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 mongabay.com (http://news.mongabay.com/2011/1121-hance_dole_abandons.html) 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?

Monday, November 7, 2011

We have to start from the beginning in terms of Education - we are not as literate as you think!

In the series of blog entries on Education, I have concentrated on the Primary and Secondary sectors as I believe that until we revamp the basics, we cannot hope to aim higher. All the talk is of getting a technologically savvy workforce conversant in English. We can only do this if the foundations of Mathematics and English are laid, and this is done as early as the Primary levels. It is actually quite easy to use new teaching methods and even use new technology in places where there is a dearth of teachers to interest our youngsters in these two basics. There are so many computer techniques where children in catchment areas can be directed to with these computer facilities when English and Maths teachers are at a premium.

There has really been NO investigation into this possibility, even though many schools have computer labs, that tend to teach computer studies to the older students, before teaching video based instructions of the subjects I referred to earlier. I was at a function in Badalgama yesterday at the northern edge of the Gampaha district, where we presented 5, 120page exercise books each to 150 disadvantaged children, accompanied by their parents. Remember their text books are provided FREE by the state. At that gathering one of the speakers reminded these youngsters aged between 7 and 14 that even A levels were insufficient, and that they would have to get degrees if they were to find employment.

The reality is far different. In this sample of 150, disadvantaged kids, in that their parents are not financially particularly well off, I would hazard a guess and say that possibly 2 or 3 will go into University. It is primarily due to the lack of facilities and also when they get to University age, the openings in the Arts Faculties for those with good grades in the usual subjects taken by them would be even fewer.

The basic grounding in the three R’s is also lacking, so all effort should be to improve those skills first. The advanced students in such schools do not amount to more than 10%, and can be fast tracked into the best schools in the District, whilst the rest get a good basic education. The aptitude of students is what is important.

Though the country boasts of a very high literacy rate, it is shameful to rest on such mistaken laurels, as it does not mean a thing. The attention received by these kids is so abysmal that in this area, students at 14 can barely read or do their sums, and we expect them to choose A level subjects. It is as if the management of education does not know the ground situation. They almost exclusively base their decisions on the Colombo school sector, which is on a different plane as compared with the outlying areas even in the Western Province which the schools are in.
With the decentralization of schools, there is utter confusion about which are centrally managed and which are managed at Provincial Levels, and with the 1000 schools program whose intentions are honorable, but implementations disjointed, the confusion is exacerbated. I am for the management of education centrally where the subject can be looked into holistically, as the decentralized provincial mentality is not suitable to setting policy and implementing it due to the lack of trained personnel and the waste of good teaching staff in the administration of Education, which they are hopeless at.

If Education is managed centrally and only action plans delegated to individual Districts with goals set for each district as far as minimum standards are concerned they can then be measured objectively and corrective action taken with the resources available to the Central Government. One very important aspect is the lack of a clear understanding in Education by the education departments subsequently to their being managed by the Provincial Councils. There are no education experts in the Provincial Councils, and it is incumbent of the Central Government to supply the skills needed to identify weaknesses and implement corrective action.

In earlier blogs, I referred to the need for the closure of a few thousand schools due to few students and the costs per student being high, whilst basic facilities were not available there. If this were done, resources can be released to implement the proposals. I will not delve here on the teacher and skill shortage, as I have dealt with it at length earlier, but I reiterate this gap as one that has to be independently filled while the education policy is being discussed and revamped. The increasing intake of teachers will only come into the sector in four years at best and so the other aspects of identifying the capabilities of students, and setting realistic goals for them in their respective schools bearing in mind their resources will go a long way in making sure that the time of the students in schools is optimized.

Sri Lanka is fortunate in that unlike in Western Countries where parental interference in their children’s education is driving teachers away, it is internal politics that is doing the same thing in Sri Lanka, which can be minimized. When transfers, promotions, and expectations are transparent, then favoritism, witch hunts and unfair treatment become less of a problem.

I know there is a very dedicated carder of Teachers who must be encouraged, properly recognized and examples made of for others to follow. We can then reach some of the goals we set, minimal at first but ambitious later to give our students a truly complete education to take responsibility for their future and well being.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Let us fight the new Education proposals which will take us backwards

I have explained at length in a few blog entries last month about the real problems in education, and while none of the main ones are addressed more headaches are thrust upon the beleaguered sector by a government lacking in any common sense, with people more concerned about their self worth over that of the students are about to impose a draconian measure not relevant to our current system.

In short they want to teach Accounting at grade 9 to take them up to O levels, when in my time we did not even have it at A levels and I am a chartered accountant damn glad I had a wide breath of education. Just imagine what an idiot I would have become if I studied accounting at O levels. I would have no life other than accounting, poisoning myself before attaining 30. Why is the Minister of Education driving people to an early grave.

