Can We Please Have Real Education?


Globally, on a daily basis, education is a much spoken/exploited subject; Sri Lanka is no exception. Different people look at it from different angles/corners. Despite that, based on the day-to-day observations, one could be forced to bear the view that the society has forgotten the fundamentals of education in a colossal way. I believe it is important to go back to basics and examine what education is and why it is needed, before going any further.

I must take the premise to this subject with a qualification. I am no “educationist” in mainstream school or university education per se. But, I had been an examiner/assessor/lecturer/tutor for over 10 years for the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers – UK (with royal charter) on a global scale being the first Asian to hold the position of examiner/assessor. I have also been a guest lecturer for a few UK universities. However, I do not believe the analyst should necessarily be an educationist to comment on education. A person, who possesses a reasonable amount of experience in some important process in life, is entitled to make an observation. In my analysis, I do not wish to touch upon any established theories or conventions of education; it would just be a simple analysis written in plain English for the benefit of all.

I strongly believe the education is the knowledge that is required for one’s internal development primarily and, in turn, the educated/learned masses would contribute for the furtherance of society in a positive way on all fronts. At least this is the expectation. However, this is a vast area and I myself could not think of the boundaries to this subject.

It is important to understand, what education is or should be in this context, despite the different definitions people attach to it.

I believe, the education of a new-born starts at home, most probably with parents – especially with the mother. Education begins with continuous gathering of experiences with the gradual brain development; could be, with the gestures/voices of parents, siblings and others around. For example; parents smile with baby, then baby starts responding back with a smile. These are first steps of education where human brain begins to learn/grasp in my opinion. Therefore, one could argue, the education starts at birth or just a few days/weeks thereafter and, it is a lifelong activity.

As time goes, kids advance and commence grasping elementary levels through speaking, listening, reading, writing etc. This gradual progression brings kids to more facets of education at around three or four years of age through kindergarten in the Sri Lankan system. Kindergarten is the very first place most kids get the opportunity to associate other fellow beings (teachers and peers) outside of the family/extended family. This is a crucial juncture in their lives – kindergarten becomes the first interface to the outside world.

From that point onwards the education comes in four main forms as I reckon; they are; learning from teachers/ elementary level academic books, learning through sports/extracurricular activities, learning from spiritual teachings and experiential learning; the latter including what is learnt from each other in various associations etc.

At the age of five, children get admitted to regular schools for formal education (national or international curricula). This is another threshold for kids as their exposure becomes wider. By and large primary school kids sit with another 35-40 fellow pupils in a classroom and there are a few parallel classes in most schools together with the upper grades. This makes the association wider for the five year olds.

In Sri Lanka, the private tuition culture engulfs the lives of kids from the early stages of schooling. Most parents and students believe that the support classes are a must to face the competitiveness of the system. Unfortunately, the subject based support classes restrict other essential activities (sports and/or extracurricular) that are central to children’s lives to make them wholesome.

As children progress through the system their horizons should ideally become wider on all fronts. It’s not only the subject based education, if the process is good/robust enough,education should provide an impetus to improve the general knowledge, common sense, suitability for contemporary jobs and most importantly the way they think, behave and form perspectives on different areas. However, I admit that people are not blessed with equal capabilities or/and capacity levels; and also their inclinations vary, hence the results could always be a mix.

Since the independence, Sri Lanka has worked tirelessly to improve the writing and reading ability of masses. Thanks to the people who contributed tirelessly, this has come to fruition; Sri Lanka’s adult literacy rate (15+ years of age) is now 97% which is a great achievement especially in South Asia (maintaining a 90%+ level for a number of years now).

However, it is important to understand the real meaning of this achievement. Is the ability of 97% of Sri Lankans to read, write and understand a simple sentence good enough to be responsible global citizens? Is it solid grounds to compete in the new world or a profound matter to be proud of in a practical sense? Or can this be a total panacea for all our woes?

