Sri Lanka has created a comprehensive education system, including universities, that has produced one of the best-educated populations in Asia. Education has traditionally been taken care of by the monasteries. Under the British, missionaries established many schools. The current education system has been strongly influenced by the British system.

Education became compulsory in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. Even before independence in 1948 an education system was set up that offered free education from kindergarten to university. Perhaps the biggest problem in Sri Lanka today is finding meaningful work for its educated population. Educated people often have no better luck getting jobs than uneducated people. Unemployment among college graduates was near 30 percent in the 2000s.

Education in Sri Lanka is compulsory up to the age of 14, except when schools are not within walking distance of the pupil’s home, and free at government schools from kindergarten to the university level. There are five years of elementary, three years of junior secondary, three years of senior secondary school, and two years of preparatory school for those wishing to attend university. To accommodate Sri Lanka’s two main ethnic groups, schools offer instruction in Sinhalese or in Tamil, often in only one: that of the main ethnic group living in the area. Elite schools often teach classes in English. An estimated 99 percent of primary-school-age children enroll in school. [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

Education Statistics for Sri Lanka

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): total population: 91.9 percent; male: 93 percent; female: 91 percent (2017). Education expenditures: 2.8 percent of GDP (2017); compared with other countries in the world: 148. Education expenditures abroad are 5 percent of GDP in the United States, 7.6 percent of GDP in Norway and 2.8 percent in Pakistan. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education):total: 14 years; male: 14 years; female: 15 years (2018). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Adjusted net attendance rate, one year before official primary entry age. 42 percent
Adjusted net attendance rate, primary education: 96 percent
Adjusted net attendance rate, lower secondary education: 92 percent
Adjusted net attendance rate, upper secondary education: 73 percent
Completion rate, primary education: 99 percent
Youth literacy rate (15 — 24 years); 99 percent

Gross enrollment: Primary school in 2005: 99.6 percent; in 2018: 100.2 percent ; secondary school in 2018: 100.3 percent.
Out of school children, primary age:9,296 male and female in 2018; 30,287 female and 14,974 male in 2014.
Gender parity index from gross enrollment ratio, primary: 1
Expenditure on education as a percentage of total government spending: 11.3 percent
Expenditure on education as a percentage of total government spending: 2.1 percent
World Bank]

In 2000: Public Expenditure on Education: 3.4 percent; Educational Enrollment Rate: Primary: 109 percent Educational Enrollment: Primary: 1,843,848; Secondary: 2,314,054;Higher: 63,660; Secondary: 75 percent [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Literacy in Sri Lanka

Unlike India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka has a high literacy rate. Adult literacy rate: 87 percent one of the highest in Asia. Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): total population: 91.9 percent; male: 93 percent; female: 91 percent (2017). The literacy rate is 45.8 percent for females and 69.5 percent for males in Pakistan; and 99 percent for male and females in Russia, the United States, Japan and much of Europe. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

In of 2004, the adult literacy rate in Sri Lanka was estimated at 90.7 percent, with 92.2 percent for men and 88.6 percent for women. This compared to 34 percent for females and 64 percent for males in India. In 1995, the adult literacy rate in Sri Lanka was 90.2 percent (male: 93.4 percent, female: 87.2 percent).

In 1901, approximately 55 percent of Christian males were literate, compared to only 35 percent of Buddhist males, 34 percent of Muslim males, and 26 percent of Hindu males. Among Christian women, 30 percent were literate, compared to 5 percent among Buddhist women, 3 percent among Muslim women, and 2.5 percent among Hindu women. The lower literacy rates among Hindu males can be attributed to the inclusion of the uneducated and stateless imported Indian Tamil males who worked tea plantations. Cultural factors account for the low literacy rates among Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu women. By 1921, within just 20 years, literacy rates among the island's male population rose to 66 percent for Christians, 50 percent for Buddhists, 45 percent for Muslims, and 37 percent for Hindus. For women, 50 percent of Christians were literate, while literacy rates among Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu women rose to 17 percent, 6 percent, and 10 percent, respectively. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001].

