Education has always been an issue of paramount significance for liberals through the ages, although true to the liberal spirit, their policy positions on the matter also change according to the demands of the times. Classical liberals of the 19th century, for one, are more interventionist in orientation with regard to the provision of education, given education’s presumed role in enhancing individual liberty and promoting equality of opportunities in what were then highly restrictive societies. Modern liberals, however, are more inclined to reduce the state’s role in education given the fact that many state-run schools at present turned into bureaucratic agencies that were inflexible and unresponsive to society’s needs. Correspondingly, they advocate the expansion of the role of the private institutions in the educational sector, as this is believed to promote both choice and excellence in education.
It is in this light that the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), hosted by the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka (LPSL), and with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF), organized the conference “Choice and Excellence in Education” in Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel, Colombo, Sri Lanka last March 1-3, 2010. The three-day conference brought together about 30 international participants and dozens of local participants from the host country. In organizing the conference, CALD aimed to provide a venue for discussion of the current obstacles to the promotion of choice and excellence in education, as well as the possible solutions to them, with emphasis on the prescriptions that can be derived from the liberal ideology on the role of the private sector in guaranteeing choices and in providing quality education. On a more practical side, CALD wanted to assist the participants in identifying possible and specific policy recommendations, including but not limited to party platforms and legislative agenda, to improve the state of education in their respective countries.
The conference commenced with the ceremonial lighting of the lamp, a traditional Sri Lankan practice, involving representatives from CALD member parties and partner organizations. This was followed by a moment of silence in memory of H.E. Abdurrahman Wahid, Former President of the Republic of Indonesia and CALD individual member. The chair of the Opening Ceremonies, former CALD Chairman Hon. Sam Rainsy, MP, then introduced current CALD Chair Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha and FNF Manila Resident Representative Mr. Siegfried Herzog, who both extended their warm welcome to the participants. Mr. Lalith Weeratunge, Secretary to Sri Lankan President H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa, delivered the keynote address on the President’s behalf, where he highlighted the important milestones in the history of Liberal Party of Sri Lanka and of the country in general. He then elaborated on the state of education in Sri Lanka, noting that the country has consistently maintained an outstanding literacy rates record despite its limited resources. He noted, however, that much more needs to be done in terms of promoting quality education, particularly in the highly essential fields of information technology, science and mathematics. Immediately after the keynote address, Mr. Robert Woodthorpe Browne, Liberal International (LI) Vice-President and Member of the Bureau, reported on the results of the 2009 LI Cairo Congress on education. The Congress, with the theme “Education in the 21st Century”, was attended by more than 300 delegates from different parts of the world, including those coming from Asia, Latin America and Africa.
The conference was made up of five core sessions. “Current Obstacles to Choice and Excellence in Education” was the topic of Session I. Facilitated by Mr. Ng Lip Yong, Central Committee Member of Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, the session identified the general and most important obstacles to promoting choice and excellence in education from both global and regional perspectives. Members of Parliament from Japan, Hon. Harunobu Yonenaga and Hon. Itsuki Toyama, tackled the issue from a global standpoint. Drawing from the experience of Japan, they pointed out that the country’s economic development facilitated the reduction of the state’s role in education as this produced a middle class capable of paying the cost of their children’s education. At present, however, the gap between the rich and poor widened considerably, which, according to the speakers, necessitated a rethinking of state policy on education. Dr. Wilfrido Villacorta, Former Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN and Former Chair of the National Institute for Policy Studies (NIPS) in the Philippines, looked at the issue in the context of East and Southeast Asian countries. After identifying the various obstacles to choice and excellence in education, he made the argument that the “worst roadblock to quality education is the elitist mindset that the poor do not deserve a level-playing field.” This, according to him, has to be addressed in order to make quality education for all a reality. Dr. Parth Shah, President of the Center for Civil Society in India, viewed the issue using South Asian lenses. Looking at the successes of India on education, he claimed that there should be a shift from right to education” to “right to education of choice”. After identifying the numerous benefits that can be derived from emphasizing choice, he then proposed measures to promote choice in education like scholarships, cash vouchers and conditional cash transfers.
