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Budget 2022 and education: More holistic and radical planning needed

  • Law & Society Trust discusses the Budget and education during the time of Covid

By Charindi Meegastenna

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an adverse effect on Sri Lanka’s society and the economy. The Budget for 2022, drafted in the context of the pandemic, finally recognises the severity of the economic crisis as one of the worst in the history of the country. Although Minister of Finance Basil Rajapaksa identified the systemic character of this crisis and the structural problems of the economy reaching back over the decades in his Budget Speech, the solutions put forward in the Budget, it would seem, are flawed and the priorities misplaced.

The Law & Society Trust last Friday (19) held a press conference at the Renuka City Hotel. The panel included University of Jaffna Senior Lecturer Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar, University of Colombo Senior Lecturer Dr. Kaushalya Perera, and University of Peradeniya Professor Dr. Shamala Kumar. The conference was moderated by the Law & Society Trust Executive Director Dr. Sakuntala Kadirgamar.

Sri Lanka is in its deepest economic crisis to date. The Government’s revenues in 2020 and 2021 are an alarming 9% of gross domestic product (GDP) mainly due to the tax cuts introduced soon after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power. Indeed, Sri Lanka has comparatively spent very little on Covid-19 relief for the marginalised sections of society in 2020 compared to most countries; Sri Lanka’s Covid relief is lower than 0.5% of GDP. 

The North and education

Speaking to The Sunday Morning after the press conference, Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar elaborated on the problems faced by parents during the pandemic and shared that the 2022 Budget doesn’t do much to fix these problems.

Dr. Kadirgamar explained that with the Covid-19 crisis, students of all backgrounds are in a bad way. Economically, families are dealing with a lot of hardship, especially those with low incomes. In that context, just making educational programmes come online is not effective, because, for many families, there is only one smartphone available. For day labourers, putting food on the table is difficult and, in that context, expecting online programmes to continue without looking at the broad socio-economics undermines children from these marginalised communities. Dr. Kadirgamar stressed that a huge inequality has arisen within our children depending on their day-to-day needs and access to online technology. He further shared that the Budget plans to raise revenue to 12.3% of GDP but the measures proposed are unconvincing. Dr. Kadirgamar was of the view that Sri Lanka should eventually target revenues above 25% of GDP and he advised that measures such as a wealth tax are needed to raise government revenue during a time when incomes are falling.

Dr. Kadirgamar also stated that responding to the pandemic educationally entails more than only thinking about online access, noting that the Government’s expenditure on relief is extremely low, with relief making only 1.5-2% of GDP. In contrast, globally, relief during the pandemic has been about 16% of the global GDP. Dr. Kadirgamar feels the problem is with the economy and our government policies and tax revenues. 

Addressing Northern Sri Lanka’s specific needs when it comes to education and how the Budget plays a part, Dr. Kadirgamar shared that Northern Sri Lanka was severely affected by the war, and though there has been development and growth since, the ravages of the war have left the North more vulnerable to falling into cycles of poverty. Families have larger numbers of dependents, and meagre forms of income, largely from small forms of production like making lunch packets and working in construction. The pandemic has disrupted even this meagre income and in this context, many families and children are not able to have two or even one meal a day, and in such poverty, there is not going to be a focus on education, neither from children nor their parents. For the specific problems of the North to be effectively addressed, Dr. Kadirgamar called for many border measures of relief, which is something he finds lacking in this Budget.

Much of government spending is focused on infrastructure and populist measures of handouts to rural constituencies. Neither is going to get the country out of the crisis. A country like Sri Lanka cannot stimulate itself out of the economic crisis through infrastructure spending. 

Role of the World Bank in education in 2022

Dr. Kaushalya Perera took the view that a large part of the Government’s plan is based on loans and grants from “bilateral and multilateral agencies”. The Minister of Finance stated in his maiden Budget Speech that the Government works “closely” with these agencies. Primary to tertiary education is funded by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID), the Kuwait Fund, Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA), US Agency for International Development (USAID), India, Saudi Arabia, the European Union (EU) through Erasmus funds, and Korea International Co-operation Agency (KOICA) through primarily the Ministry of Education and indirectly through the State Ministry of Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research, and Innovations as well as the State Ministry of Women and Child Development, Pre-Schools and Primary Education, School Infrastructure, and Education Services. These are ongoing projects lasting approximately two to three years more, and the total value is $ 250 million. 

The World Bank remains the main lender and is the driving force of policy in education in Sri Lanka. Therefore, our education policies have been and will continue to have an emphasis on what the World Bank considers important: Technological advances and infrastructure development which is interpreted as providing a better learning environment and on training to be a tech savvy workforce. When the Government decides to fund education mainly through foreign investments, when the larger portion of it is in the form of loans where the conditions are already set, there is no space to suddenly shift away and start thinking of the needs of the country at this point. 

Opening schools for students and teachers

 Dr. Kumar shared with The Sunday Morning that while the Budget does have a specific allocation for the demands of the teachers (financially, this is one-third of their demands during the strike and is in keeping with the collective agreement reached between teachers’ unions and the Government), it does not appear to address other issues, like administrative issues, that were raised by teachers during the strike. 

Dr. Kumar also noted that the allocations for the defence education sector have been increased fourfold, but the meaning of this is yet to become clear; and declined to comment further on this until there was more information available. 

With many countries globally returning to physical schooling and planning to keep schools open despite surges in Covid-19 cases through various methods including self-testing, The Sunday Morning inquired if the national budget had made allocations for similar action. In response, Dr. Kumar shared that looking at the Budget, it is not possible to see anything specifically allocated that reflects the pandemic, which is concerning, because the pandemic is a global issue, and as many know, it has caused an educational gap which is most deeply felt by those communities who are already heavily marginalised. She added that there should be a clear attempt in the Budget to address the educational problems of these communities. 

Dr. Kumar also shared that certain measures in the Budget to boost education, like the subsidising of private education in terms of loans and tax concessions, do not address this particular disparity, because, for these marginalised communities, education would still not be affordable after these measures.

One example Dr. Kumar raised in this regard was the alleged halting of midday meals in many rural schools during the pandemic, reportedly on the grounds of hygiene. Many children of all school-going age depend on these midday meals which are sometimes their only meal for the

day. Noting that she couldn’t personally attest to the veracity of these claims, Dr. Kumar did say that in the 2022 Budget, allocations had only clearly been made to provide breakfast only to preschoolers, but nothing beyond that was clearly indicated. Dr. Kumar stressed the need for a more holistic and radical plan to help Sri Lanka pull through its educational and economic difficulties. 

With no clear allocations made for keeping schools open physically, Dr. Kumar shared that there were also no clear allocations made for improving accessibility to digital education, stating that while funds were allocated for various technology-related matters, some allocations that were made for 2021 in terms of advancing online education have been removed. Dr. Kumar did note that this might be because it has been recognised that online education was not a success and that they intended to cease it, but there has been no confirmation made by the Government on this yet.  

Recognising a problem is not fixing it

Summing up his overall views on the Budget, Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar noted that, unlike previous budgets, the 2022 Budget has correctly analysed our current economic situation and recognises that Sri Lanka is in a very deep crisis. He did, however, note that while the problems have been accurately recognised, the Government has not put forward solutions to these problems, and their priorities seem misplaced. In sum, Dr. Kadirgamar shared that he was very worried about what the next year will bring, especially with Sri Lanka very likely to face a food shortage, in part because of the global state and in part because of the crisis brought about by the fertiliser ban the Government implemented earlier this year.