The colonial pattern began to change in the 1930s, after legislative reforms placed the Ministry of Education under the control of elected representatives. The government directly controlled an ever-larger proportion of schools (about 60 percent by 1947) and teacher-training colleges. As part of a policy to promote universal literacy, education became free in government schools, elementary and technical schools were set up in rural areas, and vernacular education received official encouragement. When independence was granted in 1948, Sri Lanka had 5,895 schools enrolling more than 1 million students. The nation's literacy rate was 57.8 percent, the highest among both Great Britain's colonies and Asian nations. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Since independence in 1948, the government has made education one of its highest priorities, a policy that has yielded excellent results. The literate population has grown correspondingly, and by the mid 1980s over 90 percent of the population was officially literate (87 percent for those above ten years of age), with near universal literacy among the younger population. This is by far the most impressive progress in South Asia and places Sri Lanka close to the leaders in education among developing nations. Even during the civil war period more students were being educated, the number of schools and teachers was increasing and the national literacy rate increased. In the last couple of decades the literacy rate has stayed around 90 percent and has taken the last steps necessary to reach near 100 percent.

Early History of Education in Sri Lanka

The education system of Sri Lanka until colonial times primarily was designed for a small elite in a society with relatively low technology. The vast majority of the population was illiterate or semiliterate. Among the Sinhalese, learning was the job of Buddhist monks. At the village level, literate monks would teach privileged students in the pansal, or temple school. The curriculum there, still taught to young children, included the Sinhala alphabet and memorization of elementary Buddhist literature — the Nam potha (Book of Names) of Buddhist shrines, the Magul lakuna (Book of Auspicious Symbols on the Buddha's body), and classic stories of the Buddha's life. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The pursuit of higher education typically was reserved for men who became monks and took place at universities(pirivena) dedicated almost exclusively to memorization and commentary on the Pali scriptures. Among the Tamil population, village schools, which were located near temples, were run by literate Brahmans or educated Vellalas. Technical training was highly developed for students of the arts (such as architecture or sculpture); for engineers, who applied geometry to problems of irrigation; and for craftsmen in various trades. This training, however, was generally the preserve of closed corporations, castes, or families. Knowledge was often passed down from fathers to sons.

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Sri Lanka's commitment to education began more than 2,500 hundred years ago, when Hindu kings and chieftains received their education from Brahmins (Hindu priests), and education is thus closely tied to the religious history of the island. Similarly, early in Sri Lanka's history, education became associated with high caste status and privilege. The sweep of Buddhism from India into Sri Lanka in the third century B.C. converted kings and people. Monasteries were erected to educate bhikkus, or monks. These monks built the first pirivenas, or temple schools, in the villages, educating the laity in religion and secular subjects. Little information exists on the schools of Sri Lanka's minority populations of Hindus and Muslims, but it is generally assumed that each faith had temple and mosque schools, respectively, which provided an elementary education with emphasis on religion, reading, and writing. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Education Under the Portuguese and Dutch

Although colonization brought European-style education to Sri Lanka, especially to prepare students for positions in the colonial administrations, few women went to school and most people remained uneducated. During the sixteenth century, Portuguese missionaries established up to 100 schools designed to foster a Roman Catholic culture among the growing Christian community in the low country. When the Dutch took over in 1656, they set up a well-organized system of primary schools to support the missionary efforts of the Dutch Reformed Church. By 1760 they had 130 schools with an attendance of nearly 65,000 students. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Portuguese rule of Sri Lanka brought both Franciscans and Jesuits, who founded 41 parish schools, and three Franciscan and two Jesuit colleges. Converting the island's diverse population was a primary focus of this educational mission. The Dutch, who followed the Portuguese, replaced the Catholic parish schools with schools affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch used religious conversion to promote access to educational opportunity. Native Sri Lankans quickly realized that if they wanted to gain a public office or qualify as a schoolmaster, they had to convert to the Dutch Reformed faith, and did. A Dutch seminary in Colombo, the capital, provided additional higher education. The Dutch educational system in Sri Lanka continued to foster the public's perception of a link between education and financial success. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Education Under the British

The British takeover led to the closing of many Dutch schools and a short-term contraction of European-style education in the low country. By the mid-nineteenth century, government-funded schools and Christian schools were again expanding; in 1870, however, their combined student bodies had fewer than 20,000 students. Because they were educated in English, the graduates of the European-style schools, a large portion of them Christians from the low country in the southwest, went on to fill lower and middle-level positions in the colonial administration. Apart from the European-style schools, education continued through the traditional system in Tamil and Sinhala. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Christians, the island's smallest minority, were historically the best educated (See Literacy Above). Tamils also benefitted. For centuries Sri Lankan Tamils used education to promote their social mobility. The Tamil region in northern and eastern Sri Lanka is arid and infertile compared to the rest of the island and is unsuitable for profitable farming. The Tamils depended on education to prosper. Under British rule the Tamil minority received a disproportionate share of university and government positions. Higher earnings among Sri Lankan Tamils plus the income sent home by overseas Tamils generated greater economic prosperity in the Tamil regions than in the rest of the country.

