Exam fiasco denies thousands university places, sparks anger

They had a dream. They had a target. They had a future. But their dreams have been shattered and the future is uncertain for thousands of Sri Lankan students who have failed to gain admission to state universities because of a mess-up in the calculation of the results of university entrance examinations held last year.

It is still unclear how many students could be denied university places this year, but some estimates put the number as high as 10,000.

Thousands of Sri Lankan students and their parents were joined by university students in a wave of protests against education officials that have hit Sri Lanka in recent weeks, after students who had enough points to enter university found their scores reduced when revised results were released following a Supreme Court order.

The court order came after mistakes were made in the official calculation of results last year.

“My relatives gave me gifts after I was selected for the law faculty [at a public university]. But now, how will I tell them the truth?” said a disappointed Sanduni Ekanayake from Mathugama. “After the new results, it’s only a dream. My district ranking has changed from 43 to 260,” she told University World News.

Arts stream student Harshani Madushika, from Matara in the south, said that with a sick mother, his only option had been to score well enough to enter a public university. “We don’t have money to go to private universities or foreign countries,” he said. “Our parents taught us to face a lot of difficulties but the officials have shattered our future.”

Piyaseeli, a depressed parent from the northern city of Galle, said she had great hopes for her son. “Since childhood my son’s dream was to become an engineer. He sat the exam and the result came. His dream was fulfilled and we were so happy.

“But after those re-calculations, his Z-score changed from 1.9694 to 1.5364. He may not be selected for the engineering faculty.”

In 2001 Sri Lanka replaced raw exam marks with the standardised ‘Z-score’ to rank the results of the highly competitive General Certificate of Education Advance Level examination. Only the top 9% to 15% of students secure places in coveted state universities.

Results errors

Some 240,000 students sat the exam in August 2011 under the old and new syllabus. The results were scheduled for November 2011.

The Education Ministry finally issued the results on 25 December after several delays, but found errors in the calculation of district and Island rankings based on Z-scores. Within hours of the results’ release, complaints of errors started flooding in from all over the country.

The Island-wide rankings, based purely on merit, and district rankings which account for 60% of allocated university places and provide opportunities for those from disadvantaged and rural areas, had to be cancelled by education officials, who said the miscalculations were due to a computer error.

“While trying to release the results in a hurry, certain computer errors had occurred. To remedy this, the president [Mahinda Rajapaksa] has appointed a separate commission to rectify them,” Education Minister Bandula Gunawardene said at a press conference in January.

“What was revealed was that while data was fed into the computer, certain errors had occurred.”

Sri Lanka's Department of Examinations received 147,000 applications for a review of marks, and the Ceylon Teachers' Union and 16 students filed a petition to the Supreme Court in January to cancel the 2011 results entirely.

Supreme Court ruling

On 25 June, the Supreme Court ordered the University Grants Commission (UGC) to cancel the current Z-scores. Describing it as a complex issue, the court determined that the rights of students had been violated and directed the UGC to recalculate the marks of all candidates who sat the 2011 exam “using a revised and acceptable method”.

Although 99,000 candidates sat the exam under the old syllabus and 144,000 under the new syllabus, the Z-score rankings were calculated based on the old and new syllabuses as a single entity, even though the two were not necessary comparable.

The Supreme Court directed the UGC to recalculate the Z-scores on the basis that the two syllabuses were different entities and to reissue the results.

On 25 July, the higher education authorities released the revised Z-scores, triggering a further public outcry when district and Island rankings of students who sat the 2011 exam under the old syllabus dropped drastically.

“I sat the exam from the biology stream and obtained a Z-score of 2.0754. I was selected to do medicine. However, now the score has come down to 1.9090 under the revised system,” said Colombo student Eranda Ekanayake, who is angry at the government for the fiasco.

“Is this what we get after studying and working hard for 13 years?”

Opposition parties and unions promptly demanded the resignation of Education Minister Bandula Gunawardene and Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake over the repeated blunders.

Demands for justice

Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) Convener Sanjeewa Bandara told University World News: “We reject these results entirely.

“A comprehensive review has to be conducted and action must be taken to prevent such a situation from arising again,” he said, adding that the federation would put pressure on the government “until a solution is found”.

President Rajapaksa has asked Dissanayake to submit a report on the total number of students facing “inconvenience” due to the Z-score changes. He said he will make a final decision on the issue “to ensure no injustice is done to the students”.

This comes as a number of affected students have complained to Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission. According to some reports, students are planning new legal action over the Z-score changes.

Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, a member of parliament for the country’s main opposition United National Party, said the government should provide extra places for the disappointed students as well as overhauling the education system.

“We demand that the government reduce wastage of resources and pump more money into universities so that they can accommodate these students as well. The fault in calculating results lies with the government and students cannot be allowed to pay the price,” he said.

“We have asked the government not to play with children’s lives,” said a parent whose son had hoped for a place to study engineering but is now worried he may not be selected. “Since the [latest] results came out, my son is crying,” she lamented.