~ Anushka Kahandagamage, University of Otago
Panduka Karunanayake’s new book, Ruptures in Sri Lanka’s Education: Genesis, Present Status and Reflections is a timely intellectual intervention with a great deal of discussion on education in the country and how it should be reformed. In a scenario where state proposals for education reforms are often based on short-sighted and poor analytical reports, the book comes into the domain of discussions on education as a complex and thought-provoking engagement. Although I am not in complete agreement with some arguments presented by Professor Karunanayake, it has allowed me to think about different spaces of education which were invisible to me earlier. Being a professional in the medical field, the enthusiasm which has been shown by the author in the broader field of education must be appreciated. The book is based on many articles the author has written on the subject to newspapers over 15 years. In his simple language, the author discusses and analyses how social, economic, and political changes at local and global levels have influenced the country’s education system. Although the book mentions education in pre-colonial times, the focus is mostly on modern education and its problems.
The book consists of four sections: 1. Education, Society and Economy; 2. Kannangara Reforms; 3. Private Universities and 4. Role of Universities. In the first half of the book, the author argues that the solutions to the present crisis in the education sector are mostly outside the education domain. In this section, the author locates the issue of ‘qualification inflation’ as one of the primary concepts of his analysis. What is meant by qualification inflation? When qualifications required by a job exceeds the available job positions, the employer selects a more qualified person than what is required and also someone who has additional skills. As a result, there can be an increase in ‘required qualifications for a particular job. In this situation, basic qualifications are unable to secure a job that is compatible with the capabilities of prospective employees and what is needed for a job. This process leads to qualification inflation. Under the same section, the author discusses the causes of unemployment in post-independent Sri Lanka. Accordingly, he identifies population growth, growing social democratization, and the failing national economy as major factors contributing to graduate unemployment.
This section analyses the most controversial topic, the privatization of education, and the various ideologies that oppose it, along with the Kannangara reforms. The author describes how Kannangara educational reforms fit in well with the socio-economic environment of the country. Also, the author argues that although Dr. Kannagara’s political goals of modern and egalitarian society were our goals as well, the strategies he adapted to the society of his time do not fit equally well into today’s society.
The privatization of education, which is discussed to some extent in the second part of the book as well, becomes the central theme of the third section, under the overall theme, ‘Private Universities’. In this section, the author argues that the emergence of private universities in the country has reached a level beyond the control of the state or anyone else. But the author is not entirely opposed to the concept of private universities, and instead suggests that private universities should be regulated so that they can coexist within the private sector as do other enterprises. The author also opens the window to a conversation on the privatization of education that has already taken place, but through the issue of private tutoring which is a topic that is not much discussed in any degree of seriousness. Although I have reservations with the author’s proposals for the privatization of education with regard to certain conditions, I appreciate the fact he adds various dimensions to the education debate that need to be seriously looked at. The book engages with the education discourse following a line more akin to the equal opportunities discourse rather than a merit-based system.
The final section of the book discusses the role of universities. One of the primary concerns of this section is the problematic nature of the idea, which espouses universities primarily for industrial development. The author emphasizes how the role of the universities should go beyond the simple utilitarian purpose of industrial development. Universities, he rightly argues, should not merely be repositories of ‘utilitarian’ knowledge, but rather repositories of all knowledge. As per the book, it would be very harmful to evaluate the role of universities in terms of purely economic benefits. Instead, universities should be a fertile ground for research. Accordingly, he argues that university research should be the starting point for critical thinking, and university research should not be conducted solely for short-term productivity. As Karunanayake correctly points out, the university is society’s intellectual compass – not its computing machine. This book presents the history of education in Sri Lanka concisely and in a straightforward manner, and adds several new ideas to the ongoing discourse on education reforms. He offers examples from different times and from different countries in the world, their stories of successes and failures, along with an analysis on how they might or might not be adapted to Sri Lankan society.
(This review was initially published in the Sunday Observer of 11th of July, 2021. It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the reviewer’s consent)