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “When the British began their occupation of Sri Lanka, they gave responsibility for the island's education to Christian missionary societies who promoted an English, western-oriented education designed to "civilize" the Sri Lankan people. English schools charged fees and received British government grants. The island's nonEnglish vernacular (secular) schools were taught in Sinhala or Tamil, Sri Lanka's two principal languages. Vernacular schools were traditionally under financed because they were denied government educational grants. Without government subsidies, these schools could offer only the basics of an elementary education. Buddhist temple schools, primarily in rural areas, suffered the most: in addition to being denied government funding, they could not charge fees, the result of successful lobbying by the missionary societies who wanted the elimination of any rival religious schools. Under British rule, Sri Lankans who spoke English were eligible to become teachers. Colonial administrators only recruited only English-speaking Sri Lankans for government service. Thus the Sri Lankans who prospered under British colonial rule were more likely to be better-educated, high-caste Hindu Tamils, Tamils who converted to Christianity and were educated in English schools, or descendants of the Burghers [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001].

In 1870 a series of events revolutionized the education system in Sri Lanka. The government began to expand the number of state-run schools and instituted a program of grants for private schools that met official standards. Medical and law colleges were established in Colombo. There was a big increase in the number of students (which totalled more than 200,000 by 1900), but the lopsided development that had characterized the early nineteenth century became even more apparent by the early twentieth century. Private schools taught in English, which offered the best road for advancement, were dominated by Christian organizations, remained concentrated in the southwest, and attracted a disproportionate number of Christian and Tamil students. Although institutions that used Tamil and Sinhala continued to function as elementary schools, secondary institutions that taught exclusively in English attracted an elite male clientele destined for administrative positions. The education of women lagged behind; by 1921 the female literacy rate among the Christians was 50 percent, among the Buddhists 17 percent, among the Hindus 10 percent, and among the Muslims only 6 percent. *

The colonial pattern began to change in the 1930s, after legislative reforms placed the Ministry of Education under the control of elected representatives. The government directly controlled an ever-larger proportion of schools (about 60 percent by 1947) and teacher-training colleges. As part of a policy to promote universal literacy, education became free in government schools, elementary and technical schools were set up in rural areas, and vernacular education received official encouragement. In 1942 with the establishment of the University of Ceylon, free education was available from kindergarten through the university level. *

Education After Independence in Sri Lanka

When Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, Sri Lanka had 5,895 schools enrolling more than 1 million students. The country also had a well-developed education infrastructure. Although still hampered by gross ethnic, geographic, and gender inequalities, it formed the basis for a modern system. Since independence in 1948, the government has made education one of its highest priorities, a policy that has yielded excellent results. Within a period of less than 40 years, the number of schools in Sri Lanka increased by over 50 percent, the number of students increased more than 300 percent, and the number of teachers increased by more than 400 percent. Growth has been especially rapid in secondary schools, which in 1985 taught 1.2 million students, or one-third of the student population. Teachers made up the largest government work force outside the plantation industry. See Literacy Above. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

But independence did not eliminate the colonial perception among the majority of Sinhalese that British rule had favored an English-speaking Tamil minority who benefited from better education, which led to higher incomes and better-paying careers. Independence changed the balance of power to favor the Sinhalese. Two major political parties formed — the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) — formed and competed for the vote of the Sinhalese majority. The parties promoted Buddhism and nationalism and virtually ignoring the Tamils except when they could be exploited for political purposes. Sinhalese Buddhist extremists who wanted to replace English with Sinhala as Sri Lanka's official language. After Bandaranaike won the parliamentary elections of 1956, the SLFP approved the change of language, and established quotas limiting Tamil entry into government service and higher education, particularly in the fields of medicine and the sciences. The number of Tamil students admitted to medical school and engineering schools fell by 50 percent and 67 percent, respectively. By the 1970s, only 6 percent of newly hired teachers were Tamil, and university placement for Tamils in the science-based disciplines fell to 11 percent in 1974 from 35 percent just four years earlier.

