Education at a time of economic crisis

By Mahendran Thiruvarangan

The current economic crisis has hit the country’s education sector severely. From pre-school children to undergraduates, students, teachers and non-academic staff attached to our educational system, have been affected in unprecedented ways. Our educational institutions are struggling to run academic activities due to frequent power-cuts and shortages of supplies, such as stationery and chemicals. Hostellers, and students boarded in private houses, face difficulties in meeting their daily needs, including food and transport. These financial constraints have resulted in a decline in students enrolled in some four-year special degree programmes this year at universities.

Students from low-income, working-class, and oppressed caste communities, those from poverty-stricken urban areas, fishing communities, and schools located in rural and plantation areas, and the war-affected North and East, bear a disproportionate burden of this crisis. As education is becoming alarmingly expensive for many, there is a serious threat to the idea of free public education as an avenue for social mobility and social justice. As we explore ways out, there is a need to reflect upon why our free education system has been hit in this manner and why we have been unable to take action to prevent students from being pushed out of the system.

Understanding the Crisis

The current economic crisis, and how it is impacting our education system, can be attributed to the mindless open-economic policies that Sri Lanka adopted in 1977 and the neoliberal mindset that governs our educational planning since. Today’s crisis is a visible, painful rupture of an already beleaguered system. The COVID pandemic only furthered its deterioration and has rendered the current moment in education an enormously challenging one.

The heavy toll the crisis is taking on our students is a manifestation of the longstanding negligence our education system has suffered at the hands of successive governments. While large amounts were spent on vanity projects, like the Hambantota Harbour, Mattala Airport, the Lotus Tower and beautification of Colombo, not to mention expanding the country’s military apparatuses, the 2012 demand by FUTA to allocate 6% of the GDP for education has been ignored. Since the 1980s, the country has not invested enough in educational support systems, such as hostels for undergraduates, or in strengthening rural schools or upgrading more of them into schools with A/L classes, including the Science streams. These measures would have reduced the transportation and accommodation costs many of our students are struggling to bear today, amidst the crisis.

Because low-income, working-class families have been hit hardest, solutions to the economic crisis today should give a central place to redistribution. Within this framework, the way the state allocates funds for various initiatives should be justified on the basis of how those initiatives can help build a just, egalitarian society. This rationale should lead to prioritising the development of universal free education and healthcare. Our calls for a wealth tax and increased income taxes should highlight that a portion of the revenues that may be accrued via these measures must be utilised to reduce the inequalities, within the free education system.

Re-imagining Education during the Crisis

Under neoliberalism, we have been made to understand education as a timeless, ahistorical, contextless process divorced from the socio-economic realities that confront communities. Our curriculum and evaluation methods are, for the most part, inflexibly set in stone and heavily templatized. Neoliberalism has turned teachers into teaching-machines that lack the imagination to adopt curriculum practices that suit the conditions and needs of a particular historical moment.

At this juncture, there is a need to improvise short-term curriculum and evaluation practices that are intellectually meaningful and less costly for students. Even if teachers are ready to adopt such practices and make the necessary adjustments, our administrations do not show much interest in discussing these adjustments, let alone implement them. Even though universities, contra schools, are not bound by a common curriculum, centralised systems, within individual universities, informed by archaic rules and regulations, make adjustments that are attentive to the unprecedented socio-economic conditions, difficult if not impossible.

Education at a time of crisis should give a central place to the crisis itself in its content. The university curriculum should be flexible enough to bring the current politico-economic moment and its varied impact on different communities to the fore. Students and teachers should frame the educational processes that we are engaging in today as processes that should help us understand the crisis better and unpack the ideologies and policies undergirding it. These processes should encourage students and teachers to work with communities, trade unions, protestors and policy-makers in finding appropriate remedies. When students find their educational activities directly speaking to their everyday lives and the experiences of their communities, they will find education even during crisis an inspiring, liberating experience.

At both the school and tertiary levels, examinations and evaluation practices should be re-imagined. Standards should be broadened and diversified so that the education system embraces inclusiveness at a time when economic conditions are becoming more and more punishing towards the poor. At least within the school system, helping the students to cross the next hurdle should be prioritised. For instance, the number of optional questions given in an examination may be increased. The recent call by Ruwanthie de Chickera to pass all the students who sat for the G. C. E. O/L examinations that concluded last week should be heeded.

Our undergraduates, especially those who are in their penultimate and final years, have already spent more than the stipulated number of years at the university mainly due to the COVID crisis. In the case of many, their families can no longer support their education. Some feel an urgent need to find employment to support their families. There should be deliberations on how courses and assessment methods can be provisionally re-designed so that their graduation is not delayed further. While one has to be cautious about haphazard proposals made at University Faculty Boards to reduce the teaching hours, without adequate discussion, there can be more flexibility when it comes to the time spent on examinations. For instance, we should explore take-home exams or a combination of take-home exams and final papers as alternative to traditional end-of-semester examinations, which often take over a month to conduct for each batch at some universities. This may help students minimize the money spent on transportation as well.

The Ministry of Education should facilitate students and teachers to attend schools in their neighbourhood till there is improvement in the economic situation. Schools should initiate activities that can provide joy and relaxation to children instead of focusing too much on the traditional curriculum. They should also function as social spaces where students, parents and teachers can get together and chart mechanisms of survival and resilience. Students could take the lead in cultivating vegetables in their school gardens. School kitchens, established with the help of the wider community, may ensure that future generations get the necessary nutrients for their growth.

Shaping a Vision

The free education system, together with the free healthcare system, have kept our communities physically, psychologically and intellectually healthy and vibrant. Despite its many flaws, the education system has contributed to democratizing our society. Even our collective resistance to the failed economic policies of ruling classes today is informed by the democratic consciousness that our free education has imbued in us. The undergraduates of the public university system have taken a lead role in the ongoing protests, demanding a system change. We need the free education system to be alive and dynamic now more than ever.

How do we make the education system resilient even as we battle everyday problems? In what ways can higher-resourced schools help those with less facilities? In what ways can strong overseas alumni associations help economically marginalized students from not just their own schools but also other schools? In what ways can schools and universities work together in overcoming the crisis? How can local communities support the schools in their areas in the latter’s efforts to address the challenges they face? These are questions that we need to discuss urgently.

Neoliberalism has made us view education as a quest geared towards individual success at the cost of social wellbeing. It has discouraged us from exploring alliances and solidarities that can help us overcome challenging situations together through redistribution. The crisis we are facing today within and outside the education sector should make us understand that our socio-economic lives are interconnected and that we are dependent on each other for survival. The support systems and redistributive mechanisms that we build today can also provide the foundations for our economic and educational vision in the long-run, beyond this crisis. Let’s turn this crisis into an opportunity to remove the economic, social and psychological stranglehold that neoliberalism has placed over us and imagine an egalitarian future.