"President Wickremesinghe now says Sri Lanka should be an “Educational hub.” Given heavy weightage in this government’s recovery aspirations, what role would FDIs play in an “educational hub”? Does he believe a free-market economy that failed for over 40 years can now be turned around in this crisis, yet again with incentives for FDIs? With free markets that decide everything on profits for tomorrow, no government will be able to plan formal education for unknown development."


Twenty-five years from now, the year 2048 is earmarked as the most important year for Sri Lanka. It has become President Wickremesinghe’s year for all targets.

In 2048 Sri Lanka would become prosperous. Would establish the most “productive” labour force. Would become the most sought-after tourism hub in Asia. Year 2048 is now going to be the year Sri Lanka will have a “robust education system” to serve all market needs.

Addressing the “expert committee” appointed to assist the 10-member “Ministerial Committee for Educational Reforms”, President Wickremesinghe was reported as having said, it is important the education system is reformed to provide a “skilled workforce” to accomplish the objectives of becoming a developed country by 2048.

He has stressed upon areas like early childhood education, primary and secondary education, higher education, vocational training, and information technology for due reforms. General topics anyone would mention as important.


Education is a “right” of all children



There are instead, few other issues that should be accepted as cardinal rules and standards in educational reforms. First and foremost, education is a “right” of all children. Education is a learning process and not one where a teacher holds pupils as “captives” in a classroom to teach a string of subjects for an exam.

Next, education in this modern world is not about producing employees only, but about producing citizens with social responsibility and rational minds for secular, inclusive societies. Also, educational reforms must focus on future “development” where development is clearly defined. Reforms accordingly have a mammoth task of changing perceptions not only in schools but in society as well, in leaving aside exams to select the “best pupils” on marks gained.


Back to the latest ministerial committee on Educational Reforms, producing a “skilled workforce” in becoming a “developed” country is just empty talk, when “development” itself is illusive and has never been defined in this free market economy. What “development” are we talking about? Development is definitely not “economic growth” in any economy with yawning disparities in wealth, income and access to services and facilities. Reforms in the education sector cannot be designed for speculative economic growth that carries massive disparities in accumulation of income and wealth that in turn decides access to services and facilities.


Thus, there would never be equal opportunities and equal facilities to all pupils in public schools, though in literal terms education remains a “right”. Doubt this ministerial committee on educational reforms would address the major issue of over 3,000 schools across the island at present lacking uninterrupted supply of drinking water to pupils and staff that also means they have no toilet facilities. With 2,971 schools attended by less than 100 pupils while there are over a dozen schools in Colombo with 4,000 to 8,000 pupils and 3,095 schools have less than 10 teachers while 270 schools have over 100 teachers and in some, well over 150 teachers. This clearly means all 4 million pupils are not treated equally in this education system. Reforms should not leave space for economic disparity in society to be carried into schools. Then again reforms should have a socially just economic life for all 4 million pupils to be treated as equals.

Here in present Sri Lanka, where social responsibility is unknown and education has no clear focus, the whole education system needs a complete overhaul. Public funded institutes like the National Institute of Education (NIE), is mandated “with the critical task of developing the curricula for the national general education” with quality, equity, and relevance in a pluralistic society. It is also called upon to “provide quality teacher education and professional development of personnel engaged in the educational sector” as said in their official website. Established 36 years ago, one wonders what they have been doing with their mandate all these years and where public funds annually allocated had gone. Quality of teaching is far below par and the curriculum is far outdated. How relevant their output is for a “pluralistic society” is one that would need a different definition for what “pluralistic” is.


Reforming national education


Reforming national education needs to take in everything from preschools to company owned profit oriented educational organisations called “international schools” and numerous vocational educational institutes run on profit. Everything from concepts to content and infrastructure to institutional arrangements, in designing a new national education system.

Most importantly, they require to be discussed in the backdrop of the economic policy that would indicate the type of employment the economy would generate both short and long term. Planning education thus needs a clear direction and a realistic reading of the future economic growth.