The state has tried to change the language of instruction in its primary and secondary schools from English to Tamil or Sinhala. By the 1960s, the vernacular languages were the primary medium in all government secondary schools. In the 1980s, English remained, however, an important key to advancement in technical and professional careers, and there was still competition among well-to-do families to place members in private English-language programs in urban areas. Ethnic minorities long associated with European-style education still formed a large percentage of the English-speaking elite. In the 1980s, for example, almost 80 percent of the Burghers knew English, while among the Sinhalese the English-speakers comprised only 12 percent.*

Impact of the Sri Lankan Civil War on Education

Even during the years of civil war with Tamil Tigers from 1983 to 2009, students were being educated, the number of schools and teachers increased, the student to teacher ratio improved, and national literacy increased. Much of the fighting took place in a limited area of the northern Tamil areas and life in much of the country went on pretty much as normal, with occasional terrorist attacks, recruitment of young men for the military and the burden of defense spending on the national budget.

Education reform was seen an essential part of solving the Tamil problem and ending the civil war. Under the leadership of Chandrika Kumaratunga, President of Sri Lanka from 1994 to 2005, many of the oppressive and discriminatory aspects of education and the language laws that contributed to the civil war were been scaled back. The university system in the Tamil region remains open and funded by the central government. [Source:“World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Education System in Sri Lanka

The government has taken an ever larger role in education. Because private institutions no longer receive grants from the government, they are forced to charge fees while competing with free state-run schools. The percentage of students in the state system has grown constantly, and by the 1980s 99 percent of female students and 93 percent of male students at the primary school level were being trained in government-run schools. The government did not have a monopoly over education because Buddhist pansala and pirivena, Muslim schools, and Christian schools still thrived (the Roman Catholic Church alone operated several hundred institutions from kindergarten to secondary level, teaching over 80,000 children). The education system of the state, however, had an overwhelming influence on the majority of the population, especially the Sinhalese. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Children from age five to ten attend primary school; from age eleven to fifteen they attend junior secondary school (terminating in Ordinary Level Examination); and from age sixteen to seventeen they attend senior secondary school (terminating in the Advanced Level Examination). Those who qualify can go on to the university system, which is totally state-run. In the late 1980s, there were 8 universities and 1 university college with over 18,000 students in 28 faculties, plus 2,000 graduate and certificate students. The university system included the University of Peradeniya, about six kilometers from Kandy, formed between 1940 and 1960; the universities of Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya, formed in the 1950s and 1960s from restructured pirivena; the College of Advanced Technology in Katubedda, Colombo District, formed in the 1960s; the Colombo campus of the University of Ceylon, created in 1967; the University of Ruhunu (1979); and Batticaloa University College (1981). There was also the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka, established in Colombo in 1982.*

Among the major problems still facing the educational system in the late 1980s were a serious dropout rate in the primary grades and a continuing bias toward urban environments at the expense of the countryside. The median level of educational attainment in Sri Lanka was somewhere between grades 5 and 9, and almost 40 percent of the students dropped out of school after 9 years. The reasons were not hard to discern in a primarily agricultural society, where many young people were more urgently needed in the fields or at home than in school once they had achieved an operational level of literacy and arithmetic skills. Many urban youth from low-income backgrounds also dropped out at an early age. This pattern provided two-thirds of the students with an education through grade 5 but less than 10 percent of the population with a high school degree and less than 1 percent with a college diploma. Despite government efforts in the 1980s to expand opportunities for youth from rural areas and more sparsely inhabited districts, the pressures for early dropout were more pressing in precisely those areas where illiteracy was most prevalent. In Colombo, for example, the overall literacy rate was 94 percent in 1988, while in Amparai District it was only 75 percent. Rural schools were more widely scattered, with poor facilities and inadequate equipment, especially in the sciences. Teachers preferred not to work in the countryside, and many rural schools did not even go up to the level of twelfth grade.*

