Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Intransigence by the Ministry of Higher Education in refusing to believe that there is a serious flaw in the A level results

Despite overwhelming evidence of a complete breakdown in the reporting systems in the issue of the A level results issued of Christmas day of all days, there is a complete lack of acceptance that there is something wrong.

There was initial acceptance that some errors had been found in the District and National ranking systems which had been subsequently corrected. However it appears that the problems with regard to the difference in the results as submitted to the school Heads and that in the Internet along with the fact that many students received results from subjects they did not sit have not been resolved. The Ministry Secretary and the Commissioner of Examinations dispute there is a problem, and the Minister in order to cover himself has said that there could be isolated instances of anomalies, but overall the results stand not requiring them to be withdrawn.

I maintain that the results MUST be withdrawn forthwith, and investigated and the new set of results for ALL students reissued once the problems have been ironed out. I do not believe the problem is isolated and am in the process of gathering data to present to the authorities and the Media so that they can judge for themselves if what I am saying is systemic or isolated.

Imagine if you are an A level student expecting the results or the Parent of one. How would you feel? I would not like to be in the shoes of one of them. I will not know if the results will be cancelled owing to the growing challenges from all parts of the country. Therefore the results I have received will not be believable either even if they are good or even better than I expected. This is a serious indictment of the Department of Examination’s inability to do their job properly.

In short there is a cock up of incredible proportions, and no one least of all the relevant Minister is willing to accept blame. Heads should roll, but it should begin with the Minister. I cannot understand why he nor the President who has not commented on this as he was partly to blame by forcing the Examinations Commissioner to release the results before he was ready. Only he and not the Minister is able to judge if they are ready with all the facts prior to releasing the examination results.

If this is any indication of how the Education and Examination Departments work, I dread to think how they will implement the new Education Policy the government is about to introduce with new syllabuses and subjects. Further the Private Universities Bill will be another example of a badly drafted one full of holes!!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Private Universities Bill to be presented in January – the Suspension of Student Unions

The march from Peradeniya to Colombo, planned by the Peradeniya University students against the Private University Bill has been prevented by the Govt. and all the existing Student Unions have been suspended at that Campus.

Why are these students against Private Universities? Their main concern is that this is a back door method to gradually remove Free Education from Grade 1 to University in Sri Lanka. Are there grounds for concern? Yes definitely as the current education system in Sri Lanka has failed both the student, who cannot find a reasonable job upon graduation, but also the Country as the system does NOT produce graduates of a caliber that the Motherland wants.

The problem is not wholly of the University system, it is of Education in general and must be tackled at all stages, beginning at Grade 1, and a new thinking based on a realistic assessment is badly needed. I will not go into this broad subject and will concentrate only on the Private University fear. I understand that even the lecturers have lent their support to these students for this agitation.

In a private public instance, we already have sufficient examples with private schools and the issue is no different. The private sector can by definition offer attractive salaries, terms and conditions to draw the best. There could be a drain of teachers from the public sector further eroding the standard of instruction at University. This problem is there any way as there are hundreds of academics who have gone to overseas countries for Post Graduate and doctoral work and NOT returned to the Island, causing a shortage in the teaching cadre. On the flip side we must understand that our home grown talent can remain at home, rather than leave for pastures anew in foreign lands. The answer is to increase the pool of teachers to replace those who leave, rather than worry about the fact they leave. The other solution is to increase the salaries of the University Dons that has already been promised by the govt. to reduce this brain drain.

An environment with competition from the private sector is healthy in forcing the public sector to improve its quality of service delivery, which in this case are employable graduates. This is true the world over. One must remember that the government uses this premise as another reason not to spend more on education and instead gets the private sector to take the slack. Again, a case in point are the 500,000 students who pay for their schooling, which automatically reduces the strain on the state sector in educating them. This same principle no doubt guides the thinking behind private universities as that will reduce the burden on the state.
The fact that more funds may be required to keep up with the private sector both for quality students and quality teachers, may reduce the available free places for less well off kids to get into the State University system. On the other hand it will permit students with lower A level results to enter the private university system, creating an element of distrust where one with 3 A’s cannot get into the public university, whereas one with 3 C’s can do the same course in a private one. That I fear is a valid point that needs to be debated, but currently they go overseas.

On the other hand, employers are wise to the employability of graduates, and for that purpose, the University, private or public is on notice to produce what the market requires. If their quality is poor, then fewer students of quality will want entrance at that institution. What better way to weed out the good from the bad? The bad if it does not improve their performance will have to close down, just like so many schools in the rural areas.

I am not too concerned about the quality of the Private Universities as it is up to the entrant to do the necessary homework to check on their suitability in terms of repute before seeking admission. So this usual complaint by students opposed to the private sector can easily be relegated to one that is superfluous. Of course the state will in its Bill propose a means of ensuring quality control. Why this is necessary is beyond me as students attend so many private universities overseas, without them having to be regulated by anybody, least of all from Sri Lanka.

The main point which I would therefore raise is the guaranteed amount of free places available to local students, so that a minimum cost would have to be borne by the state for their education, anything less will be tantamount to an abrogation of the rights under the Free Education promise.

A further guarantee of a limit to the paying students should also be made, as the government now intends to get paying students to the State University sector to subsidize its cost. I do not know why they have restricted it to overseas students. Is it because they want them to pay their fees in foreign currency?

Further, I understand that minimum percentages of places must be offered at Private Universities as scholarships to students who excel on some criteria, this too should be included so that the quality of the intake at these places is also improved.

All agitation should be limited to what is reasonable in light of current conditions without compromising Free Education principle for the masses in as much as it is applicable today bearing in mind the amount of private tertiary education available.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The ‘Complete Mess’ in the published A level result – just issued

The disgrace of a Government that issued incorrect A level results last morning knows no boundary as the fallout MUST result in the rolling of heads!! Beginning with the Minister responsible, namely the Minister of Higher Education, under whom the Commissioner General of Examinations operates. The latter and the Secretary to the Minister of Higher Education are now entangled in a fight as to how to resolve the issue, who to take responsibility and realistically reject the results and reissue them once they have identified and rectified the problem.

It appears that by design or by coincidence there has been some internal computer glitch that resulted in a wholesale issue of results, that have nothing to do with reality, causing untold misery heartache, and breakdown amongst a whole host of young people who have been awaiting their A level results with anticipation and trepidation. For them to be fooled by a cruel joke of this magnitude, without first being spot checked for accuracy is an indication of the incompetence of the officials handling this area.

I am given to understand that a new Commissioner General of Examinations will take office on the 1st of January 2012, and in that regard the present holder of that office will be retiring. Is this a parting gift from him as he has nothing to lose? I wonder if we will know the answer to that. If he has some grudge against the Minister he is more than capable of putting his minister in the spot. However I seem to have seen that the Minister in his manner of making light of things is proclaiming a computer ‘gilmart’ for the fracas and refuses to accept blame.

From what I understand at the point of writing, that the Z scores as it relates both to country and district rankings have been rejected, but not the overall results. Even here I believe there are anomalies as there are many students who have results for subjects they did not answer at the examination throwing coals into the already raging fire. It is time that the whole result is immediately withdrawn.

The President had forcibly intervened and asked the Commissioner General of Elections(CGE) to release the results, even though he had expressed some concern over some of the bases of calculation of the Z scores as there are two sets of syllabuses, whose results are released. So now it is a black mark on the President’s edicts too as one could blame him for interfering in a process that is none of his business. It is up to the CGE to determine when he is ready to release and not the Head of State. It is time someone takes responsibility and the Media fairly criticize this action, so the General Public can be made aware of the MESS in the first place

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Senior Ministers – Who are they and what do they do for an extra Rs300M?

Sri Lanka has in its own unique way created a category of Minister from TEN aged MPs known as seniors who have been given responsibilities over and above those allocated to MP’s. The extra cost is in addition to the cost of an MP that include income, allowances, perks along with the 24hr MSD security that comes with it.

I believe it is an unnecessary and superfluous expense where the money could easily be spent in more productive ways to improve the economy. It is a way to give jobs to their staff which amount to about 275, many who are relatives and friends of the same ministers. The rough breakdown is approximately Rs20M per minister and a further Rs100M to keep the Administrative Secretariat functioning.

