Moving from #GotaGoHome to #SystemChange

By Kaushalya Perera

GotaGoHome captures a diverse range of demands. One of these is the demand for ‘kramaya peralamu’ or systemic change. If the emotional fallouts, resulting from the appointment of the new Prime Minister show us anything, it is that the struggle for long-term change in Sri Lanka’s socio-political structures will take longer and be much harder than finding ways to deal with the economic crisis upon us now.

Today, I focus on the systemic changes necessary in education. The role of education in building a livable country should be self-evident. It is telling, for instance, that during this time, we citizens have had to educate ourselves on the fundamentals. What is the demarcation between state, government and politicians’ whims? Why did companies accept a tax rebate, knowing it would damage the country’s economy so much? Can a president resign and what happens then? How does one act in a peaceful protest? What happened in Sri Lanka in 1953? And so on.

Why were we caught unawares? One would imagine that the role of education is to teach us to apply what is learnt in class to what happens around us. To reflect on our own actions. To speak up when necessary. It should allow us to examine our values and understand when individual interests and actions are harmful to society. Yet we obviously don’t have such an education system, because education itself has been in crisis for decades. How can we create mindful citizens when the very foundation of education has disintegrated?

Here’s a brief overview of the current problems in education:

Multiple ‘systems’ of education co-exist uncomfortably in the country. Pre-schools are unregulated; pre-school teachers are paid a pittance. National, provincial and private schools work under different regulations while international schools operate as companies or charities. Tertiary education is provided via technical colleges, state universities, private higher education institutions, etc.

School teachers are recruited under multiple sets of criteria to the state (national and provincial), private and international schools. Novice teachers in the state system receive approximately Rs 40,000. One might expect teachers, in private or international schools, to be paid more but this, is rarely the case. A majority of the country’s teachers (whatever the sector) learn on the job, or if they receive training before being appointed, they probably won’t receive any opportunities for in-service training.

School syllabi are similarly defective. National school syllabi are usually boring, at times outdated, and do little to counter the sexism and racism at large in our society. Foreign syllabi used in international schools may not have the same problems but are unsuitable in that they cater to life outside rather than within Sri Lanka. Tertiary education is also problematic as we regularly discuss in this column.

The state has convinced its citizens to spend their private monies on education and has thereby divested itself of the responsibility to educate its own people. The low teacher salaries in state schools is one example of neglect. Here’s another – the monies set aside for ‘welfare’ in the budget estimate of 2022 (presented last year): Rs 2,445,500,000 was allocated for welfare in Defence, as opposed to Rs 1,825,000,000 for welfare in Education and Rs 2,000,000,000 for welfare in Health. This might explain for instance, why the school meal programme—crucial in alleviating malnutrition in school-going children—was funded through a foreign grant rather than state funds (and still does not explain why the programme stopped during the Covid-19 period). Meagre state funding for education means that citizens spend their own money for education-related expenses, including transport and stationery, continuous ‘donations’, events, private tuition, cooking meals, cleaning the schools, etc.

The Aragalaya—as we have come to call it—is a time of hope for many. Yet sustained work is necessary within the institutions where we work, if we are to take this struggle beyond this specific time and place.

Politicisation, corruption and cronyism have seeped into all our institutions, including the UGC and the universities, and if this is not glaringly obvious, it is because such practices have become normalised. We have seen little critique, or resistance, against politically-backed appointments in universities over the past two decades, for example. The principle of conflict of interest is sometimes forgotten by academics. Unquestioning compliance is an illustration of our own apathy in the state higher education sector. Change is too much trouble.

The impact of a system decaying from within is slow to be felt and therefore, it will be difficult to achieve significant change in our education system. We have seen evidence of this already. Teachers’ unions have not been able to change the decline of the education sector and sustained FUTA campaigns to ‘save free education’ has not led to democratised universities.

The current crisis has shown us that successive governments have neglected the education of its citizens. We have not learnt to be citizens. With their inefficiency, corruption and callousness, our governments have shown us that we can only rely on our own networks to ‘get things done’. The ability to see these as things that need to change—to feel the need to speak up and speak out about these issues, to resist in lawful ways—are all part of educating ourselves.

When we ask for policy change, let us ask for policies that are radically different to those we have now. Currently, education is a place where we build skills that will help us compete with each other, rather than build communities. The number of qualifications we acquire is more important than how we learn or the quality of our learning. By changing these things, we can demand an education that makes us more aware of country and community; one that helps us navigate our moral and ethical quandaries as well as our economic and political ones. And to do this, we need to change our own stance towards education and move away from the individualistic, competitive ethos that has overtaken us today.

If we want an educational environment that would deliver radical change, we must begin by asking for teachers who want to teach, whether in a Montessori, primary school or university. This also means demanding that school teachers are paid a higher salary and that they receive the training they need to be inspiring and committed educators. We must also ask that our curricula be changed. None of this will happen unless the state sets aside the required resources for education and creates informed policies.

These demands may seem idealistic. How can a country in crisis, with no money for fuel or food, demand funding for education? Yet a few months ago, we would have thought that a protest in front of the President’s residence, in Mirihana, was impossible. Political scientists, language teachers, science teachers, economists and historians all have work to do. As Black feminist author bell hooks says the classroom is the ‘most radical place of possibility’. #GotaGoHome is a metaphor for a larger call for ‘system change’. I ask that we begin to imagine this change and work towards it. We can imagine more.

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