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Public Education and the Vision for a Self- Made Individual

Posted by Prashanthi Jayasekara

25 May 2016

“My son’s progress is dependent on the hard work and efforts that he puts into his education…He grew up amidst hardship. He should come to a good position”, said the mother of Gajan,[1] an Advanced Level student from rural Jaffna.

Gajan who was born in Kilinochchi, and lived in Pallai, moved to rural Jaffna in 1996 during the height of the war. After losing their father to poor psychological health, his family of six has been depending on the daily earnings of the two oldest brothers,[2] which is not sufficient. For his family, Gajan’s educational attainment therefore is a necessary condition to break through poverty. “It would be difficult for the family if Gajan does not get a well-paying job”, his mother told us. “He should get a job”, she reiterated.

“Hard work”, resonating the sentiments expressed by Gajan’s mother, is therefore expected to make Gajan a self-made individual who will lift himself and his family out of poverty through nothing more than his efforts in school, achieving social mobility through jobs in the market. 

Similarly, the 2014 National Human Development Report (NHDR) of Sri Lanka illustrates that 36.3% of youth in Sri Lanka feel that the purpose of education is to provide better skills to secure a job (UNDP, 2014). Thus, it is expected that the efforts in schools bear upon the future economic status of an individual.

Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, a Senior Lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka argues that the idea that hard work and individual efforts alone determine one’s future economic status assumes failing in education as a flaw of a particular individual and the choices that s/he makes. These individual flaws are treated as an invariable constraint to progress in education and gain access to employment. Development programmes are built on this premise.

To this end, the idea of hard work is disconnected from broader socio-political and economic deprivations such as disparities in accessing education, poverty and multiple vulnerabilities that people experience constraining their access. These deprivations and constraints are tied intrinsically to critical policy decisions made by successive governments, including the marketisation and privatisation of education, provisioning of meager concessions to education, maintaining outdated curricula, failure to address inter and intra-regional disparities, and failure to help rebuild the lives of those who are caught in poverty and various forms of dispossessions, and are affected by conflicts.

Though educational attainment is considered a great determining factor of the future economic status of an individual, evidence from Sri Lanka does not support that achievements in education directly translate into economic benefits. Sri Lanka’s labour force trends from 1998 to 2012 indicate a clear class distinction in relation to accessing jobs and subsequent class mobility. Dr. Vagisha Gunasekara, a Senior Researcher at the CEPA contends that those who belong to higher economic classes have a greater share of labour force participation in comparison to those who belong to lower classes. The poorest economic classes are largely comprised of casual wage employees and are part of the growing informal sector which now accounts for 66% of the labour force.

Access to jobs is further complicated by gender, caste, ethnicity, language, geography, and the kind of jobs that are available in the market. For people living in war-affected areas, access to decent jobs is particularly difficult. One of Gajan’s teachers believes that it is only in Colombo that the students can get private sector jobs. “In Jaffna they can’t get private jobs, only government jobs are available, even though there is a scarcity of government jobs as well.” But Gajan told us, “I like to work in Jaffna. I do not know anybody outside Jaffna”. His mother added, “He does not know Sinhalese. It would be difficult”, to work outside of Jaffna.

Gajan’s inability to find work in Jaffna is indicative of the uneven economic growth that has taken place in the post-war period. Even the available job categories are mostly low-wage casual work that is mired in precariousness. This is despite the growth in nominal GDP in the North and East of 25% by 2012, three years after the end of the war, which was reportedly the highest in the country. In the North, investments have largely been in the service sector, which does not create jobs in a mass scale. A study on exclusion in the hotel industry conducted by CEPA (2016) finds that the thriving hospitality industry hires fewer workers locally on the basis that locals do not have the necessary skills for service sector jobs. Luxury resorts in war-affected areas thus hire Sinhalese from other areas, adding to some of the grievances that instigated the 30-year war in the first place. Locals are sedimented in menial jobs that offer very little room for upward mobility. What goes unaddressed is the fact that limited skill acquisition of locals is necessarily a result of the war. The war has defined the extent to which they can acquire marketable or employable skills.

For Gajan and his family, social mobility and alleviation of poverty are the primary expectations of Gajan’s education. Similar to Gajan and his contemporaries, youth who were involved in the 1971 insurrection demanded not only jobs, but a complete abolition of social inequality, injustice, undemocratic and corrupt politics that favoured a certain privileged subsection while constraining social mobility of the others. In contrast, the state’s posthumous response to the youth insurrection was the “education for jobs” vision, the foundation of which was laid by the liberalisation agenda which not only ignored the existing inequalities, but worsened them. As history has a tendency to repeat, the “One Million Jobs” programme of the current administration also does little to shake off inequalities that exist in the prescribed pathway of education to jobs and social mobility.

Today, poverty and dispossessions that force people to work to pay bills and consume what is produced in the markets is the inescapable “Sri Lankan dream”. Insofar, the state’s “education for jobs” vision has gained its legitimacy through such coercive social contracts that are engineered by those who are powerful (Lipset, 1969 & Beetham, 1991 cited in Mcloughlin). Such coercion takes place directly and discursively through the centre [the state] by providing minimal or no social protection, destruction of livelihoods in the economy,[3] and superficial development palliatives such as access to credit for people who have survived a war and trying to rebuild their lives.

Acknowledgement: The author wishes to thank Dr. Vagisha Gunasekara, Priyanthi Fernando, Kulasabanathan Romeshun and Dhanuka Bandara at the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) for reviewing and providing valuable feedback, and researchers at CEPA who were part of the data gathering process.

This article is part of a series of blog posts synthesizing research conducted by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium in Sri Lanka. The Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) is a six year global research programme exploring livelihoods, basic services and social protection in conflict-affected situations. www.securelivelihoods.org

Prashanthi Jayasekara is a researcher at the Centre for Poverty Analysis, affiliated to the post-war development thematic. Her research interests include gendered violence and people's economic relations within post-war political economies. 


[1] Pseudonym

[2]Both the brothers are daily wage earners. Their professions were not disclosed by Gajan and his mother.

[3]Destruction of subsistence livelihoods and lack of decent and safe forms of livelihoods

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