In this article I do not wish to discuss our education system, curricula and examination methodologies as I am not conversant with them. But, what I do know is that some of us have a severe difficulty in understanding even the basics. I do not wish to touch upon politics in here, but I must mention that some of us (a reasonable percentage) have a severe deficiency in differentiating matters! In other words, we must grow up as a nation!

 Sri Lanka: Some Educational Data

  2013 2014
New admissions to government schools 342,451 339,554
Estimated new admissions to private school

(300×103 schools)

  30,900   30,900
New admissions total 373,351 370,454
Candidates sat GCE (O/L) 308,054 298,549
Percentage qualifying for GCE (A/L) 62.42 64.51
Candidates sat GCE (A/L) 241,629 247,376
Candidates qualifying to enter university 140,993 (58.35%) 149,489 (60.43%)
Number of state universities 15 15
Number of state higher education institutes 18 18
Admissions for undergraduate degrees 24,198 25,200*
University admissions as a % of eligibility 16.71% 17.53%*
Government expenditure on Education Rs 151.8 Bn Rs 190.2 Bn*

Note: *Provisional

Sources: Department of Education, University Grant Commission & Central Bank (Sri Lanka)

The table shows some recent data pertaining to the school admissions, General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level & Advanced Level (GCE O/L & GCE A/L) examinations and university admissions. It gives an idea as to how our children fare in examinations and the responsibility of the state to formulate policies to absorb them into the system for productive win/win outcomes. This is a vital juncture for both young people who leave school, and for the country at large in an economic sense.

Firstly, let us focus on the children who conclude their school career at GCE (O/L) or below. The compulsory education ends at 14 years of age in Sri Lanka. The table will help to do rough calculations for those who need precise data. Millennium Development Goals Country Report (2015) revealed that 14% of children (about 50,000 a year) dropout of school before GCE (O/L). Then the GCE (O/L) dropouts; this could be over 100,000 children a year who are 16/17 years of age. These children would be taking up lower level manual jobs if they are 14 years (legal age for work) or older. Perhaps, some could be spending a few unproductive years before they reach legal age to start work or so.

By and large these 150,000+ school dropouts are unskilled and do not possess any recognised qualification, if they have not received any vocational skill/training after leaving school. I doubt most of them even have the work mind-set! Some are just raw and not even ready for unskilled jobs in my view. This is where the nation is forced to look beyond literacy in terms of practice. Has the education system trained our nation to think? Rational thinking is an integral part of successful life at any level. But we would need the right brain software to think and grasp. Do we have the culture of taking responsibility and ownership for whatever we do? These are the areas we should ponder upon if we are planning to get elevated to the next level as a nation.

I believe most jobs (the fields where the licences are not a must to practice) just take 80% common sense/general knowledge – the technical knowledge is required only 20% of times. But, one of my learned Indian friends says common sense is not so common! There is an element of truth in it as per my experience too. Common sense is basically giving some careful thought when it comes to application. This article will look at these areas with examples towards the end.

Most of the children who successfully complete GCE (O/L) chose to take GCE (A/L) in 2-3 years. A little percentage of children leave school to take shortcuts to higher education without spending two years in GCE A/L class. As we all know the subject based support classes (tuition) play a pivotal role at this level more than the school. In this stressful situation, are we paying any attention to the mental health of our children?  Do we comprehend the fact that mental health is more important than the results/grades in examinations?

In any GCE (A/L) stream, students are required to take three core subjects. This is the most competitive examination and the greatest threshold given our meagre allocation of resources to higher education. But, I must admit that the situation has improved compared with the 1990s. Also, children are provided with many options to obtain a degree/higher qualification at a reasonable price from overseas universities/institutes. However, I have no knowledge whatsoever about the standards or the quality of these qualifications, may be, so are many of us!

The number of children dropout from education system at GCE (A/L) is about 98,000 (in 2014) a year. Of the students who qualify for university, only about 18% (only the cream as many of us think!) gain admission to the public universities. This leaves about 124,000 young adults (a year) to find alternative paths/careers.

