Dealing with Corruption Systemic Change not political victimizations – Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
By Rathindra Kuruwita
The contentious statement made by President Sirisena pertaining to the independent commissions was a timely intervention at a time in which CIABOC was floundering, opined Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission Rajiva Wijesinha. A former State minister in the interim Ranil-Maithri Government following the 8 January 2015 presidential polls, Wijesinha added that corruption must be dealt through changing systems; not by political victimization.
Excerpts of the interview are as follows:
?: Tertiary and Vocational Education Policy is currently governed by the Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Education, and the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission. But the 2016 Tertiary and Vocational Education Policy admits that 'it is desirable that all education should be coordinated.' What are the difficulties that have arisen from the fact that various sectors in education are controlled by various ministries?
A: Compartmentalization of education makes planning difficult, and plan implementation impossible. Human Resources Development is vital, but at present the production of competent trainers and teachers is grossly inadequate. The Ministry of Education has failed to solve this problem for years, understandably so because that is a more advanced skill than they generally deal with. But the tertiary education sector which should undertake this is hampered by uncertainty about employment.
As I think, as the only person with active experience in all educational sectors, I have for long been suggesting ways of getting over the current inadequacies; for instance pedagogical components in university courses, apprenticeship modes of teacher appointments, special centres for training of school leavers in subjects essential for the modern world; which are badly taught in schools. But none of this has taken off because of rigid divisions and a hopelessly conservative outlook, based on British compartmentalization that the British very sensibly have moved beyond.
To complicate matters, even vocational education is now divided, given the Prime Minister's sentimental attachment to his long lost youth. He has placed the Youth Corps and the National Youth Services Council under his control, whereas they would be good instruments to provide foundations for the training that schools and universities do not provide. In fact the Youth Corps are now following the new curriculum the Tertiary and Vocational Curriculum has formulated and I believe NYSC plans to do the same, but progress is slow because there is little coordination.
?: The technical education stream was introduced to schools in 2014 and the first batch of student entered university this year. I personally believe that this will lessen the number of students who offer Arts subjects for ALs, which is a good thing in my opinion. Do you share this view?
A: The technical stream is a very good thing, but it was introduced in a very haphazard way, with little attention to ensuring an adequate teacher supply. So, it was started in a very few schools, and the vast majority of rural schools which needed it were deprived. Government should have engaged in concerted teacher training for the purpose, and this we are now starting with a Diploma in Technology and Education, which will involve guided teaching practice – and this also helps to solve the problem, which was not looked at seriously before, about the future of those who entered the technical scheme. One problem is that students who have qualified, who are obviously comparatively bright, may want more than a diploma, but I have suggested to the University of Vocational and Technical Education (UNIVOTEC) that we develop a scheme whereby they can get degrees, on the ladder system that you find in countries such as for instance Australia.
?: I went through NVQ Level 3 curriculum as you suggested and I think all five fields of study fill important gaps in our education system. How has the response been so far about these qualifications?
A: The new type of Level 3 courses were designed to fill real gaps in two areas. The first was with regard to producing sufficiently skilled workers for vacancies in particular fields. The construction industry for instance has difficulty in finding workers, but before now, the courses run by this Ministry were quite long and developed more competencies than are needed for initial employment. So with input from the newly set up Construction Industry Sector Council we will be starting short courses, after which youngsters can find lucrative employment. The same will happen with regard to the automobile industry, where there are many vacancies.
We have had positive responses from centre heads around the country, who had noted that students were reluctant to follow long courses, and there were dropout rates after a few months; sometimes, because youngsters were needed for work on the field. We believe therefore that these courses will be taken up by larger numbers than before, when we start them in January, though there needs to be active marketing which we will begin in November.
Secondly, the TVEC noted that not enough training was being done in the service sector where there are many jobs. We have therefore started introductory courses in some fields, including care services and office work. These will be conducted mainly in the English medium, with a foundation English course, and will produce trained workers in fields where there will be many employment opportunities.
I should note that we have also introduced new Level 2 courses for very basic work, including in the tourism sector, though again we have included some cognitive content since it is important that our students feel there is a good career path ahead.
?: There are continuous complaints, especially from the construction sector, that there is a dearth of trained workers and the government has allowed foreign workers to come in. Is this, one reason the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission considered introducing these courses?
A: Yes, TVEC has to be responsive to the needs of employers, and the Minister therefore fast forwarded the establishment of the Sector Skills Councils and we have entrusted more responsibilities to them with regard to curricula and training. I did not know the government had permitted foreign workers in this field, though I know that some elements in the industry had requested this to the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister for the sector. My own response was that the TVEC could not be in the business of encouraging such practices, because it was our responsibility to promote employment for our people, and for that purpose we needed to train in accordance with the needs and encourage school leavers to take up our training. What the government should do is provide grants through our Ministry to youngsters in deprived areas while they undertake training on our short courses, and support employers who give them work opportunities to fulfil what is termed as the On the Job Training requirement.
?: Can you elaborate a bit more on the NVQ Level 5 Diploma Courses to Develop Trainers?
A: The Trainer Development courses we have started at Level 5, which is the Diploma Level, are designed to fill the gap that Sri Lanka has failed to deal with over the last half-century and more. The concept began with the need to provide opportunities for those who had done well in the Technical Stream at Advanced Level while also increasing the pool of potential trainers, both for courses run by the Ministry and for teaching of technical subjects in schools. But given the very sensible insistence of the Minister on improving soft skills training, including English communication skills, we need in the agencies run by the Ministry, more teachers of for our new career skills courses, which are conducted in English and deal with English competencies as well as work related competencies, including the cognitive skills that a recent ILO study notes the General Education system has failed to develop.
