Uproar over fears that government wants to ban student federation

Student groups in Sri Lanka are in uproar over fears that the government wants to ban their main union, the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF). Students said this would be a step towards destroying the education system and would pave the way for private universities.

IUSF opposition is seen as one of the major obstacles to the government’s efforts to allow more private higher education.

Major student demonstrations and resistance led by the IUSF in January this year forced the temporary withdrawal of a proposed Private University Bill by the Higher Education Ministry.

Earlier this month IUSF announced a new agitation campaign to fight against the establishment of more private universities.

Yukthi Ekadeera, convenor of the University Independent Conversion Movement affiliated to the Sri Lankan government, accused the IUSF of being responsible for ragging (initiation) incidents and other acts of violence in universities, and declared in late May that it would go to court to demand a ban on the IUSF.

Ekadeera claimed that ragging had forced 6,000 students to leave universities, and had left some disabled. He said some students had even been killed.

Ragging is the mocking of new students, which has been widely prevalent in universities and can degenerate into verbal and physical bullying of students. Ragging has been made punishable by law, with Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake saying those found guilty would be expelled from universities.

The IUSF claimed that the ministry has been “creating various fabricated stories”, including that the IUSF fomented violence and ragging, in a bid to ban the student federation. This has been denied by the Sri Lankan government.

“The ministry does not have any plans to ban the IUSF or any student union, but the ministry is inquiring into allegations against the IUSF by another student union,” Higher Education Ministry Secretary Dr Sunil Jayantha Navaratne said at a 7 June press conference.

He said the ministry was investigating two separate serious ragging cases. “The ministry will take stern action against any student or student union found guilty of being engaged in ragging students.”

Dissanayeke said the ministry had received a letter from female students that they had been "sexually harmed" at Colombo University. According to the contents of the letter, the students pleaded with the authorities to take immediate action to prevent future incidents. A special team has been appointed to investigate this incident, according to the ministry.

IUSF Convenor Sanjeewa Bandara said the union would resist any government plan to ban it.

“The government can ban us, but they can’t destroy our unity. With the support of student unions, political parties and other human rights organisations, we will fight against it. We know those who want to protect free education will join with us,” he said.

Bandara said at least 6% of the country’s gross domestic product should be allocated to the education sector, but the government has only allocated 1.3%.

“State universities are not being expanded. Universities are facing financial problems. The government is not paying bursaries and scholarship payments properly. Society should stand against this,” said the student leader.

“Police attacks, teargas, bullets, courts and prisons cannot stop our struggle to protect free education.”

Other student groups have come out against any attempts to ban the IUSF.

The Socialist Students’ Union, affiliated to the Marxist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, said it would not allow the government to ban any student union. Nalinda Jayatissa, the union’s national organiser, said any alleged attempt to ban the IUSF would amount to the suppression of students and student movements.

“The government is trying to privatise the country's education system because the IMF [International Monetary Fund] has instructed [it] to do so. To get IMF loans the government has to follow their conditions.

“The government wants to ban the IUSF because they want to suppress students and student movements. Then it will be easy [for them] to implement the privatisation. We are not going to allow the government to ban any student union," he said.

The IUSF was established in 1978 and comprises student unions representing 10 main universities and six other higher education institutions in Sri Lanka.

In the 1980s the government banned some student unions for being overly politicised. More recently, IUSF student leaders have been barred temporarily from the universities of Colombo and Jaffna. Notably, in June 2010 a heavy police guard was deployed at Jaffna to keep out IUSF leaders. That action was regarded by students as a threat to their democratic rights.