Private universities bill halted, for now

After weeks of escalating opposition, Sri Lanka's higher education minister has temporarily withdrawn a proposed Private University Bill. But he is hoping to present a quality assurance bill to parliament related to private higher education providers. Meanwhile, lecturers have joined students in protesting.

At a press conference Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake (pictured) said that the new Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Qualification Framework Bill is not a private university bill. Its objective is to monitor and regulate private degree-awarding institutions in Sri Lanka.

The original Private University Bill was intended to pave the way for foreign institutions to set up branch campuses in Sri Lanka, which has ambitions to become a higher education hub in Asia. There are already 59 registered private degree-awarding institutions, according to Dissanayake, and out of them 32 institutions are affiliated to local and foreign universities.

The bill's provisions have never been made fully public although a draft was approved by cabinet last year. A year later, it has yet to be tabled in parliament.

Student demonstrations against private universities, which led to the closure of two universities, had spread to at least seven other universities last week.

And lecturers have joined the protests. The Federation of University Teachers' Associations (FUTA) launched a token strike against the bill on Tuesday 18 January.

"Before the bill is introduced to parliament it should be discussed with all stakeholders including students. The bill should be presented after creating a fruitful dialogue among all these parties," said FUTA spokesperson Mahim Mendis.

Dissent is also growing within government with two senior ministers, Wimal Weerawansa and Patali Champika Ranawaka, strongly opposing the private university bill.

Officials said minister Dissanayake would discuss the bill with several ministers on 23 January before deciding whether it will be presented to parliament. But it appears clear that the bill will not be tabled in it current form.

Meanwhile the ministry has said it is hoping to present the bill to monitor private degree-awarding institutions to parliament. It has insisted that the second bill is different, despite widespread belief that it is the same bill by another name.

Sanjeewa Bandara, convener of the Marxist-backed Inter University Students' Federation (IUSF), told University World News: "The government tries to fool us by changing the name of the bill. The title may be different but the intention is the same."

If the new bill allowed the setting up of private universities in SriLanka, said Bandara, his federation was against it. "The IUSF is aware that this proposed bill has legal provisions to set up private universities as well as to sell degree courses offered in state universities to private students."

According to the IUSF, the government should develop local public universities rather than establishing private ones. "If the government tries to establish private universities in the country, [it will] destroy free education. We are fighting against it," Bandara said.

The chair of the University Grants Commission Gamini Samaranayake said that the "the new wave of student unrest is a politically motivated one. They are trying to create a series of protests in Sri Lanka as an 'Arab Uprising'."

Prime minister DM Jayaratne has also claimed that "foreign forces" are behind protests against setting up private universities. He also said elements such as the separatist Tamil Tigers "want to create unrest in the country".

Dissanayake has described the protests as being "stage-managed to rouse students", and claimed Sri Lanka did not really need an act since private universities already existed in the country. "The private university is not a new concept to Sri Lanka. Private universities have been operating in Sri Lanka since 1987," he said.

"Some of these degree-awarding institutions maintain a good standard, but others are not so good. The proposed Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Qualification Framework Act will streamline and empower the state to monitor these private institutions.

"Our intention is to assure quality and protect the rights of the students. The bill has laws to close down sub-standard institutions."