The Sunday Leader

A mess up

During the war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Lt. General Sarath Fonseka to ruthlessly put down the LTTE and take control of the north and east.

In the process, many say that he ignored real Tamil grievances and simply pushed ahead with profitable business in his newfound domain. Now, post-war, the headlines are dominated by clashes over education — in Sri Jayewardenepura, Rajarata, Ruhuna, and Kelaniya. What these clashes have in common is that Mahinda has appointed the ruthless Minister S.B. Dissanayake to put down the IUSF — a student group that has monopolised the cause. In the process, he is ignoring the real issues that caused student unrest in the first place, focusing instead on a profitable privatisation while public education remains underfunded.
The LTTE was an acronym that claimed legitimate Tamil issues, eliminated internal opponents, repressed its own people and eventually proved so toxic that no one missed them when they were gone. In the same way, the IUSF is a student union that has taken power through intimidation at student elections, retained power through ragging and discouraging actual learning in universities and have proved so heavy-handed and violent that few will miss their commotion.

The greater issue, however, is not the protests and clashes which dominate the headlines of breaking news alerts. Indeed, these are just part of the broken system. The broader issue is that we have a public education system which has failed our students and a budget which (post-war) boosts defence while neglecting what should be the backbone of our growth. The country will not develop by ports, power plants and roads alone. We need people to create export goods and run businesses. We need factories to use power and intelligent people to staff call centers and software companies. We need internal business and travel along our roads. All of this development requires educated Sri Lankans more than Chinese infrastructure.

Our education system, however, is broken. Education is a social contract. We tell children from the time they are young that if they study hard and go to university they can get a good job. We break this contract first by rejecting most of the people that qualify for university simply because there is no space. We then break it again by sending out graduates woefully unequipped to get a job. No wonder our youth are angry. They should be. Our government has broken the deal.

In the midst of this mess, the IUSF has grown like a parasite to feed off students’ discontent. By many accounts they discourage the use of English, actual study, liberal dress and constantly disrupt learning through protests and violence. In reacting to a real wrong they react really badly, but who can really blame them? They’re not educated.

Now that the war is over, the government must take its social contract with our youth seriously. If they work hard they should be given a chance to succeed. Private education, contrary to the hyperbole of the JVP, is actually part of this package. Those that can pay should be given choices, and an education that delivers results is worth taking out a loan for. Indeed, so many students now take expensive private tuition that even a school-level private education is something of a myth. It is true that Sri Lanka is not a rich country and scaling our public universities will be hard. However, Sri Lanka is a rich enough country to give a rich allocation to the Defence Ministry while barely increasing the education budget. We are rich enough to host Indian film awards at a loss and run discount airlines that burn the taxpayers funds. We are also rich enough to borrow billions from the Chinese to pay Chinese companies to build expensive things for us. We surely can invest something in the Sri Lankan people.

As much as Sri Lankan politicians cite the youth, as much as politicians like Namal Rajapaksa and Duminda Silva call themselves youth leaders, very little is done for them. A young Sri Lankan has little or no chance of entering university. Even if they study, pay for tuition and get in, once they get in they have little chance of getting a decent job. At some point Sri Lankan education has become deeply politicized, and this stable government should now take the time to set things right.

Higher education was once available only to those who could go to England and study. Then in 1942 universities were set up which gradually offered service in the national languages. This, however, reduced the quality of the education in that access to broader learning in English was curtailed. It did, however, for a time produce capable white collar employees for the state sector.

What then happened was that the economy liberalised while the education system did not. This produced a fundamental disconnect that either has yet to recover fully from. The university system kept producing local language graduates while the business sector remained largely English speaking. Graduates found that they could take low level private jobs or compete for less and less public work. Children from families that spoke English at home could walk into jobs that more technically qualified rural graduates could not. This hurt the youth, it hurt the economy and it hurt people’s pride.  The violent reactions of groups like the IUSF is partly out of hurt pride. Like an abused child, they simply lash out, often at the hand that feeds them. Out of this hurt pride, speaking English in university can get you beat up, even though a foreign language is one of the most useful things to learn at school.

Indeed, out of pride, private education is rejected out of hand for fear of being left completely behind by the already advantaged English speaking youth. The reaction is wrong, but the reason is not. The public education system is woefully neglected and, aside from clearing out the union that’s acting out, the government has a responsibility to address the reason behind it. As private education is developed, public ones need to be funded and brought up to scale and to speed. There is money to do this if we look at the defence budget or failing state enterprises like Mihin Air. Instead, however, this drama looks set to take the same track as the war. A convenient enemy rallies the crowd for a good public thrashing. The reasons behind the trouble are forgotten in a flurry of business openings and deals. The ministers get their cuts and photo ops and those that have get a bit more. Those that have not are forgotten, ignored, or lumped with the troublemakers.

However, just as not all Tamils are LTTE, not all students are IUSF.  Sri Lanka’s students have real concerns, they need real attention, and a symbolic showdown with a troublesome student union should not distract the Sri Lankan public from this fact. We have broken our contract with our young people. We need to honour it again. Of course, we probably won’t. It’s much simpler to thrash an acronym, make some money and get on with business as usual.

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