What defines development? Surely everyone would agree to the fact that education is one of the pillars to equitable and sustainable economic growth. However, despite the lapse of more than two years since the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s expenditure on education remains abysmally low.
A new report launched by the World Bank over the weekend points out that Sri Lanka’s investment in education is the lowest from middle income countries. It points out that the education expenditure as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is only 1.9% and as a portion of the Government Budget is only 7.3%.
This is the smallest share of public investment in education amongst a cluster of countries that share common features with Sri Lanka. Public investment in education in Sri Lanka falls below the level of East Asian countries such as South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.
This is not all; it also falls behind Latin American countries and even South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. It is also well below the share of investment for middle income countries as a whole. In fact, advanced middle income countries normally invest about 4.6% of their national income on education, which is more than double what Sri Lanka expends.
Much attention is paid to upgrading graduates, but what policy makers and people seem to have forgotten is that for a competent finished product, the starting process must be equally fertile. After many decades of neglect, politicisation and disorganised restructuring, the primary school system and classes up to Advanced Level need a massive boost of funding and planning.
The report points out that Sri Lanka faces a set of major challenges as it seeks to ascend the ladder of middle income countries. Firstly, the development strategy for schools needs to be communicated widely among the education community and broad ownership generated. Local syllabi are set to change in 2014/15, but there is still little clear idea among the general public of what this will entail. Such disregard for stakeholder participation means that the implementation processes will be fraught with hurdles.
Since school education is an ever-evolving process, it needs consistent commitment from political authorities. The process needs to learn from its past and target interventions that directly benefit schools and students. When opponents present their case, the leaders of education need to build bridges and ensure that their concerns are heard and addressed.
Schools lagging behind need attention. Often these are ignored or simply closed down. The evaluation process of schools needs to change so that ‘privileged’ Colombo schools can have the pressure eased off them at least to some extent and more students have the chance to be judged by their talents rather than the school that they attended. Gathering all interested parties including media and empowering them to understand and constructively contribute to educational change will also make the process easier.
Prolonged protectionism can have the adverse affect of encouraging ‘black money’ to be invested in the education system, the report points out. It contends that unless a more streamlined legal process is established for funds to flow in a transparent manner, the inadequacy of public investment will create room for substandard educational institutions to enter the sphere – a fear that is already portrayed in reality.
Education has a very real impact on the future of a country and unless Sri Lanka concentrates on better management, the potential of the next generation will not be achieved.