I believe still there are opportunities to gain entry to basic office jobs with good GCE (A/L) results. However, this would also require good proficiency level in English language; association with popular schools could definitely be an added advantage. A considerable amount of young people who secure employment pursue various professional qualifications that will add value to them in the job market. Youngsters, who do not qualify, would have a tough time to find employment due to the fierce competition. Is modern farming an option? However, there may be good self-employment options/opportunities for the people who could think a bit and would like to take risks in life, but the capital requirements could restrict these ambitions.

People, who take up higher/university education, usually come to the country’s economic stream around 25 years of age or so. There is sufficient demand for the mainstream graduates (engineering, medical, management, law and the like). One of the reasons for this is the demanded skill set they have developed while on the degree. But there can be room for improvement to the thinking pattern of these graduates to become well-rounded global citizens! 

Other graduates could have tough times with job opportunities as the country’s economic activity does not offer sufficient amount of graduate employment. Hence, there is a tendency that some graduates might not get employed at all.

Then some professionals, who are successful in their careers, opt for postgraduate pursuance and progress with masters or/and doctoral degrees.

Here, I would like to bring in some of my personal thoughts about university education. I believe that the university education is not meant for all. There are two cut off points in a broad sense. The lower cut-off (the minimum standards); this is obvious for most of us. I would argue there is an upper cut-off too! Basically, the students, who could be smarter than their professors or what universities could offer (geniuses), might not need the universities to sport their paths. In other words, they do not have anything to gain from universities or the potential gains are pretty marginal. They have enough brains to think and work on their own. The classic example is the Microsoft owner Bill Gates who dropped out from Harvard University after the first year. He was innovative enough to sport his career in a total new path and become the world richest.

The aforementioned is an overlook of our education system and how it works in a nutshell. Now we should investigate the practical effectiveness of our system.

As mentioned before, we gather knowledge/education primarily for internal development and becoming responsible citizens. Then the stream/medium that we have used to gather the knowledge provides different employment opportunities in the modern world. Most of the skills gathered are transferable across disciplines. Good interpersonal skills (communication with others) are really important to sport a successful career.  Nonetheless I agree that the practical aspects of this process are more complex than this, but I have just attempted to simplify them for easy understanding of all.  

I believe one of the most prudent ways of examining the practical outcome of our education delivery is looking at the ways we behave in our day-to-day lives as a collective.

Therefore, the second part of this article is a discussion with my thoughts and examples in order to rethink/reengineer the system for better results/outcomes for all.

Let me embark with a statement made by my 21 year old UK-educated (both school and university education) daughter who is here with us for a short while. I drove her to work for four months; the journey was just about 10 km one way from Nugegoda area to Maradana (Colombo 10), not to mention the road congestion in that route especially in the peak hours. She figured out the insufficient road capacity as the main reason for the congestion. But as the second main reason my daughter cited the stupidity and self-centred nature of 80% of our population (her own words). She was shocked to witness the irresponsible way we behave on the road both as drivers (mostly three-wheelers, motorcycles and buses) and pedestrians that aggregates the severity of the congestion and puts everyone at risk.

I shared my daughter’s views with some of my learned/intellectual friends. Many of them said that they agree with her statement and it’s our real situation unfortunately. I urge the readers not to take these remarks head-on, but I mentioned them here to be brutally honest as we need corrective action sooner rather than later in order to go forward as a country – we should know where we really stand! I do agree that we are loaded with many political issues, but one could argue that our social challenges are equally wider and severe!

The aforesaid ‘traffic and pedestrians’ issue encompasses a larger spectrum of the society and I reckon it is a good area to identify common social challenges of the country that have not been resolved by our education system so far.

What about the general knowledge of our students? My niece paved her way through with flying colours to pursue a BSc management degree in a leading university this year. Despite her good theoretical knowledge in the commerce stream, she did not know that countries present a national budget every year in parliament! Shouldn’t we improve the general knowledge of our younger generations?

