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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

The Sector Skills Councils, which obviously are more practical than government bureaucrats about getting value for money, all found the Skills Gap analysis which GreenTech had prepared deplorable. But I suspect that, had I not been there, they would have been commandeered into validating it. The former TVEC official who seemed to run the Sector Skills Development Project as far as outputs was concerned – understandably enough because he seemed the only person in the Project with actual experience of vocational training – thought that accepting it but suggesting some changes was necessary.

When I told the first Council that I attended that I was ashamed of the Report and felt TVEC could not recommend it, but they should decide what they felt, he obviously thought I had queered his pitch and later accused me into practically dragooning the Councils into rejecting the Report. The fact that they made detailed criticisms of the Report meant nothing to him, since his principal concern was delivering what he thought the World Bank and the ADB wanted, which was a validated report.

I can see why he behaved the way he did, because these agencies have continued to behave in Pavlovian fashion about what they term validation. In fact ADB, which is headed by an intelligent and sensitive Korean lady, had decided that GreenTech was useless and had immediately commissioned another report through ILO, which had been entrusted to Prof Chandrasiri of Colombo University, along with Ramani Gunatilleke, whom I knew slightly, enough to know that she was a serious and competent academic. When I read through the Report they produced, I found it incisive and remarkably helpful with regard to the further actions that were needed.

It was also quite clear about where the main problem lay. It stated categorically in the introduction that ‘Going by recent sector-wide skills assessments, it appears that Sri Lanka’s general education system is failing to develop the cognitive skills of large numbers of its graduates. It has also failed to impart several urgently needed technical skills such as the ability to write and communicate clearly in even the mother tongue, let alone English. Therefore as a first step, the general education system needs to be overhauled in such a way that it shifts out of the business of imparting facts and moves into building the skills necessary to process and analyse facts, make connections and see the big picture, and then communicate the analysis clearly and succinctly through presentations and report writing. ‘

It seems that this report was launched some months before I saw it, but no one had brought it to my attention, and no one seemed to have acted on it. I have now brought it to the attention of the National Education Commission, the Chairman of which, Prof Lakshman Jayatilleke, knows the subject better than almost anyone else in harness at the moment. He has tried to initiate action on the matter, but sadly the Commission has limited practical power, and promoting change requires greater commitment from those with executive authority. Given that the current Minister may not even understand what the ILO Report is suggesting, and certainly would not be able to think of how to make things better, I fear that we are stuck with the current general education system for the foreseeable future.

But the World Bank and ADB seem no better sometimes when it comes to taking things forward. It was agreed by all the Sector Councils, whose Chairs I now meet on a regular basis, that they were happy to endorse the ILO report, but the agencies said that that was a desk report and active research was needed, by which they meant that Chandrasiri and Gunatilleke should prepare a questionnaire which the Councils could answer. They pointed out that they had no desire to do that, and meanwhile they are addressing themselves to the actual gaps and trying to plug them. But no, the agencies have now said that they must produce a Skills Gap report themselves. They seem to have completely lost sight of the fact that such a report is intended to be the first step towards bridging those gaps, and if we have clearly identified the main gaps and are trying to overcome them, there is no point in reinventing the wheel.

The sheer absurdity of the way this country, governed perhaps by process rather than practicality, deals with issues is exemplified by the reports I have read recently about training needs in the tourism sector. There was a very useful report produced by the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management, and another very useful report produced by the National Centre for Human Resouces Development. When I pointed out at the first meeting of the latter I attended that this seemed a lot of wasted effort, they said that they had supplied the material to SLITHM. Why this was not made clear to those of us conscientious officials who read through what is important for their field, or why indeed the double expense of printing two glossy reports was not avoided, is still not clear. And now the lending agencies want yet another report that will say essentially the same thing.

That then is a procedural problem I have to get over. But meanwhile the Sector Councils have proved admirable in helping us to develop new curricula and to train staff to deliver these. The Construction Council is led by a Chairman with long experience in the field as an employer, and has a Manager with similar experience in the training sector. They produced very swiftly two 3 month courses in Plumbing and Carpentry, and now seem set to give us revised versions of all training in the different subjects we cover.

