Goolbai Gunasekara laments the dearth of teachers with requisite language skills here in Sri Lanka

A former student of mine was telling me about one of her professors at a prestigious university in New York City (NYC). Many students from certain Sri Lankan international schools have been admitted to it over the years, securing scholarships as well as financial aid on occasion.

The student of whom I speak is now pursuing a special Executive MBA for those with full-time careers. The professor she was referring to is lecturing in NYC in the winter, Hong Kong in summer, Singapore in spring term and Paris the rest of the time. The sheer quality of those tenured professors in NYC makes me weep in frustration at the quality of our own.

Even if we did have a few world-class teachers in Sri Lanka, most of them have migrated to financially secure and enormously happier climes. In any case, most of them boast foreign degrees after their names.

The Island newspaper of 23 October published a letter to the editor complaining about the rank that Sri Lankan universities occupy in the list of world campuses. Considering the status in the days of Sir Ivor Jennings and Sir Nicholas Attygalle, the present situation of those formerly great institutions is heartrending.

In the 1930s, 1940s and even 1950s, a Sri Lankan degree was considered equal to that of a comparable British qualification. The slide has been calamitous and nowhere is the effect felt more than by principals of international schools, as they desperately try to recruit skilled teachers who can teach in English and follow the British system of education.

Until my recent retirement, I was in a state of great despair. Our local graduates were often unemployable. Their knowledge of their own subjects was adequate but that of everything else wasn’t at all satisfactory. How could I hand over children preparing for London based exams to teachers who had hardly any general knowledge and very poor academic achievements?

Also in the news recently was the thrilling bulletin about Parami Maristella who covered herself in glory at the Summer Youth Olympics held in Argentina. She comes from an underprivileged background, and the government is providing Maristella and her family much needed financial aid to assist her future success in sport. But what about her academic future?

The state spends a fortune on education across the island but arguably all in the wrong direction. Apart from free education, children receive free books, free material for uniforms and free tuition right through university. And students studying medicine are also provided free education by the state – something even wealthy countries do not offer their youth.

At this point, I have to digress a little and comment on the fact that the New York University (NYU) is offering free education for a few lucky medical students from this year. The financial stability of universities in the US is well-known and they aren’t dependent on a financially strapped government. They are private institutions that have the freedom to do what they want – and the result is that standards rise every year.

I’ve often written and complained ad nauseam that the state does very little to train young graduates before despatching them as teachers to ‘government schools.’ They have no experience. Their notes are all they have as many don’t read English too well and can’t do much research in their fields.

These university graduates, qualified in subjects like history or geography, can’t be fitted into any international school offering London exams. The graduates in history have very little knowledge of world history. Geography graduates likewise are not trained in the new emphasis on environmental affairs – geography is no longer what it was 30 years ago. It is a formidably difficult subject and locally educated graduates can’t cope with a foreign syllabus.

I feel that the problem may resolve itself if universities in Sri Lanka were given a degree of autonomy to choose their subject matter, lecturers and vice chancellors. If they are allowed to handle their finances, each university will strive to do better than the other and such competition would automatically improve standards. Give them an annual budget, and let an educated group of men and women handle the affairs of the university.

Also let each university set its own cutoff marks for acceptance and entry. And the quota system should be abolished. Then we may have a happy situation where clever young men and women compete for the universities of their choice from across the island, which will promote ethnic harmony and national unity.

The flaws in my theory are many and I’m aware that the non-politicisation of higher education is like the song The Impossible Dream. But then again, sometimes dreams have come true, haven’t they?