Rajiva Wijesinha interviewed by Rathindra Kuruwita
Many think of truth commissions, new laws and restitution when they think of reconciliation. But in a country like Sri Lanka where there is deep rooted prejudices and mistrust among ethnicities, education can play a key role in achieving true reconciliation. Ceylon Today speaks to former State Minister of Education and former Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) Rajiva Wijesinha to speak further on using Education as a tool, in reconciliation and ethnic harmony.
Q: How can we use education to achieve reconciliation?
A: As we noted in the draft National Reconciliation Policy, which the last government ignored, and which this one does not seem interested in either, ‘The perception of discrimination and unequal treatment within the Tamil population arose from a series of administrative changes, such as discrimination against the use of the Tamil language in a context where education was segregated by language. This contributed to deprivation in terms of jobs, which was exacerbated by the State being the predominant employer in the context of statist economic policies’.
Reversing this would be easy if we ensured bilingualism, which is a standard requirement for higher education, in all countries at our level of development or higher. I would advocate making two of the three languages used in this country compulsory at Ordinary Level. This would open up more opportunities for employment for citizens from the North too, while it would ensure that any citizen could communicate with any other citizen.
I should note that by education I also mean technical and vocational training, which is a mess at present. In the last few years, I have spent much of my decentralized budget in the North for Vocational Training Centres, because very little was happening there. The Ministry in Colombo did not develop active training centres, but constructed buildings and set up institutions, which provide jobs for favourites. The present government also seems concerned more with making political appointments to these positions rather than the professional development that is needed. I had plans, when Kabir Hashim first told me he wanted me to look after Technical Education too, to develop a modular system so that we would produce not only technicians but also potential managers and entrepreneurs. We could have got private sector support for this, given the crying need for skilled workers. But I was told that the Prime Minister wanted to hang on to that sector – and since then I have seen no evidence of thinking on the subject.
At another level, we should also have systematized the twinning of schools and universities. I had suggested for instance that Moratuwa University work together with the Eastern University, and Jaffna with Ruhuna. Earlier, I had wanted a major Colombo school to work with a big school in a Northern District capital to do projects for rural areas. Unfortunately the then Secretary at the Ministry of Education got suspicious and did not encourage this.
Finally, we should develop a programme to get educational support from the Diaspora. As you know, this element in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommendations has been neglected. Soon after, I took office I wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about this, but heard nothing. Recently, International Alert had a meeting with youngsters from the Diaspora who wanted to volunteer for work here, but it seems those in authority are concerned only about investment. Even students can understand the need for other systems of contact, as when for instance the Rajarata Medical students asked about getting people from abroad to teach them for particular subjects for particular periods. That type of person to person contact would be ideal, for when people work together they appreciate each other more. But I fear there is little concern about either Reconciliation or Education at a time when grabbing power and winning elections (and not in that order) seem the priorities.
Q: You have said “when the vast majority of jobs in the public sector require a knowledge of Sinhala, and the education system prevents Tamils, and Muslims too, from acquiring Sinhala, of course they will be deprived of jobs.’ What are the main reasons preventing students from the North and East to learn Sinhala? On the other hand don’t students have the right to learn in a language they prefer and is it not the State’s responsibility to ensure that they are also included in the system?
A: The main problem is an acute shortage of teachers. The State has failed to provide English teachers though it has been a compulsory subject for half a century (compulsory in the peculiar Sri Lankan use of the term, since it is not compulsory to pass an exam in English). Now, though Sinhala and Tamil are compulsory as Third Languages, we do not have enough teachers in those subjects either,of course students have a right to pick their medium of instruction, I am talking now of a second language. We have a chicken and egg situation here, in that the State does not want to make a second language compulsory because there are not enough teachers, and because there are not enough teachers, many students cannot learn a second language. And of course it is the rural students who suffer most. Sometimes, seeing the efforts to stop English medium education that both Ranil Wickremesinghe and some officials in the Education Ministry engaged in, when Tara de Mel and I started it 15 years ago, I begin to wonder whether this isn’t a deliberate ploy to stop our bright rural students from being able to compete effectively.
Q: Sri Lanka has a shortage of second and third language teachers. What is your proposal to train adequate number of teachers?
A: I prepared a Cabinet paper to set up Language Centres in every Division in the country. The idea was to train at three levels, trainers, teachers, and then students. Having run the General English Language Training programme for several years, I could see the impact in rural centres, and indeed I am quite proud of the memories students who attended our centres have about the programme.
