“Free Education” and “Education for Free”
On my way to work … I find myself on a bus.
Just as we pull off the Fort bus halt, the monotony of the journey is broken by a couple of energetic young students who had just got on- a boy and two girls.
The boy, apparently their leader, positions himself in the front and starts delivering a speech … “Mothers! Fathers! Brothers! Sisters! …”
They were university students- student activists to be exact- and the speech was about their struggle for “Saving Free Education”. They stated that the threat to free education is primarily from private universities.
They mentioned that while students with “three A grade passes at Advanced Level” are unable to get into a state university, students with rich parents, barely making through ALs, get into private universities and grab their jobs.
Solution to this problem, they said, is simple- “Ban private universities!”
They asked our help for their struggle. It is not just our struggle- they said- we are the voice of all current and future university students of Sri Lanka.
What they wanted from us was simple- buying a ten rupee sticker.
I brought one. Not because I approved of their struggle- but because not so long ago I too was a state university student.
Besides, the sticker was quite nice …
They got off and went away; probably to another bus, with their message and the ten rupee stickers.
But it got me thinking …
Is “Free Education” the same as “Education for Free”?
According to my current understanding, “Free Education” is the undeniable right of everyone to education without discrimination (on sex, age, ethnicity, language, religion, cast, disabilities etc.).
“Free education” is definitely not the same as “education for free”!
Providing “education for free” is an incentive for people to get educated- simply an investment on the human resource pool of the country.
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is exemplary in that it provides “education for free” for every single school student. Our country/government spends a very large amount of money on this. But this is money well spent; as demonstrated by the high literacy rates of Sri Lankans.
Although our country/government provides education for free at the undergraduate level, Sri Lanka currently does not have enough resources to do this for every single student who qualified at AL and wishes to continue to undergraduate level.
But shouldn’t our country/government ensure the right to free education of the remaining larger student body as well?
It is to fill this void that our country/government has allowed private universities to be established.
Let’s look at an example.
Suppose all males in a particular country gets an education for free (without a fee) but females are prohibited from getting an education even if they are willing to pay through the roof for it.
Is this free education? No.
Let’s take another example. A certain countries government holds an exam at the end of a student’s schooling. Only the top 1% of the students who pass that exam are allowed to go into a university. All universities are run by the government, utilizing government funds. The remaining 99% have no way of getting a further education because the government can’t afford it. Private Universities funded through students payments are banned because of opposition by the state university students.
Is this free education? I think not!
But this is what those students I met in the bus are demanding …
In any case, what is wrong with offering “education at a fee” for those without access to “education for free”?
All state universities charge money for courses at postgraduate level. If private universities are accused of “selling degrees” shouldn’t state universities be also accused of “selling post graduate degrees”?
If private universities are banned like the students at the bus ask, wouldn’t it violate the free education right of the much larger student body who had passed ALs but can’t get in to a state university?
These students are intelligent enough to understand this simple fact. If so, what exactly are they fighting for?
They are largely fighting for the fear that they will have to compete for employment with students passing out of private universities.
Students from private universities tend to have better communication skills and better mastery of English. This probably could be because of their background, not because of any superiority at the private universities themselves. However, in some cases, the state university curriculum is more out of sync with the requirements of the industry than that of the private universities.
(It should be noted that this applies mostly to arts, science, management, economics and commerce students only- not to students of technical streams including medicine.)
But there is one important fact these students seem to overlook- “they already have competed with the private university students, and won!”
It is because of their superior skills and intelligence that they got selected for state universities in the first place … If they are ahead after ALs and behind after university, where could the problem be?
Maybe it is within the state universities themselves?
Trying to ban the private universities is an irrational, unreachable target.
If only these students direct their time and effort towards a rational, reachable target …
Clearly the target should be the improvement of the employable skill sets of each individual student and the continuous improvement of the quality and relevance of the education at state universities.
In practice, this improvement cannot be effected solely by the government. It can be done only with the help of lecturers at each individual university. This is because unlike in schools, what is being taught is largely dependent on what each individual university lecturer (or the department) deems appropriate. Each single lecturer at a state university has the power to effect a change within his scope- in his class, to his students.
Improving the quality and relevance of education at state universities is doable.
Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t even require multi-million dollar foreign loans.
What’s required is a commitment by each individual lecturer to affect the change within his sphere of influence plus a commitment by each individual student to reciprocate and motivate the lecturers.