It is a breath of education we need as the overwhelming majority of our students do not go past the O level stage, about 70%. The weakness apparently was that those at A level stage found the subjects tough! So it would be better to give them a grounding in those subjects a further 2 years earlier. What about the 70% who will leave with no general knowledge. They will not be able to enter education later and study for the needed qualifications that go along with the vocations they choose once they leave school early, due to inability to continue. This inability is not their fault it is simply that there are insufficient teachers to cater to their special needs.

I repeated ad nauseam about what is needed. It is a 50% increase in the teaching carder which will take about 10 years of investment to achieve anyway. Changing this syllabus in a year will put further pressure on the existing teaching staff, leading many to give up the profession due to the stresses involved. Does the Education minister realize how stressful state education is that goes along with poor remuneration and awful working conditions?

Given the rationale above I sincerely hope the Education Minister takes a complete U turn admit the failure in the current system and go back to basic education so we can train our citizens to be useful members of society no matter what level they study up to and please try and make sure we have enough teachers to give these students a grounding in subjects. We can only guess how many budding great scientists and mathematicians, as well as farmers and motor mechanics we are actively preventing from being recognized, due to the current system. We must give the opportunity to all, not just a fortunate few who are able at the young 14 year age to decide and make life changing decisions and thereby also succeed.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Hiding behind seniority to attack political interference compromises “Merit”

The use of Merit in so far as it means the best person for the job, is a distant dream in public service and in the political arena. In the private sector, it is increasingly seen as a prerequisite for performance, as otherwise the organization may perish. This influence comes mainly from multinationals that have a very competitive system, where promotions are only on merit, and those who do not get promoted, know that their ceiling has been reached, and they either decide to languish or quit.

One would exclude private family owned companies, where family members decide to be the chiefs and they have favorites or trusted aides in positions below theirs to ensure control. There is an element of merit here but once the glass ceiling is reached one knows there is no more climbing. The more mature private companies will recruit and promote on merit as they know that is the only means of longevity, and then the owners will merely be the shareholders of the company on a non-executive basis, leaving the professionals to run the business.

It was therefore telling when the new first female Attorney General asserted that she as being the most senior in the department, expected to be promoted to that position, though as a woman she waited for the confirmation from the President in case he determined otherwise as the appointment was his to make. I wonder then whether she meant she was not the best! I suspect merit here did not matter to her, as she was only concerned if political interference prevented her from getting what she felt was hers for time served! This at a time when the Chief Justice, also the first woman was appointed more as a ‘yes woman’ political appointment rather than merit and moreover has her husband as the Chairman of one of the largest and also state banks in Sri Lanka. This conflict of interest, which should have resulted in his resignation in a just society, is swept under the carpet in an ‘unjust one’.

In essence, due to the level of political interference in the public sector, seniority is the only option of preserving sanity in promotion. If merit were to be used, then it could be construed as political interference by those whose seniority rights have been ignored. This argument then can be carried further to minimize conflict, namely to privatize state institutions that have no place in the public sector. They would be more efficient and hence economically more beneficial to the Nation.

The case for public sector ownership of ‘for profit enterprises’ is ONLY on the basis that management is appointed without political interference, namely merit. The case made here is a long way from reality in Sri Lanka, as jobs go to loyalists and most state enterprises are loaded with party faithful, being rewarded in style.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The society we live in – criminal activity is considered a normal solution

Sri Lanka has suddenly become a country where violence and murder to achieve one’s ends appears to be a very matter of fact event. If one takes three examples to make a point. First, the murder of a successful businessman his wife and two children in the Udawalawa area, when they discovered who the hooded people were who had come to house to rob them. Then there was the sensational contract killing of a well respected doctor in the Karandeniya area. His assassins have just been apprehended and it seems it was part of the fight for channel patients. So even in the medical field death seems to be the only solution to financial gain.

I need not elaborate on the State sponsored violence within their own ranks, with the administration of justice at a new low as it pertains to those who are in Govt.

If this is permitted to continue, criminal activity will form part of the legislation that the Govt. puts forward to parliament which the now compliant judiciary will allow with not a murmur. Depending on your point of view the new legislation the govt. proposes to use underutilized assets is nothing more than daylight robbery of private property permitted by legislation. There exists sufficient legislation to deal with such property and so nothing more is required. The speed with which this is being brought in and the fact that the legislation will pass owing to the overwhelming control of Parliament means we do not know what is next for us.

The forced acquisition of private property will be next, and the rational used for choosing whose property seems very fluid, and so it is an attack on all opposition, in fact a draconian rule that is deftly passed by a sleight of hand with nere a whimper, as most people in the country do not even understand the current power of the state let alone the additional powers they seem to want to extract.

