The Real Threats to Free Education – Dr Vinoth Ramachandra

February 23rd, 2017 by yohan abeynaike

The following article first appeared in the Daily News on 14th February 2017 (

If university students, medical doctors and the JVP are really committed to free education, they should identify and help dismantle the real threats and not vent their fury on “soft” targets such as SAITM.

I suggest that what undermines free education in this country are the following, and that these should be the issues that are discussed and debated publicly:

(1) Increasingly, many government schools are demanding donations and other financial contributions from parents. The Ministry of Education is aware of such illegalities, but does nothing to crack down on principals unless a sufficient number of parents publicly protest. Given that most parents are poor and feel intimidated, such protests are unlikely to happen. The media is also indifferent. Why don’t Ministry of Education officials randomly and confidentially sample parents in every district and expose schools that indulge in such acts? And all it takes is for one bold journalist to write up a story about the lethargy of the Education Ministry to shake up the whole system.

(2) Investment in education (including universities) is not a priority for this government in comparison with, say, defence. Yes, we need a navy to control smuggling (human and contraband), and the army and air-force can be redeployed for handling national disasters (increasingly likely with climate change). But what external military threat is Sri Lanka facing that requires the continued purchase of expensive, fuel-guzzling fighter jets? As for the “terrorist” bogey, has any country defeated terrorism with aircraft?

Our Independence Day celebrations continue to be military-saturated, expensive affairs that communicate to schoolchildren that learning to march like soldiers is more important for their wellbeing than learning to think and eating healthily. As a nation we continue to pay lip-service to “free education” and “free healthcare” and we boast to others about these post-independence achievements; but these are not what are on display in our Independence Day celebrations.

Does the JVP have the courage to propose that Independence Day celebrations be scaled down and the savings added to the national education budget?

(3) How many university graduates with good degrees are encouraged to become teachers or administrators in government schools? It is not only the low pay that makes teaching unattractive, but the warped values and ambitions that our educational system (including universities) purvey. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the school curriculum, in addition to greater investment in training teachers, if we are to form citizens of the future capable not just of productive activity, but creative and critical thinking, and who are possessed of a sense of civic responsibility.

If private schools and universities turn out more of such citizens, compared to government schools, then it is the latter that should be critiqued rather than the former.

Finally, instead of disruptive street demonstrations, the Inter-University Student Federation could better display their commitment to the poor in Sri Lanka by conducting a survey of all their members of the past 10 years to find out how many of them are (1) living in Sri Lanka today; (b) send their children to private schools, and (c) engaged in jobs that are promoting economic equality and the upliftment of the poor. And they, together with the GMOA, could start demanding that those doctors who have received a publicly-funded state medical education not be employed in private hospitals for a stipulated period.

Dr. Vinoth Ramachandra

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