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Siri Hettige, Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka inherited an unequal and socially unjust system of education from the British rule. The dual system of colonial education comprising privileged, fee levying urban schools providing instruction in the English medium and rural vernacular schools helped maintain the wide social gap between the Westernized, propertied classes on one hand and the vast rural peasant population on the other.

Following the granting of self rule in the mid 1940’s, the nationalist leaders who eventually came to power sought to narrow the above gap by introducing radical educational reforms aimed at providing universal free education in order to remove the obstacles that hitherto prevented under-privileged groups from achieving upward social mobility. With rapidly increasing school and university enrollments in the following decades, many youths acquired educational qualifications and sought lucrative and prestigious state sector jobs. When the supply of such employment began to fall far short of the rising demand in the late 1960’s onwards, unemployment among educated youth became a serious socio-political issue. Frustrated, unemployed youth began to join militant, anti-state movements in large numbers leading to increasing socio-political conflict in the country.

The new wave of liberal economic reforms facilitated by globalization has made the situation worse for the under-privileged groups with aspirations for upward social mobility as the propertied classes continue to benefit disproportionately from emergent private educational opportunities, both in the country and abroad. While the expanding corporate sector tends to recruit more cosmopolitan youth with qualifications secured from private and overseas educational institutions, the vast majority of rural under-privileged youths with a vernacular education from state sector educational institutions continue to join agitational campaigns aimed at securing often non-existent government jobs. The publicly funded education system comprising a vast network of vernacular rural schools and state sector universities initially helped many under-privileged youths to achieve upward social mobility. But, the same system today by and large prevents most of them from acquiring skills and attributes demanded by the increasingly important corporate sector employers.

This paper is based on recent field research conducted by the author in collaboration with Angela Little of the Institute of Education, University of London.

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