The highly anticipated A/Level examination results were released last week. As has become the norm in Sri Lanka, the students who achieved the highest marks were recognised in the media and by their schools and local communities. This year’s results were given a greater deal of attention because of the unwanted comments made by politicos.
Former Minister Bandula Gunawardena, known for his statement that a person can survive on Rs. 2,500 a month, was in the news again this week. Gunawardena drew flak from both opposing MPs and MPs from his own party, as well as the public as a whole, when he commented at a media briefing that students attending international schools should not be allowed to sit the local GCE A/Level examinations.
Criticism and anger fast followed this media briefing with the majority of the public accusing Gunawardena of politicising a student’s accomplishments. With him not having backed down or retracted the statement, attention soon turned to the idea that Sri Lanka’s education system was in need of an overhaul. The online conversation turned to the direction of whether or not there was an unfair advantage for international school students.
Alternate career paths
Regardless of the outcome on that debate, the public as a whole seems to have missed a more telling issue that had arisen from the recent A/Levels.
Of the 321,469 students to sit the exams, only 160,907 emerged eligible to enter university, just over half the total number of candidates. When this figure was brought to the attention of the public, the general trend of thought was that the education system in Sri Lanka had failed these students. Unfortunately, a section of the public had taken to the idea that the inability to enter university meant that a student’s future was bleak.
University acceptance is highly sought after the world over; in the UK, only 29% of students were accepted to universities in 2018; while in Australia, only 37% of 25 to 34-year-olds have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
However, neither of these countries is facing rising unemployment amongst the youth. In fact, many of the younger generations are opting out of going to university, choosing instead to go straight into the workforce. This does not necessarily mean the students are graduating from school and entering white-collar jobs, rather they are being attracted to trade jobs (i.e. carpentry, plumbing, etc.). With a growing shortage of professionals in those fields, the high school graduates are finding those career paths a far more lucrative option.
However, in Sri Lanka, the views on turning your back on a university education in favour of an apprenticeship and career in the trades are troubling. The country is facing a shortage of well-trained trades people; many of those who have obtained proper training have opted to go overseas in search of work. Anyone who has dwelled in construction will be aware of the shortage that exists.
In order to stem the growing disinterest amongst students towards these career paths, the Government introduced the relevant subjects at A/Levels.
Unfortunately, many students have still chosen not to pursue those careers, opting instead to choose the science and commerce streams instead. This has meant that the ensuing low eligibility rate of students to universities continues.
One of the main reasons behind this mindset is the social stigma that accompanies the idea of having not attended university. Education in Sri Lanka is no longer seen as a pursuit of knowledge and an opportunity for a child to discover their passion, but is rather considered a stepping stone to the next stage in a person’s life.
For many Sri Lankans, education is simply a sequence of events that culminates in a job, preferably in the government sector that offers job security and a pension.
While it is certainly not unreasonable that the public have this attitude towards education, the path to achieve these aims can be of a different nature.
Earlier this year, it was proposed by the Government that a restriction be enforced on people seeking three-wheeler licenses. Alongside this, vocational training in skilled trade work was being provided to those existing three-wheeler drivers to provide them with alternative career options.
While government-enforced restrictions may not necessarily be the most effective approach, the availability and encouragement by the authorities to pursue other careers was commendable. Interestingly, the public was greatly opposed to this move, claiming that a three-wheeler driver stands to earn more money from their current occupation than they would if they were to change career paths.
This is an interesting contrast to the attitude taken with regard to the pursuit of a further education in universities. The appearance of financial security from being a taxi driver seems to be an attractive alternative for those unable to enter university.
Unfortunately, with the increased ownership of personal vehicles, and a growing competition amongst three-wheeler drivers, this is certainly not a long-term option.
While financial security is a driving factor behind most students’ pursuit of a career, the refusal to consider alternative career options is a cause for concern. Unemployment among the youth in Sri Lanka stands at a concerning 20%. Many of the university graduates have chosen to stay at home while waiting for vacancies in their preferred lines of work rather than entering the work field through other jobs.
This has meant that an additional financial burden has been placed on the parents of these students, who are forced to continue to support them at home.
With alternatives now being presented to students, it is certainly time the public begins to look at education as not simply a means to an end. Job security and a stable future are not assured only through entering university.