Sunday, February 19, 2017

7:14:00 AM - No comments

SAITM - Accessible education for all under PPP model

The first time I came across public private partnerships was at the Innovations and Foresights Summit 2016. The state is increasingly burdened with bearing the costs of free health and education but completely privatizing any of these sectors is a big deal. This is because it will make education and health a luxury limited to a fraction of the society. USA is a good example of how healthcare services has led many people to be burdened with heavy debt. Public Private Partnerships on the other hand is a better solution as only part of the cost is born by the government.

Tertiary education in Sri Lanka should not be privatized entirely because there are many students who come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds with average/high IQs who have the talent to become somebody great. They are given a shot at improving their lives and also the lives of others by providing a service to this country. Besides the competitive selection criteria for State Universities ensures to a good extent that deserving students get the opportunity to study through state funds.

However many of the highly qualified academics leave the country seeking better opportunities because of the lack of a proper research and development culture in Sri Lanka. Only 76.9 billion according to 2017 budget is allocated on education which is not enough to develop the infrastructure, quality of university education, training and development for staff etc. Hence public private partnerships could greatly benefit all state universities. Income generated by encouraging foreign exchanges and fellowships could be utilized for R&D which is much needed. There are many universities in Sri Lanka without post graduate studies for many subjects. Many engineering students complain they have not received adequate training or have been provided with enough material to make new inventions and finding.

I believe that state universities must take the maximum opportunities out of PPP model and seek for funding from outside sources such as the  European Union, World Bank etc. Also if universities do not have adequately qualified staff there are many highly qualified individuals in Sri Lankan think tanks who's expertise could be outsourced. State universities could highly benefit by alumni networking and obtaining funds through alumni around the world and tapping into the diasporas who will be more than willing to invest in state universities.

The only barrier towards this is the lack of entrepreneurial spirits of university administration. Many people have misgivings about entrepreneurship in Lankan State Universities. They oppose education been made a 'commodity'. This is perhaps the greatest misconception of all. Education is not a commodity certainly, but a service. Many academics and students alike do not have a 'service-oriented' mindset. Providing a service requires care and skill. Due to this lack of service-oriented mindset many do not take their own jobs very seriously. This is probably another reason why education is politicized. In my opinion education been politicized is worse than education been the much accused 'commodity'.

In many foreign countries they take education seriously because it is a service that they render to the community. Much innovation is done to attract students for courses and consultations on what students expect to learn. A great deal of attention is paid to improving the quality of every student so that the output from the universities are all the same. Today it has been absolutely necessary for a student to study elsewhere apart from state universities to increase their chances of employment. In fact it is encouraged by many academics from within the university as well [the ones who understand the complexities of the job market].

The supreme court decision on SAITM is a landmark case going down in the history of Sri Lanka. It is a turning point in educational reform. There are many lessons to learn from this decision. Further, innovations are needed to acquire funding and develop state universities while encouraging students and academics alike to engage in a strong research & development culture abiding by a proper code of ethics such as standard criteria on plagiarism, transparent marking systems, ability to work with more than one supervisor, and copyright laws. Without such a system the brightest of the lot will leave the country resulting in a huge brain drain and loss to the country. In conclusion PPP model and innovation could be instrumental in establishing a much-needed R & D culture in SL specially since the government is now cutting the budget on education. There is no point in engaging in contentious protests but take responsibilty to stand on our own. SAITM remained strong amidst all the chaos and noise and finally succeeded. It is time that State universities accept the decision, learn lessons from it and move on.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

