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Education System: is it future-ready?

Is the future ready for them, are they ready for the future?

All presidential candidates came up with plans for the country. Rosy pictures were painted. Promises galore there were. Some of the plans were pragmatic, some idealistic and some downright silly. In all, without exception, there was talk of the future.

Futures are envisioned and policies are designed to turn vision into reality. That’s the overall picture. Identifying flaws and suggesting ways and means of fixing this or that is part of the story, but without an overall frame that could quickly slide into a term-long drudgery.  

What was worrying about the manifestos of the leading candidates was the almost cursory treatment of the subject ‘Education’. Some streamlining proposals were evident. The question of access was addressed. And yet, the ‘why’ of it all and of course ‘for what’ was left to be teased out from overall vision. 

Let’s begin with the future. First of all, we are not (and we never were) a self-contained island. There was commerce. There was travel. There was the cross-fertilization of ideas. The Sinhala language itself testifies to all this if we were to take all the foreign words incorporated into that language. The future will be no different. More challenging, yes. Dangerous, yes. But then again, no one ever inhabited idyllic situations. There can be contestation, there can be engagement. For both, we need to know what we want. National interest, in other words. 

A tomorrow with better opportunities for securing overall well-being would be the necessarily broad frame of reference. The ‘working environment’ as mentioned would be challenging. There is the political and economic play of powerful nations and equally or more powerful corporate entities operating through states both powerful and weak. Capacities always count or/or cost. 

Meeting challenges require, apart from resources and clever strategic maneuvering, a solid complement of human resources. That’s education.  

We are now on the brink of what is called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Following the first (water and steam power to mechanize production), second (electric power for mass production) and third (electronics and information technology to automate production), the world has been building on the last. We are living in that transformation where a fusion of technologies is essentially erasing the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.

Are we ready? Obviously not. The primary and secondary school education systems are archaic. If 80% of schools offering AL subjects cannot teach students subjects outside the Arts Stream, there’s something wrong. Indeed, it cannot be the case that students forced to study arts subjects don’t have what it takes to study medicine, engineering, commerce, IT etc. What’s problematic is that they are often not even aware of such options. They have no clue about their own potential.
  
Encouragingly, there have been moves in recent times to overhaul these systems to ensure that students acquire a more rounded education and are neither straightjacketed into a narrow subject stream nor driven to memorize (and forget) as seems imperative in an exam-based system of assessment.  

Then there’s the education-employment mismatch. This is partly the reason for the proliferation of private degree awarding institutions, some operating with accreditation with the University Grants Commission, and some just as outfits preparing students for foreign examinations or as affiliates of such institutions. There’s very little oversight. Quality-assurance is, well, virtually non-existent. 

Now if there was a comprehensive occupational classification and also a sense of probably skill-needs given inexorable technological advancement, education could be restructured in terms of curricula, training methods and of course resources that produce graduates with requisite skills. Even then, we have to answer the question: who will deliver all this?

Over the years the debate has been ‘private vs public’. There are merits and demerits in both systems. They can complement too. On the other hand it is a patently false dichotomy. On the other hand, there is the reality that the tertiary education system just cannot keep up with the demand for skilled people required by the overall economy.  

Perhaps we can adjust the economy to the education system we have but that would be putting the cart before the horse. We can have a different kind of economy, but that requires a vision absent in our dominant political culture and the backing of a strong, knowledgeable and capable public ready to walk that treacherous path. We might very well have to go there one day if and when the current development bubble along with fixations on industry as deliverer bursts. What do we do until then? It is not really ‘going along’ for lack of alternatives. Technology is not necessarily bad. It’s all about what technology is used for. To use it effectively (whichever way you want to understand ‘effective’) you have to know it. And moreover, you have to have enough people who know it.

The sad truth is that if we need an X number of IT graduates by 2025, X+Y by 2030, X+Y+Z by 2035 and so on (where X, Y and Z are each greater than, say, 100,000) and our private-public system can churn out just P by 2025, P+Q by 2030, P+Q+R by 2035 and so on where P, P+Q and P+Q+R are eminently describable as ‘way short of target, then we have a massive problem on our hands, 

This is why being future-ready forces the government to think of alternatives such as the not-for-profit model best exemplified by the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT), set up in 1999. The first batch that graduated numbered just 300. All IT graduates. Today, twenty years later, SLIIT offers both undergraduate and graduate programs, 38 in number and 9,500 enrolled. 

Yes, there are fees levied, with the difference that profits get pumped back into the system. The expansion alone says something about demand, demand not catered for by private and state universities. 

That’s just one aspect of it of course. What the government needs to recognize is that students must constantly retrain and upgrade their skills to stay relevant. The education system should be structured in a way that makes it flexible enough to adjust to anticipated and unanticipated technological changes.

The best of our leaders dream of a different future, vibrant and wholesome. Dreams are cheap. Work is hard. It is good that the newly elected president has talked about ‘work’ again and again. There are, however, certain nonnegotiable foundational matters that have to be put in place. Education is key.  Our system is half buried in a past and half wallowing in a confused present. Future-ready is a dream. And yet, we can get there if we are willing to understand the challenge and have the will to transform things.   


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