The vision statement is ‘Sustainable National Development’ and the mission statement is ‘Co-ordinating and monitoring National Development Initiatives’ which are: 1 Good Governance and Infrastructure – Ratnasiri Wickremanayake
2 Human Resources – DEW Gunesekara
3 Rural Affairs – Athauda Seneviratne
4 Food Security – P Dayaratne
5 Urban Affairs – AHM Fowzie
6 Social Welfare – Milroy Fernando
7 Consumer Welfare – RMSB Navinne
8 National Resources – Piyasena Gamage
9 Scientific Affairs – Tissa Vitharana
10 International Monetary Cooperation – Sarath Amunugama

I let the reader judge what on earth we want to spend this amount for this kind of semantic exercise, when we have other priorities. I also wished to make the readers aware of this particular exercise in futility, as it is usually hidden from view. Another point of note is that while DEW Gunesekara was the chairman of the COPE committee looking into the expenditure of the public sector institutions, it does not come under the above criteria and is external to the above terms of reference. That in itself requires the full extent of a MPs time to wade through the smoke and mirrors, that one would not find time to add another responsibility called ‘Human Resources’ to him as shown above.

I know this is just a start of my investigation into the billions of waste of Government Expenditure, that our kids have to repay in the future as much of it is funded out of Debt when these erstwhile seniors have long left mother earth to places beyond, bless their souls and curse their silence. A suggestion, how about giving this function to opposition MPs, they can do a stellar job of overseeing!!!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Strike by the Private Bus Owners Association is imminent over route permits

The haphazard and highly politicized distribution of route permits causes enormous friction within the industry. In another example of the manner in which these route permits are distributed, sold, bribed away and auctioned, once again it has caused a problem leading to this action, in a very competitive industry. Not only do these operators have to compete with the state bus service SLTB which as we are told, is about to increase its fleet by leaps, and which is highly subsidized having on average 8 workers on the payroll for each bus that is roadworthy. The distribution on non-market criteria is a cause for dissatisfaction.

Put yourself in the shoes of a private bus operator. You have to face many severe allegations. One of overcrowding, of racing to catch the next customer, of treating the customers like cattle and being rude to them, permitting panhandling in the buses for a fee or a percentage of the takings and if that was not enough they have to bribe the minister to get the permits they want or even challenge the threat of losing the license over a non-existent or manufactured transgression.

Into all this comes the granting of route permits without due consideration to the supply and demand issues as well as the times allotted for the various buses both to provide a smooth service at regular intervals and be fair in the allocations so that a balance of peak and non peak services can be shared around. This is nevertheless a very thorny issue with no clear way of coming out with an acceptable compromise.

The government has masterfully led public opinion to the faults of the PBOA and not of the benefits of these buses. I do believe that 80% of the buses on the road are Private. So its contribution to passenger transport at reasonable cost is huge. Instead of using more SLTB buses to compete, the state should encourage more private buses, without recourse to selling route permits except to auction them under transparent procedures on certain routes that are particularly in demand.

I have advocated for a two tier fare structure on local routes for before 6pm and after so that the night traveler will also be better served, something the private sector at present has not been permitted to do. The state sector buses which are few and far between are asked to fill in the discrepancy in the later hours.

I believe that there is not enough research into optimizing the formula for the benefit of the public. I would like to see timetables using counting data under the auspices of the transport ministry, so that bus passengers are better served. This will hopefully take more people from personal transport into public transport.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Southern Expressway – What if provision had been made for a single line Electrified Rail Network leading eventually to Kataragama via Hambantota.

Just ponder! As part of the whole project to build an Expressway something that will just add to the air and noise pollution with fossil fuel burning vehicles, would it not have been visionary to have ensured at least a one line high speed rail network, preferably electrified, that would go to Kataragama in 90 minutes. Rail on a new line built from scratch can be designed for much higher speeds that vehicles.

This will also satisfy the environmental lobby. Four stops along the way including Galle, Matara and Hambantota will reduce current road traffic to all places up to and including Kataragama. Our rail network has been purposely left to decay in favor of road transport, which we now know has been one huge mistake. There have been no concrete steps to improve it except the rebuilding of the line to KKS, which I hope will be done so as to severely shorten the time at least from Anuradhapura to Jaffna.

The problem yet again in SL is that there are few if any who think outside the box and for the RDA to think in terms of anything other than roads was unthinkable. So we spent a colossal amount on a project that is only going to encourage those who have quality cars to make use of them on their way to town up to Hambantota, when the road is finally extended that far in a few years. Now that the Govt. is bent on finishing of the aptly named Mattala Airport, the muts should have thought of liking it directly to a high speed rail network to get to Colombo. Technically a passenger can get to Colombo faster from Mattala than from Katunayaka if the rail network from there was outstanding.

We must never forget that we are a small country in land extent. That is a huge advantage in many ways. I know that we can easily cover the whole country with cellular use which a vast country like the US cannot! We can therefore take maximum advantage of our size to make our travelling from A to B all the more convenient and safe by proper planning. Despite the doubling or tripling of vehicles into the country, which will one day block Colombo in a horrific traffic snarl up, where motorists will be stranded. We have not thought ahead from there. We are waiting for the crisis and we may then consider taking steps to spend a further 10 years trying to solve that problem AFTER we get to it.

It is important to plan. It is not a problem to predict our population and our living standards and make a proper accounting of it so that our citizens quality of life will in fact be enhanced rather than deteriorate under the current directions.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Suicide – the facts and figures are still startling – here are the 2011 figures

In the period January to June 2011 – 1529 Males and 449 Females committed suicide making a total of 1978. In the whole year 2010 – 2914 Males and 950 Females for a total of 3864 committed suicide. The main causes were of affairs of the heart and the predominant means was by way of consumption of pesticides.(source:Sunday Maubima – Dec18th)

I have done no research as to how it compares with other countries or whether it is relatively high, but I know it is preventable, as the main reasons are of a very fleeting or temporary nature that can be solved by intervention of a close confidante or relative. In my rajaratarala blog I noted a few months ago, how a person committed suicide on one of our properties, this too had to do with a relationship that went wrong, which then resulted in disposing of all possible items to imbibe in alcohol to numb the senses owing to this break-up.

I know there is some effort to dilute the strength of some of these pesticides so as not to make it so lethal, but that is a bandage that may or may not work and actually in the eyes of the user of the poison for the purpose to which it is was bought is now of no use anyway as it does not do the job it portends to.

The widespread use of mobile phones especially amongst the very young school children, is an added dimension, as these illicit romances are carried out behind the backs of the parents, who if and when they find out get uncontrollably violent or indignant, resulting in runaway kids who are not mature enough to manage on their own. Sometimes they make a pact when they see no option out of their predicament and with the need to be together having read about similar stories (last week an awol soldier and two sisters committed suicide by hanging in Eppawela) they do it together, not having made any effort to resolve it with consultation.

In Sri Lanka going to counseling is still not in the culture and also speaking frankly about one’s feelings is rare. Therefore this simple solution is not resorted to. I am sure that there are establishment figures who are also looking into this issue, and I would propose depending on the seriousness of this amongst teens and 20 somethings, to include this in part of an overall program of introducing social and soft skills in schools to make introduction into society a smoother one.

Death especially of the very young and promising is hard for us to accept, and if there is anything we can do to even prevent one loss of life we should. I am sure the statistics and the solutions have been discussed, so let us implement them soon.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

“JANAPRIYA” does not just mean POPULAR. It is wrapped up in deceit

Sri Lankans who are wary always look on the popular personality with some disdain. If someone is popular it is because he usually did not obtain it by example of piety or by leading an exemplary life. It is because he obtains it by giving something free to gain popularity or by using the media for personal gain and self publicity. So attached to the ‘popular’ person are dubious undertones.

To put this idea in context, let me remind the reader that the MJF Foundation is possibly the largest Charitable Foundation in Sri Lanka. Few in Sri Lanka have heard of it. Even at the entrance to one of its most expensive projects, being the building, maintaining and running of a school for children affected by ‘Down’s Syndrome’ there is barely a name board indicating its existence at the old Velona Factory Premises in Ratmalana. This is a case of doing things without seeking publicity for the acts of Charity. The founder of this charity has not even received a title of ANY sort, despite having distributed at least Rs5B for charitable causes.

Contrast this with Mr Sajith Premadasa’s Sasunata Aruna program, where he donates a Rs50,000 check each time to the head of a viharaya, church, mosque or hindu temple for their use. Almost every donation results in a political speech, that receives both TV and print media publicity. He gains popularity for this and possibly the word “Janapriya” ness for him increases. Do you know where he gets the money for this? It is certainly not his money that he has earned, as he does not do a business. It is possible that he lends the money that people give him and uses the interest to make this donation. After all he is well known to use his many connections to constantly plug them for funds to help him with his causes. The people who see his actions and increase both his name recognition and popularity do not know that part. To many of us it does not matter where the money comes from, even if it is stolen, as long as it is given for something we ask for. Then we extol the virtues of the giver as someone who helped us with this or that!!!

We need a sea change in attitude to value and respect the truly magnanimous. Otherwise when we follow false images meant to fool, we become the fools ourselves due to our gullibility. We must try to see behind the image portrayed, often there is something different. Those who we revere may have huge personality defects, whilst those who we revile may have even more redeeming qualities, which had we researched and found would completely change our attitude of them.