For over 40 years, no government including that of President Jayewardene could read the future and predict the type of investments and technology that would be brought to Sri Lanka. When the first FTZ in Katunayake was opened in 1978, President Jayewardene expected multinationals like Motorola to rush in with mega investments and hi-tech. Instead, what came was apparel manufacture with hardly any innovative technology. With all accessories and raw materials also imported, they came to use cheap, raw labour. We could not attract bigtime investors even for rubber and leather industries, we could provide quality raw materials for.


In free market economies governments can invite FDIs offering numerous tax concessions and benefits but would have to accept whatever that come. Governments cannot plan and prioritise development programs in these free markets even to channel FDIs for identified development.


Therefore, when President Wickremesinghe says education should be geared to produce a “skilled workforce,” it simply is too vague and abstract to understand what type or category of “skills” he is referring to. Most would talk about gearing education to produce “IT specialists.” IT specialists are being produced in many State universities internally and externally, and in numerous private institutes affiliated to foreign organisations, including the SLIT at Malabe. I doubt there is an accepted common standard in the quality of IT workers produced and a count on the numbers turned out annually for now. Again, this demand for IT workers cannot be worked out in educational reforms not knowing how and at what pace it would develop or decline in the next five years or so.


Educational hub




President Wickremesinghe now says Sri Lanka should be an “Educational hub.” Given heavy weightage in this government’s recovery aspirations, what role would FDIs play in an “educational hub”? Does he believe a free-market economy that failed for over 40 years can now be turned around in this crisis, yet again with incentives for FDIs? With free markets that decide everything on profits for tomorrow, no government will be able to plan formal education for unknown development.

To say it more explicitly, if the Government plans to strengthen community level preventive healthcare over curative healthcare, the education system at tertiary level can be designed to produce required public and family health extension staff in a carefully regulated market economy. Social requirement in the next 10 years can then be estimated. But in a free market allowed to decide on highly profitable curative healthcare with investors deciding the price of their services, no government could plan for human resources necessary for healthcare during the next 10 years except on sheer arbitrary calculations as with tourism.


Inability in planning education in this free-market economy is more than evident with different State authorities developing education policy and programs, without collaborations between them and now the President appointing a 10-member ministerial committee backed by an expert committee with no mention of them.


The National Education Commission (NEC) developed a “National Education Policy Framework” (NEPF) running into over 250 pages for the decade 2020 to 2030. NEC has identified 6 “aims” in formulating its NEPF as, i. universal access to education ii. equity and inclusiveness iii. Quality education to match international benchmarks iv. all-round personality development v. national identity and unity in diversity and vi. Adequate funding, quality physical and human resources and greater accountability and efficiency. Yet there is no discussion on how all this could be achieved in an ever-failing free market economy.

The National Institute of Education (NIE) announced in December 2022, they have through an island wide network of stakeholders, compiled “Educational Reforms” to be implemented from 2023. Dr. Navaratne as DG NIE making a presentation on proposed reforms says, educational reforms are focussed on “sustainable national development” that again is popular jargon (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=NLy_g79EsFk). There is no clarification what “sustainable national development” is, though they claim their reforms are focussed on “sustainable national development.”


Educational reforms


On this present exercise on educational reforms approved by the cabinet in April, with no explanation by President Wickremesinghe on discarding both NIE and NEC when appointing his ministerial committee, it only means he wants educational reforms to cater to his Government’s hardline free market economic policy, hell bent in adopting a new compact labour law that accepts “hire and fire” of workers.

That explains the “skilled workforce” he expects with educational reforms. If the Government is sincere in reforming the degenerated education system, educational reforms need to be accepted in society with an inclusive participatory discourse before parliament adopts them. A participatory process in no way means inviting proposals and organising selected audiences for curated discussions.

Further opening up the economy with employers allowed to hire and fire workers, educational reforms from a ministerial committee will not be about improving the education system. I would therefore say, they would likely turn the “sambol” into a “pickle”.









Kusal Perera

Political essayist and journalist

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