'Window of Opportunity opens for Lankan education'
Text of speech by Secretary, Ministry of Education, Dr. Tara de Mel,
to the Asian Round Table on Open and Distance Learning for Attainment of
Millennium Development Goals
Dr. Tara de Mel
PROF. UMA Cumaraswamy in her letter of invitation to me to this Round
Table says that "traditional formal methods of education alone are far
too inadequate to meet the demands set by the Millennium Development
Goals". I cannot agree more.
As a force contributing to social and economic development, Open and
Distance Learning (ODL) has fast become an indispensable part of the
main stream of educational systems. This is true of both developed and
This phenomenal growth of ODL, has been stimulated at least in part
by interest amongst educators and trainers in the case of new
internet-based, multi-media technologies.
They have also realized that traditional ways of organizing education
needs have to be reinforced by innovative methods - if the fundamental
right of all people to learning, is to be realized.
Reaching the Millennium Development Goals requires a substantial and
accelerated program of work through the traditional and non-traditional
methods of education. Modernized programs for Open and Distance Learning
have to necessarily be a part of this.
Facing new training demands, new competitive challenges, and most of
all implementing profound changes in governance, organizational
structures and modes of operations in delivery, become priority.
The Sri Lankan education system has been celebrated in development
policy circles and in economic literature for its successes in providing
widespread access to primary and secondary education.
This undoubtedly paved the way for us to attain a high level of human
development for a low-income country. In fact the UNDP data show that we
are placed at 96/177 in the human development index ranking for 2004.
Enlightened and visionary policies of our leaders in the 1930s and
1940s showed that they knew the importance of investing in human
capital. This is precisely what propelled our education system fast and
far ahead of many Asian and South East Asian nations giving us that
competitive edge in the pre independence era.
Unfortunately over the past 50 years or so the economic performance
of the country lagged behind the pace of education development. The
consequences were adverse. We lost that lead we had in education.
This poor economic growth led to us investing less and less in
education. And countries like Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Honk
Kong and Thailand forged ahead and overtook us in all spheres of
education and training.
In addition to slow growth, the numbers of educated young people
equipped with the necessary skills and attributes failed to expand
sufficiently rapidly to match the newer demands of the labour market.
This has led to the enduring problem of educated but unemployed youth
seeking employment. Thereby we gradually lost our human capital.
Furthermore policy makers in the last several decades did not focus
sufficiently on certain thrust areas that our neighbours did quite
rightly - i.e. Maths, Science, English, Information Technology and other
technological subjects. Open and Distance Learning (ODL), using
web-based systems of education and training which would have provided
access to large numbers to higher education, also did not enjoy high
While those countries modernized their education systems, we stayed
where we were.
It is important that I make these remarks in the preamble to
understand in context, our vision, our policies, and our challenges in
moving forward the Education Reform agenda.
We are meeting today at a time that the Government of Sri Lanka is
vigorously reviving its efforts to modernize our systems to restore its
competitive edge in education and training.
We have embarked upon a program of curriculum reform for all grades
after an 8-year cycle, which began in 1999. Our focus is on emphasizing
and institutionalizing competency-based learning, thinking and
analytical skills, creativity and innovation.
Problem-solving/activity-based learning through project work,
assignments and practicals will take focus.
Maths, English, Science and IT will be introduced from Grades 1 to
13. Teacher training accordingly, with new training methodologies,
comparing our syllabuses and curricula with those of other countries,
ensuring that our examination systems are also geared to test these
essential skills, will be highlighted. Teacher Training for these
changes in the curricular is being planned to systematically take place
from 2006 January.
There is also a program under way in improving infrastructure like
school buildings, modernizing Science and IT laboratories and
introducing new equipment.
Converting our schools into "smart/future schools" eventually, is our
policy. Government allocations of funding are substantial for this
endeavour and this is augmented from funding by our development
We have also taken landmark initiatives to build our human resource
base involved in education, teaching and governance, (i.e. Teachers,
Principals, education administrators). Promotions that have been long
overdue have been given ensuring upward career mobility. Necessary
training and continued education is being provided through Training
Training principals and teachers for managing and governing schools
through new School Based Management programs is also under way.
Quality Assurance, benchmarking and accreditation of schools and
universities both of the State and non-State sectors are now being
Although the establishment of private schools (Grades 1 to 9) has
been legally banned since the early 1960s, over 200
private/international schools operate on the shores of this land.
We recently started a program to assess their quality and benchmark
them according to specific criteria and to monitor the education they
deliver to Sri Lankan children.
