Students and lecturers help unseat Rajapaksa regime

Following the surprise change of government early this month, students, teachers and parents are expecting a better education system. University students and lecturers played a key role behind the scenes to defeat former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s so-called `unshakable’ regime.

The Higher Education Minister under the new government, Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, has given the green light to several education reforms, including a new push to allow private universities to be established.

Wijesinha said private universities were essential to provide education opportunities for all students. The proposed private university bill put forward by the previous government was withdrawn years ago because of huge student resistance.

The new minister has also suspended the controversial three-week compulsory military-led University Leadership Training Programme, or MLTP, for university students and vowed to introduce a more friendly programme with less focus on physical exercises.

The programme currently provides systematic training to students in physical, health, sports and fitness training exercises and is held at army camps where students have to wake at 4 am and take part in physical exercises before lectures. It aims to educate youth on leadership, team work and presentation skills, as well as visionary thinking and conflict resolution, according to Lanka University News.

First signs of reform

The changes are the first signs of reform that were promised by Maithripala Sirisena, surprise winner of the closely-fought presidential election, which was held two years ahead of schedule, with Rajapaksa seeking a third term after holding power since 2005.

Only two months before the poll, most people assumed the incumbent would win a landslide victory: He had eradicated terrorism, introduced reforms to the education system, launched several mega infrastructure projects, and increased the Mahapola Scholarships subsistence fund for university students, set up university colleges and recruited 50,000 university graduates to the public service.

An opposition alliance of political parties, trade unions and civil societies rallied around Maithripala, a former minister of health in Rajapaksa's government as the Opposition “common candidate”.

He won the closely-fought campaign with promises to make wholesale changes in his first 100 days in office and establish good governance in Sri Lanka.

Among them was a promise that higher education would be completely restructured to develop the human resources necessary for an inventive economy and he pledged to spend 6% of gross domestic product, or GDP, on education.

In addition, the Mahapola scholarships subsistence would be increased by US$8. These are awarded to students from low-income families who receive US$30 a month subsistence income.

Strong young voter turnout

The election turnout was more than 81%, the highest for a Sri Lankan presidential vote, reflecting a strong turnout from new young voters desiring change. Students were an active part of the election campaign, especially online, and online surveys suggested that four out of five of Sri Lanka’s 400,000 university and higher education students voted in favour of Maithripala.

Protests, strikes, students’ suppression, a fiasco over miscalculated exam results and other higher education controversies in recent years undermined support for Rajapaksa, who was more popular among rural Sinhalese Buddhist voters.

Maithripala, by contrast, was popular among urban voters and minorities and focused his election eco-friendly campaign actively on social media. Since December, his Facebook fan base had increased more than five-fold from 70,000 to 397,000, while Rajapaksa’s had risen from 430,000 fans to 561,000.

One popular proposal that grabbed youth attention was establishing wi-fi zones at public places in all towns to supply free internet facilities.

The Federation of University Teachers’ Association or FUTA did not officially support any side but its president, Dr Chandraguptha Thenuwara, came out in support of Maithripala and in favour of his fight for good governance, democracy, freedom of expression and right to information.

Sri Lanka’s leading left-wing parties, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or JVP, and Frontline Socialist Party, or FSP, are the most active and popular in universities and JVP asked their supporters to vote against Rajapaksa.

FSP, a breakaway group of the JVP, fielded a former inter-university student union leader, Duminda Nagamuwa, as a candidate who campaigned against education privatisation.

Prasad Chaminda Lokubalasooriya, a popular economics tuition master in Gampaha town close to the capital, Colombo, said the Rajapaksa regime paid a political price for jailing General Sarath Fonseka, the army commander who masterminded the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, and was a students’ hero.

But he also said that students “wanted to send the government home” because of corruption and malpractice under the previous regime, an issue which they studied in their economics course.

During his tenure, former Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake faced a 100-day strike by lecturers – the longest in Sri Lankan history, which caused the suspension of academic activities for 90,000 undergraduates and the closure of all state universities and several other higher education institutions. Examinations were also affected.

In the last four years of the Rajapaksa government, suppression of students had been at its highest, with 1,420 expulsions and suspensions of students from universities, 231 arrests, 426 lawsuits and several student union leaders faced death, according to a university students human rights report.

Thousands of students who thought they had qualified for university also found that their results – the ‘Z score’ – had been miscalculated by officials. This triggered a public outcry and thousands of students and their parents took to the streets, protesting against the government.