In defence of free education

By Shamala Kumar

Sighs of hopelessness and shrugs of resignation follow the phone calls and virtual meetings that reflect my pandemic reality, as we discuss our lives, others, and the country as a whole. A sense of collective depression seems to permeate us all. The government seems to be incapable of satisfactorily addressing the national economic, political, social and health crises. Its responses suggest an incapacity to even gauge the pain that envelopes us, or hear and respond to the sheer desperation, particularly of those going hungry, the children without education, the imprisoned, and those struggling with disability or illness. The Government’s responses have been unimaginative and difficult to digest.

The 2019 presidential election voted in a candidate who framed democracy as outdated, ineffective, and a luxury that we simply could not afford. Yet, the pandemic and the ensuing crises, coupled with the aftermath of the Easter bombings, have demonstrated, that undemocratic systems simply do not work, and that democracy, with all its failing, inefficiencies and discomforts, presents the answer to our problems.

Under democracy, the space to challenge authority and voice concerns without fear, is built into institutions. The public must act with a sense of urgency, an urgency we seem to have lost today. For us to rebuild, sustain and strengthen such a democratic system, we must also set up legal, economic, and public institutions that are democratic in structure and process. Education plays a pivotal role here.

Education as a path to democratisation

For me, education and democracy are born from each other; one must nurture the other to achieve completeness. A democratic framework provides space for education, enabling us to engage in and understand our common and diverging realities. By using such a process, and seeking, acknowledging, and speaking our truths, education provides nuanced and deeper understandings of our everyday, that is our health, food systems, technologies, livelihoods, and wellbeing. Such an approach is inherently critical of the structures, institutions and processes that exist, and strives to represent the voice of us all, irrespective of whether we are in a pandemic or not. Therefore, the responses to problems that evolve from a strong system of education will also be democratic. Therefore, neither democracy nor education can exist without the other.

By education, I, of course, mean free education. Education, unfree, is not education at all, but an oppressive enterprise. When unfree, it is simply an imposter; a dangerous rogue masquerading at our expense. For years now, the masquerading has hollowed out the very concept of education. “Education” now connotes jobs training in certain contexts. In others, it’s about disciplining — of the military type. In still others, education is a skills shop, from which we buy attributes to fix ourselves, similar to buying a fancy outfit or a nose job to make ourselves look good… and maybe sellable. For politicians, corporates, and the World Bank, “education” is simply a tool to mould people into cogs of the global economy. It is the “low hanging fruit”, ripe for profits and national coffers, as it taps the people’s fears and insecurities about the future into monetary gain. Education, in short, has become the capital of the powerful, a privilege of the privileged, used to fulfil the needs and interests of the rich. Ironically and sadly, “education” has attacked the very soul of education, and is no longer synonymous with democracy.


Over time, almost imperceptibly, education has slowly but relentlessly been chipped away to its present form. As a result of this, the public, school systems, and universities have been accepting of an “education” that is simply unfree. For instance, unequal access to education seems acceptable today. When the pandemic hit and online education was presented as the only solution, even when it clearly excluded swaths of the school going population, it was hailed as progressive. Parliament tabled the KNDU bill paves the way for fee levying training in the name of education. The fees and recruitment procedures make access difficult to those who cannot afford to pay and to women, the latter who have more stringent entry criteria. Similarly, unprecedented fee-levying programmes from the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Ruhuna, institutionalises fee levying education into the state system.

In other ways as well, education is unfree. With respect to the right to protest and space for collective action, universities have banned student unions, and protests against education reforms are met with police crackdowns and fear campaigns, even within university premises. There has been little space for teachers and parents to challenge decisions regarding online delivery of education. Oppressive practices, such as ragging, sexual harassment and bullying, are treated with acceptance in schools and universities. Through the KNDU Bill, opening the military, the very symbol of state might, to unlimited forages into the education sector, the country is further moving away from education towards “education”. It is also moving away from democracy.

Returning to education

Many in policy circles point to global trends in education to justify reforms that seem to further move educational structures away from education. At its inception, however, our education policy, making education free at all levels of education, was not built on global trends. The policy was radical. It was controversial and in many ways, it was right! Our policy was built on our own assessment of our needs for ourselves and our country. In fact, it said “boo” to global trends. It was a response to public pressure and paid homage to democracy.

The educational system, we inherited is actually filled with possibilities that few other systems of education have. Unfortunately, we are blinded by World Bank dogma, stifled by rulers, who perceive a vibrant system of education as a threat. We are also distracted by the greed of a private sector, who wait to milk the system dry. If we can forget our subservience to global trends, the World Bank, the politicians, and gluttonous business interests, the foundations of a truly fantastic system of education, are easily visible.

We have a fairly extensive structure of schools and teacher training infrastructure. At least theoretically, any student can access tertiary education without concerns of affordability. Universities, for the most part, are not dependent on earned income or donor funding to conduct programmes of study. Therefore, they have a substantial freedom to create programmes of education suited to a democracy, one that can imagine a better system and that can be critical and challenge the status quo.

The system, however, has been neglected for years. The school system is depleted. Private tuition influences who accesses universities, a trend that is likely be even more prominent in the aftermath of the pandemic. The training infrastructure for teachers needs to be overhauled, systematised and rejuvenated. Teachers need salaries that recognise their contributions to society and democracy. Universities and schools must abolish ragging, and actively create spaces where any student is free to speak, dress, think, worship, in any manner they wish. Schools and universities must be truly freeing and celebrating of women, minorities, persons with disabilities, and those of the LGBTIQ community. One’s family income, class and caste must truly be immaterial. Finally, we must rebuild our curricula to be honestly free and worthy of a democracy. These are difficult, but necessary.


Education requires aa democracy to sustain it. However, because education feeds democracy and democracy feeds education, today’s “education” has us questioning the very concept of democracy. This has paved the way for those who campaign against democracy to win elections. Any efforts to strengthen education must be based on democratisation. Similarly, any effort towards democratisation, must focus on completely reformulating education as a democratic endeavour.

As authoritarian regimes are incapable and too weak to create the type of future we all crave, I say let’s take a good look at democracy. Democracy is, of course, not easy, particularly when democratic institutions and processes, such as education, have been weakened for so long. Our problems are grave, so their solutions cannot be simple or painless. Any interventions must immediately address the struggles of people most affected by these multiple crises, while strengthening democratic institutions and paving way for vibrant and healthy social, political, and economic systems. Part of this process requires protecting education, which is of course free education. Attacks on education, after all are attacks on democracy and an attack on us all.