In your opinion, are we developing the right kind of higher education that caters to the modern needs of society?
No, I don’t think so. We have to start at the school education level. From a very young stage, children should be trained to meet the needs of the modern-day employment. So, skills like IT and other technologies which are accepted and required at the global labour market should be incorporated into the curriculum of primary education itself.
Are vocational training schools/technical colleges adopting the right kind of syllabuses catering to modern technical/vocations jobs?
Vocational training institutes and technical colleges are of course are not properly maintained in my opinion. The technical college in Rathnapura for example is not doing anything substantial. These are wasted opportunities. These institutions should be used as an outlet to train the youth for both local and international jobs. We have to get our youth trained according to international standards.
We do have a market for foreign employment. There are people who have got educated here in Sri Lanka and are holding high positions in the international work force, especially in the financial sector, banking sector. However, we see that this is only common with regards to one section in society who has access to the kind of education that allows them to develop English skills and IT skills.
At the vocational training level in particular, we have a market in the Middle East for every sector. For example, there are vacancies for wood working and aluminium working etc. I had the opportunity of working as the foreign employment minister and I got a few job opportunities secured even in the Japanese market. I don’t know much about the syllabuses adopted in the technical and vocational training institutes as they were under the purview of the Labour Ministry. But what I have discovered as the foreign employment minister was that, it was difficult to find qualified trainees coming out of our institutions to fill the vacancies in the Japanese market. We had problems with getting the NQF (National Qualification Framework) sorted as well. So, we worked with the labour ministry to get these issues sorted and get the colleges up to international standards. But my tenure was for a short period, so I didn’t have time to properly see this through. But I’ve got information that now the Government is trying to adopt some new syllabuses for the vocational training institutes and technical colleges here in Sri Lanka.
In your opinion, how should we ensure that our training colleges and vocational training schools cater to the modern market?
We have to first identify the markets where we have opportunities for skilled labour. Then thereafter, we need to follow it up with adopting the right kind of syllabuses and programs catering for those markets. Let’s take an electrician. If we are training an electrician, we have to first identify a viable foreign market for that field and assess the nature of that market. Then, we have to train our youth according to the standards and skills expected of that market. We cannot provide the same kind of training designed for the local market, and expect our youth to secure jobs in the foreign market. So, an upgrade of the syllabus and more resources should be allocated only after conducting a proper analysis of the needs of the int. foreign market.
From a young age, school children are taught that to succeed in life, one must go to university, and thereafter, life would be set. Studies show that most graduates wait for the ideal job in the public sector. This essentially means that our youth is spending the best years of their lives without contributing to the labour force. What is your take on this? How should we rectify this?
If we are to change that narrative, I believe two things must happen. There needs to be a change in the system and there needs to be a change in the attitudes of people.
The procedure to enter the university must be made less time consuming and the degree program should also not be stagnant. For example, we know that it takes close to two years for people who qualified for university to actually enter the university. There also, the youth waste precious, crucial time. So there, the system needs to change and adopt more efficient and effective practices.
We know that globally, graduates enter the workforce after obtaining a Bachelor’s degree when they are 22/23 years old. But in our country, our graduates come out of university when they are 27/28 years old. Then, their interests vary as their expectations of life are different. A young adult will be more creative, innovative and would want to take more risks with their careers whereas, a 27/28 year old graduate will be more interested in having stable career that would enable them to settle down.
We need to revisit the approaches we have taken. Maybe we can adopt a system whereby the private sector provides training to immediate graduates that would enable them to be absorbed to the workforce immediately after they leave university. The Government needs to encourage and support educated youth to be more innovative and take risks. Without doing anything, we cannot expect the youth to do that on their own either.
Medical students get absorbed to the Government service; law students find their own employment. But with a few degree programs, we find that young graduates are finding it hard to enter the workforce. So, we need to also increase the scope of some of these degrees and curriculums so that more innovative and unique study areas are incorporated to our degree programs. For example, there is a lot of opportunities for environmental studies. Now with the X-press pearl disaster, we saw that the Marine Environment Protection Authority does not have enough officers to undertake a comprehensive study on the environmental impacts of that disaster. Also, when I was working as the Minister of Justice, I used to work with the Government Analyst Department, and there, I discovered that we need more government analysts to have a more efficient service. So, the youth should not be limited to seeking these traditional jobs.
