Educated and entitled? – part I

By Thulasi Muttulingam

Colombo traffic was even more distressing than usual a few days ago when unemployed graduates took to the streets, and they have been in the news ever since. Over how they behaved. Over their demands. Over the way the Police treated them. Over how the Government has dealt with them in the past as well as how it might still choose to deal with them in the future.

So many opinions, yet so little sense. We have enough crows in Sri Lanka for a cacophony. Why add to the din? Oh, because Sri Lankans resort to casting opinions and judgements like confetti at a wedding.

The issue is a complex web. Most Sri Lankans opining so strongly on the matter do not seem to be allowing for the shades in between to interfere with their black and white thinking. It’s either black, or white.

Well, no. We are not stuck in a Michael Jackson song here. The world is more complex than that.

Although, one thing the world of social media has opened up is the prospect for citizens to freely express their opinions, much further than before. They always did express their opinions uninhibitedly of course, but it’s no longer your next door aunty or uncle dropping in to tell you that you are a lazy layabout for still being unemployed, your parents were cursed to give birth to you, you ought to have known better than doing that particular degree (whatever it was), and their own son/daughter/long-lost nephew are doing so well because they are a doctor/lawyer/engineer. So there. Why couldn’t you have worked to become one too? *Sniff*.

This conversation, however, just went more mainstream.

Right now, all of Sri Lanka is casting aspersions on each other. Of course, via social media, this would be the relatively privileged citizens who have access to the internet – nearly half the country, roughly 43% of the population, still don’t as at 2019. Even that relatively high figure of internet usage, as compared to the rest of South Asia, is via the use of cell phones and not computers or broadband. Evidently, many in underprivileged areas do not have the technology, the equipment, or even the language to be heard by the rest of their countrymen and women.

Nevertheless, just to assess how people think, I follow social media storms on our local horizon.

Currently quivering are our tea cups over the unemployed graduates and their demands.

“How dare they hold protests inconveniencing commuters going about their daily work?”

“This is what comes of having no responsibilities in life, including no jobs – a sense of entitlement and a lack of courtesy for others.”

“Why should the Government hand them jobs? Let them look for jobs in the private sector like everyone else,” etc.

Round and round the mulberry bush

These conversations are not new to us. Nearly every batch of graduates produces this uproar it seems – the protests they hold and the counter-protests they then draw. Doesn’t look like it will stop anytime soon, so let us examine the cases for and against the issue shall we?

Only 20% of our most academically gifted students make it to state universities here. Yet, how well-prepped for the real world are they when they come out?

How much does the State actually invest in university education? To what extent does it ensure students are taught employability skills? To what extent does it ensure political parties don’t adversely impact student bodies – also academic bodies – to exploit them for their own nefarious agendas? The blame is repeatedly cast on the arts stream, but graduates from other sectors are frequently unemployed too.

The arts stream is needlessly stigmatised due to this, but if taught well, there are many valuable skills arts graduates can bring to the labour market; skills that are currently, crucially missing in our labour market – humanities, human rights, ethics, negotiation, people management, creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and problem solving to name just a few.

People are not machines; they ought to be treated like the complex creatures they are, instead of nuts and bolts manipulated to get the best out of them. Arts graduates will have valuable skills they can impart to the spheres of human resource management and development, if they are equipped with the right kind of training.

The fact of the matter is our education across several sectors – including the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) sectors – is pretty bad at universities. Just giving free education is not enough. It has to be valuable, employable education, instead of forcing students into the mechanics of rote learning.

I am aware that there are some stellar courses and academics in our university system. But right now, students are dependent on the luck of the draw to determine who/what they get – which is neither ideal nor sustainable. The entire system is riddled with corruption which has not been dealt with for decades, and thus, rot has set in. In many cases, students are unemployed or considered unemployable through no fault of their own.

The second part of this article will appear in next week’s edition of The Sunday Morning.

(Thulasi Muttulingam is a freelance journalist based in Jaffna. All views expressed are her own and not of any organisations affiliated to her)