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Sarvodaya Institute of Higher Learning (SIHL)

The Lanka Jathika Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya (LJSSS), popularly known as the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement – is the largest non-governmental development organization in Sri Lanka. (www.sarvodaya.org)

Sarvodaya has a focus and impressive track record on development and national reconciliation.  With its holistic approach, built in significant part on Buddhist and Gandhian philosophy, embracing a multi-ethnic and multi-religious context, it promotes development and educational solutions that simultaneously cater to social, cultural, economic and political needs of the people in all regions of Sri Lanka. Over a period of 55 years, Sarvodaya’s programs and initiatives have reached over 15,000 villages in the entire country, with about 3,000 villages being empowered to serve as self-governed focal points for development (gram-swaraj – “self governing villages”).

In its latest evolutionary phase Sarvodaya has set up the Sarvodaya Institute for Higher Learning (SIHL) as a first step in setting up a Sarvodaya University. The aspiration and focus of SIHL is on integral education and development of entire communities, based on social, economic and spiritual transformation, thereby becoming a center for the renewal of Sri Lankan Society as a whole. Sarvodaya is keen to realize the implementation and development of SIHL together with appropriate local and global partners, who can help to design and implement this unique educational approach to integral development. SIHL seeks to build co-creational relationships with other Institutes for Higher Learning, or Universities who are equally engaged in renewing their particular societies.

Background

It is the people in the villages and in the urban areas of Sri Lanka, particularly the poor and the disadvantaged who are served by the Sarvodaya Movement. In doing this for over five decades, Sarvodaya has truly evolved into a people’s movement.  For more than five decades it has educated individuals, families, communities, public and private sector employees, school children and teachers, staff of educational institutes, staff of other institutes such as in the administrative, education and in the health sectors and the public at large using a variety of techniques.

The Sarvodaya Institute of Higher Learning (SIHL) was established in 2008 by the LJSSS (at its 50th Anniversary) to improve the quality of the educational services it provides to the community. Education at a greater depth and over a wider range was deemed necessary if people were to solve their own problems which is a fundamental principle followed by Sarvodaya in its development work with people.

With the ending of the civil war in the country, the context in which Sarvodaya works has changed significantly.  Even before the termination of the civil war, Sarvodaya had taken note of the fact that many development activities at village level which earlier, Sarvodaya motivated the communities to engage in, were being carried out by the State through well-resourced local government authorities and provincial councils. e.g. construction of roads, culverts, wells, toilets, cleaning of irrigation channels. However we note that the important philosophical elements found in Sarvodaya’s holistic process of satisfying people’s basic human needs such as community participation, voluntary contribution sharing their resources and the other deeply rooted objectives of social transformation such as brining in spiritual and cultural values are missing in such State sponsored programs.

The creation of the SIHL by the LJSSS was in effect a response to these changes.

Another response was initiating radical changes in its organizational structure with an accompanying change in the role and functions of its field staff.  A major shift is that much of the development work earlier carried out by the field staff, devolves on the Deshodaya Mandalayas (National Reawakening Councils) at Divisional and District levels that have now been established as the next stage in the evolution of the Sarvodaya Movement. These “Deshodaya Mandalayas” are voluntary associations of individuals who are members and office-bearers of community level organizations, registered under the law as Sarvodaya Shramadana Societies (SSS). It also includes other community leaders such as teachers, heads of schools, lawyers, doctors, engineers who subscribe to the Sarvodaya development philosophy and who together agree to undertake development activities in their respective areas.

The Need

The focus of Sarvodaya development work in the village communities is essentially educational. The initial shramadana (sharing of labor) camps conducted in the villages have an in-built education, learning and training component. The work to be done is decided by the village community. The organization of the camp, in which the village community is very much involved, requires the consideration of such aspects as the labour force required to do the work, the tools and equipment needed, the food needed, the residential accommodation needed, etc. Such organizational work is part of the education of the community. It is learning-by- doing, harnessing the knowledge and skills available within the community.