This is something that cannot be deduced alone. We must explain to our children how to think and why. The essence of ‘Kalpanakaranna’ BLOG is all about this.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A photo of Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) on opening night

We who were not invited had to stand outside on the 'other' side of the road to get a glimpse today. Even the pavement surrounding the Center was out of bounds!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Six Lakhs for up to 4 hours of Theater Hire!!! - Nelum Pokuna – Mahinda Rajapakse Theatre – - A white elephant?

I recently wrote a blog post on the above, which was also published in the Sunday Leader of December 11th 2011. However I had grossly underestimated the hire charges of the Theatre. Check the new website which was launched at Temple Trees by the President on December 12th for the details that completely blew me away.

There are various options, but in order to rent the Hall for up to 4 hrs is Rs600,000 and for a second performance for the same day for up to 4 hrs is, Rs450,000. Of course there are other charges such as rehearsal costs of Rs75,000 per hour up to 4 hours etc. Are they day dreaming?

As usual in true lack of journalistic form, our journalists just parrot fashion have reported on the impeding opening and the launch of the website without critically commenting on the contents like I have noted above. What is it with the lack of investigative journalists? Are they worried they will not get a Press Pass for the Opening on the 15th? Come on guys use a little bit of your common sense and start a campaign to say that for the first year in order to encourage its use, publicity, and grow an interest in the performing arts, a maximum of Rs100,000 per performance would be charged and to show the future charges to get people to realize the chance of utilizing this offer in the first year.

Is there no marketing skill in Sri Lanka? Why are there thousands doing CIM courses? Who are the CIM members? Are they brain dead without an ounce of innovative thinking which I am lead to believe is a hallmark of a great marketer?

These are the questions I would ask my journalist friends, as I am no journalist but a person who barely has time to write from my day job, but feel passionate about many subjects and in this case about the Performing Arts that need to be developed especially to make it accessible to the masses. My earlier article speaks for itself and I do not want to repeat the contents of it here.

I would ask the authorities to seriously consider my viewpoint, and determine that in the Arts it is not about dollars and cents and it is about sense! Few countries if any make any profit from the Arts, it is considered part of society’s duty to keep a country’s culture alive and resurrect dying art and dance forms. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to contribute to the debate before we lose the chance for ever, and our contribution to posterity. We MUST take responsibility for endowing the future Sri Lankans with the “Heritage of the Varied Culture” of the motherland.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The New “Lotus Pond” Performing Arts Center opposite Vihara Maha Devi

I have passed the grand looking Chinese built and gifted Arts Center in the heart of Colombo, and wondered why it had not been opened as yet. It is being maintained by one arm of the Security Forces at the moment. I am not sure who will be responsible to maintain and run it, along with the Ministry under whom it will be!

I was told that they are either looking for an auspicious time for the President to open it or that as it was gift from the People’s Republic of China they are waiting for a date from the Prime Minister of China to come for the opening. Either way the announcement has been made, namely 15th December 2011. It is possible the Chinese PM will touch down to open it and be on his way.

I firmly believe ‘performing arts’ is a mark of the completeness of a society, and the ability to express oneself to others in that medium. We must encourage this expression of opera, dance, drama and songs in all forms, but can we really match the expectations? The issue as always is that the ARTS SUBSIDY is the first to be cut in a budget tightening mood. What is more, I was told that as the monthly maintenance of the Center is expected to be around Rs6M a month, that we will only be able to hire the Hall for performances at the rate of Rs300,000 per night.

In my opinion this is the death knell to performance before it even starts, as there is hardly anyone except those with deep pockets or foreign rock star performances that can charge entrance fees to cover this cost, in addition to the other charges for a performance. If one takes the example of an audience of 1500 then it works out at Rs200 each. Whilst that does not amount to a lot, for Sinhala or Tamil performances or those of the local dance and home grown productions, to get local audiences to pay an average of at least Rs750 per ticket to fill the auditorium is not an easy task, bearing in mind that it has never been done to date. We never had a place so large that could accommodate this number. The Lionel Wendt can hold a maximum of 650 including the 150+ in the balcony.

If the encouragement of the use of the facility is the goal, so that as many people in our country can enjoy the Arts, then I believe weekday charges must be capped at Rs100,000 and Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights to be at about Rs175,000 for at least the first year on a promotional basis. The supply and demand of this facility can then be determined at these price points. One must then recognize the need to subsidize the arts in order to encourage the arts, and the people’s appreciation of the Performing Arts. Prize Givings and Convocations can be held only during daytime at lower rates that allows multiday use to help further defray the costs.
The recently published photos showed a small open air theatre on the roof. I believe fringe theater must be encouraged there, with only a small charge for hire such as Rs5000 for the space, so that 200 to 500 capacity can be accommodated at a nominal entry fee to encourage participation of the general public and increase their appreciation of the facility and the performances they can appreciate.

We have now got a much needed performing arts center, so lets make maximum use out of it. Many of the facilities to date accommodated a rather upper middle class clientele. I would like to see a more varied distribution this time with access to most people. I remember going to the Bolshoi in Moscow and Kirov in Leningrad in the days of Communist rule, paying a few roubles entry, and foreigners like us were not charged extra, and further there was an allocation for foreigners that made it easier for us to go when compared with the locals.

It also must be appreciated that with this development, a public bus service catering to the theatre goers must be laid out on say about 10 bus routes to enable people to get home at reasonable cost. The current cheapest way to get home if one does not have access to private transport is to use a three wheeler, which depending on the distance to one’s home can cost anywhere from Rs100 to Rs500 for a relatively short distance, and needs to be added to the cost of the evening.

Taking account of the points I have referred to above, I sincerely hope the relevant ministry, (Defense! Culture is it? Is the Municipal Council that is physically close by completely out of the loop?) will take on these points in a constructive manner, and assign dedicated and knowledgeable staff to this task, to permit the public to enjoy this great asset in the heart of Colombo along with the related publicity to attract users to this facility, not just to gawk at a new building and satisfy one’s curiosity, but also to learn to appreciate drama, dance and related performing arts.

I used to pass by the place when it was covered by the galvanized roofing sheets all around, and the Chinese labor, some said they were prisoners, who worked day and night to build it and then give it to the People of Sri Lanka. We must express our grateful appreciation to all who helped build it and let us hope we can continue to maintain this to the best of our ability and not wait for the Chinese to come and repair the revolving stages if they break down, but be able to use our technical skills to ensure it is kept in daily working order so that all performances can go ahead without a glitch.

Let us hope we all have a chance to visit and be given a tour of its facilities similar to the recent tour given to the Press. It is still to be named wait for it!!....................

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

It is the quality of the Teachers stupid! Teachers please give me your input

No Education Policy can be implemented if the School Principal along with the teaching staff, do not work with one goal in mind to develop all the capacities of their charges so that they produce the ultimate product the country can be proud of.

It is just not the academic achievement of the child, but their moral well being. The example set by the teacher is one that is very powerful, and if the parents are found in want or lacking in some major department, the school teacher fill the void.

This is where the dedicated professional is worth more than the disinterested graduate housewife who today seems to be the major component of the teaching carder. To get the services of the dedicated professional, teaching MUST be elevated to the status of a Doctor at the very least in our society. In order to get that status a new class of teacher with a new name must be added with a different pay scale so the disinterested housewife also does not insist of getting the same higher wage.

It is important to understand that the teaching profession is seen by many as an easy means of income for a stay at home graduate women homemaker, once they have kids. She will get a pension, though the pay is not that great. She can conduct tuition classes at home and charge for them. She does not need to work excessively as their performance in not measured on results, so the pay is the same whether you are diligent or not. She finds an excuse as to why she does not need to help the students improve their knowledge or skills. I believe the criteria for entry into the profession has been wrong and it cannot be changed overnight. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule and I salute those teachers who are committed.

Each school I believe MUST have at least two “High Level” motivational teachers, preferably a Male and a Female. They have a huge responsibility. Initially due to the shortage of these professionals they may have to be assigned to all the major secondary schools that have more than 400 pupils and then to the 200+ size primary schools in the country. There must be a better system to measure the performance of these teachers, and reward them accordingly.

It is their responsibility to build the overall student, by instilling and assisting in discipline, motivation, vision, identity, creativity, intellectual curiosity, leadership, community service, and research that the student needs, also known as soft skills to develop the overall person so he or she knows how to get on in life after leaving school either at the O level stage or at A levels.
I turn to School Principals and the evaluation standards of the school. The Ministry of Education MUST change the way school performance is measured. First they should change from looking merely at the environment using 5 s scores to measure schools. A school in Ampara, where the Principal uses the students during school hours to clean up the school environment so that the school looks beautiful from the outside and so comes first, even when the students perform abysmally.

