Students protest against lack of progress on reforms

Sri Lanka’s university students’ hopes for a better university system are fading within months of the toppling of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s so-called ‘unshakable regime’, in which they played a key role.

Thousands of university students from across Sri Lanka gathered in the capital, Colombo, on 31 March to protest against the new government’s failure to bring in promised reforms.

Surprise resignations and appointments in the higher education sector have sparked protests across the country over the new government’s failure to address education issues.

The new government’s State Higher Education Minister, Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, resigned in February, only a month after assuming duties with a green light to introduce reforms.

Following pressure from the Federation of University Teachers' Associations or FUTA, the chairperson of the University Grants Commission, or UGC, Professor Kshanika Hirimburegama, quit her job, also in February. Six members of the UGC resigned with her.

FUTA is now protesting against the installation of her husband, Dr Kumara Hirimburegama, as Colombo University Vice-chancellor, and have demanded his resignation.

At the presidential election, students and lecturers desiring a change voted against Rajapaksa’s decade-long regime during which students’ rights were largely suppressed.

Promised restructure

The new government had promised students, teachers and parents a completely restructured higher education system within 100 days, but with 80 of the days already passed, there have been no major changes, and the new academic year admissions have been delayed.

On 31 March, protesting students blocked several roads causing heavy traffic congestion and later marched towards Temple Trees, which is considered a high security zone.

Clashes erupted when police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse students, as a result of which eight students were hospitalised and seven policemen were injured.

Protesters urged the new government to immediately solve problems in the education system, close down private universities and increase the Mahapola scholarships subsistence awarded to students from low-income families, as promised in the election.

Higher education ministry officials earlier had said they would release the university handbook at the end of January. It includes the new university admission forms and guidelines. But following the changes in chairs, the ministry is still struggling to release the book.

FUTA launched their protest campaign demanding the resignation of the UGC chairperson, Kshanika Hirimburegama, after the election, alleging that it was a political appointment.

Hirimburegama was the former vice-chancellor of Colombo University and had been promoted to chairperson of the UGC by former president Rajapaksa in 2013. Her husband Kumara Hirimburegama was appointed in her place as vice-chancellor at the university.

When she quit in the wake of the FUTA campaign, FUTA turned its attention to forcing her husband out of the university position.

With the help of FUTA, academics of Colombo University have occupied the office of the university's vice-chancellor in protest. University academics have continuously called for the vice-chancellor's resignation.

As a temporary solution to the situation, Professor Lalitha Mendis has been appointed as the acting vice-chancellor of the university.

Meanwhile the newly appointed chairperson of UGC, Professor Mohan De Silva, says he aims to appoint officers to the university system who are non-political to improve the administration of the universities and to maintain the quality of academic courses.

He also said the UGC had initiated the admissions process for the new academic year and would immediately release the anticipated handbook regarding university admissions.

In his short time in office, former higher education minister Wijesinha created a friendly atmosphere with university students, launching a “Meet the Minister” programme and suspending the controversial three-week compulsory Military-led University Leadership Training Programme.

Cabinet ‘interference’

When he resigned, he cited interference from the Cabinet Minister for Higher Education, Kabir Hashim, which made it “impossible for me to carry out my duties”.

Sarath Amunugama has been appointed as his replacement as State Higher Education Minister.

After the students’ protest march, Najith Indika, Convener of Inter University Students Federation said: “If the new government fails to provide solutions to our grievances, we will take more action.”

The Marxist political party JVP, in a statement, strongly condemned the use of tear gas and high-pressure water cannons to disperse the students who protested against the government's failure to address their grievances.

"The government promised to protect democracy after its election victory but it is clear that it too is continuing with the practices of the Rajapaksa regime," the JVP said.

In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said: "It is very much regrettable to note the incident that had occurred. If the protesting students informed us early, and peacefully allowed their representatives to come to the Prime Minister's Office, an incident of this nature could have been averted.”