Let us look at how we behave in Social media which is a popular communication medium these days. Some people (a considerable number) play havoc in Facebook and the like with racist, derogative, intolerant and idiotic remarks; they show their grave incapability to differentiate matters and tolerate others views. Also, most of them simply do not know that ‘the apples can’t be compared with the grapes’. Are we showing humanity towards our fellow beings? Some people still have not even got rid of the ‘slave’ attitude/mentality! Has our education contributed to improve the quality of our thinking and respecting others’ views? Do we have ethics?

At this juncture, it is worthwhile looking back at our education system. Although we boast about literacy etc., have we at least trained ourselves enough to give a fair chance to other fellow beings which is just fundamental and basic? My honest answer is a resounding ‘no’.

I just remembered my visit to Japan 20 years ago which was a great eye opener to me. Japan is one of the nations that respects human dignity. To be honest, I learnt a lot of social etiquette in those two weeks. I really did admire the way they used public transport etc. with due respect to each other – they never jump queues! Recently, I chatted about this with a young fine art undergraduate whom I met for the first time. He said we jump queues because the opportunities are limited compared with the demand – there is some truth in it!

Education should bring practical benefits. Most importantly the education should push the people for logical/rational thinking and behaviour. Education is not only for getting a job!

Also, I presume as a nation we have a great difficulty in understanding the difference between ‘educational qualifications’ and ‘education’.I have met many people who think that the educational qualification one holds is his/her education. I vehemently oppose this; I would argue education is something that goes beyond educational qualifications. There can be people who don’t have any significant qualification but are still educated. Some processes we go through might be worth 10 PhDs or more. This is something I realised when I was reading for my doctorate, considering the narrow passage I was on.

Father of a friend of mine (friend is a surgeon) comes to my mind. This person had just got only the fifth standard in school, but he ran a fair business successfully in his time and made his children professionals. He is now into his 90s and feeble, but until 5-6 years ago, I used to have a meaningful intellectual chat when we met. He didn’t have any paper qualification, but spoke perfect sense with intelligence and wisdom. He is a learned responsible Sri Lankan who always had something to contribute to the society.

On the other hand we see some so-called ‘learned’ professors, PhDs and other intellectuals among us who are really lost in their own doomed fantasies and of no use to the society any more. Can they be called ‘learned’ or got a value for their post-nominal? I doubt!

The other day I was chatting with a friend of mine. He is a good automobile engineer who associates with a UK luxury car brand. We discussed about the so called ‘theoretical’ professionals. He was of the opinion that it is a myth; they look theoretical but they do not even know the theories well enough! He further said that the theories are based on perfect conditions/situations, and some fail to realise that the real situations are so imperfect! One would need to introduce necessary adjustments to use the theories effectively. It is a good explanation, isn’t it?

Another friend of mine, who is a CEO of a large IT firm, believes that universities and their degree classes, GPA (Grade Point Average) etc. do not matter much. He says that some first class holders from leading universities cannot compete with lower level degree holders in the industry and, therefore, he recruits staff across the system. May be, we should revisit our student assessing mechanisms/systems. He argued that we should retain our real talent within the country at any cost if Sri Lanka plans to go forward and compete in the global market.

For a person to be ‘educated’ or ‘learned’, certainly, the structured school or university education could help, but that can’t be the only criterion. I would argue the ability to think beyond boundaries, intelligence and wisdom is equally important for the education to make square-headed responsible citizens. In the modern world one can always get the knowledge/education, except the face-to-face human interaction on some occasions, from the internet.

As I always believe nothing is perfect, so is my article. But, our requirement is clear; we need corrective action without delay on a careful study! It is my fervent wish and hope that this article would instigate some discussion among the general public in order to create a dialogue that will lead to inculcate an effective continual learning culture across the board.

Writer is a well-qualified and experienced Maritime Consultant & Educationist who has lived, researched and worked in the UK for 12 years. He has travelled in over 250 major cities in 85+ countries in 5 continents. His contact email is;

A shorter version of this article was published in the “Sunday Leader” (Sri Lankan newspaper) on March 6, 2016

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