How Free is Free Education?: Educational Stratification in Sri Lanka: 1985-2010


Sri Lanka’s Free Education Scheme aims to provide each child an equal opportunity at educational success, but there is debate over to what extent it succeeds in this endeavor. Notably, some critics are concerned that private spending on education (for private and international schools, universities, and tuition) may be diluting the Free Education Scheme’s ability to provide equal opportunities to all. My doctoral dissertation is composed of three studies exploring these issues. This article summarizes the first of the three studies.

Educational stratification in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Free Education Scheme has been a source of national pride for decades. Compared to other developing nations, Sri Lanka provided broader access to education very soon after independence. For most Sri Lankans, the Free Education Scheme does not simply mean there are no school tuition fees charged, but also that any child can succeed academically, regardless of their background. Echoing this sentiment in a speech given on 8 November, 2013, Gotabhaya Rajapakse claimed: “As a result of the long-established system of free education and the importance placed on education by parents, children in Sri Lanka have equal opportunity to gain an education, irrespective of their social backgrounds and their gender.”[i] Sri Lanka’s successes in this regard are impressive: while neighboring countries continue to struggle to provide universal primary education, Sri Lanka nears universal participation through the Ordinary Level (O/L) exam in Year 11.

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