The most dynamic field in education during the 1970s and 1980s was technical training. In the late 1980s, the Ministry of Higher Education operated a network of twenty-seven technical colleges and affiliated institutes throughout the country. Courses led to national diplomas in accountancy, commerce, technology, agriculture, business studies, economics, and manufacture. Other government institutions, including the Railway, Survey, and Irrigation Departments, ran their own specialized training institutes. The Ministry of Labor had three vocational and craft training institutes. The number of students in all state-run technical institutes by the mid-1980s was 22,000. In addition, the government operated schools of agriculture in four locations, as well as practical farm schools in each district. A continuing problem in all fields of technical education was extreme gender differentiation in job training; women tended to enroll in home economics and teaching courses rather than in scientific disciplines.*

Constitution and Legal Foundations of Sri Lankan Education

In 1931, the British government granted universal suffrage to Sri Lankans. Within 10 years of this, Sri Lanka passed legislation granting free and compulsory education throughout the island for all ethnic and religious groups. The British encouraged this at least in part to unify Sri Lanka's diverse population by fostering a educational system, theoretically open to all, as well as developing British parliamentary-style government, and independent judiciary. The island's linguistic divisions were overcome by legislation making English Sri Lanka's official language, with Sinhala and Tamil as national languages. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”:“Along with the constitutional reforms of the 1970s, Sri Lanka began the first of many national studies to determine the manner educational reform should take to promote national reconciliation and reduce minority claims of discrimination. President Jayewardene made Tamil the official language for the administration and courts of the Tamil regions in the north and east. The Jayewardene government also worked to establish scholarship programs for the urban poor and among rural children and authorized new technical curricula in secondary schools. Government policy encouraged the construction of new facilities in engineering, medicine, and science to serve the countryside. Section 22 of the Sri Lankan Constitution entitled each Sri Lankan the right to be educated in either Sinhala or Tamil, although central government appointments still required fluency in Sinhala. In spite of a disruptive civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese, educational reforms were instituted by the central government.

“Because of civil war, Sri Lanka has faced serious funding shortages and a lack of books and equipment, and qualified teachers. The nation's central education ministry has been charged with being too autocratic and insensitive to regional and minority demands, while minorities have accused the education system of discrimination in funding, admissions, and curriculum majors. President Kumaratunga made 1997 the "year of education reforms and restructure" and promised to implement educational reforms in 1998. These reforms showcased improvement in the quality of primary and secondary education, increased career guidance programs, expansion and diversification of the university curricula, and increased vocational and technical training for rural youth and women.

Education and Sinhalese-Tamil Divisions in Sri Lanka

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. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

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.

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. Large-scale improvements in education had, paradoxically, contributed to ethnic conflict. *

Improving Tamil Education in Sri Lanka

The Report of the Presidential Commission on Youth (1990) made the following recommendations to resolve educational issues in Sri Lanka: 1) Long-term peace in Sri Lanka will require the creation of political, legal, educational, and cultural institutions that will foster a pluralistic and multiethnic environment. 2) Bilingualism should extend throughout Sri Lankan society. 3) Tamils and Sinhalese should learn each other's languages. 4) Textbooks and educational materials should be available in both Tamil and Sinhalese, and should be inspected and periodically reviewed for any traces of cultural bias and favoritism. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“5) Students need to be introduced to the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka's other religious and ethnic groups. 6) The public media should be more ethnically sensitive, with television and radio programs catering to a multiethnic society. 7) Subtitles should be provided in film and television. 8) Joint radio programs should be broadcast in both Sinhala and Tamil. 9) Print media should be given the responsibility to promote multicultural awareness.

Educational Bureaucracy in Sri Lanka

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Ministry of Education: In 1978, the Ministry of Education was divided into a Ministry of Education and a Ministry for Higher Education. The former agency oversaw elementary and secondary education. In 1979, a Ministry of Education Services was created to provide books and materials and to review the condition of school facilities. The promotion and recruitment of teachers was assigned to the Public Science Commission. The Minister of Education is appointed by the president of Sri Lanka, is a member of the presidential cabinet, and is assisted by three Deputy Director-Generals of Education, each responsible for school organization, curriculum development and teacher education, or planning. The island is divided into 15 regions, each with a regional director with authority for school construction, maintenance, repair, and teacher supervision. The regional director recruits the teachers, assigns them to schools, and arranges transfers. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Foreign governments and agencies provide needed additional funding to further improvements in the Sri Lanka educational system. The World Bank funds teacher education and teacher deployment projects to improve teacher quality and make education more widely available to the general population. The Secondary Education Development Act funded the renewal of 178 secondary schools and 14 newly established teacher-training colleges, consultancy services for curriculum development, and a new building complex to house the Department of Examinations. The Japanese government funded development work on 12 new junior secondary schools, while the United Kingdom, under the Department for International Development, continues to fund primary mathematics, primary English, and primary education planning projects.