 

This type of initial educational work is followed by institutional training at various Sarvodaya centers at different levels.  Short-term courses are conducted in such areas as pre-school education, community health and sanitation, savings and credit, village-level planning, vocational training etc. The educational work is always related to some activity or activities at community level. The practical application of whatever is learnt is an essential ingredient in the Sarvodaya educational work. Another way of stating this is that the training courses organized by Sarvodaya are based on the needs expressed by the communities.

 

For some time now the Sarvodaya Sangamaya has been of the view that the educational services it now provides to the community need to be at greater depth and over a wider range. It is no longer adequate, for example, to train persons at community level to run a savings and credit scheme. While they should essentially acquire such skills, they need to have a deeper understanding of the economic forces which impinge on the rural economy, how the local and national markets operate, what is the “world market” which is often referred to, what is “globalization” and how does it affect the community, etc.

 

In the sphere of education, it is no longer adequate to simply learn how to start and run a pre-school. They need to know about the development of children, the effect of malnutrition of the pregnant mother on the growth of the fetus, the effect of malnutrition and lack of stimulation on the growth of the brain, etc. From another perspective they need to know of certain characteristics of the current formal system of education, not only in Sri Lanka but all over the world.

 

On the whole, the current education system is designed to perpetuate the status quo. It benefits are mostly for those who already “have”. Much deeper and wider considerations are needed if people are to function adequately in a true democracy. What in fact is a “democracy”? These are questions engaging the attention of the people and opportunities should be provided to get information to them, to exchange ideas with others, to learn what people in other countries are thinking about these issues.

Research Agenda

The research agenda of the SIHL will be based on the problems of concern to the people it serves. The research output is expected to materially improve the living conditions of the people in the villages/communities. It is also expected to be disseminated in accepted ways, through publications, workshops and seminars, etc. The quality of the research would be judged by the extent to which it has contributed to improving the conditions of living of the people served by SIHL and not so much by the number of publications in journals.

The Pedagogic Model

SIHL aims to be the Hub for facilitating new thinking in education in Sri Lanka. The pedagogic model of SIHL will be a departure from the traditional ‘class-room’ model to a ‘distributed model’, where cutting-edge technology converges with human needs to bring about social, economic and spiritual empowerment to the people.

 

The building of co-creational relationships will be a core methodology for SIHL, partnering with other Institutes for Higher Learning, leading practitioners in human development and Universities who are trendsetters in achieving these outcomes.

 

Whilst no one will dispute the value of increased numeracy and literacy skills in principle, relatively little attention has been paid thus far to the global dimension of skills development (King, 2011; UNESCO, 2012). International policy has also often failed to take into account the global context in which individual nations develop skills programmes for their citizens. SIHL will aim to incrementally address this need.

Context

At the village/community level, people like to experiment. It may be the trying out of a new method of cultivation; processing of village produce to make other products either for marketing or for consumption; breeding a new variety of a food crop or plants for horticulture; trying out alternative energy sources for home use, etc. People should have easy access to institutes which provide the assistance they need. They should have the opportunity of knowing what has been done by others in the areas/problem of interest to them; they should have access to expert opinion on what they want to do; they should have the assistance of technicians to turn out any tool or equipment they may wish to. Essentially people should solve their own problems and they should be assisted in the process in the many different ways needed.

It is also essential to expose people at the village level to developments taking place in other parts of the world which are very relevant to their own life. They may draw inspiration for their own lives from such an exposure. While newspapers and other media may give publicity to such work, there is a need to study such development work at greater depth to gain an understanding of the circumstances which gave rise to such work, the factors which made them a success, similarities and differences between those circumstances and the local circumstances, the scale of the operation, etc. A deeper understanding is essential if people are to profit from such experiences by way of adapting them or trying out new ideas arising from them.

 

In comparison with a traditional university, the teaching function resulting in the grant of diplomas, certificates, degrees and other such academic distinctions will emphasize the acquisition of high-level practical skills firmly founded on an adequate theoretical knowledge of the relevant domains. Candidates who require to develop such practical skills and knowledge would be assisted to do so without necessarily having to work towards a particular academic distinction awarded by SIHL which requires more theoretical studies.   However, there will be no discouragement of working towards such academic distinctions and in fact the rural young would be encouraged to do so. They would be encouraged to pursue their studies beyond the solution of the immediate problem/s facing them.