Arts Education in Sri Lanka: Some clarifications

By Farzana Haniffa

A recent report on higher education published by the National Audit Office (2020) attempted to make a connection between graduate unemployment and Arts education. Today’s Kuppi Talk is derived from a response that we, a group of university academics formulated to the report. When education policy is increasingly being driven by inadequate research, misplaced priorities, and flawed analyses, some of the report’s claims are worth a second look.

At the outset it must be acknowledged that there is much that can be improved about Arts Education in Sri Lanka. However, it must also be acknowledged that there are many misconceptions regarding graduates of state universities and their abilities that have little or no resemblance to how universities function or the quality of the degree programmes on offer.

Underserving the Arts

While acknowledging the need for creative Arts to enrich society, the report suggests that as a “developing country”, we cannot afford to spend resources (that could be spent on Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) Education on Arts education. A vibrant Arts scene is the hallmark of a thriving society. It is unfortunate that we—in our quest for economic development– are considered underserving of creative Arts. The lack of greater government support for Arts is probably a reflection of this sensibility. Unfortunately, such narrow and shortsighted positions inform much education policy today.

Arts Faculties also provide degrees in the social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, economics and geography, and in applied or “professional” fields such as education, archeology, and library sciences, as well as humanities subjects such as history, philosophy and literature. The skills and perspectives provided by these sectors are essential to a holistic understanding of any social problem, such as poverty or education, or even any “technical” problem, such as water scarcity. The ability to understand the philosophical and ideological bases of such problems, and identify the social, cultural, and human consequences of proposed solutions, is provided by the skillset cultivated by an Arts Education. In fact, this is the very reason that multidisciplinary perspectives are frequently called upon for research.

It is important then that we recognize the contribution that a good quality Arts education can offer to society. We as a country are suffering today from a lack of attention to the perspectives that social science and humanities education can provide. This is also why those with little or no exposure to the above fields feel qualified to drive policy in various sectors that have substantial social consequences. This situation does not bode well for our future.

Leaving no one behind?

Our free education system, enshrined with the goal of providing upward social mobility, is failing today due to neglect. That students from under-privileged communities are compelled to attend under-resourced schools is a factor that needs much greater attention in any conversation regarding higher education and employability.

The audit report points to the many problems with secondary education and argues that students from underprivileged schools have often no option but to follow the (less demanding) Arts streams for A-levels and University Education. The report claims that Arts faculties are therefore the locus of such under-prepared students. Despite identifying the education system as the problem (and not the ability of students), the report goes on to suggest that such students do not deserve higher education and should be directed elsewhere.

If Arts programmes are, in fact, where many students who have had weak secondary education end up by default, then these arts programmes must offer remedial support. Arts programs are not currently designed to do this. There is support for English language learning but little support to address weaknesses in other kinds of essential cognitive skills. The student population that enters university today emerges, by and large, from a badly resourced education system, and a tuition culture that produces exam-oriented rote learners.

Education policy must address the mismatch between the requirements of a degree programmes and the competencies with which students enter university. The solution here is not to dismantle Arts programmess or to add-on English training and IT skills to compensate for a lack of a good foundation, but to channel more resources to the education system, and provide additional remedial catch-up time prior to the degree programme.

Lacking insight

The report sweepingly suggests that Arts programmes that draw these “weak” students are themselves “weak” and are of little societal value. For one, not all Arts programs are the same across the country’s university system. There are internal and external degree programes, three-year general Arts degree programmes following different subject combinations and Study Stream degree programmes that offer specialisation within a three-year period, and four-year honours degree programmes involving a research component. While the subject areas covered by Arts programmes are also diverse, the content of programmes across the many universities differ as well. Thus, Arts students demonstrate a wide and disparate range of abilities and skills. Addressing Arts Education as a non-disaggregated whole is unhelpful when analysing the skills and capabilities of Arts graduates. Disaggregating between Arts programmes is essential in order to recognise and develop the stronger programs and provide support for the areas that require reforms .

The report assumes that academically-oriented programmes are somehow antithetical to employment-oriented programmes. Such a perspective mischaracterises both the nature of academic engagement and the essence of job-oriented education. A strong academic programme that focuses on critical thought, substantive engagement with course material, independent learning, good writing, presentation and debate skills, will produce graduate that are able to think independently, express themselves and work towards creating meaningful change in whatever surrounding they find themselves in, including their jobs. An effective programme of this nature would simultaneously result in the development of English skills, “soft skills”, and IT skills as part of the curriculum. The World Bank loan funded AHEAD programme currently being implemented across the university system has integrated elements of such a perspective.

Arts Faculties currently tend to cater to a large number of students and relative to other faculties, their student body is more diverse and likely to have differing challenges and require greater support in transitioning to university education. Their student to staff ratios are larger, they tend to offer a greater number of degree programmes that are delivered in different language media, and their per student funding is less than for other degree programs. This creates a number of unique difficulties for arts faculties. These problems require systematic investigation in order for universities to provide the type of enriching education that an Arts graduate requires. The state must recognise the unique contribution that Arts faculties can make due to these very conditions and not dismiss them—as is sometimes done today—as breeding iniquity alone.

Revisiting unemployment

For most university graduates, employment means to be employed in the government sector. When graduates report unemployment, they do not necessarily mean they are not engaged in other income-generating activities or a private sector job. Defining a “job” as a government job alone may be understood as part of a cultivated culture of patronage and entitlement. Such a position also draws from a realisation that the working conditions, job security, and benefits of a government position far outweigh those in the private sector, regardless of claims to creativity, job satisfaction, higher pay, etc. The report recognises many of these issues and recommends raising awareness on the benefits of private sector jobs among undergraduates and urges the government to address the working conditions in the private sector.

The report points out that the majority of unemployed Arts graduates are women, but does not explore the gendered reasons as to why university educated women may be unemployed or opt out of employment. The Labour Demand Survey of 2017 provides insights on this matter. According to the Survey results, employers expressed negative attitudes towards hiring women owing to their “family commitments,” “security concerns”, and “maternity leave.”

Employers’ reluctance to accommodate women’s unpaid care responsibilities and fear of sexual harassment and violence point to yet another societal malaise that is not reducible to a factor of university education alone. Recent discussions on the unpaid care economy and women’s unaccounted labour at home are relevant here. Many women opt out of formal employment or engage in informal work to accommodate the demands of care work in the home. Additionally, work place sexual harassment and risk of the same when traveling home late after work are factors that contribute to women’s low labour force participation. These issues must be taken in to account to arrive at a complete picture of graduate unemployment.

The government’s education policies are not always based on rigorous analysis, and often exacerbate rather than ameliorate the crises in the education sector. It is important therefore that policy interventions are made after consultative and thought-through processes that are themselves not mere box ticking exercises.