Setting the Terms of the Debate on Education

by Sivamohan Sumathy

“Free Education is not something in the sky. I can touch it, I can feel it.”

A student in a basic writing skills class writes the line above, to my infinite amazement. I have never come across a sentiment related to free education so simply, so evocatively and so theoretically expressed. As battles rage across newspapers and the social media, among politicians and policy planners, and among educationists and administrators, I hold onto this expressive pronouncement of this student, who struggled to articulate her sentiment about free education in a language she was just beginning to feel is her own. She captures all that is meaningful in our universities; access, coming into knowledge, and coming into a knowing of the world around us, known among other things, as social mobility and as an awareness of one’s place in the country, society and the world.

Education has been one of the cornerstones of what citizenship means in material terms. Access to institutions of power, locally and nationally, and access to community, culture, media and other institutions of authority and position, have been mediated by the great mobilities afforded by education. Education is what has made each of us become conscious of ourselves, individually and as a society, even in a fractured sense (divided by multiple social factors) of a certain responsibility that we have toward ourselves. At the broadest, this responsibility urges us to comprehend and articulate the role of the citizen in education. It empowers and behoves us to act as conscious agents of change who will become a part of a critical mass of intellectual activity, initiating and complementing political activity at multiple fronts. I will call this a movement toward democracy that we have to cherish in education.

Crisis of Education and Crisis in Education: Corporate skills and privatisation of state institutions

This dynamic social process is under stress and the empowering agencies of education are under siege. There is a two-fold challenge facing education today. There is a crisis of education and a crisis in education and they are related. The crisis of education is that of losing sight of its democratic potential, the twin task of empowering the socially marginalized and rearticulating a view of the world within a mobilisation for greater democratisation. It is about the content of our education and its objectives. Whom do we serve as educators? The people, understood as those who are emerging as actors but not yet there as the powerful, or those already in authority and in positions of power, in other words, the corporate sector? The crisis in education is the disempowerment of education itself, its institutions, its subjects, teachers and students, and the erosion of its principles by forces that are quite external to it, market forces.

Let me first look at how market forces are privileged and how such a privileging act is detrimental to us. In the current context, globalization is another name for the rapid development of capitalist financialization, and a dissolution of labour as a collective force and as a movement toward socialized citizenry. Today’s market driven policies view education as a commodity, a package of skills and competencies that have nothing to do with self, person, society. It is dissociated from the mental and physical welfare of the student, the academia and society as a whole. Secondly, the educational institute, particularly the university, is on the brink of losing its understanding of its own self. This is ironic, for the university has long been understood as the place where the terms of debate on the role of learning and teaching and the connections between learning and society have been set out. It is not a bad idea for this notion to be challenged, but what is happening today is that this role has been offset by narrowly political and politicised forces on the right.

Together, they point to a slow debilitation of the institutions of education, whose broad objectives had been at one level an indepth understanding of a subject, the discipline per se, and on the other, a meta theoretical and political narrative of critical consciousness as Paulo Friere most famously stressed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. We are, in fact, witnessing the slow disempowerment of those who people education and its institutes, students, teachers, parents and others.

Universities and schools are under severe financial stress, one of the political atrocities committed upon them by successive governments. There is constant pressure upon universities to generate their own funds, opening the door to privatisation, through fee levying courses. Simultaneously, current, and dominant trends attempt to turn education itself into a set of corporate goods, through a fragmented, shallow mimicry of learning, calling for “skills” and “competencies.” We are daily accosted by circulars, surveys, studies, directives, lectures, ranging from authoritarian command to psychological pressure and lures, pushing for corporate skills instead of learning. Frequently, studies claiming to be rigorous research, undertaken by various agencies, provide rationalisations of commodification, corporatization and privatisation of education. World Bank country studies on Sri Lanka are notorious in this regard, and have been buttressed by studies by Pathfinder Foundation, IPS and others. The latest in this series is a British Council document The Role of Tertiary Education in Development that has made its way into the reading list of some universities.

In this neo liberal framework of the University, the teacher is a facilitator of knowledge, while the student is at the supermarket buying a package of goods for consumption. But neither the teacher nor the student is empowered in this new deal. The student-customer can only window shop at an empty super-market, while the teacher becomes a salesperson of goods that do not sustain either an economy or a socio-political culture.

The Myth of the Unemployable Graduate

The current estimate (2020) for unemployment is 5.4 %, as revealed by Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey, though the huge informal sector is not accounted for in this calculation. There is no clear measure of the unemployment rate of graduates in the state system. A tracer study done by the UGC in 2018 finds an overwhelmingly large number of Arts Graduates unemployed. Yet, a scrutiny of the research design and findings show untenable correlations and serious research bias, in instances like where the report says that of the 1265 participants, the overwhelming number of responses is from Arts Graduates. Such lopsidedness colours the findings. The study also draws our attention to the larger proportion of unemployed females compared to male graduates. Yet, there is no further exploration of this circumstance. The study suggests the availability of jobs and that if a graduate is not employed it is a “fault” in the student, or in the student’s circumstance. It never gets down to examining the availability of jobs and the places where jobs are most abundantly found. In the deliberations of the study, unemployment is causally attributed to the unemployability of the graduate. Yet, Sri Lanka: Labour Demand Survey 2017, of the Census and Statistics Department offers data for the Private Sector, demonstrating very clearly that many of the available jobs are in the apparel sector and security services; neither of which require a degree.

Forging a praxis

Education cannot just be about numbers and facts. A study of employment needs to raise questions concerning relations between the state, institutions, economy, education, culture and society. It is not a one-way traffic of authoritarian dicta, authoritarian inanities. At the outset, one needs to rethink assumptions about employability and employment. If we think of education as dynamic movements of co-existence, within the economy and society, centering the marginal, raising critical questions about justice, and undertaking explorations of society in that regard, we may arrive at a formulation where nobody is unemployable. For this, we need a careful in-depth study of circumstance. Our student is a part of that circumstance and is a dynamic social agent shaping that circumstance. It is the premise that we must begin with and hope to achieve. We must first eschew terms like employability, a dead end, and instead think of employment as an endless road, with infinite possibilities.

In outlining some of the immediate concerns about current trends besieging education, and in conceptualising education as a live, dialogic act of the subject as the individual and as a collective force, I have reinterpreted my student’s words as the greater empowerment of the vast number of people in this country. We need a better provision of education, greater democratisation of education and a grander vision for ourselves. With these thoughts we launch our fortnightly column on education: Kuppi Talk, where we will explore a range of issues concerning education and its potential to make for a better world in the weeks to come.