Peace, educational needs and Open Distance Learning
Roles and responsibilities of the Open University
The objective of this article is to analyze the mood of the country
during the period immediately after the war, that it can be used to
change the political, economic and cultural landscape of the country for
Provision of educational opportunities
for the needy children is a national responsibility
The war that is over has generated a massive challenge that will test
the spirit of Sri Lankans. The history of this country is full of
instances of lost opportunities. This essay maintains that the new
challenges that post-conflict Sri Lanka is faced with require the
purposeful engagement of all Sri Lankans irrespective of class, caste,
political or ethnic divide to transform this country into a place
apposite for future generations to live peacefully.
Overcoming this challenge cannot be considered the sole
responsibility of the Government. As in the case of tsunami, every one
of us has a role to play. This country needs ideas that are practical
and also she desperately demands purposeful action. Governments can
fail; but a nation cannot afford to fail.
Hence, the current conjecture requires reflection at both individual
and collective levels to comprehend what can be done at our own levels.
No doubt, we have a daunting task of healing the national wounds and
helping the country to weather future challenges successfully. Every
individual should contribute to the nation building efforts which have
become the urgent need of the hour.
In the 1960s and 1970s Sri Lanka was regarded as a model nation on
account of her exceptional achievements in health and education sectors
as well as other aspects of social well-being. These achievements were
the outcomes of purposeful programs of public action which included free
health, free education and a universal food subsidy implemented in the
1950s and 1960s.
Investment in education
Even the recent IMF letter of intent has emphasized the need for
investment in education, health and social support for the needy. They
must have a country wide focus to relieve those who suffered due to the
war in the North and the East and those who made sacrifices expecting an
end to the war against terror in the other parts of the country. That
war is over. It is time we concentrate on heightened public action to
heal the wounds of war.
The Vanni requires special attention because the people here have
suffered silently for 30 years. In terms of education, this includes
both children of schoolgoing age and many others who have dropped out of
the school system for fear of attrition. Many of them were coerced to
join the militant movement and these incidents are only coming into the
limelight slowly. Hence providing educational opportunities to them
should be one of the priorities of public action. The Government has
taken this priority seriously.
It is in this sense that education in general and distance education
in particular has an enormous responsibility to respond to the new
challenges meaningfully. Health and education are the worst affected
spheres on account of the decades long Eelam war. The war sidelined the
educational pursuits of thousands of people. This included the youth and
also the very young children who had no facilities for pre-school
education. In addition, post-secondary education too was adversely
affected depriving many adults of educational opportunities. Hence the
challenge of providing educational opportunities is enormous.
This challenge is of such magnitude that the country finds it
unprepared to respond to it speedily. Under normal circumstances such a
challenge would have required years of planning to build the
infrastructure of the scale demanded. It includes new buildings for
schools, technical colleges, and other tertiary institutions. It also
requires laboratories, teachers, administrators and other
infrastructure. The inflexibility of the delivery mechanisms is another
matter of concern. The non-availability of trained teachers, curricula
and study material make the task all the more daunting.
These constraints require a flexible, cost effective yet
qualitatively superior response. One of the important beneficiaries of
such an initiative should be the school teachers in these areas who may
be utterly disoriented for years of war related uncertainties. The
curricula and teaching priorities in these areas may have been changed
by the LTTE to suit their propaganda. The teachers who work in this area
may have now become misfits. They may not be able to adjust to the new
They need help and counselling as to how they should respond to the
new demands. This is where post-conflict management and peace building
skills should form an integral part of their education. Thus there is a
massive need for teacher re-training and re-orienting to meet the
Another area that needs immediate action is providing short-term
training programs for pre-school teachers. This is about looking after
very young children who witnessed the fighting and how their near and
dear ones got injured or killed. There can be many children who have
become orphans due to no fault of theirs. The insurgents had their own
mechanisms to brainwash these very young children; children’s parks were
set up for that purpose. The walls of school buildings were full of
drawings depicting war martyrs of the LTTE.
An urgent need
This had been done to create a war mentality so that children even at
a very young age may be recruited as child soldiers. Now that the LTTE
is physically eliminated, there is an urgent need to fill this void
effectively and meaningfully to change the socio-psychological
undertones of these children.
being held for displaced children. File photo
Thousands of combatants have surrendered during the latter part of
the war. They need rehabilitation by way of changing their psyche and
attitude to work and to cultivate sentiments of peaceful coexistence.
For them, it would be useful to develop as far as combatants who have
surrendered and needing rehabilitation. The need is for developing
skills of languages like Sinhala and English and also information
technology. They may require occupational skills as well. The numbers
involved under this category is closer to 10,000. If they are to be
rehabilitated so as to make them responsible citizens. Basic skills of
this nature are needed to build their self-esteem as law abiding Sri
Eradication of militant movement therefore requires much concerted
effort. We have attempted to cover a few aspects relating to the
educational needs of the liberated North. The liberated North is very
different from the North and East due to variety of demographic,
political, economic and social factors.
The concerns expressed here needs urgent attention. No time should be
wasted expecting others to respond to our calls in the interest of a
united Sri Lanka. It is in this context, that the Open Distance Learning
(ODL) has a especial responsibility. ODL by nature is relatively
flexible and has the capacity to respond to situation in a professional
manner. The Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) which has a
sophisticated physical and institutional infrastructure is better
equipped to serve some of the areas that require a faster response. The
OUSL has its own regional and study centre network connecting Jaffna and
Vavuniya. It also has some programs of studies that are specifically
suited to the IDP community who require formal educational inputs to
improve their human resource capabilities.
One specific example is the pre-school education program of the OUSL
that can train pre-school teachers to undertake new challenges in
training young people. Another example area where there is much scope is
language training. This has two components. First, the OUSL has a
ready-made package to provide the state functionaries, in the police
stations, the health sector and even in defence establishments with a
working knowledge in Tamil.
Language is a useful tool to bridge the divide. Second, it also has
the packages to meet the urgent need to teach English language to the
youth who require such input. Third, it also has other programs
including computer skills and small business and entrepreneurship skills
that can contribute to preparing the youth for gainful employment.
Fourth, the Engineering Faculty of the University is equipped to help
developing the built up areas in consultative capacities.
Using distance mode
There are two features that make these programs unique. Firstly, they
are cost effective as education is imparted using distance mode. They
require minimum physical infrastructure and minimum human resources.
Open distance learning by definition is intended for production of
educational opportunities at mass scale. This enables us to achieve
scale economies which are unique for us. These study programs are now
available and time-tested in the other parts of the country. They have
withstood rigorous quality assurance tests both nationally and
internationally. Hence, low overall cost does not mean that we
What requires now is to discuss with the authorities what can be
done, how much and how soon it can be done. What is important here is
that the ODL has its special mandate to serve communities that are
hitherto un-reached. It is designed to improve access and equity in
educational endeavours. In this context, the Open University is better
placed to help the State and also the communities that need such help.
Helping the State is an integral part of our national obligation. We
have already initiated action to visit the IDPs and offer possible
assistance by providing educational opportunities. However there is much
more left to be done.
This is a solemn responsibility incumbent on the university
academics. Besides, the aspect of helping the communities affected by
the conflict is part of our mission “to empower those who are deprived
of the basic educational inputs”.
Hence, the beneficiaries should be those who were rendered destitute
on account of the devastating war thrust on them by the insurgency. As
such the OUSL has a vast responsibility. Time is now ripe for generating
ideas and concerted action. We need to sit down and prepare the ground
plan and faithfully implement the decisions taken by us collectively.
The writer is Vice Chancellor of the Open University