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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

I had enjoyed working with Mahinda Samarasinghe when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and also during our many visits to Geneva when we staved of the efforts of the British (and then the Americans after Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State) to stop us eliminating terrorism in Sri Lanka.

Mahinda gave the impression of being laid back in his approach, but he worked hard and studied his briefs. He was also capable of sharp insights and, on becoming Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training, he worked out very quickly what was needed. Before asking me to help, he had identified three major problems, and I suppose he knew from my track record that I was the best person to help him resolve these.

First and foremost was the need to update courses, and in particular to introduce English and other soft skills. I had been the first to introduce Core Courses into universities, when I joined Sabaragamuwa University way back in 1997. This built on what Arjuna Aluwihare had started when he set up Affiliated University Colleges, but it was only at Sabaragamuwa that we introduced Critical Thinking, with exercises designed to make students recognize systems, understand the concept of variables, and ensure attention to relevance. Initially the students protested about what they saw as games playing, but later I recall a group telling me, when I attended a wedding of one of the brightest, that it was such aptitude tests that they were set when applying for jobs.

We also made both Sinhala and Tamil compulsory for all students, in addition to English. When I insisted on a Third Language, my Sinhala and Tamil staff declared that students were no longer taught to write properly in mother tongue, and this should be remedied. I also introduced library studies, because I found that students had no idea how to find material in books, since they had not been taught the use of a contents page, let alone an index. I used to feel immeasurably sad, if for instance I asked them which countries neighboured China, as they rifled through the pages of the atlases we gave them instead of checking first where the relevant information was to be found.I was quite happy then when Mahinda told me that my first task was to make English and a general menu of soft skills compulsory on all courses. But the reason he thought I could do this was that he had identified another major problem in the sector, namely that there was no clear decision making process. As I had found when I suggested a more active approach to vocational training in the north, the Ministry consisted of a number of different institutions, none of which seemed to work in coordination with the others.

Mahinda, having studied the relevant legislation, realized that the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission was supposed to be the apex body in the field, and he made it clear from the start that we were in charge of policy. The obvious corollary of this was that we also had to monitor activities of implementing agencies to make sure that policies were being implemented. This is a simple principle that is completely ignored in Sri Lanka, hence indeed the protracted controversies about devolution.

I had tried to point out to those worried about provinces making decisions that this made sense, given the general ignorance of the centre on most matters – as indeed my meeting with the Ministry in Dullas’s time had made clear. But since the central government was in charge of national policy on all matters, it had every right to check on such decisions.

Soon after I took up my duties, last November, I visited a number of centres, and was very worried by what I saw. Staff were often missing, and there were very few students in many classes. Though they were supposed to have embarked on establishing Quality Management Systems, emphasis had been on process rather than actual quality. Thus they had to fill in forms, which they did assiduously when applying for certification, stopping short immediately they succeeded. So in one centre registers had not been marked for weeks, in another they seemed, after regular signing off until April, to have ceased to clean the toilets thereafter.

In centres run by the Vocational Training Centres, English was hardly taught. Though I had been told that English was compulsory on all courses, and the elaborate books in which the curriculum was presented (at length, and sometimes incomprehensibly) indicated this, it was ignored by the Vocational Training Authority. This was necessarily the case on most of their courses for there were only 22 English teachers in place in the altogether 245 centres they ran. And half those knew very little English. It transpired that they had been teachers of English stenography and, when the stenography course was stopped, they were transformed into English teachers. No attempt had been made to find out how much English they knew, and to improve their language, let alone give them some pedagogical skills. Indeed the VTA had not supported the few who had tried on their own to develop their knowledge of the language.

The Colleges run by the Department of Technical Education and Training were better, but some of them had woefully old fashioned teachers who taught formal grammar and did not bother about ensuring that students could speak. It was heartening to find that most students understood the value of English and wanted to learn more, but the system had failed to work on this.

After the first workshop I had for all English teachers – the first time it seemed that VTA and DTET staff had been brought together for such an exercise – I insisted that more teachers be recruited. Fortunately the Minister had asked General Gamini Hettiarachchi to be Chairman of the Vocational Authority, having seen how well he had worked as Director General of the Disaster Management. And I knew him well, not only from my stint at the Ministry, but because he had been the Commandant at the Sri Lanka Military Academy when a degree course was first mooted and Sabaragamuwa University had been asked to run the programme.

