Education is the cornerstone of a civilised society. It is education that 'builds up' the knowledge and intellect of a person, thus making them an important resource for the development of the country. Though wisdom and intelligence hold prominence over education in many fields, this feels mostly prevalent in the field of politics.
When administrations take over governance, a common criticism by the general public is regarding the qualification of political appointees. This same criticism is directed towards lawmakers elected to the People’s Majlis. There are of course underlying reasons for this discontent people have towards politicians, followed by a whole lot of questions regarding their credibility and ability to perform the duties mandated on them by law.
Therefore, how relevant is education in politics?
Around the globe
The Maldives is not an anomaly, and so is not alone by not setting a minimum education criterion for President, Vice President and members of the parliament. The following countries have no education qualification commanded as a contesting criterion to be a member of parliament.
- India — it has been argued that the most relevant qualifications for a MP or MLA is the ability to understand the people’s concerns and represent their interests
- The Parliament of Australia have three non-educated eligible criteria
- Article 90 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka mandates 5 non-educated eligible criteria
- The UK Parliament website also states that people wishing to stand as an MP must be over 18 years of age, be a British citizen or citizen of a Commonwealth country or the Republic of Ireland and they must be nominated by ten parliamentary electors of the constituency they wish to stand in – again, no criteria regarding minimum education
Developed countries such as the United States, and even China, do not a have minimum education eligibility criteria for President.
Why we need educated politicians
There are strong cases for having educated politicians, both elected and appointed.
- Politicians, irrespective of the institution they represent are at the helm of the nation, navigating local, and international, policy towards development, prosperity and sustainability. Thus, they must be able to strategise, plan, understand, assess and have the ability to comprehend a breadth of socio-political issues. They must have the capability to make informed, data driven decisions, work on bilateral relations with countries and diplomats, represent the nation on international platforms, formulate and amend laws and policies, and fulfill other responsibilities at both macro and micro levels. They must have the skill to debate in various legislative assemblies with an enlightened and educated outlook, with the discipline to avoid derogatory or defamatory statements and illogical debates that have no relevance to the current topic. What they do impacts the current generation, and future generations. The work they do is consequential, impacting the lives of all the citizens. There is no doubt that education will to a large extent provide the knowledge and skills for politicians to execute the responsibilities mandated on them. After all, empirical research shows a correlation between educational attainment of a political leader and the economic growth in a country during the leader's tenure in office.
- Research also shows that educated leaders are more competent and hence are more able to make sensible economic policy choices which lead to better economic performance. This stems from the evidence that these focus on broad-based economic objectives rather than promoting narrow sectional interests which will tend to favour protectionist policies. They are inclined to advocate the provision of public goods and infrastructure through institutionalisation which generate wide economic benefits. In all these cases, it shows that highly educated leaders are also better citizens and are more likely to operate in the broader public interest.
- It creates a culture of attracting educated, brilliant minds from the country for contesting elections because they will perceive the election battle ground to be familiar and welcoming when they will see politicians with qualifications similar to theirs.
- Educational qualifications would also raise the general level of education in the country. More people may become inspired, by the positive examples set by educated politicians, to get more educated.
Playing the devil's advocate
It might well be a naïve and ill-informed notion to believe that education will automatically make a politician good at what they do, or make them work towards public interest. While most who are educated tend to be from higher socio-economic backgrounds, and tend also to be predominantly men, will having an education level be a wise prerequisite?
- Constitutional right: Although the literacy rate of Maldives is one of the highest in this region, baby boomers and the early Gen X population in the country did not have equal opportunities, nor any opportunities to study; or certainly to study beyond a certain level. Providing education to each and every citizen is the duty of the state. Thus, it is the state that has failed to provide education, and for this failure of the state, citizens cannot be punished. People from those generations cannot be deprived of their right to contest elections because of the failure of state, at least in the short run.
- Education does not equate to intelligence or morality: Character and commitment for politicians are equally, if not more, important. A strong and well-built character, with a passion to represent the interests of the people who have voted them to power is arguably more important. Correct and just use of power does not require any educational qualifications but good moral character and ethical behaviour is required. How many educated politicians have made illogical or immoral decisions?
If not education then what?
This debate of whether it is important to have a minimum educational qualification for politicians points to a shortcoming of this system.
While there is a minimum education level prescribed for all civil servant positions in the Maldives, the dismay of people is understandable that the politicians leading the nation have no such eligibility criteria to meet. Education is a vital tool for improving the economic conditions of our nation. Just like we provide our children with good quality education so that they could become the future torchbearer of our society, this same logic must be applied to all politicians. It is not simply about getting a degree that should matter. The benefits of having educated people leading the country are strong and heavy.
Maybe now is the time to accept the wider public pulse and consider, or debate, a minimum educational criterion for all political roles – be it appointed or elected.