Government suddenly orders all universities to reopen

The Sri Lankan government unexpectedly decided to reopen all state universities last week, despite an ongoing lecturer strike. It is thought the move is a response to political and student union pressures, and to enable institutions to prepare for the new academic year.

Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake took the decision to reopen universities based on powers vested in him under the University Act. The ministry announced that 15 universities and six higher education institutes would resume operating, but did not provide reasons.

However, students and political parties have been urging the government to open institutions that were shut down on 21 August, when a two-month lecturer strike reached a critical stage.

Closure of higher education institutions is delaying procedures that will admit a new student intake next month.

There have also been countrywide protests and boycotts by academics and students alike calling on the government to reopen institutions soon, and work to resolve the issues faced by lecturers. In some cases, police fired teargas and water cannons to disperse protestors.

But the demands of academics have not yet been met and their strike is still on.

“Although the universities will be open, we will continue our strike. Today there was a crucial dissuasion with the Finance Ministry secretary regarding our salary increase but it was not fruitful,” said Federation of University Teachers’ Associations President Dr Nirmal Ranjith on Friday.

The union is demanding that the government allocate 6% of Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product to education, grant universities independence from political interference, and increase lecturer salaries by 20%.

Academics launched their strike on 4 July, paralysing higher education institutions, suspending the academic activities of around 70,000 undergraduate students and affecting examinations.

“This is a good move by government but who is going to teach students? Lecturers are on strike so solve university teachers’ problems first. Anyway, now students can use libraries and labs for their assignments, projects and research,” said a spokesperson for the major Inter University Students’ Federation.

Meanwhile, non-academic staff at universities also staged protests on Friday, urging the government to resolve anomalies in their salaries.

The University Non-academic Employees Trade Union said the higher education minister had violated an agreement with employees to end the anomalies, and demanded that the problem be tackled immediately.

Sri Lanka’s education system has been rocked by controversies in the past few months including the lecturer strike, the private universities bill, the ‘Z score’ crisis that messed up results of university entrance examinations, a row over a private medical college and a student union ban.