There’s no such thing as a free lunch : the problem with free education in Sri Lanka, from the eyes of a government university student


by Haritha Jayasinghe, Local Coordinator 2017-18

We all love free stuff. At my university, you’ll find students who are willing to fight to death to defend free education. But I’m not so convinced. It’s been a month since our universities closed down due to strikes by the non-academic staff (in demand of higher pay), and there’s no sign of them re-opening. The government doesn’t seem to care in the slightest about when or even if they reopen. Why not? Because it’s free.

Since we are the beneficiaries of free education, it is assumed that we should keep our mouths shut and wait patiently till our campuses reopen. Beggars can’t be choosers right? Except we aren’t beggars. The system was designed to educate a chosen few (albeit chosen from a pretty flawed examination process) through tax-payers rupees, or so we keep telling ourselves.

As long as the education remains free, the students are expected to put up with this treatment. The quality of government universities is always going to be second class as long as it remains free.

An entire year was lost from the lives of some of the brightest students of the country and no one seems to care. Why? Because beggars can’t be choosers. Have you ever seen a private university closed down because some of the staff feel that they aren’t getting paid enough? But, by signing up for free education we automatically waive any right we have to complain about it’s quality.

It is implied that we should be satisfied with whatever is handed down to us since we aren’t paying for it. Of course one may argue that the medical students’ suffering was by their own hand. After all they voluntarily decided to strike, right?

This rather neatly brings me to my second argument. We never feel the value of freebies. How many of our lectures do we cut? How many times do university students strike in the name of free education, rather ironically proving the point that free education has lost its value? As long as education remains free, students themselves do not take full advantage of it, thereby making it a waste of taxpayers money.

Putting that aside for a minute, let’s talk about brain drain. At present there’s nothing stopping students from receiving a degree worth millions, and migrating to Canada or Australia in search of greener pastures the day after graduation. As a result, Sri Lanka faces a lot of brain drain.  The entire reason why we as taxpayers pay for these universities is in order to create a better Sri Lanka, powered by their graduates.

We expect these doctors to uplift our healthcare system, these lawyers to uphold our justice system and these engineers to build our nation up to the skies (being an engineering student, I might be a bit biased). But the reality is very different. It turns out that making our education free is the same as buying the brightest in our country a one way ticket out of the island. Free education has lost its fundamental purpose.

Let’s also take a hard look at our graduates, and the jobs they’re doing. Unemployed graduates are a huge problem in Sri Lanka. We see thousands of graduates protesting in our streets chanting the same mantra about how they should be entitled to jobs simply because they’re graduates. They seem to fail to realize that there isn’t much of a job market for those who majored in traditional dance or ayurvedic medicine.


It isn’t as if there isn’t demand for graduates in general, because there is plenty of demand for graduates in some sectors. There’s a huge supply demand mismatch, which is typical of most government controlled sectors. If the system operated on a free market concept, where the supply is controlled by demand, this would not be an issue. As long as education remains free, there will be unemployed graduates, because as long as the government offers useless degrees for free, students will waste four years of their lives taking them.

So what is the alternative? One might argue that the alternative is privatizing the entire system – so that only those born with a silver spoon in mouth would be able to go to universities. But let me suggest a middle ground. Keep the current university system, but convert it into a student loan mechanism, where students would have to pay back the government for the tertiary education they receive once they enter the job market, at least partially.

Let’s take a moment to consider the consequences of such a policy.

Since education is paid for by the students, they will have the right to demand value for their money, and campuses will no longer be able to ignore the demands their demands. Campuses won’t be closed down for months on end and we could actually have a realistic idea of when we would graduate when we go in.

The quality of facilities in general would improve; and fund mismanagement by the administration would be discouraged. Students would actually feel the value of the education they receive, and as a result make better use of the resources available to them.

Campuses would no longer offer useless degrees, because students won’t pay for them. Even if students decide to migrate, they would not be a burden on the tax system. The social mobility offered by the free education system would still remain, and even the poorest child would be able to attend university.

Perhaps you might call me a bigot for being a beneficiary of the free education system and still calling for its abolition. But even though we don’t want to admit it, the free education system is failing and its taking it’s students down with it. For the betterment of our island as a whole, it is time we took a long hard look at the alternatives.


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