The examples show that there is a fine line between what is criminal and what is not, as well as to whom the law applies. The law is therefore not equal, and with the fading of the independence of the judiciary and the executive having complete control, more like a vice grip on the legislature, it is a Dictatorship of the worst kind that has been voted in by the people. I am not sure if they realized this when they voted for them, but giving too much power to so few people to do anything is grounds for a complete breakdown in all manner of decency and civilization. If we who are aware of this do not agitate and are not vociferous to defend the freedoms we should enjoy and have been grabbed from us, no one will. It is incumbent upon us to begin a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the abyss that this country is heading into, because too many people who have unknowingly bought into it.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Poverty is relative and Government makes statements that are inconsistent

Members of the Government want to take credit for the decline in poverty in Sri Lanka by saying that 1.6million workers overseas send money to their relatives to improve the livelihood of their families while at the same time taking them out of poverty. This has NOTHING to do with the Government. It is simply that people are willing to risk life and limb to slave away in a foreign land to give a better life for their dependents. The Government cheats them maintaining an artificially high exchange rate, denying them about 20% of the remittances. They then are able to spend much less in rupees to buy their favored luxury cars and goodies tax free!!

Then there are 1.6million households who receive the Samurdhi welfare of Rs500 a month. This is due to them being classified as poor. I would contend that the cost of administering and fraudulent claims makes nonsense of this scheme and contend that the truly poor are not helped by this and is merely a vote winning ploy where the recipients expect this payment irrespective of whether they qualify. The old adage of “it is easy to give but difficult to take away” holds true for them.

I accept that there has been a reduction in the poverty. However it is solely due to the annual remittances of US$5B, which goes straight to the hinterlands take some people out of abject poverty. This has been the single main reason for Sri Lanka rising from the developing to middle income category. It is a indictment of the failure of government to provide a proper infrastructure for employment that has created this need. I have said this earlier, and I repeat that this remittance is akin to Sri Lanka citizens receiving a dividend from a US$150B trust fund invested overseas. In that context we are no different to developed countries.

What is important is to get people out of poverty and try to find permanent solutions to their problems. There is no point in making short term grants or assistance. There must be a long term plan to get and keep them out of poverty.

Assistance to the deserving is easily the most corrupt as everyone who does not receive assistance resents those who do, saying that it is either due to laziness or lying that they receive the help. The acceptable way to do this is to help people to help themselves by providing lasting income earning opportunities. It is better to show how to plant a coconut seedling than supply one. Most of the people who received coconut seedlings as part of the Divi Neguma program do not know how to plant it properly. Further they do not know if the seedling gifted to them is actually more of a hindrance. They should learn how to choose the best seedling. I want to know as a farmer, that I can choose the best quality seedling for growth.
The greatest challenge facing many developing nations is how to tackle real poverty, first by identifying it and then taking the necessary steps to take people out of it. Often poverty is due to ignorance, and to bad choices. It can also arise from a sequence of unfortunate circumstances. The trick is in identifying the cause and taking the necessary steps to alleviate that condition in the long term rather than provide a temporary solution. It is no easy task but must be addressed.

In the process it is now accepted that providing anything free is the wrong method, as the value of the gift is not appreciated by the recipient. In this instance it is better to get into a partnership where a certain percentage of the cost of something is made as a contribution if the other part is provided by the recipient. Then there is some ownership of the transaction by the recipient who makes a sacrifice. It is then more than likely that goods or services received is made productive. Waste of assistance is everywhere to see, as many grab something because it is free.

It is quite normal for politicians to take credit for something they had not hand in and often for policies of previous regimes. After all with long term development projects it is the next administration that completes it like most of the major, except Hambantota District development projects in Sri Lanka. The people and the readers therefore must ponder on this topic and make a judgment as to what they believe and who they wish to give credit to.

In the context of global poverty it is all relative. It is a state of mind. I have mentioned above that different forms of poverty require different solutions. If poverty is caused by the breadwinner being an alcoholic, which then affects his whole family adversely then something different is needed to make him understand the effects of his behavior on his near and dear ones. Sri Lanka has a huge population of disabled people who suffer in silence or are helped by their family.

The importance of disability is one dear to my heart after I became temporarily disabled due to an accident which was completely the fault of uninsured Cabinet Minister’s convoy vehicle for which they accepted responsibility but no liability for damages or loss of income. In this ironic instance it is the Government which directly caused my poverty in destroying my livelihood in an instant!!!

It is very important for us to tackle poverty from the bottom up. The poorest first. They are the most difficult to help. The help given them can lead to a dependency scenario which we must avoid, and doing everything necessary to give them pride in living is the only way out of this, and so charity must be used in a very meaningful way to help our society to claim a place in the civilized order.