Sri Lanka is perhaps one out of about 5 countries in the world that
has been forbidden legally to establish schools and universities in the
non-State sector. Other low-income countries and states, famous for
their high basic education achievements have done so many years ago. For
example, in the State of Kerala in India, they rely heavily on the
private sector schools.
Nearly 50% of enrolment in the primary and secondary schools of
education is found in Kerala. Their education systems are getting
modernized, in keeping with some of the new innovations of the more
developed countries. This is the same in some low-income Latin American
Despite our near 98% primary enrolment, our secondary enrolment in
education is only about 70%.
In regard to higher education, with a pathetic overall enrolment in
tertiary education of about 10% and a dismal 3% of the age cohort 18 -
25 in universities, we are still groping in the dark.
Tentative increments of 500, 1000 or 1500 students per year, in the
13 or 14 State universities in the country will never solve the problem
of providing quality higher education to over 200,000 school leavers
In preventing the establishment of private universities (entirely for
political reasons) the Sri Lankan education system deviated from the
methods adopted by some of the highest performing education systems in
the world like South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. These
countries focused their attention and government resources on primary
and secondary sectors leaving the tertiary sector largely in the hands
of the non-government/private sector.
These are self-imposed shackles and the penalties are paid by
successive generations of young people.
The reform in the university sector is also substantial. Our
development partners like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank
are presently contributing significantly in this regard through the
Distance Education Modernization Project and Improving Quality and
Relevance of Undergraduate Education Project (IRQUE).
We are encouraging universities to use the autonomy they have. We are
pushing through changes like financial de-regulation,
de-bureaucratization, encouraging academics to use new ideas, to
innovate, to create imaginatively. We also encourage them to modernize
their curricular and teaching methods and to introduce their own income
generating programs, with no interference from the government.
Through the IRQUE Project, for the first time we are seeing
university academics competitively bidding for programs and projects for
innovations in their relevant disciplines. For the first time we are
seeing through the Quality Enhancement Fund, university teachers
competing for research.
For the first time English, IT and Social Harmony modules will be
part of the core curriculum, particularly for disciplines connected to
Humanities and Social Sciences. Invariably this would make graduates
coming from these disciplines more employable than they are now.
For the first time we are seeing Quality Assurance taking place in
different universities and ranking of universities and departments
according to specified criteria, through the Quality Assurance programs
of the UGC.
With the next budgetary cycle, we will be also developing a funding
formula for universities. And this will take into account performance -
in academic and infrastructure development, through competitive bidding
and qualitative ranking.
Now the time is ripe for Sri Lanka to create a revolution in ODL.
The excellent work of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL),
spearheaded by Prof. Uma Coomaraswamy must now shift gear.
Sri Lanka must enter the league of its neighbours rapidly - by
shifting to dual/multi-mode teaching/learning, through multiple centers
across the country and through the other innovations of the DEMP. Our
percentage of students learning through ODL modalities must drastically
increase. The numbers enrolled for higher education must substantially
rise through external degree programs using ODL.
I believe, in countries like Thailand nearly 50% students use ODL for
Higher Education. The Indira Gandhi Open University is known world-wide
for the teaching/learning it provides globally through ODL. There are
many more such examples. This is the best method we can use to provide
our 100,000+ students who have no hope of accessing conventional Higher
Web-based learning must become fashionable - in the Secondary and
Tertiary sectors and "Virtual Universities" must become a reality in Sri
Lanka. These must cease to be uncharted territory, and must be made
available to all our senior school students and school leavers.
Ladies and Gentlemen
Our challenges in facing a substantial and progressive reform in
education are both complex and formidable.
There are many dangers in our path to progressive change and it would
be foolish for us to ignore them.
Our skill would be to seek common ground between adversarial
situations and mostly to have the courage and foresight to convert our
crises into opportunity.
Today, we are fortunate that we have a window of opportunity before
us to make a difference. We have an unprecedented situation where
education has received the highest priority in our development agenda.
It has also received the most amount of funding ever.
It gets its leadership from the highest in the land. We have been
told to spare no effort in doing the best for this system. i.e. To
ensure that all funding is used optimally, rapidly so that we see a
profound improvement in our classroom and on campus so that our students
and our teachers benefit the most.
Developing our education system with sophistication, professionalism
and quality and the practical implementation of all what we say is our
I wish the Asian Round Table on Open and Distance Learning for
attainment of Millennium Development Goals all success. These
deliberations and the decisions arrived at would help us enormously in
our way forward.