Sri Lanka Table of Contents

Traditional and Colonial Systems

The education system of Sri Lanka until colonial times primarily was designed for a small elite in a society with relatively low technology. The vast majority of the population was illiterate or semiliterate. Among the Sinhalese, learning was the job of Buddhist monks. At the village level, literate monks would teach privileged students in the pansal, or temple school. The curriculum there, still taught to young children, included the Sinhala alphabet and memorization of elementary Buddhist literature--the Nam potha (Book of Names) of Buddhist shrines, the Magul lakuna (Book of Auspicious Symbols on the Buddha's body), and classic stories of the Buddha's life. The pursuit of higher education typically was reserved for men who became monks and took place at universities (pirivena) dedicated almost exclusively to memorization and commentary on the Pali scriptures. Among the Tamil population, village schools, which were located near temples, were run by literate Brahmans or educated Vellalas. Technical training was highly developed for students of the arts (such as architecture or sculpture); for engineers, who applied geometry to problems of irrigation; and for craftsmen in various trades. This training, however, was generally the preserve of closed corporations, castes, or families. Knowledge was often passed down from fathers to sons.

Although colonization brought European-style education to Sri Lanka, especially to prepare students for positions in the colonial administrations, few women went to school and most people remained uneducated. During the sixteenth century, Portuguese missionaries established up to 100 schools designed to foster a Roman Catholic culture among the growing Christian community in the low country. When the Dutch took over in 1656, they set up a well-organized system of primary schools to support the missionary efforts of the Dutch Reformed Church. By 1760 they had 130 schools with an attendance of nearly 65,000 students. The British takeover led to the closing of many Dutch schools and a short-term contraction of European-style education in the low country. By the mid-nineteenth century, government-funded schools and Christian schools were again expanding; in 1870, however, their combined student bodies had fewer than 20,000 students. Because they were educated in English, the graduates of the European-style schools, a large portion of them Christians from the low country in the southwest, went on to fill lower and middle-level positions in the colonial administration. Apart from the European-style schools, education continued through the traditional system in Tamil and Sinhala.

In 1870 a series of events revolutionized the education system in Sri Lanka. The government began to expand the number of state-run schools and instituted a program of grants for private schools that met official standards. Medical and law colleges were established in Colombo. There was a big increase in the number of students (which totalled more than 200,000 by 1900), but the lopsided development that had characterized the early nineteenth century became even more apparent by the early twentieth century. Private schools taught in English, which offered the best road for advancement, were dominated by Christian organizations, remained concentrated in the southwest, and attracted a disproportionate number of Christian and Tamil students. Although institutions that used Tamil and Sinhala continued to function as elementary schools, secondary institutions that taught exclusively in English attracted an elite male clientele destined for administrative positions. The education of women lagged behind; by 1921 the female literacy rate among the Christians was 50 percent, among the Buddhists 17 percent, among the Hindus 10 percent, and among the Muslims only 6 percent.

The colonial pattern began to change in the 1930s, after legislative reforms placed the Ministry of Education under the control of elected representatives. The government directly controlled an ever-larger proportion of schools (about 60 percent by 1947) and teacher-training colleges. As part of a policy to promote universal literacy, education became free in government schools, elementary and technical schools were set up in rural areas, and vernacular education received official encouragement. In 1942 with the establishment of the University of Ceylon, free education was available from kindergarten through the university level. When independence came in 1948, Sri Lanka had a welldeveloped education infrastructure. Although still hampered by gross ethnic, geographic, and gender inequalities, it formed the basis for a modern system.

The Modern Education System

Since independence in 1948, the government has made education one of its highest priorities, a policy that has yielded excellent results. Within a period of less than 40 years, the number of schools in Sri Lanka increased by over 50 percent, the number of students increased more than 300 percent, and the number of teachers increased by more than 400 percent. Growth has been especially rapid in secondary schools, which in 1985 taught 1.2 million students, or one-third of the student population. Teachers made up the largest government work force outside the plantation industry. The literate population has grown correspondingly, and by the mid1980s over 90 percent of the population was officially literate (87 percent for those above ten years of age), with near universal literacy among the younger population. This is by far the most impressive progress in South Asia and places Sri Lanka close to the leaders in education among developing nations.

The government has taken an ever larger role in education. Because private institutions no longer receive grants from the government, they are forced to charge fees while competing with free state-run schools. The percentage of students in the state system has grown constantly, and by the 1980s 99 percent of female students and 93 percent of male students at the primary school level were being trained in government-run schools. The government did not have a monopoly over education because Buddhist pansala and pirivena, Muslim schools, and Christian schools still thrived (the Roman Catholic Church alone operated several hundred institutions from kindergarten to secondary level, teaching over 80,000 children). The education system of the state, however, had an overwhelming influence on the majority of the population, especially the Sinhalese.

The state has tried to change the language of instruction in its primary and secondary schools from English to Tamil or Sinhala. By the 1960s, the vernacular languages were the primary medium in all government secondary schools. In the 1980s, English remained, however, an important key to advancement in technical and professional careers, and there was still competition among well-to-do families to place members in private English-language programs in urban areas. Ethnic minorities long associated with European-style education still formed a large percentage of the English-speaking elite. In the 1980s, for example, almost 80 percent of the Burghers knew English, while among the Sinhalese the English-speakers comprised only 12 percent.

