‘Free investment zones’ to attract foreign campuses
In January last year Sri Lanka's Ministry of Higher Education had to withdraw a proposed private universities bill due to escalating resistance from students and lecturers. To circumvent such opposition, the government decided to attract foreign universities into ‘free investment zones’ under Board of Investment projects.
There are plans to establish six education zones outside the capital Colombo, in the Meerigama, Puttalam, Kilinochchi, Hambantota, Deniyaya and Trincomalee areas.
The objective is to attract world-class universities to set up campuses and research centres in Sri Lanka in order to create an international higher education hub that is a cost-effective destination for foreign students.
Several foreign universities have reportedly already submitted applications seeking approval to establish campuses in Sri Lanka.
An extraordinary gazette was tabled in parliament on 3 September by Minister of Investment Promotion LakshmanYapa Abeywardena, to grant a 15-year tax break to a British university that is planning to establish a branch campus in Sri Lanka.
University of Central Lancashire
The University of Central Lancashire, or UCLan, will be one of the first foreign universities to set up in the new ‘free investment zones’. The university’s Sri Lanka partner, UCLan Lanka (Pvt) Ltd, is to receive a 99-year lease on nearly 50 hectares (120 acres) of land.
Total investment in the project will be around US$100 million, and UCLan will benefit from a 15-year tax holiday and will be exempt from tax on interest paid for foreign loans, fees paid to consultants, management fees, royalties and marketing fees.
Speaking to University World News Ian Robertson, director of UCLan (Overseas) Limited and chief executive of UCLan Sri Lanka, said UCLan hoped to finish construction of a new campus in Sri Lanka in June 2015 and to admit a first intake of students by September 2015.
UCLan is the fifth largest university in the UK in terms of student numbers and is ranked as the best modern university in north-west England. It offers 500 undergraduate and 200 postgraduate courses and has a total enrolment of some 35,000 students representing 120 nationalities. The university has a campus in Cyprus and another is being built in Thailand.
Robertson said Sri Lanka was an excellent location and had one of the most educated populations in South Asia. Sri Lanka’s ambition to be a hub and the country’s attractiveness to international students were also advantages.
“We were approached to potentially locate a campus in other areas of South Asia but Sri Lanka’s ambition, location and academic and intellectual resources were key factors for our selection. The Sri Lankan government has awarded ‘special project status, which provides tax concessions to us,” he said.
“We expect to launch a scholarship scheme for Sri Lankan students. We are keen to ensure that Sri Lankan students have access to world-class teaching and research, and to work with other Sri Lankan universities in partnerships to provide for this vision,” Robertson revealed.
Every year about 12,000 Sri Lankan students go to foreign countries seeking higher education. The government hopes that the establishment of foreign branch campuses in the country will encourage local students to seek an international education at home, and help to stem a drain of more than US$400 million in foreign exchange out of the country.
The knowledge hub initiative could also help to develop Sri Lanka as a destination for investment in higher education and position the nation as a centre of excellence and regional hub for learning and innovation.
Meanwhile, the Higher Education Ministry has increased the quota of international students admitted to local universities – from just 0.5% to 5% of the student intake – and is offering additional scholarships to foreign students in its campaign to become a higher education hub: there are currently 100 to 150 scholarships a year for foreign students.
Students, academics unhappy
In the past two weeks, several student unions have launched protest campaigns against the government's move to introduce education zones.
Students at the universities of Rajarata, Peradeniya, Ruhuna, Kelaniya and Sabaragamuwa held protests earlier this month, and called on the government to withdraw the gazette immediately.
Sanjeewa Bandara, convenor of the Marxist-backed Inter University Students' Federation, did not participate in the protests. Last month a Colombo magistrate warned Bandara not to stage rallies that inconvenienced the public, and also not to take part in protests or behave in an unruly manner.
“Government should develop local public universities rather than establishing private universities. If the government tries to establish private universities in the country, we are fighting against it,” Bandara said at a media briefing last week.
The national organiser of the Socialist Students Union, Dr Nalinda Jayatissa, issued a statement saying that the student movement would oppose efforts by the government to introduce private universities. The union called on the public to rally with students to prevent the privatisation of education.
Meanwhile the president of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations, Dr Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, said academics also had strong doubts regarding the project and believed the government’s ‘free zones’ plan would lead to the slow erosion of free education in Sri Lanka.