Performance measures can be set by using a base figure of a particular point say today, and then compare the improvement from that point. The buck stops with the principals and they MUST be more accountable. At the same time there must be some form of recognition of improvements to motivate others to perform.

It must never be forgotten that a school either Private or Public owes its success to the performance of the Principal. His part in building up the school through many odds that he has to face along with political interference for school admission and teacher transfers not-withstanding, is the mark of a top teaching professional. Good relationships with the local community will follow if his efforts are noticed by the parents. There are numerous instances one can quote where good schools fall of the map and are closed due to the change in Principals.

The trick is in being able to reward performance, without de-motivating those who do not come up to scratch. When a community realizes that a good school in their midst is valuable, as it increases property values and all round benefits begin to accrue then a need to improve and keep to a high standard will naturally happen.

Principals ask for items not provided by the Education Department. They can get these inadequacies from the community, who are likely to be more forthcoming when they see potential benefits. The TESP World Bank Aid Program, refers to community help in developing local schools. They acknowledge this synergy.

In addition there is a huge need for capital expenditure as the latest Budget allocates almost nothing for equipment like computers and teaching aids. The budget hopes that the Private Sector CSR programs will provide this shortfall. That will only happen in unusual circumstances. It will the exception rather than the rule. So more funds must be allocated for Capital Expenditure in Education as otherwise the goals of education will not be achieved no matter what other resources are provided to the running of the Department.

We MUST therefore concentrate on the above topics before any formal Education Policy is implemented. Otherwise it will fail.

Monday, December 5, 2011

National Education Policy! – Is there one? – Mohan Lal Grero seems to think there is!

In an interview in the Sunday Observer of 4th December, Mr Grero who just crossed over from the UNP seemed to give as his main reason, the fact he could be of positive use to the Current Administration, in implementing the National Education Policy, which according to him is similar to the proposal he had made to the UNP. He as a member of the Education Select Committee in Parliament had helped to refine the NEP after taking into account numerous experts’ advice.

I do not believe that the Policy they have come up with is correct and should be followed. He mentions the 5000 primary feeder schools into the 1000 secondary schools, which mean that each Divisional Secretariat area in the country will have about 3 secondary schools of a certain grade, so that parents will not have to compete to send kids to other more competitive schools. This is further reinforced by the US$100M World Bank Concessionary Loan program for this same plan, which in its current form will be completely wasted.

The approach is from the wrong end. They appear to have asked why the take up rate for vocational training has been so pathetic in Sri Lanka. I can vouch for that fact, where in my area the well equipped Technical Training College in Godagama, is almost empty and hardly used. However the answer is not to get kids at 13 or 14 to decide on the vocation they are to adopt and get secondary schools to prepare them for following specific technical courses if the A level route is not for them. We must go back to basics to understand the problem provide a possible reason!

I do not believe schools must take over parenting. We must however, understand that there are severe problems in parenting, which have not equipped students with any direction in life. One parent households are now the rule in Sri Lanka, if you include alcoholic households on the one hand and those where one parent has gone overseas to work. One must remember that in many households the bread winner does not live in the family home, as he is working in a job that requires him to live in close proximity to work. They then only come home once or twice a month.

It is therefore imperative that values and achievable goals are built at the Primary stage. We concentrate on teacher training for Secondary Schools, not realizing that the Primary stage is equally as important, and tools that teachers need to instill discipline and a work ethic are different. Just throwing unemployed graduates to the Primary school sector is wrong, as those graduates are also products of a failed system, following courses in the unemployable sector, not equipping them with the skills needed. Their worst ideas handed to their charges, who continue the cycle.
The problem in this NEP(National Education Policy) is that it has been devised by educators only, without reference to the raw material (students) themselves, looking at their backgrounds and the expectations that have been made for them.

The project is likely to result in a further deterioration in the standard of Education. Without reference to overseas examples, we should concentrate on Public Free Education up to Secondary Level. Some arguments are similar to that of the Public Health Sector, where the considerable resources that go into the training at huge State expense are lost to the Private and Overseas Sector. The dynamic, quality and innovative teachers feel the public sector fails them, with politically motivated transfers, including unqualified Principals demoralizing the ambitious teachers.

The structure of politicization must change first, before we are able to get the best into the Teaching Profession. When a school dropout can join the forces at age 16 and receive at least Rs20,000 a month and be fed and housed to beat, where his whole wage goes into his bank account, when compared with a trained graduate teacher who at best gets the same but at age 30 after a 4 year degree and a further 2 years at teacher training, all of which he would have to find subsistence for, who would opt for the latter? Worse still this teacher would be assigned to a rural school with no facilities and difficult to reach, where the teacher would have to find accommodation, usually of a poor quality far from home. The incentive to teach therefore is secondary to wanting to go home to the kids each weekend!

Real life issues do not get an airing in Parliament Select Committee by Experts, who are cozily unaware of the ground situation in their ivory towers. Until wage anomalies are solved and the profession gains respect, much in the way it was over 50 years ago, nothing positive can come about. The recent budget highlighted the fact that the real wages of teachers have fallen the most, over 4% in the last year. The forces were given a 10% wage hike along with other government servants, which does not apply to teachers. It is true the quantity of teachers makes the teacher student ratio 20:1 which is excellent by any criteria, but it hides many ills, which are swept under the carpet just as the 95% literacy rate hides even more ills of the system. No person of ability wants to go into teaching under this background

We must face facts that the quality of Education in Sri Lanka has fallen to a new low and no amount of tinkering can raise it until the fundamental problems are even addressed let alone solved. I cannot see any solution in sight, and therefore I can only sadly conclude that Mr Grero the “Greate Educator” that he is, is falling into the same trap of convenience and opportunism, where he could have better fought the good fight for change from without, rather than from within.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Education a new dynamic! Is he a red herring? Should we take him seriously?

Mohan Lal Grero, the UNP MP for Colombo District and the Chief Organizer for Ratmalana, crossed over to the Government Benches on Wednesday November 30th the day after he had marched against the Government in Hyde Park with his people as part of the UNP rally. In his speech, prior to voting with the Government he specifically said that he was 55 and he wanted to serve the people before he reached 60, at which age he felt he was not useful for constructive performance.

The implication is that by crossing over he would get a position, most likely that of Deputy Ministe in Education. On 2nd December 2011 the President announced his appointment as a monitoring MP for Education, much the way Duminda Silva was for Defense. This does not carry with it any teeth or power, so I wonder whether this is till the new Cabinet of Ministers are announced after a reshuffle post budget.

Mr Grero has pledged to devote his wealth and capabilities for education. He is the owner of the string of Lyceum International Schools, and he is also being investigated for under reporting student numbers in his schools and accordingly is being investigated by the Inland Revenue for paying too little taxes. Undoubtedly this investigation will be held in suspense now saving him some worry from unreasonable tax demands which he can then instead directly donate to Education.

I then question whether he is the best person for the job, on the assumption that he will be given either the post of the Minister of Education or the Deputy. It is a different cry from running an International School to one of running the State Education sector which has a different set of problems. I do believe his level of knowledge is adequate, but his overall view on Public Education is compromised by him being an owner of hugely successful private education establishment. Mr Bandula Gunewardene also had a personal interest in Education in that he was a lecturer and owner of a Tutory providing the shortfall of the education sector.

I am not pessimistic about the prospects but I sincerely hope that the importance of Free Education is truly appreciated. Public Education in the primary stage for all who want it is the need of the hour. This sector to be successful should not require the services of tuition classes. If we can get the teachers and the students motivated to learn that which is required for the future, then I believe we can truly say we have entered into the realm of a country where all our citizens have a basic knowledge, enough to take us to the next level. It is my hope that those who truly value Education and know its benefits can impart the true trick of learning to the kids all around the country whose whole future can benefit by more knowledge.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tertiary Education – a Policy Shift – as evidenced in the 2012 Budget

The government appears to have made a very concerted decision that it is not their Business to determine the future of Tertiary Education, and that the Private Sector should henceforth let market forces determine the resources, quality and direction this sector should take.

With this broad based idea, the Government intends to set the standards and guidelines with the Private Universities Act earlier rather than later in the New Year. No amount of agitation from students in the state system is going to let them change this view and the steps they intend taking to make sure it happens. The government has also decided it seems to me that it can no longer give into the demands of University teachers whose tenure and inflexibility cannot change them from being old fashioned thinkers who are unable to think outside of the box but are merely agitating to protect their turf. Therefore they have no objection to them leaving the service or going overseas to follow their calling.

This attitude has its merits, if we take the position that Public Education is almost irrelevant in the scheme of things and that only the Private Sector can provide the needed shortfall of human resources in the Economy. If you take that attitude as the government seems to, then the Graduates from the public sector can only be given government jobs, not that they are capable of doing them, but that the private sector will not hire them. They have a better resource pool from those who have a proven qualifications in Private Education and have sacrificed by paying for that education, and are therefore more committed to their subject and vocation.

