Towards a new education policy

By N Sathiya Moorthy

At a recent meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a group of Buddhist monks, forming an education council, has hailed him for his determination to draft policies on every front. In a way, they have to have a coordinated approach, if all of it have to make sense, and work towards national growth and development in a focussed and sustained manner.

To begin with, you cannot have a developmental and economic goal that drafts plans for a distant future and have an education policy in particular that is tied down to the past. The nation, it could be said, may have suffered when under President Dingiri Bandara Wijetunga, the stop-over short-term replacement between slain Ranasinghe Premadasa and newly-elected Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in particular made greater efforts were made to enrol more novices in the Buddhist monasteries across the country, with less of the educational cause in mind.

Many, and at times most young monks qualified to become academic and theological scholars in their own right. But there were/are also those among them who took to student union activities, some going on to become politicians in their own right. It is in this context that there are constant claims and charges that the Buddhist order control government policies and at times administration, too. Worse still, there are often reports of one school of thought competing with other(s) to have all the ears of the rulers of a given day.

This question goes beyond Buddhism being the constitutionally-mandated religion of the nation, for decades now. A new Constitution that is expected to be on the anvil soon enough, and hopefully so, is not expected to make any change. But the political leadership, cutting across party lines, could sit down and discuss ways and means to moderate the interference of religion in political and politico-administrative affairs of the Sri Lankan State.

Look around, and there is no other country where Christianity or Islam is the majority religion, and where the democratically-elected leaders, or inherited emirs as the case may be, swear by the religion while taking the oath of office. There the religion stops, whatever may have been the case in the past. Today, where the ruler, elected or otherwise, thinks he need to consult religions on a matter of theological importance, they are consulted. There are very few countries, where religious leaders control politics, even if there may be cases of religion guiding politics and political administration.

Secular education

What Sri Lanka requires now is a secular education, independent of religious schools and tenets. The change-over could be gradual but it may have to be planned and sustained if the nation has to achieve its full potential in economic and developmental terms. Faith in the religion, whichever be, and respect for religious heads is one thing, but the injection of such religion-controlled political beliefs from the school days on, is what has come to interfere in the conduct of daily business of government for long, whichever party or leader has been in power.

That is to say, if a certain college or university is branded as ideologically left-leaning or militant, or some others are identified with a particular ethnicity that is not in the majority, likewise, such branding exists in terms of theology-influenced public policy as they students grow up to become scholars or politicians or both. It is an open secret that certain Colombo schools/colleges instil liberal values in their students, while there are others that make their students ideologically orthodox. It is true of institutions identified with the Tamil and Muslim communities in the capital and elsewhere, too.

It is true that in the corridors of power, the alumni bonding among former students from one or the other of the prestigious schools in the country does carry forward relations and equations, as only has happened in the Great Britain, from where Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, imported its educational scheme and values. It is equally true that in some cases, some political leaders and administrators carry their school-day grudges as adults, and spoil things for their colleagues and the nation.

There is thus the famous story of commanders of two wings of the nation’s armed forces who were not even on talking terms, at the height of the decisive Eelam War-IV, because they had fought over some silly issues in their school days. And yet, the nation managed to defeat LTTE terrorism squarely. The credit may have had to do with President Gotabaya, who was the Defence Secretary, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was then President, for keeping the forces united through the war, without letting personal grudges come in the way.

Scholarship exams

Those drafting the new policies, including the education policy, only need to go back to the Mahinda Chintanaya, Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s manifesto for his maiden 2005 election as President, where here had mentioned making Sri Lanka a Knowledge Hub, among others. Translated, it meant stopping the export of Sri Lankan unskilled and semi-skilled labour to overseas destinations, and also housemaids in their tens of thousands.

The implication was that the Government would turn out technologically qualified Sri Lankan youth, and invite foreign industrial investments in a big way, so as to have the youth gainfully employed nearer home. It did not happen that way, and now PM Mahinda’s Budget-2021 has outlined plans to improve technical and technological education standards, through a time-bound plan. The Government should take its own commitment more seriously, with the full commitment that orthodoxy and modernity cannot go hand in hand, though they can coexist, and must co-exist, in their own separate cubicles, depended on each other or independent of each other – but not overlapping or interfering with each other.

Then there is the question of the language issue, flowing from the ethnic issue, which is at the core of the unresolved ‘national problem’ of the past many decades. The Sinhala-Buddhist political class or a section of their religious hard-liners can close their eyes to the realities around them, and claim that there are no such issues, but beginning the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act, the nation has suffered, and not just in terms of ethnic issue, war and violence.

Going beyond it all, generations of Sinhala youth also lost out on the opportunity to master English, which they require to engage with overseas white collar employers willing to pay them in dollars. They have either ended up doing a university degree and join the Government service, or without it, go over seas for jobs that are next only to menial in the hierarchy. And through the Sinhala Only and subsequent war and violence, the Sri Lankan State has ensured that the Tamils too lost out equally or more that their Sinhala brethren, in terms of education, which was at the core of the ethnic issue.

If the government is serious about reversing the trend, it can begin by introducing three-language formula at the school-level from a first batch, without losing much time, say academic year 2022, beginning in January in the year that follows the upcoming one. To encourage parents and students alike to take the issue more seriously than at present, the government can introduce proficiency tests, to the required levels, in the annual nation-wide scholarship examinations, and can also include them all the way up to the O-Level, if not A-Level. A lot however will depend on if the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala-Buddhist majority polity, want national integration or division, still.

The other way is to end this segregation of schools for Sinhalas, Tamils and Muslims, and have cosmopolitan schools for them all. If the children from these communities could break bread at lunch-time in uppity urban schools, the question is why they cannot do so in the rest of them, as well. Maybe, in the midst of the controversy over the burial or non-burial of Muslim Covid dead, there may need to be a couple of years before things are allosed to cool down for the government to try and introduce such a scheme, but the policy-maker can work with the available time to tune up things for a great start, after all!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: