Students Experimenting with Lab Equipment, Benefiting from Free Education in Sri Lanka
Students Experimenting with Lab Equipment, Benefiting from Free Education in Sri Lanka

Indeed, Free Education is simply what makes the education system in Sri Lanka special!

It is true that according to the universal declaration of human rights of the United Nations, everyone has the right to education. Thus, every country takes huge attempts to provide education to their nation considering the betterment that education attaches to a nation. However, it is better if education is free, at least in the elementary stages. And when considered with regard, the Sri Lankan education system cannot be ignored. Yes, that is simply owing to its highlighting aspects of the free education system. Although Sri Lanka is a third-world developing country, students from primary level to university level have chances to obtain the benefits of free education.

So, in a world where education has become a major concern, we thought of paying attention to the free education system in Sri Lanka. To start with, let us first get to know about the history of the Sri Lankan free education system.  

History of Education in Sri Lanka  

From ancient times, Sinhala society gave a high value to education. After the third century BC, when Buddhism spread on the island, the role of teachers began to be shared by Brahmins and erudite Buddhist monks. However, there was no custom during that time to record incidents and events of the lives of ordinary people. Therefore, there is no evidence to prove that the monks taught the villagers. There was, however, a strong literary tradition, particularly after the establishment of Buddhism. In fact, literary activities were limited to the nobility (even the Brahmi inscriptions were the work of the upper classes), and the teaching of their children, and newly ordained monks, took precedence over everything else. 

Before the western school tradition, the erudite monks in Pirivenas educated Sri Lankans. Pirivena is a temple-based education institute that was conducted by prime monks. In pirivens, education was limited to subjects like Buddhism, Sanskrit, Pali, Sinhala, and Abhidharma. The principal focus of this education was to enrich the Buddhist teaching in Sri Lankan society while making better religious lifestyles. Step by step, Sri Lankan traditional Piriven education refinement changed during the colonial era, which affected mostly many cultural displacements. At the very first, Christian missionary societies became active in education in the coastal provinces and then progressively expanded to the interior of the country. However, the Anglican Church’s monopoly of Schools and education ended following the Colebrook Commission set up by the British administration. 

When did Free Education Start in Sri Lanka? 

However, the establishment of British education or the college system in Sri Lanka is the nearest and most relatable for the modern so-called concept of free education. The commencement of the government schooling system came ahead under the recommendations of the Colebrook Commission in 1836. Royal College in Colombo (formerly the Colombo Academy) was the first alma mater that commenced under these recommendations. Then several single-sex schools were constructed during the colonial period, by the British. The education in vernacular schools was largely free due to government grants to cover the cost of teaching and local philanthropists providing the buildings, equipment, and books. Indeed, during that particular era, those contributions intended to make a huge cultural shift through English education. On the other hand, the British administration wanted to produce local carriers to ease their administrative and mercantile process.

Who Introduced Free Education to Sri Lanka?

Free education in Sri Lanka was established in 1943 due to the consecration and long-term vision of Dr. C. W. W. Kannagara, the Minister of Education and the member of the executive committee of education, W. Amarasuriya. And yes, owing to their golden efforts, today every Sri Lankan citizen student is able to gain primary level to university level education from free education. 

According to this policy, every child above the age of five and not more than sixteen is entitled to free education. So, undoubtedly, Sri Lanka is at a higher level of literacy today owing to the decisions of these heroes. It is not even both the above figures, but also there were some other notable British and local philanthropists to make this a reality for this nation. Rev. James Home Darrell, who was a brilliant Cambridge scholar with first-class honors for Mathematics and also the Principal of the first Sri Lankan school, Richmond College, was an eminent personality behind the scene. He was who gave the opportunity to C.W.W Kannangara to continue his education in Richmond college after seeing Kannagara’s adroitness. Without his guidance, there would not be a politician like C.W.W. Kannangara. 

The next mover is A. Ratnayake, who was elected as a member of the State Council for Wattegama, in 1931. He was the person who introduced the free uniform concept to our free education. Moreover, he had presented a motion in order to accept that all the students should have the opportunity for free education whether they pass the scholarship program or not. This is indeed one of the most effective decisions. So, apart from C.W.W.Kannangara, all these individuals played major roles in paving the way for free education in Sri Lanka.

The Suggestions from the Leaders of Free Education in Sri Lanka

Today we are lucky to glean the harvest from free education in Sri Lanka due to its historical, social, political, cultural, and economic influence. However, it was mainly the below suggestions of the past that paved its way thus far. 

I. Make good education available to all children so that education never becomes a commodity purchasable only by the urban affluent.

II. Make national languages the medium of instruction instead of English, in order to create Sri Lankans better opportunities for higher education. Accordingly, make more opportunities for Sri Lankans of villages as well to join profitable employment.