10:13:00 AM - No comments

Free Education System- The Unexplored Flaws

                                            Obtained from YouTube:  FBE : Kids react to Donald Trump
Sri Lanka is a country with many blessings; free primary, secondary and tertiary education is one of them. Hence, there is 98% Youth Literacy rate - a great achievement for a middle income country.
Government policy changes have made it compulsory for children to receive education till the age of 16, which contributes to the high literacy rate.
Ministry of Education in 2013 reports that there are only 0.4% schools that offer school education in all three languages Sinhala, Tamil and English. Further it points out that there are only 3.5% national schools while 96.5% are provincial schools. This sheds light on why the grade 5 scholarship exam is highly competitive, pressurizing children to attend a national school which is considered 'better' due to its prestige. But it must be also noted that national schools are considered to have better resources and better teachers. Does that mean in provincial schools the situation is otherwise?
 In many youth forums, the discussions are almost always about tertiary education in Sri Lanka and the conflict between private and state universities. The focus on the education of children is usually left out. I recently volunteered for an event organized by UNICEF Sri Lanka - ‘A Fair Chance for Every Child’ which was based on the need for equitable, inclusive and quality education for the children of Sri Lanka. This made me reflect on what youth can do to achieve this goal.

Why Should Education of Children Matter?
Those who fall between ages 15-24 are considered Youth. Then who is a child? According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, everyone under 18 years is a child. The development of children through the education system is quintessential because children blossom into young adults and become the next generation. ‘Development’ should include physical, psychological, social and cultural development.
Compulsory subjects for children till they finish Ordinary Level examinations include: Environmental Science, Mathematics, Mother Tongue, English as a Second Language, History, Religion, Social Studies and an aesthetic subject. In the ‘Fair Chance for Every Child’ conference, a major concern was that local school curriculums lack emphasis on analytical thinking and problem solving skills, communication and peace education and ICT skills. It is difficult for a child to develop psychologically without such skills. Thus, when they grow to an employable age they do not have employable skills, which is a major flaw in the education system.
I recently watched a video on YouTube titled ‘Kids react to Donald Trump’. Children were asked their opinion of the US presidential candidate and the responses indicated enthusiasm in the politics of their country. The children’s perspective was quite advanced and insightful. This demonstrates why a standard education is important to foster the analytical thinking of children and encourage their civil participation in society when they grow up.

Regional Disparities in Resource Allocation
A school could also allocate time for physical education during school hours, if they have the relevant facilities, so that children could develop team-building and healthy morals. Unfortunately, some schools do not even have adequately-qualified teachers to provide such education. This is quite common in certain parts of the country such as in the remote rural areas, North, East and in the Plantation sector.
The delegates at the UNICEF conference raised concerns that most teachers who get appointments to teach in such areas would transfer to suburban areas due to familial obligations and personal commitments. In some cases, teachers do not have proper transport and accommodation when stationed in difficult areas.
Education financing of just 2 % of GDP is considered very low and is a major barrier to address those disparities in resource allocation. Another concern is that not all children who enter grade 1 have received quality pre-school education which is largely a private-owned. In rural areas the situation could be much worse due to the lack of qualified teachers. Finding solutions to such problems require substantial resources which must be allocated by the government. However, pointing fingers at the government is not always the solution.
Other Actors Who Can Make a Difference
Children in rural areas are not exposed to the advanced networks that are open to children in national schools in urban provinces such as Colombo, Kandy, Negombo, Matara, etc. A child from a rural area would not know what types of careers are there for them to engage in, and what type of education they need to get there because schools do not provide such guidance. In recent years there was a wave of news regarding school children abusing narcotics and intoxicants. If such cases were identified in a rural school it is extremely difficult to find proper psycho-social support.
Like schools in developed countries, certain reputed schools in Colombo conduct a programme that identifies intelligent children and puts them into an accelerated program, so they can enter tertiary education at a younger age. This opportunity does not exist for students in rural areas.
However today, there are civil societies, humanitarians and volunteers who are knowledgeable about such problems and can spend some time engaging with communities and conducting relevant programs. I learned so much by volunteering for a conference; it had an impact on me and made me want to raise awareness for the need to act now.  Youth can create a ripple effect and help the children who are disadvantaged. Through volunteering and other youth-led initiatives to help deprived communities we can also provide better opportunities for the future generation.
Originally published in UNDP Unlocked Blog Series in collaboration with Daily FT.
Special Courtsey to UNICEF and UNV

