Vishaka Chandrasekara — The Economics of Education

THE MASTERCARD SCHOLAR STORIES SERIES

In October 2017, Educate Lanka Foundation joined hands with Mastercard to empower 250 young women of Sri Lanka through enhanced access to education and employment opportunities during the first year of their exclusive partnership. The story of Vishaka is part of the Mastercard Scholar Stories Series launched to celebrate the journeys of Educate Lanka Scholars supported by Mastercard.

Background and economic struggles

Vishaka is from Galenbindunuwewa in the Anuradhapura District of the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. Her father is a driver with a monthly income of Rs. 10,000 (~USD 65). However, in 2014, he underwent an eye operation, limiting the amount of work he was able to do to only two weeks per month. Vishaka’s mother is a housewife. She has an elder sister and an elder brother who are following external degrees at the University of Kelaniya. Both of them are supporting their own educational costs while also contributing to the family’s household income by doing part-time sales work earning about Rs. 6,000 (~USD 40) each. As Vishaka’s family falls below the poverty line, they receive a monthly public relief grant of Rs. 2,000 (~USD 15) in the form of food stamps from the Sri Lanka Samurdhi Authority.

Vishaka at the scholarship distribution in December 2017

Despite such economic difficulties, Vishaka excelled in her studies. In 2009, she got the best results at Galenbindunuwewa Madya Maha Vidyalaya for the G.C.E. Ordinary Level examination. Yet again, in 2012, she got the best results in her school for the G.C.E. Advanced Level examination and ranked twelfth in the Anuradhapura district. This outstanding achievement gave her the opportunity of entering the Department of Law at the University of Peradeniya. At the time, Vishaka’s dream was to become a lawyer, and she was very excited about starting this new phase of her life. However, after starting her undergraduate studies, she soon realized that the journey was not going to be a path of roses. As a student coming from an economically disadvantaged background, Vishaka received the government sponsored Mahapola Scholarship from the university. This amounted to a mere Rs. 2,500 (~USD 15) per month and was not sufficient to cover her expenses. As her hometown was 140 km away from the university, Vishaka had to find means of providing her basic needs such as food and even shelter. The university provided hostel facilities in the first year, but she had to find accommodation off campus in the second year as Sri Lankan universities are unable to provide for the great number of outstation students seeking hostel facilities. As a result, the cost of rent was also added to Vishaka’s monthly expenses. It was under such circumstances that Vishaka contacted Educate Lanka through its website in 2015 as she was finding it extremely difficult to cope with the economic needs of a university student.

Vishaka with a few of the fellow Mastercard Scholars and members of Mastercard and Educate Lanka staff at the inaugural scholarship distribution event in Kandy, Sri Lanka in December 2017

Insight into the economics of education

While following a Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of Peradeniya, Vishaka got an opportunity to carry out a research during her second year. As she had the liberty of selecting a topic, she decided to choose an issue that was close to her heart — “Why some children do not go to school in our village.” As she points out in her research, even though Sri Lanka has recognized the Right to Education, many children drop out of school, especially as the out of pocket expenses for families increase with additional years of schooling. Her contention was that poverty is the main reason for this plight. She used interviews as her research methodology and the subjects were school dropouts between the ages of 12 and 16 living in her village — Galenbindunuwewa, Anuradhapura. Through her interviews, Vishaka found that most parents were unable to allocate any money for their children’s education as what they earned was barely enough for their day to day needs. Therefore, some children were motivated (and even forced) to find work to help provide for the family’s survival. Vishaka rightly points out that it is important to focus on not only the students who are in school, but also those who have dropped out of school. She concludes by offering solutions to this social issue — scholarships, increase in family income, proper guidance, awareness programs for both parents and children, and counseling. Vishaka believes that these interventions will benefit not just the children and their parents, but the entire community at large.

Vishaka’s findings from her research — the socioeconomic reasons for children’s exclusion and non-participation in education — are in fact well documented nationally and internationally. As the 2015 UNICEF Country Report points out, family poverty is the number one demand-side barrier and bottleneck influencing such exclusion in Sri Lanka. This is also the primary reason for the Educate Lanka Scholarship Program to exist — to relieve such families from the additional burden of out-of-pocket education expenses through its micro-scholarships offered in the form of conditional direct cash transfers.

Ambition and plans for the future

Vishaka has currently completed her Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) degree at the University of Peradeniya and she is now preparing to sit for the Attorneys-at-Law examination at the Sri Lanka Law College in February 2019. She also plans to take the Sri Lanka Administrative Service examination later on. Initially, her dream was to become a lawyer, but now her ambition is to become a Legal Officer as she feels that she will be able to provide a greater service to society rather than doing a mere job. Vishaka also wants to give free legal consultation to those who are in need of such advice, and she further hopes to sponsor the education of worthy students in Sri Lanka in the future, when she is in a position to do so. Such qualities are also an integral component of every Educate Lanka Scholar as each of them commit and pledge to give back and pay forward the support they receive as part of their qualification to the program.

“Education is the best investment in our lives. Nobody can steal our education like they can steal our books, notes or other relevant equipment. It will not die with us, because it is immortal.”

We are extremely pleased to have gotten the opportunity to intervene at a time of desperation for Vishaka and support her education journey for the past four (4) years. Just like her research found out, there are many such deserving students who are in need of direct financial interventions even within a universal education system like in Sri Lanka. Similar to Vishaka, we have so far financed the cost of education of over 1,200 deserving students by funding 5,000 collective years of education with US$500,000 (~ Rs. 75 million) in micro-scholarships through our peer-to-peer sponsorship platform. While we have taken a significant stride towards addressing this issue, impactful partnerships and collaborations are going to be critical in ensuring our long term success.

This is why we are thrilled to have taken a significant step in Sri Lanka by introducing a unique social-private partnership with Mastercard to realize our vision of making opportunities universal for all students. With the backing of a global pioneer like Mastercard, we are excited to create an inclusive workforce and an equitable society that would drive Sri Lanka towards its socioeconomic advancement and its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Please watch the following brief video for the experience of more Scholars like Vishaka on the impact of the unique collaboration between Educate Lanka and Mastercard:

Talent is universal. Opportunity is not.

You could also read previous stories under the Mastercard Scholar Stories Series on this link. To learn more about Educate Lanka’s mission and to invest directly in the education of an Educate Lanka Scholar, please visit www.educatelanka.org.