Cadre positions were not available at the VTA for the new teachers we needed, but this was perhaps just as well because the Scheme of Recruitment would have forced us to look for experience and therefore to hire retired teachers. Since we could for the moment only take people on contract, we did not ask for experience but instead demanded either degrees or higher diplomas. This latter was awarded by the Sri Lanka Institute for Advanced Technical Education, which for some extraordinary reason came under the Ministry of Higher Education rather than us. But in some of its centres I knew the programme was excellent.

Those who applied amply justified my optimism, and not only the young, for there some very lively retired teachers, including a few who had worked on the pre-University General English Language Training programme I had coordinated in the nineties. So the VTA now has over 100 English teachers, and with luck we should soon be able to recruit some of them on a permanent basis. DTET too had selected 18 more teachers, and we expedited their appoinments, which was important because it shifted the balance amongst DTET staff towards the younger generation. And early this year the Director General of DTET, a civil servant who seems to have a good grasp of the issues, appointed as his Head of English one of the younger instructors who happened to have been at Sabaragamuwa, having come there from the Anuradhapura Affiliated University College. I was quite touched by the way he remembered how I had taught various constructions, and when he reminded me recently of how I would dish out peppermints to those who were active and accurate in class, a practice I had long forgotten.

Obviously a new syllabus was needed, and I set up a group of consultants for the purpose. My staff at the TVEC were horrified at the rates I offered, which seemed to them far too low. But I was relying on those with whom I had worked earlier when designing courses for the Affiliated Universities and for Sri Jayawardenepura when we made it the flagship of practical English courses, and also on those who had helped when we developed English medium in the government sector. I knew they were willing to work without exploiting government, and so it proved. The Soft Skills component was supported by Aide et Action, which I knew had developed systems of ensuring tremendous self confidence even in scheduled caste girls at their centres in India. They had proved themselves in my centres in the North, where I presume the task was easier, but where nevertheless I was surprised by the confidence of the youngsters they trained.

Nirmali Hettiarachchi agreed to work on the speech component, but she was then appointed a member of the Commission and felt obliged to resign. But she continued to work without remuneration, and was a pillar of strength at the workshops we held to introduce the new curricula. She also helped select the best of the DTET teachers, who were then able to take over some of the training for the new VTA teachers.

It was an unexpected bonus that Noel Jayamanne also applied. I had known him when I worked for the British Council in the thirties, when he was I think at the Bolawalana Training College. Later he had been at the Ministry when we were working on English medium, one of the few positive thinkers there at the time. He was eminently reliable and, though now retired, kept abreast of new thinking and suggested several activities to encourage active participation by students.

We paid the Consultants Rs 20,000 a month, which meant the whole exercise cost less than a million as the work was done in six months (though we extended the project when we decided to introduce more programmes in English). I realized however that I had been very mean, when I found that the British Council had been paid 6 million for developing courses and training teachers for the University Colleges that had been set up a couple of years previously. Given the cackhanded way in which those Colleges had been established, they had trained just five lecturers, plus a couple of VTA staff.

What was even more astonishing was that they had done something similar for DTET a couple of years previously, and some of the material was duplicated. Having worked at the British Council years ago, I was familiar enough with the staff to upbraid them for having made money twice for the same work. But the lady who had been in charge of the project, who has lived here for years and is I think devoted to Sri Lanka, assured me that they had told the officials who were contracting them, but this had been ignored.

The man responsible for the whole exercise was an Additional Secretary called Deshapriya, who had been elevated to the position of Director of the National Budget, which did not seem to me a good sign for financial security. I was assured that he was an honest man, but it seemed that he had been carried away by the ethos our bureaucrats have developed of believing that aid money must be spent on high costing buildings and consultancies with little concern about outcomes. Thus, the Council – which had as usual done a professional if expensive job – had recommended a particular set of textbooks, which cost a lot of money since they had to be imported. The Ministry had however ignored the suggestion that an arrangement be reached with the publishers, or rather with importers. This last was because our Booksellers’ Association, by stopping foreign publishers from supplying books direct to even educational institutions, has ensured that customers cannot benefit much from trade concessions.

Deshapriya had also completely ignored the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Vocational Education and Technology, in developing the curriculum. This was ridiculous since UNIVOTEC had staff who could have done the initial work, having also been involved in some of the earlier British Council training. But, though the Colleges were attached in a fashion to UNIVOTEC, there had been no systemic linkages, inasmuch as the advice the Vice-Chancellor had given had proved unpalatable when the Ministry decided to go ahead with the Colleges, a ridiculous scheme inasmuch as insufficient use was being made of already existing plant. But as my father long ago put it, everyone wants to engage in construction, not unsurprisingly, given the massive profiteering that is possible.

Ceylon Today 29 Oct 2016 – http://ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=8221