Poll rivals vying to be the party of education reform

Sri Lankans will be voting in the country’s general election on Monday 17 August expecting widespread improvements in the outdated education system and an end to the current turmoil, as rival parties have showered them with promises of reforms and resources.

The major political parties pledge to modernise the entire education system to international standards and enhance the quality of the education system.

There has been a focus on Sri Lankan youth and students during the election campaign, as students, along with academics, played a key role behind the scenes in the surprise defeat of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa in January’s presidential election.

Of the 15 million registered voters, around 1 million are new voters aged 18-22, making their involvement in the election decisive. Students have been active during the election campaign, especially via social media.

Rajapaksa, in a bid to become prime minister this time, has included a new focus on education as part of his United People's Freedom Alliance, or UPFA, manifesto. The UPFA says it will upgrade seven universities to world-class level aiming for them to be ranked among the top 30 universities in Asia.

According to global university rankings, currently Sri Lankan institutions are not even among the best 2,000 universities.

The current United National Party, or UNP, government under President Maithripala Sirisena has said it will promote the affiliation of foreign universities with Sri Lanka's state universities in order to improve higher education quality. A comprehensive student exchange programme will be set up.

Bold election promises

A new school education act, establishing a University Education Council, the affiliation of foreign universities with state universities, free laptops for every university student, free Wi-Fi zones, establishing new technical colleges and creating one million job opportunities for youth and new syllabi targeting the international job market are among the bold – and some say extravagant – election promises of the main political parties in the current election campaign.

After Sirisena’s surprise victory early this year, students, teachers and parents expected education improvements as promised by the new government within 100 days, but the new government has struggled with resignations and new appointments to several key positions in the education sector.

Nonetheless, before dissolving parliament on 26 June, Sirisena’s first six months in office saw some achievements – most important were reducing clashes with university student unions, with the new government preferring to hold a dialogue. The government also reduced the politicisation of the higher education sector with the resignation of all political appointees to the higher education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission.

The government also increased the Mahapola Scholarship monthly subsistence for poorer students from US$30 under the previous government to US$40. Some 10,000 students a year qualify for the subsistence grants, or 50,000 students overall.

Rajapaksa’s UPFA says it will increase Mahapola Scholarships by another US$10 a month, paying poorer students US$50 a month in subsistence, in a bid to garner the student vote.

Rival political parties claim that higher education minister SB Dissanayake under the Rajapaksa regime was responsible for Rajapaksa’s unpopularity within the university community because his policies resulted in protests, strikes and the suppression of students on campuses.

Targeting the youth and student vote

All three main political parties are targeting the youth and student vote, promising changes to high school and the higher education systems including the introduction of a comprehensive formal technical education system to upgrade youth skills and improve their employment prospects.

UNP says it will set up 18 new subject-specific technical colleges linked to local and foreign companies and each with a minimum student capacity of 2,000 students. The car, construction, shipping, and hotel and leisure industries, as well as nursing, are some of the subject sectors.

Existing technical colleges will be upgraded to Colleges of Technology each with a minimum intake of 1,000 students.

UNP says it will establish an institute similar to the Asian Institute of Technology to foster postgraduate research and technological inventions; and an Agricultural Technological Institute, to increase research in agriculture, technology and water management.

Both UNP and the left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or JVP, say they will gradually increase the budget allocation for education to 6% of gross domestic product, or GDP – under the previous UPFA regime it was around 2% of GDP.

UPFA says it will increase the annual university intake by 30%, while JVP says it will provide places for all students that are eligible for university admission.

Every year in Sri Lanka some 220,000 sit the Advanced Level school-leaving exam, and about 100,000 students are eligible to enter universities. However only 25,000 can be admitted to universities due to limited capacity.

Prime Minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has said all students will be given the opportunity to progress to post-16 GCE Advanced Levels, which will qualify them for university entrance, regardless of the results of their GCE Ordinary Level exams taken at 16, to help improve skills levels and job opportunities for young people.

Sri Lanka’s university lecturers are among the worst paid academics in Asia, with salaries of around US$200 for junior lecturers and around US$500 for senior professors. JVP says they will increase university dons’ basic salaries up to US$700. According to reports, Sri Lanka is one of the worst hit in terms of brain drain with 27.5% of academics leaving the country each year.

The student federation

The Inter University Students' Federation, or IUSF, has remained politically neutral throughout the election campaign but has held protests against the new government’s education privatisation policies. The present government has given the green light to several education reforms including the establishment of private universities.

Political analysts say the hidden agenda behind these IUSF-organised protest marches in the past two weeks was to create a tense situation and gain political mileage even though private universities have not been mentioned in the main parties’ political manifestos.

Police did not use tear gas or water cannons to disperse students as they have on previous occasions. But a water cannon was accidentally used against seated demonstrators and later riot police apologised to student demonstrators.

Political analysts predict the election will be a close fight with neither Wickremesinghe nor Rajapaksa able to secure an outright majority in the parliament.