These Centres would run all year round, and provide teaching also for students after their Ordinary Levels, where three months are wasted, and after Advanced Levels, when over a year is wasted. I had hoped to ask the universities to then give credit to students if they passed the University Test of English Language, and also for other skills we would try to teach through the programme.
Meanwhile, we would have increased the pool of potential English teachers in rural areas, and would also have been able to start refresher courses on a regular basis in each Division. I have positive memories of the Regional English Support Centres (RESC’s) the British Council helped to set up in the nineties, but these were only at District Level, whereas we need more intensive support. Unfortunately, because of lazy management, the RESCs are no longer as effective as they used to be. But I think we also need to involve private public partnerships for the purpose, and I had begun to talk to the Chambers of Commerce about support for particular areas. Unfortunately after the UNP made it clear that they were concerned with politics rather than education, it was not possible to take these ideas further.
Q: You propose to make Sinhala and Tamil compulsory for GCE OL and you compare that with moves to introduce General English at GCE ALs. However do you think the General English paper has done anything to increase the language use among students?
A: Very little because, not being compulsory, it is treated as a joke. My students who teach now in schools and are supposed to take this subject say the students hardly turn up. Of course many students do not turn up for Advanced Level classes anyway, since they believe they need to go to tuition classes to pass. With many subject teachers not being regular in their attendance, naturally school is neglected and tuition takes priority – and students do not of course worry about English because it is not taken into account for admission to university.
Q: You have highlighted the increasingly important role played by tuition classes in education. Parents spend a significant amount of money and students spend a significant time in these classes. You call for a ban on tuition classes, however will this be a solution since our school system is in a mess?
A: It is in a mess precisely because there is no responsibility to ensure that teaching is done properly. We must make sure that teachers are in class when they have to be, and that they teach. This requires better School Based Management, with oversight by the community, but the Education Ministry has a dog in the manger attitude and will not allow alternative monitoring mechanisms. But this is a common Sri Lankan problem, because we have not understood that an agency that provides a service should not also monitor that service.
I had suggested village level committees, with a check list for every school in a Grama Niladhari Division. Since most such Divisions have just one, or perhaps two, schools, monitoring would be an easy task, and you could build up a sense of community. Both parents and principals should know for instance that a school should have adequate buildings and furniture and sanitary facilities, that there should be teachers for all subjects and that they should be in school, that the school should offer extra-curricular activities and so on. They must understand that they have a right to demand such services and complain if there are shortcomings. Only when we restore ownership of schools to students and parents, rather than to bureaucrats and politicians, will standards improve.
Q: You have suggested that there is a lot of corruption in the system. On the other hand you seem to be defending the former UGC Chairman who permitted corruption and politicization to fester the university system. Don’t you think that corrupt leaders need to be removed from the system to rid it of corruption?
A: There is a big difference between politicization, which must be stopped through system change, and corruption, which is plundering of the system. And please remember I did not defend wrong behaviour, my objection was to the way the minister lied to me and to the UGC, and completely ignored principles of good governance, which is what this government should be about. Allegations of bad behaviour must be investigated, and then perpetrators dealt with, but as the President said, many people gave in to pressure, and it is our duty to build up systems to stop such pressure. Sadly the draft University Act I prepared has been forgotten, though now that I know the Chairman of the UGC was not chosen for political reasons, I have written to him to try to get it moving through whoever is now in charge of the subject.
The corruption I was talking about is financial corruption, which I don’t think has been alleged with regard to the UGC Chairman. The corruption in the education system is about massive sums being paid for admissions. It is about teachers who should teach in schools doing tuition outside, and students having to attend those classes. It is about the Education Department selecting favourites to set exam papers and students thinking they need to attend classes conducted by those people.
I also object strongly to the waste in the system. Because we do not have a culture of activities after schools (except in the more prestigious schools, which is one reason they are so popular), in many schools the first term for instance is wasted, with sports activities going on in class time. Staff meetings take place in school hours, rather than afterwards, which should be the practice. Many students do not get placed in time to start work on the first day of school, not in Year One, not in Year 6 after the scholarship exam, and not in Year 13 after the Ordinary Level. Three months are wasted after the Ordinary Level, and that leads to students getting enmeshed in the tuition culture, because parents do not want them doing nothing at home. Over a year is wasted after the Advanced Level. All this I would have tried to stop, but no one else seems to be interested in the reforms we so urgently need.