III. Adjust the school system in a way that the educational provision is adequate, efficient, and economical.

IV. Make sure that a child has the opportunity of getting instruction in the religion of his/her parents.

V. Ensuring the protection of teachers from exploitation by managers of schools.

VI. Make adequate provision for adult education.

After the two years of policy establishment, forty-four colleges were established throughout the country mainly in the rural areas with well-equipped buildings, laboratories, and hostels. These schools followed English medium and erudite rural children were able to enter the University of Ceylon from the early fifties.

However, this is just a glimpse of the history of Sri Lankan education. If you are interested to learn more, read our article on the History of the Sri Lankan Education System and its Evolution.

Present Status of the Free Education in Sri Lanka

So, by now you clearly know that Sri Lanka provides free education from kindergarten level to university level following the constitutional policy. Each and every government that undertook the rule of the country, allocated a good amount of funds from the budget to improve and standardize education in Sri Lanka. On the other hand, organizations like the United Nations, guide and motivate the Sri Lankan government to make progress in the education sector since it would be a great solution to many problems in the country. 

Besides, in Sri Lanka, free education does not only mean giving charge-free education. It also includes free uniforms, scholarships, Mahapola, and Bursary scholarships for higher education and vocational education. With all these facilities, the Sri Lankan Education System covers three main stages as follows.

  1. Primary Education
  2. Secondary Education
  3. Higher Education

Let us now get to know in detail about these different stages of the Sri Lankan education system through the following sections.

1. Primary Education 

Primary education in Sri Lanka consists of five stages, from Grades 1-5.  According to the eligibility requirements, students are able to enter ‘National Schools’ or ‘Madya Maha Vidyala’ from grade one. However, today, there are many criteria for a student to enter a school, as there is immense competition.

On the other hand, in Sri Lanka, there are primary schools that provide education only up to grade 5. This type of school is mostly located in rural areas. However, the government provides basic necessities that are required for a student, such as textbooks and uniforms for all these schools. The grade five scholarship exam is another two-edged sword process that opens doors for a child to enter a new school. Although it has become a burden for the students owing to the high competitiveness, a large number of underprivileged and talented students were able to enter popular schools and succeed in their academics owing to this national examination.

However, this was just a brief about primary education in Sri Lanka. Read our article on ‘Best Things to Know About Primary Education in Sri Lanka‘ for a better overview.

2. Secondary Education 

The secondary education system in Sri Lanka further divides into three main categories as the Junior Secondary Level, Senior Secondary Level, and the Collegiate Level.

  • Junior Secondary Level: The junior secondary level is from grade six to nine. During this level, students follow up to 12 compulsory subjects, and step by step prepare to enter the senior secondary level.
  • Senior Secondary Level: This is the level where students have to study for two years and face one of the compulsory national examinations, known as the G.C.E Ordinary Level (GCE O/ L) examination. This exam consists of nine subjects and students must have credits for the four main subjects, which include Mathematics, Science, and their first language to enter the Collegiate Level.
  • Collegiate Level:  There are 5 different schemes as Physical Science, Biology, Technology, Commerce and Arts, and the student can choose one subject stream to study during this level. This level consists of two years, and in the end, students face the GCE Advanced Level (GCE A/L) examination. It is the university entrance examination in Sri Lanka. Further, this is the most competitive examination as Sri Lanka provides free university education only for 15% of candidates. The lack of resources for all the participants has made it highly competitive. However, annually more than one lakh students sit for this exam. 

Besides, this is just a quick glance over the special features of the Secondary Education System in Sri Lanka. You can simply go through our article on ‘Best Things to Know About Secondary Education in Sri Lanka‘ for a better overview. 

3. Higher Education 

After secondary education, students get the opportunity to enter government universities. Still, it depends on their z- score (a score based on their results for the GCE A/L Examination) and marks of aptitude tests (only for some courses). According to the researchers, about 15% of candidates are selected to enter universities after the G.C.E. A/L examination.

All the government universities in Sri Lanka are under the University Grant Commission. There are fifteen universities and many students get funds from the Mahapola Higher Education Scholarship Trust fund, which was established under the patronage of Lalith Athulathmudali, the Minister of Trade and Shipping. Although there are private universities or semi-government universities, students try their best to enroll in government universities considering the full-time free education, government-based standard, and also social validity.

Apart from universities, there are vocational training institutes in Sri Lanka under the Vocational Training Authority. This Authority functioned in Sri for around 20 years and contributed extensively to the national economy by providing vocational training to the youth throughout the island. It comprises a network of 220 centers, which includes 07 National Vocational Institutes, 22 District Vocational Training Centers, and 191 Vocational Training Centers. They are established at the Divisional Secretariats level, and they offer courses covering 18 fields, with time durations ranging from 45 days to 2 years. Nearly 30,000 youth benefit from these courses per annum.

