Education policies and ethnic relations in Sri Lanka

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: Tamil Research
| Date: 20000400

Education in Sri Lanka has been and still is seen as an important key to social mobility. Access to education, especially tertiary education, was crucial for obtaining coveted and prestigious positions in the civil service or the professions.

Education policies and ethnic relations in Sri Lanka

Executive summary

  • Introduction - separatist sentiments arise out of attempts to address ethnic imbalance in tertiary education
  • Pre-independence, Tamil areas had a much higher density of English medium schools
  • University admissions could not cope with demand and public sector employment criteria were tougher
  • Government implements measures  to quell increasing majority discontent over ethnic imbalance in Tertiary education
  • Despite the ethnic debate, by the late 1970s the proportions were equal but small in both communities
  • Conclusion: despite minority representation being exaggerated, the government implemented ethnic measures which exacerbated declining inter-racial relations
  • Bibliography


Education in Sri Lanka has been and still is seen as an important key to social mobility. Access to education, especially tertiary education, was crucial for obtaining coveted and prestigious positions in the civil service or the professions. It is widely recognised that Sri Lankan Tamils, particularly those in the Jaffna district, have a long tradition of investment in education (see, e.g., UNDP, 1998:20). For a variety of reasons, some of which are discussed below, this group had been successful in obtaining a greater share of the country’s tertiary education places, especially in the science-based courses. This over-representation became a crucial political issue and one that, along with similar debates over public sector employment, had an undeniable impact on Tamil nationalism and separatism.

During the early to mid 1970s when the debate about university entrance was heating up, there seemed to be a correspondence between the efforts of the state to "correct" ethnic imbalances in access to tertiary education and separatist sentiments among young Tamils. According to Wilson & Chandrakanthan (1998), with the "final straw" of "standardisation" in university admissions, "it became clear that the Tamils had lost the education and employment opportunities which had conditioned their commitment to a unitary Ceylon in the first place. Large numbers of young Tamils came to the conclusion that their socio-economic aspirations could only be fulfilled within a separate Tamil state."

Yet, like most similar phenomena, there was certainly a whole range of  factors and events that made this controversy particularly incendiary. And it is to this history that we now turn.

Colonial education

Formal western-style education came to Ceylon primarily with the Christian missionaries in the early 19th century. For one reason or another, more missionary schools had traditionally been established in Tamil areas than in Sinhala areas (Wriggins, 1960:234) and by the early twentieth century, the Northern Province was home to some 20% of the country’s English language schools. In 1927, 1 in 6 pupils in the Northern Province attended English schools, higher than in any other Province and higher than the national average of 1 in 10 (Roberts, 1977: Table 3).

This early advantage in education, usually in the English language, led to considerable gains for the educated Tamil elite. For example, in 1911, some 36.4% of the nearly 3000 eligible voters for the "Educated Ceylonese" member in the Legislative Council were Tamil (Roberts, 1977:Table 8). This proportion was significantly higher than the proportion of Tamils (14.5%) in the general adult male population that year.

However, more important than these early political advantages were the employment and status prospects afforded by education. The colonial system of education was designed to produce efficient, English-speaking clerks - a local administrative elite (de Silva, 1979; Bastian, 1984; Bruton et al., 1992:88). Those who graduated from English medium schools in colonial days stood an excellent chance of securing a coveted
position in the, albeit lower levels of, Ceylon civil service. Some Sri Lankan Tamils benefited considerably from this early advantage.

University Education

While student intakes into the country’s universities were limited in the early days of independence, the coterie of students taking the nation-wide English language admission examination remained small. Thus, despite there being less than 3,000 places in tertiary institutions in the 1950s, more than one in every three applicants gained admission (de Silva, 1978:85).

However, the pipeline effects of universal public education were soon beginning to show and demand for University education began to far outstrip supply. For example, during the course of the 1950s, the number of students enrolled in senior secondary education rose from 65,000 to 225,000 around the country (de Silva, 1979:484). Similarly, the number of schools teaching grade 12 (A Levels) increased from 50 in 1958 to 209 by 1972 (de Silva, 1978:91). Ceylon’s fledgling higher education system was not able to cope with the increased demand. Despite a more than five-fold increase in enrolments during the 1960s, only one in five applicants for undergraduate positions at university were successful. At the start of the 1970s, as enrolment stagnated and fell after its late 1960s peak (de Silva & Samaraweera, 1974:28), the success rate dropped to less than one in ten (Tables 1 & 2).


TABLE 1. Absolute numbers sitting university entrance examinations (various years)
Year Total sitting exams Total admitted
1943 350 197
1945 754 289
1950 1443 438
1955 2061 658
1960 5277 1812
1965 31350 6359
1969/70 30445 3457
1973/74 36236 3533
1979 101015 5255
1984/85 105500 5630