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Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka; Is it an Upshot of Free Education System? – Part I

After 1836, based on the recommendation of the Colebrook Commission, the British Government commenced the fee-levying English medium schooling system and established a few schools in the main cities.

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Too many children are leaving the education system without the skills and the mindset needed to compete in a dynamic knowledge-based economy and a socially competitive market. [ Photo credit: UNICEF Sri Lanka]

According to recorded history, the education system in Sri Lanka commenced after the arrival of Buddhism in the 3rd BC. Since then, it has evolved parallel to the expansion of Buddhism in the country.  This education system focused on studying religion (Buddhism) using Sanskrit and Pali languages and, to a lesser degree Hela Basha (as early Buddhist Commentaries or Hela Atuwa had been written in vernacular language). Subsequently, Sinhala became a medium of education in Privena (Buddhist Monasteries). However, like English in the modern world, Paali and Sanskrit were the elites’ languages and symbols of knowledge in the olden days. Ancient education was mainly targeted at Buddhist priests, Royal families, and nobles who were expected to be ruling class members. This education facility was provided by Pirivenas, primarily located on Buddhist temple premises, and teaching Buddhism was its main undisputed task. However, the knowledge required to maintain the socio-economic and political system of the day, such as astrology, medicine, governing principles, judicial matters, and military science, was also taught. Today, the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka assures the right to universal and equal access to education to persons at all levels and eradicates illiteracy. The average adult literacy rate in Sri Lanka was 97% in 2019, above the world and regional averages. Sri Lanka has a very high unemployment rate among youths who have completed secondary and university education.

Modern Education System in Ceylon- Favouritism

Christian Missionaries introduced Sri Lanka’s modern education system in the 19th century during the colonial period. Missionaries became very active in education in Colombo, Jaffna, and a few other main cities, mainly located in coastal areas. Missionaries played a prominent role in education in Jaffna peninsula due to contributory factors such as:

  1. Relatively a high density of Christian/ Catholic population in the Peninsula.
  2.  Even before the British period, Portuguese and Dutch missionaries had started the modern education system in Jaffna to train people to spread Christianity and participate in the administration.
  3. Due to the scarcity of natural resources in the peninsula, Tamils considered education an alternative for economic well-being and prioritised it.
  4. Sinhalese and Muslims were more interested in agriculture and trade, respectively, and had little interest in government employment. Hence, they did not look at education as a means of income.

 After 1836, based on the recommendation of the Colebrook Commission, the British Government commenced the fee-levying English medium schooling system and established a few schools in the main cities. Those were limited to well-to-do people in central cities and people who could afford to attend those schools. Most Tamil and Sinhala ordinary children who lived in rural areas were deprived of English and secondary education. Education in vernacular was free due to government grants for recurrent expenses and the contribution of local well-wishers. Those schools were limited to primary and junior secondary education to improve literacy, basic writing, and reading skills. Therefore, students at vernacular schools had no opportunity for secondary education and higher education in English.

Under the colonial regime, Catholic and Christian communities enjoyed a privileged position in education. For instance, by 1939, while Catholics and Christians were only 6.3% of the country’s population, they received 73.7% of the government grants for Assisted Schools.  Schools for Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, who accounted for 93.7 % of the population, received only 26.8 % of government grants. English, the language of the colonial masters, was the language of administration. The primary purpose of the then education system was to produce the workforce required for the colonial administration, inculcate English cultural values, and increase the awareness of the British Empire among ordinary citizens.

Reputed schools established in Colombo were open to well-to-do people of all ethnic groups (Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burger, etc.).  But, due to the locational advantage, Jaffna schools were catering mainly to the Tamil community, giving them a disproportional advantage. Under these circumstances, well-to-do Tamils enjoyed the lion’s share of the English, secondary and higher education, including medicine, law, and science.  Also, the official language of the government was English. As such, middle and senior public service positions were also staffed mainly by Tamils, significantly exceeding their proportion of the total population. For instance, “in 1956, eight years after the independence, Tamils constituted 30% of the administrative panel, 50% of the clerical personnel of the railways, postal and custom service; 60% of the doctors, engineers, and lawyers; 40% of the armed forces, and 40% of other labour forces”.( The Ethnic Conflict of Sri Lanka: A Historical and Social Outline- SasankaPerera), while their share of the population in the country was less than 11%.   However, it should not be interpreted that the entire Tamil community benefitted from the then education system. Due to social stratification, the lower strata of the Tamil community were denied even free primary education. If at all, Sinhala and Tamil-educated ordinary people could join public service mainly as minor employees. Yet, Sinhalese did not wish to join many categories of government jobs (as minor employees)that were available according to their educational qualifications but did not match the social status enjoyed as farmers.