10:00:00 AM - No comments

A Micro Problem With A Macro Effect

It was finally time for our long awaited vacation – a trip down south.  Sri Lanka, ‘the pearl of the Indian ocean’, got its name rightfully from the lovely beaches surrounding the island. My friends and I had plans to take a swim in the sea. Deshan said, “I won’t rest till I go snorkelling!” So, snorkelling we went.
Very few will dispute that the ocean is beautiful, with its many fish in different, vibrant colours and the corals resting on the seabed. Aren’t they all fascinating creations of Mother Nature? The beauty of it all is astounding. However, not many people give much thought to the destruction that is brewing, invisible to the naked eye.
We are often unaware that everywhere around us, something destructive is happening. We don’t think about it or do anything about it, because we are all busy with our everyday lives. Did you know that the facial products we use and other items that we use daily, such as rope, paint and synthetic textiles, are all endangering the marine environment? 
This is because each item contains micro plastics – these take the form of micro-beads in the face washes and exfoliating scrubs we use. The sources of such micro plastics that somehow find their way into the marine environment are numerous and uncountable. Recreational and commercial fishing, shipping and even fibres from the clothes we wear are sources of micro plastics.
The journey of micro plastics into aquatic ecosystems begins from our drainage systems and sewers, which then carry them into the rivers and other flowing water bodies and finally, into the sea. During natural calamities such as floods, storms and heavy rains, these micro plastics get embedded in riverbeds and are washed back into the land, endangering not only aquatic organisms, but humans and the environment on dry land as well.
Although high profile research is underway, there is nothing anyone can do about it to protect the environment for future generations. The public is engaged in speaking and raising awareness about the need for sustainable development, but most don’t even know what this means. Our consumption of plastic has detrimental effects and the only way to prevent more harm is to reduce this consumption and direct it towards environment-friendly products.
As youth of this country, it is our duty to protect the environment and raise awareness of the detrimental effects of high levels of plastic consumption. Our active young minds should be able to think of ways to solve this issue. Think about it this way: ‘’our country, Sri Lanka, is blessed with flora and fauna and the most beautiful aquatic life; we even have species that are endemic to our country. These gifts from nature should add to our existing national pride, such that it is our duty, as Sri Lankans, to protect them.’’
Knowing this would you still remain quiet about it? Or are you ready to take some action and do something to make a change?
Edited by : Sheshadrie Kottearachchi
Originally published in UNDP Unlocked Blog series in collaboration with Daily FT

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

7:45:00 AM - No comments

Ragging in Sri Lankan Universities- affects quality of education? encourages gender based violence?

