I used to have a nuanced view about the problems around employing foreign-educated graduates in Sri Lanka vs. encouraging locally-educated graduates. The protests by university student unions, medical students, and a host of other youth who had bought into the free education rainbow only to find no pot of golden jobs at the end – I sympathized with them and would advocate their position amongst acquaintances who complained about these ‘ever-protesting, ever-complaining, ungrateful students’. I advocated for the matching of local graduates with jobs straight out of university, even if it came at the cost of more difficult procedures for foreign graduates. Not anymore.
In his speech today, Sujeewa Senasinghe spoke about a plan to fund up to 30 stellar Sri Lankan students to pursue further studies at institutions such as ‘M.I.T., Harvard’ amongst other top-notch U.S. colleges. He continued saying that finally, with these scholarships, it could be ‘one of our kids’ who get to go and pursue this and then come back to start businesses that will help our country grow. He made it sound as though that farmer’s kid who studied by kerosene lamp could now have a free pathway from thatched roof house to Big Apple skies and back to a pantsuit future in her/his homeland.
What an empty load of heart-breaking lies.
I am a foreign graduate and all I ever dreamed of doing was using my privileges to bring back whatever resources I could for my country. I work in the humanities and social services and so I have not had the kinds of troubles my peers have faced. But let me share with you the experiences of a peer who had the same intentions I had and was denied the same opportunities.
Po* did a degree that took place in one institution but across two different countries. The theory was learnt in one, less expensive country, while students then had the option of going to another country where laboratory facilities and clinical experience were better. He opted for that, of course. Upon return to Sri Lanka, he was denied even the ability to sit for the Act 16 (an exam taken to practice in Sri Lanka) because the SLMC refused to recognize his degree as ‘complete’ as it had taken place across two different countries. Malinda’s intentions had been to practice here for a while before specializing in geriatrics and opening a facility dedicated to aged care and geriatrics practice. He had identified that aged care was a huge burden on the economy and would be growing problem in our generation. He had the resources and capital to be able to address this issue – all he needed was the permission by our authorities. After a year of struggling and being turned away – not even being able to sit the exam – he took his skills and drive elsewhere. When he got to his adopted home, he discovered more Sri Lankans who had benefitted from the free education system and had taken the first opportunity to get out of Sri Lanka as a skilled migrant. Four years later, he tells me he has lost all faith in fulfilling those visions he had as a young doctor for Sri Lanka. He doesn’t want to be overseas, unlike those other Sri Lankans, but he also doesn’t have the ability to stay here to practice and create opportunities for others in turn.
What really is the point of this Harvard pipedream then?
What is so angering about Senasinghe’s speech is this: the empty rhetoric, the empty dream. Paraphrasing an analysis by Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, Andi Schubert points out that the failing of Sri Lankan tertiary education is that ‘free education can provide a ticket to social mobility but cannot guarantee that a young person can actually arrive at this destination’.[i] It just sounds like this promise of a further scholarship overseas is more of the same empty promises. Meanwhile, there are heaps of students like my friend who are denied the opportunity to do exactly what the government is trying to achieve. What is even more ridiculous is how economically unsound this scholarship program is! Under this arrangement, the burden of paying the scholarship is on the government itself. For students like Po, their own personal funds, privately earned, are being expended and invested in himself and by extension of his practices, in the country. In other scholarship schemes that target the general Sri Lankan public, such as the Commonwealth Scholarship, the burden of payment is subsidised and split between our government (that has minimal fiscal input), the host institution, the host country (the U.K.) or a private funding body/individual. On top of this, the 2017 budget has cut down expenditure on primary and secondary education by a whopping 40% !!! How do they expect one of ‘our kids’ to get to the point of applying to these Harvard/MIT scholarships when they have been denied proper resources through their early education anyway! Instead of increasing – or even maintaining – the budget to ensure good quality, equitable education to all in Sri Lanka, this government is pushing out some pipedream of a Harvard-educated miracle kid who can solve his (let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not a ‘her’ they are imagining) village’s problems by setting up an IT hub and employing everyone to be programming-puppets.
What really is the point of trying to sell some vacant dream of going to Harvard to some 30 Sri Lankan students? Who do you really think those 30 students will be? Some rural miracle story or a kid from the same demographic who could have paid for their education but chose not to? There are comprehensive studies on how those who benefit from free education are, for the most part, not the really underprivileged.[ii] I still support free education but let’s not kid ourselves that a) those scholarships are going to materialize in the radical social upliftment manner that Senasinghe tries to sell and b) that even if some scholarship opportunities do arise, that they would really go to some mythical street-lamp-studying child who has genuinely had it rough to climb the socio-economic ladder.
None of this makes economic sense and it certainly doesn’t make emotional sense. Every child of Sri Lanka ought to be able to use the resources at their disposal – be it their knowledge, education, capital, experience – to contribute to the country. There are so many Sri Lankans like my friend and I completely willing to be paid substandard rates, work through circus-worthy hoops of bureaucracy and incompetence, and break our backs trying to train more people to produce high quality work. Why in the world is it so difficult to work in partnership and mutual respect so that we can all achieve the same dreams – because they are the same dreams – and rebuild Sri Lanka?
[ii] See for example Ranasinghe, Athula, and Joop Hartog. “Free-education in Sri Lanka. Does it eliminate the family effect?.” Economics of Education Review 21.6 (2002): 623-633.