and non-academic appointments while studying and also by providing sponsorships through reputed companies just as is the case of foreign countries. The loan schemes where the repayment is only after employment is secured is beneficial for students because the government in that case is indirectly responsible or obliged to secure jobs for the students after graduation. Further suggestions and proposals in this regard can be discussed and agreed upon to the satisfaction of all stake holders.

In view of the above the proposition that private education is in principle against the policies of free education is untenable in law and unacceptable on facts.

- Asian Tribune -

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