Although English was the official language, the Tamils had a minor advantage over the Sinhala community as most of the bureaucracy could speak some Tamils. If Sinhala people were to communicate their grievances to the bureaucracy, they depended on petition writers to write in English. During the colonial period, the ordinary Sinhala majority did not have the resources and opportunity to compete with the Tamil minority in public administration. Sinhala community understood it as domination by the Tamil minority over the Sinhala majority and looked enviously at the success of the Tamil minority. They could not see it as a problem of the colonial governance and education system, known as divide and rule. Until the 1960s, Sinhalese kept complaining about the Tamil over-representation in public service, especially in high-level professions such as medicine and engineering. Before the 1970s, Tamil overrepresentation in universities, especially in medicine, engineering, and science, was a primary grievance of the Sinhala community. According to the University entrance system, “Those who scored highest gain access to different faculties in universities irrespective of their district from which they came. While there was no bias inherent in this system, Tamils from Jaffna and Colombo did particularly well. For example, in the 1969-1970 intake to science and engineering courses, Tamils accounted 35%, while they accounted for over 45% of the intake of engineering and medical faculties”.  (The Ethnic Conflict of Sri Lanka: A Historical and Social Outline-SasankaPerera)

Free Education for All

The people of the then Ceylon got a reasonable share in the governance of their own country under the Donoughmore Commission Reforms in 1931.  Under these reforms, Sinhalese, the majority population, got more political power than other communities. Against this backdrop, they launched various campaigns to wield the power of Sinhala politicians to get a due share in education and public administration.

Under DrC.W.W.Kannangara, the Executive Committee on Education of the State Council of Ceylon took the initiative to establish a free education system for all. Based on the recommendation of this committee, the Free Education bill was introduced in the State Council in 1943, and approval was granted to implement it effective from 1st October 1945. According to this, every child above the age of 5 is entitled to free education irrespective of class, caste, or ethnicity. Also, the Language of instruction was made the SWAHBASHA (mother tongue). The decision to teach in the mother tongue may have been taken because the country lacked the capacity and resources to provide universal and equal access to education at all levels in the English medium. At that time, only about 7% of the population was literate in English. But the country had adequate capacity to provide education in vernacular. Also, both Sinhala and Tamil were well-developed languages used as mediums of instruction for oriental studies. Many people, as a passion or due to ignorance, blame S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike for changing the medium of instruction from English to Sinhala, but he has nothing to do with it. However, his patriotic movement created more enthusiasm for Sinhala as it was the official language. The use of Vernacular in secondary education was a baby of Kannangara, introduced along with the Central College system. Accordingly, changing the medium of instruction from English to vernacular in universities necessitated an automatic process during the Bandaranaike period.

Secondary Education for Rural Poor

The system of Central Colleges, introduced by Minister Kannangara, was commenced and modelled on Colombo Royal College. The program was to establish one such school in each electorate with hostel facilities in different areas of the country outside main cities but in central locations to provide secondary education in Sinhala and Tamil mediums. At the inception, students at Central Colleges were given a good English education, enabling them to proceed with higher education in English. The initiative of Minister Kannangarawas a turning point and a revolutionary step in the Ceylon education system, which was hitherto limited to the well-to-do people of the main cities. The system was further strengthened by providing scholarships to study in central colleges for poor but clever students of remote primary and junior secondary schools, enabling them to cover the cost of food and logging, clothes, textbooks, etc. As a result, many Sinhala and Tamil students in less privileged areas and less privileged families got secondary and higher education opportunities. The free education system and the establishment of the central college system reduced the imbalances in ethnic composition, rural-urban composition, and rich-poor composition in secondary and higher education and public service to a certain extent. However, the number of such schools was limited to 54 and could not significantly change the existing ethnic composition of the enrolment in Secondary and higher education and public service. As the public service was rapidly expanding, this marginal increase in educated people did not affect the Tamil and Sinhala elites. Hence there was no visible objection to the reform.

