Education reform pledged by both presidential candidates

As Sri Lankans go to the polls in the country’s presidential election on 16 November, they are expecting radical change in the conventional education system and hoping candidates fulfil their promises of a globally competitive university system.

The major political parties promised to modernise the entire education system to international standards, enhancing quality while maintaining a free education system, and to provide more attractive relief packages for students.

Independent analysts are forecasting a close contest between the two main candidates, Gotabaya Rajapaksa – a former defence secretary and younger brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa who was defeated as president in 2015 – and Sajith Premadasa, minister of housing and construction in the current government and son of late president Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The student vote – mostly new voters and floating voters – will be critical to the outcome, as will the votes of two minorities, Muslims in the East and Tamils in the North.

Security fears are a significant issue for many voters in the wake of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks earlier this year when Sri Lankan Muslim suicide bombers attacked three hotels and three churches, deliberately targeting foreigners and killing over 270 people.

Election promises

But higher education reform has also been raised by both candidates.

“The present conventional education system which has been a burden on the student, teachers and parents will not be continued for long. Instead a new education system based on innovation and knowledge will be introduced,” said Gotabaya Rajapaksa, when introducing his election manifesto on 25 October.

He was referring to outdated teaching methods and curricula, with degree courses still teaching old-fashioned syllabuses and subjects that are not job oriented. Technology is absent from many classrooms.

The purpose of education should be to create a generation that is disciplined, healthy and stress free. Further, Rajapaksa promised to set up an aviation university and a nautical university – part of a programme for Sri Lanka to become a transport and maritime hub.

Rajapaksa is promising a new ‘scientific method’ for university admissions based on the school rather than the district, following a major fiasco in 2012 when calculation errors in the current scoring system meant the government had to admit an extra 10,000 students to public universities.

Another attractive promise is to enhance the Mahapola Higher Education Scholarship Trust Fund, which awards scholarships to students from low-income families.

Premadasa, launching his election manifesto on 1 November, said: "We aim at building a globally competitive university system. Universities will enjoy greater autonomy to make their own decisions.”

He has said he will transform Sri Lanka into an international educational hub for the region, capable of attracting foreign students – an unfulfilled aim of previous governments – and says he will encourage new non-profit technical universities or university colleges in every province.

Analysts say National People’s Power (NPP) candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake has emerged as a threat to the two main candidates as they may fail to secure the threshold of a minimum of 50% of votes needed to win, according to the country’s election laws.

Dissanayake said that, if he is elected, private universities would not be eradicated. In 2012 Sri Lanka's Marxist JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna), of which Dissanayake is a member but which is now part of the NPP, together with the influential Inter University Students’ Federation, opposed a bill allowing private universities to set up in Sri Lanka.

However, now as part of the wider NPP alliance, Dissanayake said the state education system would be “broadened”, with new state universities and more state-run schools and technical colleges , but “if somebody prefers to have education in the private sector, they are free to do so”.

The NPP is also promising free education from early childhood until higher education and will allow teaching in other national languages and English in addition to the mother tongue, a policy designed to attract minority voters.

Choosing from the candidates

A lecturer at the University of Ruhuna in Matara in southern Sri Lanka, who wished not to be named, told University World News that most of his colleagues support Rajapaksa. “Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy framework is compatible with what we really expect from a leader of the country. Lecturers strongly believe that the current government’s candidate is not suitable for a position like president of the country.”

Prasad Chaminda Lokubalasooriya, a popular economics tuition master in Gampaha town, close to the capital Colombo, said most first-time student voters also appear to favour Rajapaksa, partly because of the Easter Sunday attacks and its aftermath.

Rajapaksa is projecting an image as a hardliner who can tackle the threat of Islamic extremism that has emerged with the Easter bombings. As a former defence secretary, he is credited with playing a key role in ending the civil war by defeating the militant separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009.

A female lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, Kandy, who wished not to be named, said some lecturers have changed their political support over dissatisfaction with the current government, although most lecturers do not openly express their political opinions, she added.

The present government came to power in 2015 after the surprise defeat of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. But after almost five years it has been unable to fulfil many of its election promises.

Though the government has tightened democratic processes and maintained media freedom, the failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks has had an impact on the election campaign, analysts say. In particular, the current government has been unable to protect Muslims since the Easter attacks.