SRI LANKA: Private universities bill sparks protests

Major student unrest at Sri Lankan universities over government plans to allow the setting up of private institutions looks set to escalate, with students stepping up demonstrations last week and more campaigns organised by student groups in the coming days. Dozens of students have been arrested and some 200 suspended from their institutions.

Unrest has been growing over the last two months, spreading to virtually all of the country's 25 universities by the end of October and stoked further by Education Minister SB Dissanayake's hardline stance against protesting students.

Unrest has continued at six main universities with exams disrupted, and other activities culminating in the storming of the education ministry in Colombo and alleged attacks on the minister's official car.

The vice-chancellor of Ruhunu University in Southern Province was allegedly attacked by students, while student monks have been involved in confrontations with Buddhist university administrators.

The socialist-affiliated International Students for Social Equality (ISSE) called on Sri Lankan students to oppose the government's plans to introduce a new higher education act into parliament this month that will pave the way for private universities.

"The laws will further erode the access of young people to tertiary education and worsen the conditions facing students in the country's public universities," ISSE said in a statement last week.

The new legislation, not yet fully disclosed to the public, is intended to change the 1978 University Act, which makes no provision for private universities.

Student unions said the bill to allow in private foreign universities was a way for the government to avoid upgrading existing public universities and sidestep further substantial investment in higher education.

Dissanayake said last month that discussions were already underway with as many as 15 foreign universities, including Monash University in Australia and Beijing State University in China, to set up private campuses. He said the involvement of foreign universities was necessary because it would take "10 years to improve" existing state-run universities.

ISSE said that amounted to "a tacit admission that the government intends to let public university education languish".

"The result will be a two-class university system: underfunded, crowded institutions for the majority of students and private universities for those that can afford to pay," the student group said.

A number of universities have been partially closed. An emergency meeting called by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa with vice-chancellors of all the island's universities on 25 October failed to defuse the situation.

Officials insist the protests are politically motivated rather than the result of grievances over university provision.

They said the unrest had been organised by the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF), affiliated to the JVP, a left-wing Singhalese political party which led insurgencies in the country in 1971 and during the 1980s, and which still has support on university campuses.

In the past JVP-instigated violence on university campuses has been used as an excuse by government to bring in repressive measures, which were very much in evidence in recent weeks, student unions said.

For example, the vocational University of Uva Wellassa has prohibited the assembly of more than five students, which student unions have denounced as unconstitutional. Four students from the University of Peradeniya, near Kandy, were arrested for booing Dissanayake.

Students at the University of Sri Jayawandanepura said the institution was misusing its powers when seven students, including two student monks, were suspended for distributing leaflets outside the campus.

More than 30 students at universities including Peradeniya, Ruhunu, Rajarata and Jayewardenepura - and including IUSF convener Udul Premaratna - have been held by police in recent weeks.

And more than 200 students have been suspended from their institutions, prompting further protests by students calling for their reinstatement and the release of those held in custody.

"The arrests...are broadly aimed at intimidating students, stifling political activity and suppressing any opposition to the privatisation moves," ISSE said. It has been opposed to JVP activity on university campuses but supports the protests over private universities.