To me it is a radical opinion, that will gain traction amongst people I speak to in the private sector, who are bent on competing in the International Sphere with other countries. They are convinced the Public Sector is just incapable of providing the raw material, so why waste more money on this product. Of course there are some exceptions such as some courses offered by the University of Moratuwa in Katubedda, that produce some highly sort after Technology and Maths graduates.

We then come full circle to the realization that something obtained free is not valued, and the financial commitment that a Public University student puts into his degree is for all personal expenses other than tuition. These students have a mistaken belief that they are the chosen few in society and are therefore owed a job in the state sector full of the perks and titles that come with it. The way round this is for these students to get a dose of reality at the time of entry into University so that they will follow a different thought process during their undergraduate years.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Act giving permission for the establishment of Private Universities

Today there are 75,000 students enrolled in State Universities excluding the Open University and those following External Degree Courses which are also qualifications given by the State. Each year 17,000 Bachelor’s Degrees are awarded by all State degree awarding bodies including those of Open and External nature.

A further 75,000 follow courses, not always leading to degrees, such as diploma awarding institutions, Aquinas University NIBM, CGTTI and even the diplomas and lower qualifications offered by the Open University and other state sources. Some students once they receive diplomas, go on further to complete degrees if they so choose as they receive exemptions and course credits so to do. These courses are fee levying and possibly subsidized to a lesser degree by the state. The UGC(University grants Commission) has some input into either licensing or approving the diplomas and degrees so awarded by way of input.

In addition there are approximately 100,000 students following various degree courses in private institutions, accredited or not with overseas universities. They exclude the further 300,000 students who follow diploma, CIMA, CIM, CASL, AAT and various other courses some that are better recognized by employers than State Undergraduate degrees and others less so. This latter population I would refer to as the private sector of tertiary education. This group does NOT undergo any state supervision, regulation or certification. Ironically the Private Sector in my experience is better able to gauge the quality of a certificate from these bodies over those of the state ones, and all the above are almost exclusively taught in English and awarded in English. We must remember that there are billions of rupees spent by the people, which employ thousands of teachers, full time and part time in this tertiary education sector. It is also possible that some teachers in the public sector also teach in this sector for additional remuneration, by moonlighting!!

In this background the Government is about to introduce a Bill in Parliament to establish some norms for the latter sector that I referred to. There will obviously have to be definitions of what constitutes a University, a Degree and so on, and in that context about half of the Private sector tertiary education institutions are likely to be excluded from the bill. For example the CIMA qualification is likely to be excluded, as it is a completely independent body clearly aligned to the UK parent body, which sets the exams does the testing and monitors the standards.

I presume that a swathe of institutions that offer courses, some of them providing 2 out of a 4 year degree, where the balance has to be completed at the overseas mother institutions will be included in the bill for regulation or standardization.
Yesterday a newspaper reported that FUTA the federation of University Teachers who are battling for a pay raise, have condemned the setting up of Private Universities, making clear allegations that third rate institutions have set up shop here offering courses, and that neither Harvard, Cambridge or Oxford have set up campuses here. They must be dreaming if they think that as the likes of the top 10 universities of the world are not present in Sri Lanka, then they should be banned, when the best Public University in Sri Lanka is world ranked in the 500 range.

In reality their beef should be that by using the private education escape route the government has made a policy decision to promote Private University Education, so that they will take the slack, and fewer resources will thus be required from the State for the Public University system. This abrogation of the rights and resources for the Public Sector, is what needs to debated, rather than the merits or not of the Private Tertiary Sector which is thriving in Sri Lanka and should not be messed around with. Some form of basic regulation of these establishments so that people spending money are not duped by fly by night operators is all the state should be take responsibility for.

There was a recent protest by the Medical Students against the Private Medical College in Malabe, accredited to a Russian University if I am not mistaken. We know the outcome of this battle in advance as they will be permitted to operate, but abide by some basic guidelines to ensure that minimum standards are adhered to. After all if we permit students to go to any University Overseas to get a Medical Qualification if they have the means to support themselves during the study period, why should we prevent the same from happening in Sri Lanka!!! The overseas qualified doctors have to sit a special exam in Sri Lanka before they are permitted to practice as doctors here, and in the worst case these same local privately educated doctors should be permitted the same privileges. Remember their Medical Qualification is not being awarded by the State University System.

Given the aforesaid setting in Sri Lanka, I suggest all those young people and tertiary sector teachers, agitate for more directed spending for Public Sector Tertiary Education. They should identify the weak areas, the needed areas, the areas where the demand for skills is greatest. In the interest of social justice, those who come up the hard way, by way of scholarship or bursary due to their disadvantaged backgrounds, must have a chance in this system to attain their goals.

We must face reality, and achieve practical goals, and not compromise the free education ethic, but take out the ‘FOR ALL’ as far as Tertiary Education is concerned. No country can provide free education for all who qualify!

Primary and Secondary Education another take! World Bank reported that Sri Lanka has the lowest public expenditure on education 1.9% of GDP

It is important to revisit what the principles of ‘Free Education’ are. Then to look at the reality and suggest practical means to achieve the objectives set in the midst of a serious resource shortage in the Public Sector.

Education and Health are at the cornerstones of a civilized society, which wishes to improve the quality of life of its constituents. In Sri Lanka we are privileged to have both Universal Free Education and Health Care enshrined, if not in the constitution, as a right that is protected fiercely by the people. With severe constraints on the public purse both due to the inadequacy of the government to include a large number of wealthy into the tax net, and the need for public investment in infrastructure.

The resources allocated to Education and Healthcare has thus been cut in real terms. The safety valve has been the permission granted for the private sector to fill the void and take some of the slack, allowing the government to provide the needed services for those who choose the public sector or for those where the private sector is unaffordable. The left, namely the JVP in principle is opposed to the permission of a private sector, as they believe the public sector will be eroded and the human resource in the public sector will move to better remuneration in the private sector, with the public sector suffering.

Both ideologies have their merits. I will ignore the quality of private education as that is a choice of the buyer in the market place under conditions of free market supply and demand. We have to get real, and look at the present situation where I will concentrate only on Primary and Secondary Education. The public sector education is broken. There are 230,000 teachers who are paid by the state, both from Central Government and Provincial Councils for 4Million students. The ratio by international standards is not bad. The qualifications of the teachers, their pay scales and their motivation for their work are at rock bottom. This DIRECTLY impacts on the students who receive their teachings! How many parents spend billions on tuition, often paying the same teachers after school to give their kids a chance to get through exams, because the teaching does not take place in school?

So what do we do? This inadequacy has led many parents who can afford it to vote with their wallets, sending their kids to international or private schools, so that they can get a better education. Another set of parents, lie and cheat and pay huge bribes to put their kids into the best schools in the public sector, as they both have a better quota of teacher, better prospects after leaving school, and a much better resource allocation both by the Education Department and by the well healed Old Boys. We should then consider the options available to the majority who remain outside of these decisions. One must also consider the fact that with Royal and Visakha having 8,000 students each, acknowledged as the best schools in the land, have a per pupil cost that is comparably lower due both to the student numbers and also to the fact that huge resources have been given by grateful old boys and girls that perpetuate their prestige.

The government has a 1000 secondary schools program that it hopes 5000 primary schools will provide students, and to which more resources will be allocated. The intention is that these National Schools will reduce the pressure on the 2,500+ student schools, and also improve the quality in the provinces. Another fact mentioned in the Budget speech of the President was that only 700 schools provided science teaching at A levels out of a total of 2,700 Secondary schools.

Having stated the facts above, let us now provide some constructive suggestions to improve this situation. Where 50% of 300,000 students pass O levels and 50% of 200,000 students (include previous failures at O levels) pass A levels, annually.

The Minister of Education has just proposed streamlining students from grade 9 in choosing A level subjects. This in my opinion is far too early, disallowing the flexibility needed for late developers, and concentrates subjects that should at that age be far wider allowing for a breadth of general education as 50% in any case will be O level dropouts, who need a better breadth if knowledge in order to succeed in the technology intensive world of the future.

