Part-2 of this series outlined the background of the “Sinhala Only” Bill in 1956 & traced its outcome – or debacle, depending on one’s point of view. It was a prelude to the “Policy of Standardization”, implemented in 1970.
This was an excruciatingly difficult topic to write about. I had to look beyond many lies, propaganda & over-simplification. The more I read about it, the more I felt that I was merely scratching the surface of a complex, multi-layered problem.
I’m greatly indebted to Professor K.M. de Silva, former Vice-Chairman of Srilanka’s University Grants Commission (UGC) for his unbiased analysis of the issue. His report helped me make sense of the many disparate nuggets of information that I unearthed in this research.
In the Colonial epoch, most of the modern schools in Srilanka were run by missionaries. They offered free English Medium education – but since these schools were predominantly in urban area like Colombo or the Jaffna peninsula, access to these schools was well nigh impossible for the masses that lived in rural areas.
Huge swathes of the Srilankan population were illiterate, or semi-literate. In villages, Buddhist monks taught the upper strata of the society in local temples – but the curriculum was limited to the Sinhala alphabets & simpler works from Buddhist literature, such as stories from Buddha’s life. The monks were literate, but even their education was mostly centered on learning Pali scriptures by rote at the Pirivena (Buddhist University).
The Battle for Civil Service Jobs
Even 15 years after independence, the biggest employer remained the government & Civil Service jobs were much sought after. Students vied for a B.A. Degree (Liberal Arts) to get a shot at these jobs. Srilankan Tamils dominated enrollment for B.A. Degrees & ergo, had a strangle-hold on government jobs.
Once the balance of power tilted in favor of the Sinhala Buddhists after the “Sinhala Only” Bill, Tamils found it exceedingly difficult to land Civil Service jobs. They turned their attention, hard-work & enviable coaching skills towards Engineering, Medicine & Science streams. By the mid 1960s, Tamil students were the top-dogs in these streams.
Concurrently, education became free in Srilanka. Enrollment in schools soared & in the early 1960s, literacy rates touched 90%. Many Sinhala students graduated with a B.A. In liberal arts – only to find that neither the government nor the private companies had enough open positions to absorb them. They realized painfully that Liberal Arts degrees had become irrelevant. They turned their sights towards Engineering, Medicine & Science streams – only to find that the Tamils were fairly entrenched in those fields.
Pressure on Universities
In the 1960s, after Sinhala & Tamil medium schools ousted English in the secondary schools, the number of available university seats became woefully inadequate. The universities increased the number of seats very often to accommodate more students. Meanwhile, efforts were on to create new universities for the growing nation. Even 2 Buddhist Pirivenas in Colombo were converted into universities.
But, such expansion was very slow, because of paucity of funds & resources. Many aspiring candidates were bitterly disappointed when they couldn’t secure an admission. University education was, very simply stated, their meal ticket. This resulted in heated competition for the scarce seats in prestigious institutions like the University of Ceylon.
Around the same time, intense political pressure was applied on the selection criteria used by the universities. The Viva-Voce method had already been abandoned & Entrance Exams were the main criteria for admissions. But, this became unmanageable in the late 1960s, because of the sheer number of students passing out of schools. So, they were dispensed with & Srilanka started using the scores from the GCE A/Level (+2 or High School Senior Year) Exams.
But, none of these steps appeased students from backward districts, as most of them failed to qualify for seats. They struggled to compete with the urban elite on pure merit. The universities started feeling the heat – and intense political pressure from the United Front Coalition, which made it an issue during the elections.
After the introduction of the “Sinhala Only Bill” & students were educated in their mother-tongue, universities had to contend with students educated in 3 different languages: Sinhala, Tamil & English. The Burghers & students that attended International Schools had an English Medium education. Only they & the Muslims were permitted to take their exams in English.
Srilankan Tamils who formed at mere 11% of the population occupied 35% of the seats in the Science streams & 45% of the seats in Engineering & Medicine. Such superlative performance led to allegations of general bias & deliberate grade tampering by the Tamil examiners. Thus, the clamor for seats dyed itself in vulgar ethnic colors & plunged the nation into a sordid communal conflict.
In a Nutshell
At its core, the “Policy of Standardization” started out as a program aimed to help disadvantaged Sinhalas, especially those living in geographically backward areas, that did not have access to quality education during the European rule. It was an Affirmative Action Program. As a side effect, it decreased the number of Tamils enrolling in universities.