Likewise, there are many higher education opportunities for the students even within the limits of free education. Our article on ‘Higher Education in Sri Lanka, the Best Path for a Professional Career‘ will provide you with a better overview with regard.  

Advantages of Free Education in Sri Lanka

Without making any single argument, it is acceptable that having free education in a developing country is a blessing. However, there are both pros and cons to free education. So, let us first draw your attention to the advantages of free education.

  1. Free education in Sri Lanka opens the door for all students with equal necessities. Without this policy, education could be limited to a particular class, caste, or urban area in Sri Lanka. But instead, the laborer’s son and also the landlord’s son have to study the same curriculum, perhaps in the same school.
  2. Due to the scholarship program, dire rural students are able to shift to colleges in towns and continue their studies. Concomitantly, it becomes a cause for the motivation of others as well to show their talents and go ahead.
  3. On the other hand, having free education directs students to be more qualified. According to the 2018 literacy rate calculation of UNESCO, 98.8% of Sri Lankan young males and females have a higher literacy level. It is a sign that the country has sufficient intellectual force to work for the betterment of the economy.
  4. Owing to free education, students can focus on more career paths. If they miss the chance to enter a university or complete the advanced level examination, they can still study further, as there are vocational institutes.

When a country like Sri Lanka has free education it becomes a relief to both students and parents. It is a must to mention that if there was no free education in Sri Lanka probably all people would have to keep their nose to the grindstone for even their simple daily routine like the world’s impecunious countries. 

Disadvantages of Free Education in Sri Lanka

Every coin has two sides. The same is applicable for free education policy too. Highlighted below are some of the disadvantages of free education.

  1. Government funds free education from the tax of citizens. All rich and poor people in a country belong to this. So, when students don’t take the benefits from their commitment, it simply becomes a waste of money.
  2. Due to lack of resources, certain examinations have become so competitive. For instance, the first government examination of a student; the Grade five scholarship has become more competitive than other examinations. That is because those who obtain better higher marks are eligible to have a good school and also funds. Thus, parents force students to work hard for this exam. However, this pressure to take an examination since childhood has a bad impact on mental instability. Therefore, this has become a drawback that emerged as a result of free education.
  3. Government emasculates the chances of students as there is a limited resource. The problem is, sometimes this emasculation may affect even the most needed students.
  4. When students get everything free of charge, there may be less motivation to study is another identified con. Thus, it may indirectly cause even the ragging culture.
  5. As Sri Lanka is a third-world country, it is debt from other wealthy countries. When the government has no opulent money to spend for free education, they take debts. Ultimately the whole nation has to take the burden of it. 
  6. Besides, considering the private and government curriculums, teaching methods, courses, and also career paths, a vast gap is visible in updating government-free education. As the government has no enough money to develop the resources this gap takes place.

Still, limiting the disadvantages is possible. Proper planning, better resource allocations, and more funds would certainly do it!

Future of Free Education in Sri Lanka 

Now, it’s been nearly eight decades since the free education policy. From time to time certain changes took place in order to make it better. However, thanks to this policy, students from kindergarten to university level have a chance of free education even today. However, society has become much more competitive for economic stability. Thus, education is now a paramount important thing that makes figures for the competitive market. Besides, in an era where technology and science rule the world, standardization of education is a must. 

Hence, Sri Lanka should move with the other countries with the standard and novelty of education. In this journey, youth becomes the set of sailors while education plays the role of oars. But the problem is; free education sometimes becomes weak because of many reasons. Although there is free education to date, students invest money in private education. That is because there is a belief that today’s free education lacks the standard. 

However, a country like Sri Lanka can’t provide expected resources for a growing number of students. Therefore, students do not keep their hopes only on free education. Thus, a number of private institutes have come up in the country, and the field of private education is also flourishing in the country. In fact, students who pass the GCE A/L examination and fail to enter the status universities, and the students who aim to complete their degree faster, choose private universities. Further, in urban areas, there is a better demand for international school education due to updated curriculums and modernity.

So, it is doubtful whether the country would have a fully free education system in the future. Indeed, tuition classes, courses, and extra activities are steps by step changing the mindset of people 

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, it must be understood that education should stay equally available to everyone, regardless of their income, class, or religion in a developing country. C.W.W. Kannangara’s long-term vision about the country gave the policy of free education to all. The incomparable importance of free education is precious like gold. It is up to the authorities to reform the policies and make them much more standard. Free education is a blessing; we must motivate younger generations to obtain the best from this blessing. All who benefited from free education are debt holders to those who pay tax, particularly the innocent working class. This must be an echoing hymn in students’ minds to realize the real value of free education.