Session II, chaired by Mr. Nyo Ohn Myint of the National Council of the Union of Burma, dealt with the links between or among education, freedom, development and democracy. Two panelists spoke in this session: Hon. Niccolo Rinaldi, Member of the European Parliament and Vice-Chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe and Mr. Barun Mitra, Founder and Director of India’s Liberty Institute. Hon. Rinaldi noted in his speech that while education is important for individual development, its more significant role lies in building a sense of community and belongingness in every person. Education, for one, undoubtedly includes “an appropriation of the country’s past”, which is of vital significance for the people to know the direction they want to take in the future. Mr. Mitra, on the other hand, emphasized the problems that emanate from state intervention in education. He argued that the agencies and the resources of the state should not be used in the provision of education, and the private sector must be given a free hand to operate in this sector. State-sponsored of education, according to him, has a great tendency to be captured by different interest groups, which try to shape the educational system in accordance with their own interest.
The next two sessions presented case studies from both the sub-regions of East/Southeast Asia and South Asia. Session III, facilitated by Leader of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka Mr. Kamal Nissanka, was composed of two panelists who presented cases from the South Asian subcontinent, Mr. Anees Jillani, Chairman Liberal Forum Pakistan and Mr. Amit Kaushik, Former CEO Shri Educare Ltd., India. Mr. Kaushik, after describing the legal and political environment that impact on Indian educational policy, presented two success stories with regard to education – the Pilot Voucher Programme operated by CCS in New Delhi, and the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) facilitated by Pratham. Both programs, made possible by strong community involvement, succeeded in creating awareness and promoting choice. Mr. Jillani, in his speech, discussed the state of education in Pakistan and the problems that the educational system confronts. He claimed that unless the country invests more on the educational sector, this sector will continue to show dismal performance in the coming years.
More case studies from the Asian region were presented in Session IV, chaired by Singapore Democratic Party’s Mr. Sylvester Lim. Dr. Upali Sedere, Director General, National Institute of Education & Chief Adviser to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education, opened the session by describing the current status of the educational system in Sri Lanka, the obstacles that it faces, and the lessons that it can learn from other countries in the Asian region. In his speech, Hon. Sam Rainsy, MP, Leader of the Cambodian Opposition and former CALD Chair, noted the negative repercussions of the Khmer Rouge regime on Cambodia’s educational system. The brutal regime’s influence pervades to this day, according to him, and this must be addressed if Cambodia’s educational sector is to move forward. Hon. Lau Chin Hoon, State Assemblyman of Pemanis & Chairman of Education and Knowledge Society Bureau, Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, spoke next, highlighting the complexities that characterize the educational system in Malaysia, especially now that the country is in the midst of political and economic transformation. The last speaker of the session is Prof. Ying Shih, President of the Humanistic Education Foundation in Taiwan. After providing a narrative of events which impact on the educational system of Taiwan, he tackled the educational reforms that must be done in order to improve the country’s educational system.
The last session was on liberalism and the promotion of choice and excellence in education, which raised the issue on the political priorities of liberals in the field of education. Ably facilitated by Mr. Juan Miguel Luz, Associate Dean of the Center of Development Management in Manila-based Asian Institute of Management, the session brought back LI’s Mr. Robert Woodthorpe Browne and LPSL’s Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha. Mr. Browne emphasized the importance of the right kind of education in bringing to the fore the values that liberals hold dear such as self-determination, individual freedom, and ability to question decisions made for and about them. At the same time, he also noted the inefficiencies that attend education by indoctrination, as this stunts not only individual development but also societal growth. Dr. Rajiva, on the other hand, observed that while the right to basic education has been embodied in many international agreements, there are still many countries which lag behind on its observance or implementation. He also raised concern on the state’s role on education, and its possible implications for promoting choice and excellence in the educational sector.
CALD Colombo Conference 2010 concluded with the closing ceremonies facilitated by Member of Parliament from Thailand and CALD Founding Secretary General Hon. Ong-Art Klampaiboon. Hon. Ong-Art then introduced Mr. Premasara Epasinghe, who delivered the closing keynote address in behalf of Hon. A.D. Susil Premajayantha Sri Lankan Minister of Education. This was followed by closing remarks from LPSL, FNF and CALD, delivered by Mrs. Swarna Amaratunga, Mr. Siegfried Herzog and Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha respectively.
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This post was written by CALD