I started this post some months back when we had an intern with us from the U.S. He'd just graduated from Stanford, with an International Relations major if I remember right. We did several visits around the country as part of the work we wanted him to do for us. Accompanying us was my loyal "Golaya" in Sinhala, which can mean Man Friday, disciple, side-kick. Officially, Aide to Managing Director.
They were both 21 years old. One, whose parents were from Nigeria, had been born in the U.S., gone to Stanford, and was now laying the ground for Ph.D. work. The other, born in a very rural part of Sri Lanka, had studied well enough to win a scholarship at 11 years to my Alma Mater, Royal College. He has lived with his aunt in Colombo longer than he has lived with his own parents, so he could come to school. He is the eldest of three children, but as with most young men that age, in many ways he was still a child himself.
How did I find him? The old network, of course - luckily for him at age 11 he plugged in to one of the best networks you could find in Sri Lanka, no hubris and no exaggeration there. I needed a good, able dogsbody able to take some of the killer workload par for the course with social entrepreneurship. My old Scout Master knew just the man, a Prefect who was very into agriculture, perfect as I'm working in agriculture myself.
So much into agriculture in fact, that he'd cheerfully crashed his Advanced Levels (entrance exam for state universities) the first time, then started what was supposed to be part-time job at a leading agribusiness conglomerate that worked him so hard he crashed his second shy, and was just finishing his third and last shot at possibly his only way to get a higher education, given his economic condition. Get the marks, get a shot at university. In any year only 8.5% of those who pass the exams, get a score high enough to actually gain a seat at a state university.
Eight and a half percent. That leaves around 185,000 young men and women who passed the university exam, unable to go to university. Every year.
So with me in my old Toyota (itself just a year younger than my two passengers) were two young men, one already in possession of a degree from arguably one of the best universities in the world, the other yet to find out whether he would even get a shot at working toward a degree. One had already lived by himself, met people from around the world, done a semester at Oxford, worked in Africa. The other had never left his home country, hadn't even been to most parts of his own country except on the clock for someone else - he'd been to historic Polonnaruwa twice but never got the chance to see the ruins - which are right by the road for cryin' out loud! (I made sure he didn't make it a hat-trick with our own visit).
Why does Sri Lanka do this to her young people? Fine we're a conservative society, we have different expectations of how children relate to their parents, etc etc. But seeing the different vectors in life experience thus far and opportunity going forward in young men of the same age brought many issues right up in front of me.
Why am I writing this now? My golaya is soon leaving for university, to pursue his dream of a degree in Agriculture. He has a standing offer to come back to us whenever he wants. I have not met many who work harder or are more loyal, despite the many rough edges smoothed down and the much learning he has managed while he was with me.
Higher education is just about the only way people like him can blow the hinges off the gates. Sri Lanka needs more seats at universities, better universities, and overall more opportunities for more young people. Now. Private universities? Fine. Make them accessible, hold them accountable to the highest of standards, and make the old, inefficient and mostly inefficient state universities get off their backsides and give them a good fight. Please don't just let in the people with the fattest unmarked envelopes and the biggest promises. Look at Qatar. Look at Malaysia. Look at Singapore. Education is life-changing, and not too indirectly, country-changing. Be picky. These may be the the most important decisions we ever make.
If we fritter away the chances for the current generation, we will look back and see that we missed the last chance to turn this ship around.