So we have started a Diploma in English and Education, which will commence at several colleges run by the Department of Technical Education and Training. Our German consultant, Dr Boehner, has developed an excellent course in pedagogy, that is teaching skills, which will we hope ensure interactive learning. The superb team of consultants we set up at the beginning of the year have produced a user friendly English course which concentrates mostly on oral skills – though there is also some simple literature, to be taught to encourage reading and thinking, not formulaic responses.
We also thought it would be a good idea to develop more Mathematics teachers, since Maths is essential not just for technical subjects, but also for almost anything in the modern world. Our Education Ministry has singularly failed to produce enough Maths teachers for the country, and it is the rural schools that suffer most in this regard. So we have an excellent very practical Maths component developed by the current chair of the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education. Along with the English and Pedagogy component this should ensure more practical and effective maths teachers for secondary schools than the current system produces.
Another Diploma course we have introduced is in Training Centre Management, since we find that there isn't enough understanding about the requirements of a centre head, with regard to both academic excellence and administrative efficiency. I have indeed been discussing expanding this to a Master Level qualification during my recent visit to Kaiserslauten University, though that will require collaboration with UNIVOTEC, which I hope we can fast forward.
Finally, we started a diploma course to develop teaching skills in those who already have degrees in particular subjects. In Sri Lanka we offer teaching appointments to those who have degrees, but in other countries degree holders in most subjects must do a course in teaching skills before they are appointed. In the Vocational Training Sector practical experience is also important, so we have introduced a module in work experience, which will be accompanied by reflections on the relationship between workplace needs and academic learning.
These are new ideas to Sri Lanka, but they have been tried and tested in countries which have better educational outcomes than we do at present, so I hope these courses will prove popular and gain due recognition.
?: NVQ Level 4 has a course on childcare. However there is also a rapidly ageing population; has the Commission thought of training people to take care of the elderly too?
A: You are quite right in raising the question of more courses in care, and as I noted TVEC recognized this and set up a Committee on Care, Counselling, Education and Health. I hope that we can transform this into a Sector Council soon, But as this is an area where the State plays a greater role, the Committee could be most helpful without formalities. In addition to the Level 3 introductory course, and the Level 3 childcare course, which was largely developed by the National Child Protection Authority, we are now designing a Level 2 course in basic Elder Care, which will I hope be adopted by TVEC in November. We are also developing a Level 4 course in General Care, apart from Childcare, and that will cover the elderly as well as the disabled. HelpAge has been very helpful in providing us with ideas for the curricula, though as mentioned, we also want to ensure content that will facilitate career development.
?: I also think that we need trained technicians in agriculture and fisheries. Are there any plans to expand the TVE to those fields?
A: We do need more technical expertise in agriculture and fisheries, but we have not been able to move on that yet. We are moving on agricultural machinery, and I hope the Manufacturing Council will have a curriculum for consideration soon. But I would agree that some Level 3 courses in practical work should also be developed, and I will try to get these going in the New Year.
?: Finally let me ask a political question. Did you listen to President Sirisena's speech on independent commissions a few weeks ago? If so what's your opinion on it?
A: I was not in the country when President Sirisena delivered the speech you mention, but from what I have read, it was a timely intervention at a time in which CIABOC was floundering. I was deeply sorry about this, since, as you know, I supported the election of President Sirisena because I believed the country needed a change, and we needed political reforms in the interests of good governance, which I wrote about at length, both before and after the election.
After the election, in the days when I thought that Karu Jayasuriya was genuinely interested in reform, and not just another party politician determined to cling to position and support his party, I wrote to him as Minister of Democratic Governance about the way we should proceed. He claimed then to agree with me, but said he could do nothing because his hands were tied, and I was foolish enough to believe that he was sincere.
One of the points I made was that we should deal with corruption through changing systems, not by what seemed political victimization. My point was that we should ensure freedom of information and the publication of Assets Declarations with provision for public inquiry. All those with excessive assets should be given the opportunity to return what they could not explain, for an amnesty and a barring from politics for a fixed period. This would have served to get plundered money back to the people and been a lesson for the future.
The government instead chose the path of petty persecution, while also showing itself even more corrupt, as in the case of the bond scam. You will remember that, though I resigned from my Ministry when interference made work impossible, I did not cross over until the bond scam story broke.
I say many in this government are corrupt, because, though people made money under the Rajapaksa Government – and I was the only person on the government side to say this openly before the election – this was not through deliberate damage to the system, which is what Arjuna Mahendran did. He insisted on government issuing bonds at massive rates of interest, to his son-in-law, which meant that government was trapped in higher rates of interest for the future. That was disgusting, but even now I would say, if those who made so much money returned it to the people, they should not be prosecuted, but should be given an amnesty on condition of withdrawal from public life for a fixed period.
I should add that the way, from reports I am reading, in which UNP MPs are behaving on COPE suggests that power is hopelessly corrupting. It is a great pity that even Harsha de Silva, whom I had thought a man of integrity, and who had indicated earlier his views on the bond scam, is also following herd mentality. It makes Eran Wickramaratne, who was quite different to his colleagues when COPE was looking into the bond scam last year, shine in comparison, but I suppose Harsha thinks he will be rewarded if he toes the line.
In such a context the President was quite right to draw attention to the vulgar way in which CIABOC was behaving, instead of working on systemic change. I feel sorry that the President did not make better use of Vasantha Senanayake and me, the only persons from government who supported him without an axe to grind against the Rajapaksas, but simply on principle. If he can only stand firm now, I believe he may succeed in fulfilling the promise with which he was elected, which demands continuity with the security and development achievements of the Rajapaksa Governments along with radical change with regard to more accountable government and transparency.
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