Free Education for AllBecameAReality and A Responsibility Of The Government

Assisted Schools and Training Colleges (Special Provisions) Act passed in 1960; was an Act that enabled the government to take over the ownership and management of many schools and training colleges managed by non-governmental organisations and private parties.  There was a big protest by the catholic organisation against the takeover of schools by the government. But the poor segment of the Catholics supported the move as their children would benefit immensely from the free education system. The Act was passed in the parliament with 60-member majority votes. However, United National Party and Federal Party, which represented Sinhala and Tamil elites voted against this Act. Under this Act, the government took over many schools that belonged to the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka and schools that the Buddhist Theosophical Society managed. After implementing the above Act, the Free Education Ordinance- of 1943 became a reality. It practically ensured free education for all Sri Lankan children in their mother tongue, regardless of ethnicity, class, caste, and other socioeconomic differences. Since then, free education has become the government’s responsibility and children’s right.It ensures free education for any Sri Lankan child from kindergarten to a university degree. This means that every Sri Lankan, by birth or registration, endows full insurance coverage for education.

Along with these initiatives, in addition to the hitherto existing limited number of Central Colleges,manyMahaVidyalayas (like central colleges but without hostels) were established/upgraded all over the country, catering to all rural areas to teach up to the university entrance level in the mother tongue. To facilitate this process, the medium of instruction in universities also changed from English to the mother tongue (Sinhala and Tamil). Also, before this, two new universities Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara) were established, which enabled it to accommodate the increasing number of undergraduates coming from newly established Mahavidyalayas.

Equal Access

Before the 1960 forms, most poor Sinhalese, Muslims, and Tamils were educationally backward.In the early 1960s, parallel to the expansion of Sinhala and Tamil Schools for secondary education, the number of Muslim schools increased for primary and secondary education. The minimum academic qualification to recruit teachers during this period was GCE (O/L). But the Muslim community did not have an adequate number of people with minimum qualifications then. The minimum qualification criteria were relaxed in appointing teachers to Muslim schools to overcome this vacuum. Without the said special preference, it would have been impossible to trigger off education among poor Muslims.

However, at the inception, there was no adequate number of qualified teachers and other facilities in newly established/upgraded MahaVidyalayas.Therefore, the quality of education in these schools was much lower than in Central Colleges and reputed urban colleges. Further, most of these schools did not have facilities for science education. As such, university entrance from these MahaVidyalayas was limited to arts streams. They could not send students to universities to be qualified as doctors, engineers, scientists, accountants, or other professionals.

Educated Unemployed Youths as a Pressure Group

Regardless of various constraints, many students from less privileged areas and families became graduates qualified in art subjects. Most of them could not find gainful employment according to their expectations. Though university education is free, students who entered universities from low-income families were faced with numerous problems in financing the cost of food and lodging, transport, teaching aids, etc. Very often; their parents were indebted to fund those expenses and compelled to compromise the education of other children in the same family. Towards the late1960s, there was a large backlog of unemployed graduates. They became a dynamic and knowledgeable but frustrated lot, creating a new socio-economic and political problem. This was a more serious issue among the Sinhala community than among the Tamils. Still, the Tamil elites enjoyed a significant share of science education. As such, they felt the problem very little and were not bothered about the unemployment of art graduates from less privileged families. Moreover, due to the solid social stratification in the northern area, unemployed Tamil graduates did not have a social environment conducive to becoming a powerful pressure group to bargain with politicians or the government for jobs. They were voiceless at the regional as well as national levels. Even in those days, Northern politicians did not live in their constituency with the community, and there was a wide gap between political leaders and constituents. Despite that,Tamil political leaders did not want to see and did not allow the youth to understand that unemployment among educated youth is a national problem. Instead, they interpreted it as discrimination against Tamils and an ethnicity-related issue. They used the national crisis to justify a separate Tamil Country within Sri Lanka.

However, unemployed Sinhala graduates agitated against the then government, requesting a resolution for the graduate unemployment. They became an organised major political force in the late 1960s, and their pressure on the political leaders increased. During the 1970 General election campaign, United Front, led by Sri Lanka Freedom Party, pledged to resolve this burning socio-economic issue if they came into power. Against this backdrop, that party was supported by unemployed graduates, parents, and university academic staff. United Front won the general election and came into power with an overwhelming majority. Meanwhile, the Tamil leadership was preparing their youths to agitate for a separate state to resolve core problems, including unemployment.

To be continued

Sirisena Amarasekara

Sirisena Amarasekara is a Sri Lankan public servant and diplomat. He is the former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana, and Eswatin. He had functioned as the secretary to the Prime Minister on two occasions, and as the secretary to the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Having completed more than 50 years of public service, Amarasekara is one of the most senior Sri Lankan public servants.

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