1 More resources to retrain existing teachers with less than 10 years service and bring in more qualified teachers in subjects where there are severe shortages.
2 At the same time we must address the huge weight of teachers about to leave the service in the next two years when they reach retirement age at 55 in order to join the private sector. This is a huge blow to the public sector.
3 Empowering the School Principals by carrying out intensive leadership workshops to give them a perspective of the real world that many in the public service seem to know very little about. They are the people their charges look up to. The ideas they can impart on the students will determine to a great degree the thought processes they bring to the labor market.
4 The competition between the National and Provincial Schools is creating an unfair elite amongst the National schools, that puts pressure on those schools to take in more students due to parental pressure and undue influence, owing to the belief that only these schools that have been given additional resources can serve their kids better. A thorough debate to direct only academically competent students to National Schools to create those who go into the competitive A level streams from those who go into productive vocational courses.
5 A clear set of guidelines to determine the 8+ or 11+ exams, marks, what a mark qualifies a student to get to, and the number of openings in these schools has to be debated holistically with what the objectives are.
6 A more interactive information flow between the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development and the Ministry of Higher Education to serve the post secondary school training of these same students, must be set up so that students have a real world understanding of what awaits them.
7 The teaching of English and IT to take on more than slogan based intent, and turn into a practical proposition with the assistance of CSR programs from the Private Sector. They are more likely to be goal oriented than the public sector that fails in performance evaluation. There is enough data from surveys like the World Bank project of ‘Transforming School Education in Sri Lanka – from cut stones to polished jewels’ 2011.
8 The English Teachers into the rural schools is the problem, both about the lack of their quality and quantity, where as some Urban areas have a surplus. Using existing data to make recommendations is what is needed. The tri lingual teaching intent as well as the new bi-lingual teaching programs all well and good as long as there are qualified teachers.
9 The school books provided by the government to students are quite inadequate in quality of content and relevance to learning, geared primarily to pass exams with little effort to teach knowledge and the search for knowledge from outside means. The world of IT broadens the knowledge sphere and with increasing IT use in schools throughout the land, the books must be geared to distance learning courses that must go hand in hand with even Sinhala based internet access to knowledge.
10 There is a serious deficit in morality and discipline and respect for elders in schools created partly by the elders themselves who have personal agendas that differ from those of the kids who look to them for guidance. This aspect of lack of respect for those who are seen as merely coming to school to mark time but teach after hours is very detrimental to the student’s work ethic and outlook. Improvements in perception is needed.
11 ‘The Program for School Improvement’ as suggested in the World Bank report No 35 ‘An impact evaluation of Sri Lanka’s Policies to Promote Academic Performance of Primary School Students through School Improvement and Report Card Programs’ did extensive surveys on implementation and has come out with useful conclusions that must be adopted Islandwide. They are not controversial, but mere common sense in trying to get parental involvement in their local schools, so that the ownership of the community schools by those around can fill some of the funding voids in capital expenditure, by volunteerism and self help. Do not forget the commitment the parents took to give of their time to provide security around all the schools during the terrorist threats to students. This kind of example can be extended to assist the schools at the local levels with the shortages to teaching materials that all schools face.
12 That follows on to the two hugely costly expenses for parents of students in public schools, namely tuition and transport costs. Both need to be looked into and as there is no peer review of the one area where most students learn, namely in Tuition class, it makes a mockery of the whole public education system, as it seems to fail them, UNLESS the kids also go for tuition.
13 Health and Nutrition of students must be at minimum standards for students to be able to study. If a student comes to school on an empty stomach, he or she is unlikely to be able to learn. Often it is because the alcoholic parent has consumed the family food money in drink. So there has to be community involvement. A government program to provide food and milk is too bureaucratic. These activities must be left to the schools to carry out in the most reasonable basis they think fit bearing in mind the specific local conditions. This should be extended to the agricultural plots to encourage the ethic of home gardening and learning about healthy eating habits all of which must be explained to students from a very young age.
14 Sri Lanka’s literacy levels have dropped over the years when compared with others who have raced ahead. That means that in relative terms it has not improved, and in that regard can be concluded that the country has NOT been able to improve their educational standards through time. This simply means that educational standards have deteriorated in relative terms. For a ‘knowledge hub’ this must improve!! Education is central to Economic Development. No steps have been taken to arrest the decline.
15 The skills required for Economic Development are undergoing a worldwide transformation. What is needed are a different set of skills that include “high levels of soft skills” and education should try and do so.

The above list is just the tip of the areas that must be considered in formulating an educational policy. The 2012 budget has allocated exceedingly obscene amounts of money to the management of the Education Sector. If these people given the task of refining or redesigning the Education Policy are not able to use the vast amount of data created by studies such as those referred to in the report, and come up with a master plan, then we cannot hope to achieve the ambitious goals set out in regards to Education.

Without the hap-hazard approach, of putting a sticking plaster on a wound, hoping it will heal, such as the intent of changing the O level syllabuses yet again from 2014, based on inconclusive evidence, so that students would be better prepared for A levels, we should concentrate for example on why students attend tuition classes.

A complete shift is needed in attracting good people into education, then paying them well, and training them to a high standard that can be constantly monitored. The use of new technology both in teaching and training teachers can increase learning rapidly.

The identification of the skills required in the modern workplace be it in Sri Lanka or overseas, where many of our nationals have to compete with, we must direct all the new higher paid teaching to this area, without compromising the current pay scales that are neither based on merit nor on unique skills. A more need based level of teaching will in the end provide the manpower of the modern workplace.

The quality of general education determines the productivity of employees and workers. This plays a central role in determining the productivity of the labor force and thus the performance of the economy. The global production processes especially even in agriculture has become knowledge intensive. Educational attainment is therefore positively related to Economic Prosperity of Households and Individuals.

More educated individuals work in better quality jobs, with higher earnings streams. In addition, educated individuals are generally better at making rational consumption and investment decisions. Fluency in an international language automatically gives a person a huge advantage.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Transportation Policy – Continuation of loss making state bus routes - an opinion

A government as its policy of protection of the poor, may decide to subsidize loss making bus routes in the interest of equity and social justice. It is an admirable intention. It is important however that full accounting is done on the subsidy, how much is acceptable and how to minimize it by novel revenue raising ideas. Often these plans flow from the top, with no real understanding of the issues at ground level leading to a huge waste of state resources.

It is important to realize that rural routes, that the private sector does not want, are those where the roads are so bad the axles, and undercarriage breakdown owing to the parlous state of the road. A better road, may result in a private operator wishing to bid for the route, and thereby avoid the need to subsidize this particular route.

Another example is where the local school closes down due to few students making it uneconomical, and then a bus is laid on to take the village kids to the nearest town to a better quality school which has better teaching staff, and an overall improvement in quality of education and choices offered. This subsidy in roundabout terms does not cost more as the money saved from running an uneconomical school should cancel the subsidy to a certain degree.

Night bus services are uneconomical for private operators and therefore a decision must be taken on what type of night service the state should offer and in order to reduce the subsidy a rate that is fair bearing in mind the expected passenger load. This will save many garment workers from having to arrange for a three wheeler or for some companies to arrange expensive hires to send employees home, when they work late in the private sector. (no one works late in the govt. sector!!)

The people hired for this service may need to be at a different pay grade to the bus service that currently competes with the private sector, and which must run at a profit as the private sector seem to do despite the many added costs such as expensive route permits and bribery to get these permits. Higher charges can be offset by season tickets at much lower rates, so that frequent travelers are not penalized over the occasional one who should be able to pay the higher fare, a three wheeler being his nearest alternative.

In conclusion using some of the practical examples that I have been exposed to one can see there is a need, there is a solution, and it need not bear an unreasonable cost as long as it is properly planned and run as a different organization, maybe with even a smaller sized buses in rural areas that is distinct and safe for night use.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Only 3%!!!! A chance foregone in the Budget! So there you are!

The budget was a neutral one with nothing of ANY substance. The most important point was fluffed. The 3% devaluation should have been between 6% and 10% as now when you have an inconsequential devaluation there is more likely to be flight of funds out, and less likely that funds will come in the light that there will be more to come in the future.

A 10% immediate devaluation would ensure Investors will believe the risk of further devaluation is minimized, and thus not repatriate funds. Those who held back waiting for devaluation will give an immediate spurt to the tourist industry reeling from the high cost for the visitor as compared with other options available.

Admittedly the down side would be the increase in cost of living from imports, but a suitable reduction in the taxes of imported items can always nullify this effect is so needed. Do not forget that imports of Sugar, flour, tinned fish, sprats, potato, B onions, dhal, green gram, corn etc are highly taxed and any increase in their costs have a double delight of increasing the price and thus support for local agriculture.

It is also noteworthy that the Central Bank DID NOT release the drop in reserves in September by nearly US$1B as it may have caused some panic out of the rupee and only disclosed it yesterday at the time the depreciation was announced and the drop in reserves for October and November was not that prominent. In my view this 3% devaluation is likely to increase the drop in reserves to an extent that Sri Lanka will not have any unborrowed reserves by the year end. It makes no sense to borrow US$1B from a foreign consortium and then include it in reserves as it is merely an accounting entry, meant to fool the unwary and not a real increase.

