By Usha Perera
Sri Lanka’s education sector, still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, is now facing acute challenges due to the current political and economic crises. The sudden imposition of curfews and the lack of transportation have led to the closure of schools and the deprivation of students from a structured and systematic school education. In Sri Lanka, closing schools for a single day results in the loss of 25 million learning hours and 1.4 million teaching hours. At the same time, private lessons have gained in importance. This blog discusses the problems faced mainly by Ordinary Level (O/L) and Advanced Level (A/L) students in taking tuition courses based on an IPS study. The results of the study are drawn from a sample of approximately 340 students and 16 teachers and tutors across Sri Lanka.
Affordability of private lessons
The skyrocketing cost of living with wages not keeping pace with inflation and the loss of revenue generation channels have been unbearable for parents of school-going children. The IPS study found that students with household income below LKR 30,000 spent around LKR 3,000. 7,000 per month while students whose family income was above LKR 200,000 spend around LKR 18,000-20,000 per month on private lessons depending on the student’s grade. This scenario is illustrated in Figure 1.
In addition, most O/L and A/L level students spend more than LKR 2,000 per month on school and school online course data plans, while most students who spend more than LKR 2,000 per month are concentrated in the highest family income categories. If LKR 2,000 is spent on monthly data plans, that would be around 1% of family income with income above LKR 200,000 and over 7% with family income below LKR 30,000. All of this highlights the perceived importance of private education, especially among O/L and A/L grades, and the financial burden it places on a family’s household income.
These affordability issues have been partly offset by the introduction of free online courses during the pandemic, which has brought significant relief to financially vulnerable students according to students interviewed for the IPS study. Affordability concerns have been assuaged by the reduction of class fees by some tutors. Fee reductions have been made taking into account structural changes in the administrative and operating costs of an online environment applicable depending on the scale and intensity of tutor operations. The financial challenges faced by families experiencing household income losses during the pandemic were also factored into the fee reduction.
Accessibility to online courses
Online platforms were the only way to deliver lessons during the pandemic as it becomes an option in the current context given social unrest, curfews and travel constraints due to fuel shortages. However, many students have encountered accessibility issues in joining online classes. The issues faced were poor signal coverage, high data costs, lack of necessary devices, and affordability issues in the context of household income loss during the pandemic. Most students with a family income above LKR 200,000 used a laptop/tablet, while most students with a family income below LKR 30,000 used a smartphone. Smartphones have proven to be less friendly for academic use. In addition to the above issues, ongoing power outages also present barriers to online education. Accessibility issues are mostly faced by students from relatively low-income families and those who have had to rely on a smartphone for academic purposes. This implies a close positive relationship between household income and the quality of education received; financial strength being the main determinant of accessibility.
However, these accessibility issues have been partly offset by the divergent opportunities encountered by students, particularly in the context of online platforms. These prospects included the ability to join online classes taught in remote locations that would otherwise have been restricted due to travel constraints and increased time available due to school closures. As a result, they increased the duration of lessons using the travel time saved.
As tutoring has become a means of filling gaps in the education system during the crisis, learning losses for the most vulnerable groups have worsened further with accessibility and affordability issues. Since these issues have been primarily seen among the O/L and A/L groups of students, there is a higher risk that vulnerable groups of students will be heavily challenged during their most critical leading years. to higher education and career development. Thus, there is a need to address affordability issues, focusing more on vulnerable student groups. Financial assistance could be provided in terms of a certain number of free teaching hours for certain financially vulnerable students and by allocating a selected proportion of students at a preferential rate.
To solve accessibility issues, recording the lessons and distributing the notes on different platforms will help to some extent. The provision of digital equipment and networks for some teaching centers and schools could also be considered, as the lack of facilities and resources has been identified as a major accessibility problem for distance education. This would require collaborative efforts between government, guardians, parents, non-governmental organizations and any other supporters.