This policy made it increasingly difficult for the Tamils to secure a seat in the Scientific & Technical streams. As a result, it aggravated race relations in the country. The Tamil youth in the North-East saw this as a discriminatory policy, aimed at hobbling their high status. This led to their alienation from mainstream Srilanka.
A Word of Caution: It is very easy to trivialize Affirmative Action as an anti-Tamil policy, driven by Sinhala Buddhist Nationalists. In reality, it was much more than that. The entire country was seized with the disease of creating a “Level Playing Field”.
To illustrate, Practical Exams for Science subjects at the GCE/A Level were abolished – catch your breath – because rural schools didn’t have the infrastructure for well-appointed labs. To this day, even schools with labs seldom use them. Students ace exams solely on rote learning & enroll in Medical school without even touching a pipette.
Policy of Standardization
In 1970, Srilanka under the stewardship of the United Front Coalition implemented the “Policy of Standardization”. Its main aim was to increase the number of Sinhalas graduating from universities & to simultaneously deter Tamils from hogging a huge part of the much sought after streams of higher education.
Thus far, entrance to universities was solely based on merit. But, after the introduction of the policy – All the raw marks received by the students were normalized to a uniform scale, so that the the number of students qualifying in each medium was proportional to the number of students taking that exam in that medium. The ostensible reasons for introducing standardization was to level the playing field, to make up for the differences in the facilities, teachers & grading standards that the Sinhalas & Tamils had at their disposal.
Later that year, the qualifying marks were lowered for students from the Sinhala medium. So, the Tamils had to get a higher score than the Sinhalas to secure an admission to the Professional & Science streams. These steps ensured that more Sinhala students qualified for admission.
But this policy did not change the fortunes of the Tamils much. For e.g., their share of admissions dropped from 35.3% to 33.6% in the 1st year. The actual threat to the Tamils was more symbolic – the rise of the Sinhala bureaucrats & their diplomatic will to swing the system to uplift the majority.
In August 1977, the new United National Party government of Julius Jayawardhene summarily abolished the Standardization of marks. This was a bold move & was seen as a step in the right direction.
But when the exam papers were evaluated, Tamils scored significantly higher than the Sinhalas for the hotly contested professional courses. It was feared with reason that Tamils would once again vastly outnumber the majority in qualifying for these seats. When this news leaked to the Sinhala Nationalist parties, allegations of rampant favoritism among the Tamil examiners were thrown again & mud-slinging ensued.
The new government made a clever move: It stood by its decision to jettison standardization. But for 1977 alone, it also allowed students who would have benefited from standardization, to enroll in universities. This move increased the number of seats, as well as the number of Tamils, Sinhalas & rural students enrolling in the universities. Thus, it made all sections of the society happy.
Machinations of Minister Mathew
Many Sinhala nationalists couldn’t digest the demise of standardization. In 1978, they reignited communal feelings by claiming that the Tamils could only occupy 35%-40% of the university seats consistently by colluding with the examiners that graded the tests. Their mouth-piece was none other than Cyril Mathew, the Cabinet Minister for Industries & Scientific Affairs.
Minister Mathew was a bitter critic of TULF & a rabid nationalist that pushed the interests of Sinhala Buddhists. When the Parliament was in session, he brandished some exam papers from the 1977 Science stream, which the examiner had graded generously. While this did not prove any widespread bias on the part of the examiners, it was enough to reaffirm the opinions of those Sinhalas that thought the worst of Tamils & Tamil examiners.
Such orchestrations were towards achieving a bigger objective: Quotas for various ethnic groups, based on their population %. Interestingly, the Indian Tamils supported this: they felt that they would benefit by proportional quotas. But, the government was steadfast. The Policy of Standardization was dead & they had no plans to resuscitate it. They were not interested in quotas for ethnic groups either.
So, ethnic preferences ceased to play a role – but something far more insidious took its place. That’s the subject of a later post.
Meanwhile in Tamil Nadu, clarion calls for a separate quota for Tamil Medium students are becoming increasingly vociferous. At least in Srilanka, standardization is buried & lies rotting. Once started, such programs never end in India – Political will is severely lacking & shameless vote bank politics are par for course. Its a good thing we are too benumbed to care.
Here is the next post in this series – Do check it out.