Sadly we still need to overcome some resistance in the institutions with regard to these innovations. There seems a built in desire to extend courses, which one very perceptive District Secretary suggested was based on a desire to spread work over a longer period than needed, to make life easier. The fact that this does not appeal to students did not seem of importance before we made the interests of first students, and then employers, our priorities.

I was touched then when one of the few plumbing instructors who did attend the first workshop we held noted that students had been asking for shorter courses. But this fact was not on record, and would not have been acted upon if we had not taken on the coordinating role that TVEC was mandated with. Fortunately the Minister is very clear about the processes that should be followed so as to promote effective action, and made this clear again to the agencies at a meeting he summoned recently to ensure that the new curricula were put in place by the time of the January intake.

The Computer Council has also done a marvelous job in scoping the subject and producing a Level 3 course. We had been told earlier that, though there was much that was good in the courses on offer, some essentials had been left out. The Council therefore decided to cover all essentials through two courses, at Levels 3 and 4, with a basic introductory course before (to be delivered during the Developing Career Skills course at Level 2) to introduce students to the subject and basic tools. The Level 3 course was introduced recently at a workshop with a clarity that was remarkably illuminating. Unfortunately again we had few trainers, though it was understandable that the Vocational Training Authority was not represented.

Its new Chairman is General Gamini Hettiarachchi, one of the most efficient administrators in public life, whom I had known as the Commandant of the Sri Lanka Military Academy when I was asked to take charge of developing a programme for a Degree course, and then as Director General of the Disaster Management System. That had been under the aegis of Mahinda Samarasinghe when he was Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and he had sensibly enough got Gamini on Board when he took over Vocational Training.

Gamini was shocked to discover that all VTA centres closed down once a month for what was supposed to be a District meeting, though the outcomes of these meetings were not clear. He therefore banned staff from leaving the centre during working days, though he is quite flexible about granting permission if alternative arrangements are made to keep students gainfully occupied. But my staff had failed to inform him of the Computer Training Workshop in time, so he had definite in his refusal. For the future though it has been agreed that we can have workshops provided work with the students is not abandoned.

This requirement had not been observed previously in the sector. Those in charge of the administration did not seem to know that, if anyone applies for leave, they should indicate what arrangements have been made to cover their work. We have made it clear at the training sessions we had for centre heads – something novel it seems – that this means not just saying a colleague will cover the class, but prescribing work that could be done under loose supervision. And this needs to be checked on by academic coordinators, which DTET does have in all its colleges, though this seems a novel concept for the VTA.

In order to ensure productive cooperation with the Councils, we appointed a Director for what was described as Labour Market liaison, and asked him to take charge of relations with all the Councils. Interesting enough, after we had changed the system of dealing with the Councils, I found a report to SSDP on how to increase the effectiveness of the Councils which said first that TVEC should be put in charge and second that we should have a Director for this purpose. It was quite pleasing to point out that we had done this already, which has made it easier to stop the confusion that SSDP was engendering in the Councils.

Though the Tourism Council is still not officially set up, its leading lights validated the new Level 2 courses we have introduced for basic occupations where it seems supply is low. And I hope that we can move soon on the Introduction to Tourism course that was initiated when I was working with the Committee headed by Chandra Mohotti.

The fourth Council, for Manufacturing and Light Engineering, has a tougher task, since it covers most of the subjects we are concerned with. But they are moving on new courses in some areas of urgent need, including welding and maintenance of agricultural machinery. But I was also deeply impressed by the analysis they have brought to bear to explain the difficulty they have about moving swiftly with regard to manufacturing.

Quite simply they pointed out that investment in this area is low, because there is no coherent policy. It is absurd, they note, to expect the manufacturing sector to expand when there is so much uncertainty about tariffs. Entrepreneurs have suffered enough by sudden changes that let in goods that in effect undercut their enterprises. If that is part of formal policy there is nothing to be done, but constant changes seem the philosophy of successive governments.

Working with these professionals has been a pleasure. Though I tried to avoid getting too involved with the Councils early on, I have no regrets now about the excessive work involved – if only we get at least a modicum of the results these very practical experts in each field have worked so hard to produce.

Ceylon Today 16 Nov 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=9138

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