I know when one gets bogged down in budget preparations, these bureaucrats tend to lose the wood from the trees and forget the priorities that need to be addressed and the assumptions they make can be without any foundation, due to the inherent belief in their gut instincts and when proved wrong are quick to point to some world issue that has overtaken their closely planned structure.

All I would ask PBJ (as it certainly is not Mahinda Rajapakse’s budget) is to put himself in the shoes of both the foreign investor, the local exporter, the overseas worker who is remitting his hard earned money, what do they all want? A 10% devaluation would have instantly made all Sri Lankan shares 10% cheaper and helped dispel the current fears that the market is overvalued as compares with the stock markets of the other comparable emerging markets.

Dole Foods abandons Banana Plantation in the Somawathiya National Park

The environmental website ( reports that Dole who along with a Sri Lankan company Letsgrow Ltd cleared 12,0000 acres of dense forest bordering the Somawathiya National Park, has now abandoned the project. That is all very well, and the Environmental Foundation Ltd, takes credit for this pointing out using Google Earth, coordinates, and park boundaries that there was incursion into the Park. However Letsgrow Ltd has still not abandoned the project and continues to operate. Do not forget that Letsgrow made a fortune by felling valuable trees when it cleared the 12,000 acres. These trees don’t look like growing there anymore or any time soon!!

Who is Letsgrow? Who are the principals? For want of second guessing in the Banana Republic, the fingers MUST point to high level individuals in the govt. as no one else would have been given permission in the first place to carve up so much land, when already, arable land exists in Sri Lanka for such a purpose. This whole project was notified to me over 6 months ago by a conservation oriented farmer in Polonnaruwa who was horrified that this was happening, and all the laws relating to encroachment into National Parks had been ignored.

I am very saddened that the Sri Lanka Press has not taken up this cause, performed further investigation, and highlight the wrongs, so that the public can take a stand on the merits of the investigation, so that if any laws have been broken, the perpetrators, be they Government high ups or ruling families, brought to book immediately and prosecuted for their actions.

It is important that NO MORE forest is cut. Already the Human Elephant conflict is causing the death of too many Humans and Elephants. So in a clear case of the potential to worsen this; the National Park contains 500 elephants who roam into the park to partake of its seclusion and security, we must try and return this land back to the wild. Common sense would dictate that if there is no elephant electric fence, this project cannot succeed as elephants love a Banana Plantation, as they can feed off every part of the Banana tree not to mention their love for the fruit. So what is the planned solution if an elephant fence was not part of the project?

I firmly believe we must set up a ‘Conservation Corps’ equipped with resources from the forces, to protect from the encroachment into all reserves. Encroachment is a daily occurrence courtesy of the government politicians both national and provincial with the collusion of the police! This Corps has to be independent of the State as otherwise its functioning will be compromised. It must also have teeth in order to swoop and enforce the law and not leave it to the slow courts system.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A level qualified students eligible for Universities and Vocational Training

Is the President day-dreaming by stating the above in the budget speech? After all they have always been eligible, so this is nothing new. What he should have said is that the government will provide vocational training opportunities, first by seminars to ascertain skill levels and interest levels, and provide commensurate training at subsidized rates to all who qualify. One must be specific not vague.

I hasten to remind the reader that only 600 of the more than 10,000 schools provide science education at A levels, which restrict the choices of the students by a great deal, resulting in them taking subjects that are a waste of time for their future employment prospects. The main subjects that are taught due to the shortage of teachers and equipment in other subjects are Sinhala and Buddhist Civilization. Few if any of the students who follow these courses find these subjects useful later in life, and it is therefore most important that alternative more productive subjects are offered for the students to follow. There is NO POINT blaming the student for the predicament he or she finds him or herself in.

It is indicative of how completely out of touch the leaders of Sri Lanka are on the real situation, and the huge problem of matching skills with employment for young people. There has not been any implementation of constructive ideas to solve this gaping problem in the labor force. I believe if we put our mind to solving this problem many other issues will simply fade away. It is important to have an educated and productive labor force, who have moral values as well as a vision for what they personally want to achieve and a route map to achieve them. If they have that they will have hope and a lot of frustration, anger and abuse can be eliminated.

Parents still try to control these wayward young adults, looking to people like us in politics to find them jobs. We then have to deal with these ill informed, unmotivated aimless people who are begging for clerical jobs, as if they are the most valued, and that pay well. Any other employment that is found for them even with future prospects for the talented and motivated, is rejected!

Using the vocational training word and abusing it is not the way. The courses offered must be thought out very carefully. Take for example the Ceylon German Technical and Training Institute(CGTTI) in Moratuwa. It is tough to gain entrance to this establishment that has been running since 1960 and built with help from the German Government. It trains motor mechanics through a very rigorous course, which in turn is well recognized, and the starting salaries of the pupils who leave there with a diploma exceed Rs25,000 a month. Now a graduate can’t get that!! So after 50 years have we not been able to come up with Institutes to match that? That is the core problem.

What is more that qualification is sufficient to get immigrant statues to countries such and Australia and Canada, a prize worth millions to some! talk about vocational training set up to kill!!

Do not insult the word ‘HUB’ to make it sound like a ‘FIB’. What with Tourist, Knowledge, IT, Shipping, Aviation, Education, Health Care and now Legal

The budget speech is now on a chamber without an opposition and the government members find it so boring they are nodding off. If the President cannot understand now that it all amounts to a hill of beans, he never will in future help it grow.

I have pointed out time and again that it is best to concentrate on our strengths and build a product, process or service using our comparative advantage without trying ambitious plans to be all things to all men, and then not succeed in anyone of them.

When one makes over simplified unreal statements in Parliament, we as a nation lose what dignity we have built because we have elected to positions of power people who prefer to hallucinate, rather than plan and execute. The Mahinda Chinthana has been a vision that has been hugely unsuccessful in its execution, and hugely successful in its ability to fool people into believing in its success.

The basic problem has been during the period of the Mahinda Chinthana in the past 6 years, UD$24B has been remitted to Sri Lanka by its citizens working overseas. They have made everything that has been done, and if not for the government helping them to waste their money or take it from them for wasteful projects, we would have been in a far better state of economic development. In short this vision has set us back from where we should be. Until that point is understood and any economist worth his knowledge will concur, that free money such as this should have been spent in a far more productive way.

In order not to insult our intelligence and making generalizations and abusing the word ‘hub’ by telling ‘fibs’ please concentrate on improving our education system all the way to graduate school, so all our young people will have a marketable and necessary skill by the time they are 24. They are the future, not ‘hubs’, as they will create the obvious hub, which will come naturally to this country.

Just concentrate on education infrastructure and other infrastructure will happen mostly with the assistance of the private sector. They will use educated people to maximum advantage. Do not forget there are over 100,000 vacancies in Sri Lanka without qualified people wanting to do these jobs, partly due to the govt. sector being a disincentive for productivity. The bad example set by their profligacy and bribery pointing all the way to the top must stop if we are to show what can be achieved by diligent hard work, common sense and sense of pride in our vocations

Friday, November 18, 2011

“The super highway experience” may it be exhilarating for the right reasons

We enter the new world of super highways on November 27th with heavy anticipation, but would caution over enthusiasm and would recommend that one reads the report by the ‘Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport’ to realize that unless there are severe controls on who is allowed to enter, we are laying ourselves open to a ‘disaster waiting to happen’. I will not lay out their recommendations here but just to say that they suggest a slow introduction into the expressway, first for cars after a 10 minute training and certificate highlighting the main areas to be careful of, and then gradually introduce other grades of vehicles.

I must have clocked over 1M km on super highways all around the world as a driver, and have enjoyed speeds in excess of 200kmph in fast cars, and know how exciting speed is when driving a car built for speed. There are bound to many like me who are waiting to take their babies (cars are some of the prized possessions of our spoiled young men in SL today) and knowing the speed fiends they are, will likely end up in the wrong end of the stretcher. It takes a lot of practice to drive at speed, as there are so many things to consider. My commute to work in California was a drive of over 200km each way, and it was a pleasure to drive over amazing scenery and lands. Over vineyards, and tomato fields, over pistachio groves and apple orchards, over cattle ranches and citrus plantations, over strawberry fields and sea views into the gardens of Montecito and into the office in Santa Barbara.

Mercifully I was not involved in any accidents and collected a share of speeding fines. Now I do not even posses a vehicle to make the drive on to Galle. No matter I do not regret it as I know less than 10% of motorists will be able to handle the road and I must warn that this is not like any of the expressways I have driven on.

