Sri Lanka Table of Contents
During the first fifteen years after independence, students sought a university degree primarily to qualify for service in government, which remained by far the major employer of administrative skills. Liberal arts, leading to the bachelor of arts degree, was the preferred area of study as a preparation for administrative positions. Because the university exams were conducted in English--the language of the elite--the potential pool of university applicants was relatively small, and only 30 percent of all applicants were admitted. By the mid-1960s, the examinations were conducted in Sinhala and Tamil, opening the universities to a larger body of applicants, many of whom were trained in the vernacular languages in state-run secondary schools. At the same time, university expansion slowed down because of lack of funds, and it became impossible to admit the increasing numbers of qualified candidates; by 1965 only 20 percent of applicants were admitted, and by 1969 only 11 percent. Those students who did manage to enter the university followed the traditional road to a bachelor's degree, until neither the government nor private enterprises could absorb the glut of graduates. In this way, the direction of educational expansion by the late 1960s led to two major problems surrounding the university system: the growing difficulty of admissions and the growing irrelevance of a liberal arts education to employment. The big losers were members of the Sinhalese community, who were finally able to obtain high school or university degrees, but who found further advancement difficult. Frustrated aspirations lay behind the participation of many students in the abortive uprising by the People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna--JVP) in 1971 (see Independence , ch. 1).
During the colonial period and the two decades after independence, the Sri Lankan Tamil community--both Hindu and Christian--outstripped the Sinhalese community in the relative percentage of students in secondary schools and university bachelor of arts degree programs. As the government increasingly fell into the hands of the Sinhalese, however, possibilities for government service declined for Tamil students. Tamil secondary schools then used their strength in science curriculums to prepare their students in science and medicine, and by the 1960s Tamils dominated the university student bodies in those fields. Thus, at precisely the time when Sinhalese bachelor of arts candidates found their careers thwarted by changes in the job market, Tamil science students were embarking on lucrative professional careers. Sinhalese agitation aimed at decreasing the numbers of Tamil students in science and medical faculties became a major political issue.
Overt political favoritism did not eliminate the dominance of well-trained Tamil students until 1974, when the government instituted a district quota system of science admissions. When each district in the country had a number of reserved slots for its students, the Sinhalese community benefited because it dominated a majority of districts. Tamil admissions ratios remained higher than the percentage of Tamils in the population, but declined precipitously from previous levels. In the 1980s, 60 percent of university admissions were allocated according to district quotas, with the remaining 40 percent awarded on the basis of individual merit. This system guaranteed opportunity for all ethnic groups in rough approximation to their population throughout the country.
Although the admissions controversy and the quota system resulted in a more equitable distribution of opportunities for Sri Lankans in general, they damaged the prospects of many excellent Tamil students coming out of secondary schools. The education policies of the government were perceived by educated members of the Tamil community as blatant discrimination. Many Tamil youths reacted to the blockage of their educational prospects by supporting the Tamil United Liberation Front and other secessionist cells (see The Political Party System , ch. 4; The Tamil Insurgency , ch. 5). Large-scale improvements in education had, paradoxically, contributed to ethnic conflict.
Data as of October 1988
Sri Lanka Table of Contents