Higher education and state-building in Sri Lanka

Highly desired public goods like education are thought to play a key role in state-building processes, but how? This research is exploring the two-way relationship between university education and state legitimacy over time in Sri Lanka. The findings have challenged received wisdom, showing there is no straightforward link between public services and state legitimation. Further, the way public services are delivered can just as easily de-legitimise states as legitimise them, with implications for stability. 

The research zooms in on three critical periods in the history of university education in Sri Lanka:

  • rapid educational expansion during post-colonial state consolidation;
  • the manipulation of rules of entry and the emergence of a dual challenge to the state; and
  • educational decline under an exclusionary, post-war political settlement.

By looking across and comparing these different periods, the research will provide a long-term perspective on the role of public goods in processes of state (de-)legitimation.

In Sri Lanka, the relationship between education and state legitimacy has evolved as a long-term, circular process of the state setting expectations, performing (or not) to those expectations, and getting (positive or negative) feedback, with implications not only for legitimacy, but also for stability.

These insights are relevant for aid actors seeking to support legitimate institutions and to ‘do no harm’ when supporting the delivery of public goods in fragile states. Understanding expectations, the normative justifiability of provision among different groups, and especially perceptions of distributive justice, may be vital for developing politically-informed and conflict-sensitive approaches to supporting public service delivery in states with divided societies.

Researcher: Claire Mcloughlin
 

See also:


Image: Library, Sri Lanka (Gerald Pereira)

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