Firstly the width of the lane has been compromised, and reduced by 20cm. This makes it very tricky in driving at speed, especially when passing heavy vehicles, when the wind effect of passing especially on a windy day can unknowingly shift the vehicle too close causing a nightmare accident. Then it is the break down or emergency stopping lane which is also much narrower than international standards. This makes it extremely hazardous in passing a stalled vehicle, as the vehicle on the right is likely to veer to the right endangering the overtaking vehicle on the right lane, which has nowhere to go, except brake. In braking this has to be done very gently and carefully as however good the braking vehicle is the vehicle behind may not be able to brake adequately. It will even pay to test all brakes before putting a vehicle on to the expressway. Even one with good reflexes must be careful, which goes to the next problem which is the distance between vehicles.
At 100kmph a vehicle must be at least 10 car lengths behind, and I doubt our drivers have any clue of this basic safety requirement. This then flows to the inadequate knowledge of highway driving of the police, who in their usual tunnel vision are likely to penalize only the 100kmph safe drivers in well maintained vehicles and ignore the tailgaters, misaligned tires and unsteady vehicles. A sports car at 100kmph is perfectly safe in comparison to a sport utility vehicle even a new Pajero, which is highly prone to rollover at speeds. The sports cars are usually fitted with tires that are built for speed, whilst others are not and tire bursts at speed, especially due to incorrect inflation pressure can cause a serious lack of control, resulting in a horrific crash that can easily affect the safe driver.

The problems are made even worse by the innate inability of our drivers to keep to the lanes. This will become a huge problem as speedsters will approach a hogger who is flashed and will not understand why and then play a game of road rage that can cause a massive pileup. In addition, the new vistas created by a new road will make drivers wander with their eyes, something you just cannot do in speed in narrow lanes when there is traffic. I dare not even comment on the mobile phone and sms menace that discipline requires to be ignored at all costs. So what about the chauffeurs who would begging their bosses to take the new Mercs on the road to hell!! The owners must openly tell them that all fines, and loss of licenses are their responsibility and any damage to the vehicle is theirs too. I somehow doubt even that could sway ‘our prone to drink’ chauffeurs away from their bad habits.

Traffic police need at least 6months training in being able to control speeds and judge who the danger to the road is so that the truly dangerous drivers can be prosecuted. This very important area has been neglected so far and an appeal for immediate training is not unwarranted. There are no traffic police viewpoints similar to those in other countries where from a vantage they can immediately spot an errant driver and be able to stealthily swoop in and catch the culprit. I do not have space to go into all the aspects of law enforcement but just to say that common sense, something hugely lacking in the police force is the only way to ensure a reasonable experience for all.

I believe that fewer vehicles should be initially allowed on this road for a gradual transition into the new driving style. So a 6month period of 300% of the proposed toll charge would be a way to control the numbers using market forces. A leaflet upon entry for the first month highlighting these issues must be given to the driver and specifically asked to study this as an added requirement. After all we are doing our best to reduce the cost to the State of accidents, and it is better to be “penny wise than be pound foolish”. Happy Motoring!! Please share your thoughts.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I am in a fix, requests pour in. I want to help, how should we proceed?

Most of the requests for assistance, both common and individual are difficult to comply with, but it is impossible to refuse these requests point blank on the grounds that expectations when dashed creates angst amongst our citizenry no matter how far-fetched or outrageous the demands are.

I am not a charity, I am merely an enabler trying to fulfill people’s cries for help, by prioritizing them, and directing them where possible, so that already existing structures can assist where as in others just a token contribution may suffice. In others we have to direct parliamentary questions as to why certain basic facilities have not been provided, and try to get the government involved in solving some of the pressing problems of the day, which we in opposition with few resources can even hope to solve. We can only bring to the attention of those who can help.

A teacher from a Madya Maha Vidyalaya keeps calling me wanting us to fund a ‘Two-day leadership program for the final year students’ of the school. He has worked out the cost at Rs50,000 but in our opinion he is grossly underestimating it, if it is to be done properly will cost around Rs100,000. There is no proper written plan as to how and what is to be contained in this program. In my opinion we must also decide what programs we are willing to assist with, as it is impossible to undertake all projects which we are asked to assist.

Education is woefully short of funds. Programs have to be privately financed as they are not within the purview of the Education Department. There are needs, some are indulgences of priests, they hope the faithful will lavish on them. We must prioritize who we help by identifying our main goals as it relates to serving the community, and direct assistance to achieving them, but ensure that there are sufficient financial contributions from the grassroots, who should take ownership of these programs as it is the people who live amongst them who benefit from them most and I believe anything provided on a plate is not valued by the recipients.

We in Sri Lanka have created a culture of dependence to which all politicians past and present shoulder blame. Weaning them out of this can only be done gradually once they realize what is realistic and what is not. Further the level to which social service is an integral part of a politician’s life is not appreciated by those not so involved in this field. It is therefore very hard to be an honest politician who wants to get power to make a difference, as he does not have the wherewithal that a dishonest one has to fulfill this long list of wants. Power is the only way we can make a difference to the lives of our fellow citizens, if we are NOT philanthropists.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Whose responsibility is it to provide jobs for all unemployed Graduates?

There was a statement that 80% of the 40,000+ unemployed graduates are women. Secondly they maintained that according to the Mahinda Chinthana jobs were promised for all the preceding years to these graduates, which have not been forthcoming, and they have commenced agitation for jobs.

How is it may I seriously ask does a person go into a degree course in a University, expecting a government job upon qualification, if they have not already found a job? If that is the mentality of following a course at University, then we are in a serious problem as a country. This government won the election on many promises and one of which was the promise of jobs for the unemployed graduates.

In a hugely bloated state sector realistically jobs shed should not be refilled, or only when alternate state sector people are unable to be placed in them. That way people will not be made redundant. However when it comes to recruitment then only the truly competent should obtain the position, not just another slot for an unemployed graduate. It must be remembered that there is an alarmingly large trained teacher shortage. This requires to be filled, and not all unemployed graduates are capable of going into teacher training posts.

The large number of female unemployed graduates arises due to different needs they have that make them inflexible in their job search as they are less willing to live out of home and require employment close to home, which in practice is not possible. Steps must be taken to look at the true list of those actively searching for work amongst the unemployed graduates. They are the people who should be assisted first by gathering them into a seminar on how to find work and perhaps wean them from this desire to only work in the state sector and persuade them that waiting for a job in this sector is a complete waste of talent and energy trained at state expense. It is not the duty of the government to find them a job.

The unemployed graduates association should work closely with the government to come to a rational basis of discussion, that will look into the aspirations of these graduates and try to fill these in a practical manner with productive employment not necessarily in the state sector. I believe this communication is not taking place.

The most important task is to convince graduates that the employment market is theirs to search, and that it is not the responsibility of anyone to find them employment. The Government knowing the resources available in the pool of unemployed should make an effort in matching this to the needs in the state sector.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Religious Education – Why is it compulsory only in Sri Lanka?

If you intend to sit for O levels and A levels that are set by the Department of Education in Sri Lanka, that is for 90% of students at present, you have to choose a religion for O level. What is more you have to sit it in either Sinhala or Tamil. Choosing to write your Religion paper in English is not permitted, even though many Christian and Catholic Sunday schools teach it in the English medium.

I sat my O levels, over 12 subjects, in England and I did not choose Religion and I did not have to either. Instead I chose subjects like Navigation as I was in the Naval Cadet Force, which was more relevant. You may say I am biased, but not for a moment do I claim that my education was lacking in any respect, it just taught me to realize how little I knew and how much more I had to learn to be someone who could contribute in some way to the betterment of those around me.

My series of Blog entries on Education did not touch on religion, mainly because I want to bring the point to the debate, that it is a personal matter for the student and his family, and should not be taught or at least have a public exam on, in schools. Sunday schools, Daham Pasalas are an integral part of Sri Lankan upbringing and should be encouraged at every step of the way. I ask are we so bad at instilling religious values on our children that we have to force them to take an O level in it?

Can anyone tell me how with all this we have fallen to such depths of moral values in Sri Lanka in comparison to many countries we love to hate? True religious values should have deep meaning in our everyday lives and how we live it, and learn to overcome hatred by first removing hate from our lives and then trying to show love to others, who’s hate can also be conquered. Have our morals dropped because religion is forced and not nurtured?

Compulsory religious instruction, just like all the other subjects appears to force students to learn to pass exams, and not to appreciate the subject. Using that logic, I would say it is destructive to a young mind to force religion in the first place, as it is exams they think of. I believe the parents are abrogating their responsibilities of child-rearing to let the schools take over this subject, which is better taught in a place of worship such as a Daham Pasala or Sunday School in the Church.

I went to a charming historic temple on a rock in Divulapitiya where the teaching of Buddhism in a Daham Pasala could be in ideal surroundings, under the trees in the quiet of the place. I was horrified when the young Chief Priest within a few minutes presented the plans for a 4 floor building to teach the Sunday Daham Pasala, which looked like any school room, indicating to us some assistance would be welcome.

So now even these seats of religious instruction want to look more like classrooms, for what purpose may I ask?