සිතිවිලි (Sithiwili)

“Free Education” and “Education for Free”

Posted in Thoughts by Nalaka(නාලක) on December 24, 2007

ed2.gifOn 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.

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7 Responses

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  1. justmal said, on December 25, 2007 at 9:17 am

    “They already have competed with the private university students, and won!”

    No, they have not. Most of these activist students are from rural areas where the minimum Advanced Level score required for university entry is much lower than that applicable for a student from Colombo or Kandy. Free education is a privilege, not a right, and it is paid for with our tax money, not by their peasant parents who survive on Samurdhi subsidies.

  2. Hiran said, on December 27, 2007 at 10:05 am

    Nice one!
    I should say I agree with most of it. While we have education for free, we should also make sure the opportunity is given for those who can afford to pay and get educated (which is free education as you refer to it). This will leave out some burden from the GOSL. Also it is fair to say that government gas given you the base and it is up to you now.
    We should promote the concept of “Open university” more. And also a student loan facility by the GOSL. Mind you, we are all results of free education and thus we also have the responsibility of protecting it.

  3. Yasith Abeynayaka said, on December 28, 2007 at 10:51 am

    This might sounds nasty. But what I believe is government should get away from the education industry and allow universities to fund and process on their own. This will add more mobility and adoptability to the universities. To protect people with lower income, government should come up with a full scholarship program where they can select beneficiaries based on the A/L score (same as the current system, there will be a cut-off mark based on the demand). Further the continuation of the scholar will be based on the performance of the student (say, one student got a full scholar for medical degree at UOC, and if he do not passed all subjects in the first year he will only get 50% next year…etc)

    Further, the activist behind the campaign (described by Nalaka) is not really attempting to protect the free education, but what they are trying to do is achieve political benefits from it. After all, we all know that JVP is behind this and Universities are breeding grounds for future JVP activists, and these campaigns are training sessions for future JVP activists

  4. Upali Wickramasinghe said, on January 2, 2008 at 7:43 am

    Here is my Rs. 0.02…

    As a uni student and uni academic staff member I too have pondered about this topic from time to time. There are so many political reasonings behind activities like this. A very good example I saw was, while I was an undergrad in cmb.ac.lk work in the Science faculty went quite smoothly opposed to the Arts faculty. We did not have a very strong political movement, which was beneficial to finish the degree in time. How sad the students try to “change the world” while not doing their studies and then later blame everyone about their miseries. This is not the type of intellectual thinking a uni should have.

    The other matter about paying money for education is BS in my view. Simply because many students in uni do CIMA, CIM or any other qualification like that (paid in Rs. for the Dollar and Pound). They give more priority to that not the uni degree. I have had many instances where students come to ask to change lecture/exam/practical schedules for them to attend classes for those qualifications. “Nikan labena de agayak nehe ne?” (Still struggling to type in Sinhala). Now what about that? I am a product of free education. Yes we should protect it, but also realize how much the current uni students do not value it at all and start campaigning irrationally.

    BTW. Nalaka if I were you, I wouldn’t have bought the sticker… who knows what they do with that money? pay for CIMA?

  5. Vishva Kumara said, on March 11, 2008 at 11:45 am

    There are different types of degree granting institutes in Sri Lanka. Most of them hold affiliate programs to do degree courses and exams from foreign countries while staying in Sri Lanka. This saves a huge amount of Sri Lankan rupees to our country, because most of the students who get their degree from an affiliate program would go abroad if the first option were not there.

    There are some other institutes that grant the “Sri Lankan” degree, but only for those who have “Passed” the GCE A/L exam. Even if someone who has not passed the GCE A/L in Sri Lanka is willing to get a degree from a university in another country, they have to do a separate set of examinations before starting the degree program.

    I have nothing against the lucky, privileged students of state universities. As a student in SLIIT I know that when I pay Rs50k for 5 months of lectures and exams, the government pays another Rs50k to maintain the university; and our lecturers remind that always. Therefore we know the value of the education we get. We never hurt a new student for being one year younger than us. We never waste public properties.

    And if I fail an exam it will cost a proportion of the fees that is already paid last year, to do the exam again. In that case I can’t tell my parents that they have to spend extra money for my not being able to pass a one subject. There are so many students work part time or freelance to pay for their education in private or semi-government universities.

    The other most important fact is that “you will never buy a degree; you have to earn it”. No matter how much you can pay, or how longer you can stay (in the university), it needs hard work and dedication to pass through the exam.

  6. Rashmin said, on June 26, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    well i mite not reply to most blogs that i read but this got my Attention. Reading through and pondering upon what people have to say id give my story aswel so that people out there would acctually know what the so called private university students are going through. I am currently an underGrad at a private uni and mind you i am certainly not the type of person who can even imagine of paying the fees.I was brought up abroad but i had to come back to my beloved mother land because of unavoidable reasons(my whole family) i had to go to an international school because i hadnt known sinhala so well as to follow school from grade 9. i had to study everything for the London O/L. things went well and finaly the day to make the payments arrived and we just couldnt find the cash.(this was in July of 2003). i decided to sit for the GCE O/L Sri Lanka in english medium.unfortunatly i had NO text or what so ever in this medium.I am proud to say i never went for Tuition class either except for Sinhala (I got a B)i had to plead my way to sit for the exam from the education ministry since i hadnt a School at that time. in 3 months i studied for the exam without a single text book and finally got through it with average results.but this wasnt enough for me to get a school for A/L.(i will never forget “son no one teaches for summa” quoted from a principle from a leading school) i didnt have the deposit money to join the school either. i decieded to do City and Guilds in Telecom and radio engineering.i only had to pay 3000/- buks for it initially(the school wanted more than 50,000) I completed part 2 when i was 17 and got an Award for Youngest with Highest Result. I knew now going to state University wasnt the only way to get a Degree.I had heard of a Private University and applied for it and got a scholarship. and to this day im in the final semester. Id just like people with the mindset that Private Students are rich to ralize the reality, Since with me there are more students with the same problems. i had to take a loan to pay my fees and still paying for it. I worked from 7p.m till 4 A.m and went for lectures at 8.am.(came home at 5 A.M i had only one and a half hours of sleep) So Finally i just got one thing to say to those Student Activists “guys you have your fees paid for you, you do not have to worry your head out wondering if you will be able to pay for the next semester so STOP cutting lectures and shouting on the streets, dont waste what the good lord has given you. And certainly dont shout for what you might not know. Work Hard and the results will show, you have the greater odds in your favour.
    Id just like to mention that my Elder Brother still pays half of my loans.
    P.S i too have bought such Stickers with all Heart.

  7. John Martin said, on October 12, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    well impressive, It explain two different words which is seems similarly. It seems good…..and it is very attractive and informative.

    Research Essay


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