Ragging in Sri Lankan Universities is the worst experience that a student can have. Ragging is a form of systematic abuse and also a form of gender based violence. When you speak of gender based violence, we mainly speak of women being harassed by men. However this also happens the other way around; women also harass men. Ragging in Lankan universities is deeply embedded in the university subculture however, fighting ragging means fighting the corrupt university education system itself. The 2017 budget has allocated 10 million for the elimination of ragging in Lankan Universities which means that it has become a national cost.
Is ragging a form of Gender based Violence?
If you are a girl or a boy, walking into universities for the first time with high hopes and you get stopped at various intervals being mocked, humiliated, spoken to in filth, and jeered at by other boys and girls that is harassment. If you are physically harassed, slapped or if someone violently pulls your hand that is also an act that is done ‘without your consent’ and hence harassment. It is something that takes you by surprise and a hurtful experience. A victim of such treatment may become mentally affected which leads to mental health issues, depression, loss of self –worth and sickness.
Ragging affects mentally vulnerable students the most and those who let others take advantage of themselves. They often do not know that they are being victimized. This ‘vulnerability’ can be caused due to lack of self-esteem and lack of self-respect. It could also be the way that an individual is raised in their homes growing up in a family of an abusive father or an abusive sibling. Usually those who rag other students have been in vulnerable situations themselves and on entering universities they develop an inferiority complex which they manifest through violence. Each year every senior batch rags the next batch of junior students which repeats in a vicious cycle.
How does this affect the quality of education?
Students who are involved in ragging as both perpetrators and victims are disrupted from attending lectures. There are students who get selected to universities but drop out due to ragging. Some students join private universities or go abroad and excel in their studies causing a huge brain drain. There are still those who bear it all or cleverly avoid ragging who still do not attend lectures properly. This is because there is no strong incentive to attend lectures because lectures in state universities are a minimal experience. The quality of education has degenerated so badly that not attending lectures but doing extra-curricular activities, professional networking and self-studying by finding their own material is a better and rewarding experience.
Addressing the low-standards of education in Sri Lankan Universities is difficult due to the fact that many academics also have engaged in ragging themselves in their undergrad years and hence has accepted ragging as part of the university sub-culture. There are only a very few academics who have studied and taught overseas with a broad exposure into competitive curriculum. Many do not have that same exposure or subject-related work experience to share practical insights and knowledge with students. Hence some curriculums lack gender units and student’s graduate not knowing ‘gender-mainstreaming’ or developing gender sensitivities. Even skill development units are not taken seriously enough. However upgrading curriculum has also become an impossible task for Lankan Universities because it reflects the competences of the academics themselves.
Misguided concept of utilitarianism and leadership in universities
Decisions must be taken to suit the majority of the students. However a majority of the students come from rural areas of the country and many do not network like the undergraduates from Colombo-based schools to find out about career opportunities and how to fix the knowledge gaps in the job-market. Although the universities conduct various programs on career development the percentage of students who attend them are very less and many club activities are also limited to a few. The main reason is because a majority of the students who come to universities engage in political activism and student union activities. They are misguided into believing that disruptive political activism is leadership development.
In my university, students are given internships from the university itself. In some cases they are compulsory but most comment that it was a waste of time. Only a few students network professionally and find an internship on their own which is a hands-on experience to the degree they are enrolled at with dignity. Among those who get these ‘University approved’ internships in government offices, there are those who got arrested as well. Where then is there a deterrence to prevent ragging? As a student I have been warned that getting arrested can be detrimental to a future career because in many prestigious jobs if you have an arrest record you are not considered fit for that job. However in a Lankan University context getting arrested is seen as ‘okay’ because most believe that ‘they are oppressed by the state’ and have nothing to lose.
Through ragging students are brainwashed. They are led to believe in ‘political revolution’ which leads to disillusionments. The student Union itself is the perpetrator of most of ragging. Student Unions are funded by communist political parties and they supply students from disadvantaged backgrounds with textbooks, and financial support and also encourage ragging and disruptive political activism by offering 40% of them jobs in their own political parties. In such a context student leadership is in the wrong hands.
This is why an independent investigation into ragging by either the Human Rights Commissions or a Cabinet Appointed Committee without any political intervention is needed. Even the government has marginalized Arts faculty students as ‘basket cases’. The 2017 budget is willing to offer scholarships to medical, engineering, science, and law students to prestigious foreign universities but does not include students from Arts streams. Does that mean that Arts students are not part of the sustainable development agenda of the country?
In my opinion most academics also relate to the experiences of ragging themselves. Some have come into influential positions from humble backgrounds which are remarkable achievements. However, most lack awareness of the changes that education management has undergone over time. Quality of education does not only lie in building fancier buildings and improving campus infrastructure but it lies in the competitive curriculums and competences of academia. Most students in student unions lack awareness about these issues (Quality education, employment market, skill development etc). Instead of asking for quality education they go around protesting to close down Private Universities which is pathetic. They readily demand for more facilities in terms of infrastructure but campus infrastructure is already state of art. It is the quality of education that should improve. Orientation in Universities must take up these issues and allow student leaders with liberal and positive attitudes to change the mind-sets of students from within the university system

Originally published in UNDP unlocked blog series in partnership with Daily FT :