With that, we come to the change in attitudes that is required. I think it is important that the youth have an open-mind. When you get qualified from a government university, that does not mean that you have to get a job in the public sector. There are people who have graduated from our local government universities who are doing very well in the foreign labour market. The attraction to government jobs comes with the pension scheme. But working in the private sector opens other opportunities and, in most cases, you can earn a better salary when you are actually working.
So, I believe that in order to successfully change the narrative and move forward, we need to change both our systems and also our attitudes.
Right now, even parents, teachers encourage students to go to universities and get a conventional degree. So how do we raise the significance and importance given to these vocational/training schools so that it is an attractive option to the youth?
From the primary level of education, we have to change the mindset of school students. The thing is if trained properly, in reality, a motor mechanic earns more money than a graduate working in a traditional government office. So there needs to be an attitude change among the youth as well. But this change must be implemented from the pre-school days. The parents also must understand that we need to let our children decide what their interests are. Higher education should not be forced on a young adult. There are enough and more examples of people who have come up in life without having a university degree.
We first have to assess the needs of not just the local labour market but also the global labour market and thereafter revamp the syllabuses and training modules in our technical and vocational training schools. If we do that, then those colleges will become an attractive option so that the youth will have more options to choose from. I also believe that technical colleges, if they are more tailored to the modern labour market, are more innovative and in line with what’s happening in society than a conventional university because the purpose of a university is different to that of a technical college. So young people who are more inclined to have a practical education should definitely explore these institutions more as they would find the program more aligned with their interests.
Will intergenerational partnerships in the form of mentorship programs be a possible solution to engage young women in politics? Would this enable young women interested in politics be better equipped to face the realities of their world of work?
Yes, of course. But for these programs to bear fruitful results, we need to have a total change in the political culture in this country. Right now, if you want to get into politics, you need to have a lot of money. And, unfortunately, as political thuggery is an integral part of our political culture, you need to have a lot of connections and protection as well. So, in this male-dominated patriarchal society, it is very difficult for a young woman to enter this field. This is quite unfortunate because if we look at our history, it is clear that other countries in this region were far behind us in this regard. We were the first to get universal franchise. Our women got voting rights along with the women in the UK. We had a woman in Parliament in 1932 itself. But the present context is the exact opposite.
Women are as capable as men in decision-making. We find that female representatives are more committed and less corrupt so that I would even go to the extent of saying women make better politicians. The few women who get to enter politics, do so because they are passionate about serving the country. But it is unfortunate that we still have to convince and plead our case to the public to show why we need to have women in Parliament and at the decision-making level. It is a result of this patriarchal society. Even making a speech in parliament, for a female representative is such a challenge. It is an uphill battle.
So along with a system change that can be achieved up to an extent through the quota system, we as female politicians must also support young women who are passionate about politics by sharing our experiences so that they can cope and stand on their two feet in this male-dominant environment. It is a difficult task but we need more young women who are passionate about serving the country. So, mentorship programs and training programs can help definitely up to an extent in my opinion.
Do you have any other recommendations to increase young women’s political participation in this country?
Most of the women organizations that support political participation of women are all situated in Colombo. The thinking of women in Colombo who are aware of their rights and defending other women’s rights is different to the needs of women living in rural villages. So, there is a large gap between women living in urban areas and women living in rural areas. Their aspirations, values, beliefs and expectations are all different. Their views and basic knowledge about being in politics are also very different.
During the local government elections period, when the female representative quota system was first introduced, we realized this first-hand. Women living in villages have to deal with a lot of domestic problems because their families are vehemently against them being in politics. The society that they live in also don’t want them to be in politics.
So, we need to acknowledge this gap when devising strategies aimed at encouraging political participation of women in this country.