Friday, October 8, 2010

Letter to the Editor of The Sunday Leader

Re: "Vegetable Crates May Increase Prices"

I write in relation to the article with the above title, published on the 3rd of October 2010. Some of the assertions quoted therein about the possible increase in prices appeared inflated and unscientific. I am in the process of putting together a basic comparative calculation to prove - or scientifically disprove - the benefits of using crates. This however is a spare-time activity and I have therefore been unable to complete the exercise ahead of the print deadlines for Sunday the 10th. I hope to be able to share something simple but indicative as soon as possible nevertheless.

In the meantime, the simplest counterfactual evidence I can point to is the fact that leading, profitable public and private companies such as CIC, Nidro etc, who are directly accountable to their shareholders, would never voluntarily use crates exclusively, as they do now, unless there is a clear overall profit advantage in doing so. My only reservation is that more short-term or closed-minded thinkers may not have the same ability to see the bigger, long-term picture that truly justifies switching to the use of crates, an action that should benefit every link in the chain between the farmer and the consumer. This is the local consumer's and the national economy's loss.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

IT and Education in the 21st Century - Response to Say It, Look @ Episode 1

I've been avoiding the blogosphere for a while now, despite lots of blog-worthy items piling up. I do however want to get this post out, inspired by the World Bank-sponsored Say it, Look @ TV+Social Media convergence/mashup play. Great first effort, some great commentary in there (ok, the presenter could tone it down a little but I'll keep quiet about that - for now).

The show makes the point (17:26) we all know and manage to do little about - that the "quality and economic contribution of the Higher Education system" need to be improved.

I do want to reflect a little however on Mr. Harsha Aturupane's comment at 17:34 - that Sri Lanka should focus away from expanding access and concentrate on increasing quality and labour-market relevance in public higher education. Provocative stuff, particularly coming from an institution all-too-easily targeted by the entrenched JVP student union types in the state universities.

Answer First
Here's my basic thesis: Yes we need to improve the quality of the higher education system, but we can't afford to shut out the massive numbers that still never make it through because of economic reasons. Hopefully as we increase quality, the payoff and demand for more quantity will be more visible and immediate. Oh, and this little thing called SL2College is the perfect solution to to bridge the gap in the short term, and to maintain quality competitiveness in the long term.

The Education Funnel
Sri Lanka has a funnel of staggering proportions that keeps hundreds of thousands of qualified students out of the state higher education system. The following are 2007 figures.

Of 450,000 students (mostly 15-16 years or age, at grade 11) who sat for the GCE (General Certificate of Education) Ordinary Level ("O/L") exam, around 200,000 qualified for the GCE Advanced Level ("A/L") another two years down the road. Of the 230,000 students who sat for the A/L exam in 2007, over 104,000 passed, i.e. they essentially qualified for state university.

Only 17,196 (16.5%) were fortunate enough to gain a seat at a state university.

Multiple Failings
Yes, the state higher education system is broken far beyond just the point at which people get in. In the worst years, once had to wait several years between getting one's results (many months after the exam) and actually making it to classes  - because of the strikes, riots and other closures that tied up resources, used by the classes before you still waiting to graduate. One can still expect to take longer to graduate than the theoretical 3-4 years it should take, thanks to the assorted strikes, closures and other high-jinks that occur from time to time - usually timed just ahead of the more important exams that the less serious students have not gotten around to preparing for.

Yes, the system produces more "eternal students" (not quite of the Chekovian variety) and trained paper-pushers considering themselves fully entitled for a government pension and the least possible non-over-time work. State university graduates can mostly only dream of the new equipment and exposure they'd need to access to be really ready for the labour market. The regionally distorted labour market and economic center of gravity in Colombo mean that many do not want to go to the newer, perfectly good regional universities.

Not All Doom and Gloom
But look at those who really do put their noses to the grindstone. Our state universities have created some great academics, artists, doctors, engineers, lawyers and other professionals. Whether they go abroad as undergrads, postgrads or academics, Sri Lankan students and academics regularly excel elsewhere in the world. Pitifully few come back, but that must change. Our CEO at the IT company I worked for always states we are capable of producing the best engineers in the world, worthy of the heritage that created the mighty irrigation works and rock fortresses of our past.

I would say that Sri Lankan students, at least that subset who know why they are in university and are ready to make the most of the opportunity, have proven that we can shine through all the challenges they face in the state higher education system.

Walking the Tightrope
Yes, we need to improve the quality and labour-market orientation of our higher education system. That need has not changed. If we succeed, in doing so we will also change the nature of the average student who enters that system. They will be more cognizant of the tremendous responsibilities before them, to not waste the opportunities before them and the resources placed at their disposal, paid for by millions of taxpayers.

But we also need to widen the funnel. Private universities - another sector with all kinds of distortions and peculiarities introduced for political expediency and narrow interests - at least give some sort of outlet for those who can afford their costs. But for every student who can afford that option, there are hundreds, if not thousands, languishing in the provinces or in the urban slums, whose worldview is further distorted by the inequality in what might be one of the most vital Public Goods.

Until we do both, we will fall off the tightrope between a sea of "unemployed graduates" on the one hand, with no marketable skills or motivations to contribute to society; and, on the other hand, a self-perpetuating system of elitism where the gap between the Higher Education Haves and Have-Nots breeds resentment and unrest. We have experienced both, in some form, and at some point in the recent past. We need to make sure we stay on the tightrope this time.

SL2College - Short-Term Relief, Long-Term Relevance
Particularly in the interim, where we simply cannot afford to go putting up the "lecture halls, laboratories and canteens" that the program speaks about, SL2College is a service that could ease some of the pressure on the physical constraints - while also taking Sri Lankan students out into the world and impressing upon them the need to come back (and give back) with a wider world view and the vision and experience to not just accept the status quo in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan students are world-class. SL2College helps them explore the higher education opportunities that best fit their academic aspirations, whether locally or abroad - but always with a gentle reminder that they should also think about bringing back their skills and knowledge to the country that nurtured them and educated them, usually for free, in their early lives.

Parting Words from JFK
Education has a massive impact upon individual earning capacities. To me, the quote below pretty much sums up why education is both a Human Right and a Public Good, which can help us all find our way out of the hole we have dug ourselves into.

“Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each  of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.”
-- John F. Kennedy.