Uproar over attempt to ‘privatise and militarise’ HE

Political parties, civil society, lecturers, students, trade unions and other groups in Sri Lanka have called on the government to withdraw the proposed Kotelawala University Bill which they fear could pave the way for privatisation of the higher education sector and militarisation of universities.

The bill will allow the existing General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU), which currently trains mostly defence personnel, to award degrees, charge fees and invest the profits in any business considered suitable by the university’s administration, as well as being able to admit students, decide entry qualifications, maintain academic quality and partner with other private and foreign institutions.

Controversially, the bill also places the management of the university under the defence ministry with a senior officer of the armed forces as the university’s head or vice-chancellor, not under the ministry of education and higher education, as is the norm.

The sudden uproar came after the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) revealed the defence ministry was holding internal discussions to imminently debate the bill in parliament during the COVID-19 outbreak.

On 21 June IUSF staged a protest in the capital Colombo demanding the withdrawal of the bill. During the protest a tense situation arose between police and students as police tried to disperse students, as public gatherings are banned during the current COVID-19 third wave.

IUSF Convener Wasantha Mudalige said that with the bill, the government was “moving towards military dictatorship”.

“If this bill passes, this will be the greatest risk for free education,” he told University World News, adding that more protests were planned.

“Under the guise of an epidemic, government is trying to pass the bill which is destroying free education. The government has obstructed a peaceful protest organised by students against the bill. If the government is trying to pass this, all forces must line up against it,” Amila Sandaruwan, national committee member of the Teachers’ Service Union, told University World News.

“Discussions are going on these days in the defence ministry regarding the bill. When we are protesting against the bill, the government uses police and suppresses our rights. We demand solutions for these issues, not a police crackdown on us,” Galwala Siridhamma Thero, convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation, told University World News.

The so-called KNDU Bill was first proposed by the previous government in 2018, but it was forced to withdraw the bill due to strong opposition, including from the academic community.

The present cabinet approved the current KNDU Bill in December 2020 and submitted it to parliament in March 2021. The government has not yet officially announced a date for the parliamentary debate, but unions fear the bill could be passed suddenly while travel restrictions and public gatherings are limited by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Fear of military influence in higher education

The university teachers’ union Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) raised grave concerns about the bill, saying universities, and the higher education sector generally, will be ‘militarised’.

In a media statement, FUTA said the bill threatens to fundamentally change the state-run higher education landscape by creating a ‘parallel space’ for fee-paying higher education, driven by a highly instrumentalist and military-style decision-making framework.

FUTA identifies several specific provisions of the bill as particularly detrimental to the future of university education in Sri Lanka.

For example, under the bill, the university will come under a regulatory framework outside the Universities Act of 1978 under which all state universities and the regulatory body the University Grants Commission operate. If enacted, the bill could also pave the way for rapid militarisation, commercialisation and a decline of quality, standards and fundamental goals and objectives of university education in the country, FUTA said.

Under the proposed bill, the defence minister along with an apex body of military personnel will be able to decide on the nature, content and all other aspects of KNDU’s academic programmes. This will leave key stakeholder groups outside the decision-making process. Decisions regarding the university will likely reflect an “extremely utilitarian military outlook on society and life”, FUTA said.

Bill withdrawal requested

Harini Amarasuriya, a parliamentarian of the National People’s Power (NPP) opposition coalition, said she had written to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on 17 June requesting the bill’s withdrawal “with immediate effect”.

“This bill proposes the establishment of a fee-levying, [government] Treasury-funded university system under the Ministry of Defence, in parallel to the existing university system regulated by the University Grants Commission. This is a significant diversion from the free education policy to which successive governments have adhered,” she said.

“The proposed management and regulatory structure for the KNDU proposed in this bill relies primarily on military personnel and offers minimum space for external accountability and overview. This is not desirable at all in a university system and violates all accepted global principles of higher education,” she added.

“There is no doubt that changes are required in the existing higher education system, especially in the university system; however, these changes must be in accordance with universally recognised principles of higher education. Also, proposed changes should not destroy the free education policy of Sri Lanka which has been a foundation stone of the Sri Lankan state and polity since even prior to independence,” she said.

Several attempts by the previous governments to introduce private university bills failed due to huge student resistance. A proposed private university bill put forward by the past Rajapaksa government was withdrawn in 2012.

Sri Lanka has 17 state universities, but only about 40,000 students are admitted annually out of the 360,000 who sit the university entrance (A-level) examination every year. The limited capacity of the universities means most students miss out on the opportunity for higher education. About 12,000 Sri Lankan students go to foreign countries annually seeking higher education and US$400 million of foreign exchange is also drained from the country.

Though past governments promised to expand higher education opportunities and modernise the entire education system to international standards, the authorities are still struggling to implement them due to government policy changes and strong student resistance to education privatisation.