“Under the Development of Schools by Divisions Project, 393 schools were refurbished, and under the National Schools Development Project, 185 new school buildings were constructed. Provincial councils provided money to support the educational infrastructure in their areas. Government money was allocated for free school uniforms and textbooks. Recognizing the importance of computer technology, 1,795 computers and 601 printers were distributed among 601 schools in 1999. Twelve computer resource centers were set up in selected schools in the same year. The government's 2002 budget has proposed special incentives to set up 50 institutes for information technology. All institutes would be connected to the information technology parks at Malambe, Kesbew, and Pugoda. The private sector contributes to Sri Lanka's general education system by funding private schools, international schools, private tutories, and private preschools.

Even though preschools are under the jurisdiction of provincial councils, the central government plans to establish policies that will regularize the education being offered throughout the nation on the basis of curricula and teacher training. To facilitate this effort, the Open University has established a Child Study Center to undertake research in early childhood and development and to improve teacher training for preschool teachers. The Sri Lankan government, in spite of continued domestic distress, is making every effort to educate parents and students about educational reforms, the availability and fair distribution of resources, and the provision of teaching material at primary and secondary levels. The Ministries of Education and Higher Education are developing an incentive program to encourage teachers to work in less advantaged areas among the urban poor and the rural regions of the country to extend education to all Sri Lankan children.

Women and Education in Sri Lanka

The literacy (age 15 and over can read and write) for females is 91 percent in Sri Lanka compared to 93 percent for males. The School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education) for females is 15 years compared to 14 years for males. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Women and girls have long had much greater access to education than other South Asian countries such India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Unusual for the region is the number of girls who remain in school to complete their educations. But still work has to be done. According to the World Bank, 30,287 females and 14,974 males were out of school. Still the gender parity index from gross enrollment ratio in primary school is 1. In 2000, the female enrollment rate in primary education was 108 percent; in secondary education, 78 percent. Now the rate is around 100 percent in secondary education too.

Female university students: 26 percent (2019, percent of gross, which means the value can be over 100 percent): (compared to 68 percent in Germany, 102 percent in the United States and 7 percent in Uzbekistan) [Source: World Bank]

Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Although most schools are segregated by gender, education has always been important for both boys and girls in Sri Lanka. The literacy rates for men and women are similarly high; the census in 1981 found that 87 percent of females over the age of ten years were literate, compared to 91 percent of males. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

In pre-colonial times the pursuit of higher education primarily was reserved for men who monks. Monks also took care of teaching youth and rules about monks coming into contact with females discouraged the teaching of girls. Although colonization brought European-style education to Sri Lanka, especially to prepare students for positions in the colonial administrations, few women went to school and most people remained uneducated.

Christian women were the first to really benefit from education. In 1901, approximately 30 percent of Christian females were literate, compared to 5 percent among Buddhist women, 3 percent among Muslim women, and 2.5 percent among Hindu women. Cultural factors account for the low literacy rates among Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu women. After that things improved for Christian women and women in general. By 1921, literacy rates rose to 50 percent for Christian women while literacy rates among Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu women rose to 17 percent, 6 percent, and 10 percent, respectively. As education was greatly reformed and improved in the 1930s and after Sri Lanka independence in the 1940, 50s, 60s and 70s, education opportunities improved for women as they did for all Sri Lankans. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

According to World Education News and Reviews: In 2015, there was a 40:60 male-female ratio amongst undergraduate students: at Sri Lanka universities. “That same year, 68 percent of university graduates were female. On the graduate level, 56 percent of students enrolled were women, and 49 percent of that year’s graduates were women. While women are more educated than men at the undergraduate level, and almost equally educated at the postgraduate level, this fails to translate into more jobs for women, especially for positions of power. In 2016, 8.5 percent of women were unemployed, compared to 3.4 percent for men. In 2016, only 6 percent of the seats in the national parliament were held by women. [Source: World Education News and Reviews]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.