Children from age five to ten attend primary school; from age eleven to fifteen they attend junior secondary school (terminating in Ordinary Level Examination); and from age sixteen to seventeen they attend senior secondary school (terminating in the Advanced Level Examination). Those who qualify can go on to the university system, which is totally state-run. In the late 1980s, there were 8 universities and 1 university college with over 18,000 students in 28 faculties, plus 2,000 graduate and certificate students. The university system included the University of Peradeniya, about six kilometers from Kandy, formed between 1940 and 1960; the universities of Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya, formed in the 1950s and 1960s from restructured pirivena; the College of Advanced Technology in Katubedda, Colombo District, formed in the 1960s; the Colombo campus of the University of Ceylon, created in 1967; the University of Ruhunu (1979); and Batticaloa University College (1981). There was also the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka, established in Colombo in 1982.

Among the major problems still facing the educational system in the late 1980s were a serious dropout rate in the primary grades and a continuing bias toward urban environments at the expense of the countryside. The median level of educational attainment in Sri Lanka was somewhere between grades 5 and 9, and almost 40 percent of the students dropped out of school after 9 years. The reasons were not hard to discern in a primarily agricultural society, where many young people were more urgently needed in the fields or at home than in school once they had achieved an operational level of literacy and arithmetic skills. Many urban youth from low-income backgrounds also dropped out at an early age. This pattern provided two-thirds of the students with an education through grade 5 but less than 10 percent of the population with a high school degree and less than 1 percent with a college diploma. Despite government efforts in the 1980s to expand opportunities for youth from rural areas and more sparsely inhabited districts, the pressures for early dropout were more pressing in precisely those areas where illiteracy was most prevalent. In Colombo, for example, the overall literacy rate was 94 percent in 1988, while in Amparai District it was only 75 percent. Rural schools were more widely scattered, with poor facilities and inadequate equipment, especially in the sciences. Teachers preferred not to work in the countryside, and many rural schools did not even go up to the level of twelfth grade.

The most dynamic field in education during the 1970s and 1980s was technical training. In the late 1980s, the Ministry of Higher Education operated a network of twenty-seven technical colleges and affiliated institutes throughout the country. Courses led to national diplomas in accountancy, commerce, technology, agriculture, business studies, economics, and manufacture. Other government institutions, including the Railway, Survey, and Irrigation Departments, ran their own specialized training institutes. The Ministry of Labour had three vocational and craft training institutes. The number of students in all state-run technical institutes by the mid-1980s was 22,000. In addition, the government operated schools of agriculture in four locations, as well as practical farm schools in each district. A continuing problem in all fields of technical education was extreme gender differentiation in job training; women tended to enroll in home economics and teaching courses rather than in scientific disciplines.

Education and Ethnic Conflict

During the first fifteen years after independence, students sought a university degree primarily to qualify for service in government, which remained by far the major employer of administrative skills. Liberal arts, leading to the bachelor of arts degree, was the preferred area of study as a preparation for administrative positions. Because the university exams were conducted in English--the language of the elite--the potential pool of university applicants was relatively small, and only 30 percent of all applicants were admitted. By the mid-1960s, the examinations were conducted in Sinhala and Tamil, opening the universities to a larger body of applicants, many of whom were trained in the vernacular languages in state-run secondary schools. At the same time, university expansion slowed down because of lack of funds, and it became impossible to admit the increasing numbers of qualified candidates; by 1965 only 20 percent of applicants were admitted, and by 1969 only 11 percent. Those students who did manage to enter the university followed the traditional road to a bachelor's degree, until neither the government nor private enterprises could absorb the glut of graduates. In this way, the direction of educational expansion by the late 1960s led to two major problems surrounding the university system: the growing difficulty of admissions and the growing irrelevance of a liberal arts education to employment. The big losers were members of the Sinhalese community, who were finally able to obtain high school or university degrees, but who found further advancement difficult. Frustrated aspirations lay behind the participation of many students in the abortive uprising by the People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna--JVP) in 1971.

During the colonial period and the two decades after independence, the Sri Lankan Tamil community--both Hindu and Christian--outstripped the Sinhalese community in the relative percentage of students in secondary schools and university bachelor of arts degree programs. As the government increasingly fell into the hands of the Sinhalese, however, possibilities for government service declined for Tamil students. Tamil secondary schools then used their strength in science curriculums to prepare their students in science and medicine, and by the 1960s Tamils dominated the university student bodies in those fields. Thus, at precisely the time when Sinhalese bachelor of arts candidates found their careers thwarted by changes in the job market, Tamil science students were embarking on lucrative professional careers. Sinhalese agitation aimed at decreasing the numbers of Tamil students in science and medical faculties became a major political issue.

Overt political favoritism did not eliminate the dominance of well-trained Tamil students until 1974, when the government instituted a district quota system of science admissions. When each district in the country had a number of reserved slots for its students, the Sinhalese community benefited because it dominated a majority of districts. Tamil admissions ratios remained higher than the percentage of Tamils in the population, but declined precipitously from previous levels. In the 1980s, 60 percent of university admissions were allocated according to district quotas, with the remaining 40 percent awarded on the basis of individual merit. This system guaranteed opportunity for all ethnic groups in rough approximation to their population throughout the country.

Although the admissions controversy and the quota system resulted in a more equitable distribution of opportunities for Sri Lankans in general, they damaged the prospects of many excellent Tamil students coming out of secondary schools. The education policies of the government were perceived by educated members of the Tamil community as blatant discrimination. Many Tamil youths reacted to the blockage of their educational prospects by supporting the Tamil United Liberation Front and other secessionist cells. Large-scale improvements in education had, paradoxically, contributed to ethnic conflict.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress