Several universities shut down amid collapsing economy

Sri Lanka has temporarily shut down at least three state universities and closed schools in the capital Colombo and other main cities due to a prevailing fuel crisis and a collapsing economy that has affected all sectors and led to the interruption of academic activities at most universities as lecturers and students are unable to attend classes.

The higher education regulatory body the University Grants Commission (UGC) on 17 June granted university vice-chancellors the power to make their own decisions regarding the normal functioning of their universities, considering the current situation.

Officials closed the University of Peradeniya – Sri Lanka’s largest state-run university – indefinitely and announced the closure of the Rajarata University of Sri Lanka and the University of the Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo for two weeks from 20 June.

In a statement on 17 June, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya MD Lamawansa said all academic activities including examinations would be temporarily suspended. Students were asked to vacate university hostels “with immediate effect”, the statement said.

The university postponed its general convocation (graduation ceremony) until further notice due to transport difficulties resulting from the fuel shortage.

In a statement on 18 June, Rajarata University Vice-Chancellor Sanjeewanie Ginigaddara temporarily suspended all physical academic activities for two weeks but said examinations would continue as usual. Classes will be held online.

Return to online classes

Many universities have returned to the online teaching systems used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Madusha Lakshan, a student at the University of Colombo, said the most difficult aspect of the economic crisis for a university student was the rising cost of food.

“With this tough situation, students cannot afford these expenses, so it is good that universities are teaching via online. Most second-year and first-year year students haven’t been to university physically,” he added.

Supun Prasad, a student at the University of Jaffna, said that given the current economic situation it was a good decision to direct more students to online education. But other students told University World News they wanted to return to university and resume physical classes soon.

Students have been badly affected due to rising prices of food, accommodation and transport as well as the price of stationery and other educational materials, and their situation is compounded by frequent power cuts, and medicine shortages.

Nilanthi de Silva, vice-chancellor of the University of Kelaniya, said during a meeting of the parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) on 15 June, held to examine future education plans, that the university system was facing many challenges.

“Due to gas shortages, university canteens are unable to function; students are being called to universities only for exams and practical tests. Most lectures are being conducted online,” she said. Students at her own university come to campus only for examinations and practical classes. She said many students could not afford three meals a day.

During the meeting, COPA recommended that a World Bank-funded US$100 million project to support the higher education sector in Sri Lanka should be “reconsidered” and put to good use in the face of the ongoing crisis.

The project, initiated in 2017, will end in 2023. It aims to increase higher education enrolment, improving the quality of higher education, and promote research, development, innovation and commercialisation.

Teachers’ unions oppose university closures

The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) opposed university closures saying it was not a solution amid the prevailing crisis in the country. FUTA Chairman Shyam Banneheka this week said the authorities should take steps to give priority to education and take necessary action.

In a letter to the UGC on 20 June, FUTA called on university authorities and the UGC “to immediately discuss the dire situation in universities with the government and convince it [the government] that education is a vital component of our society and ensure that at least a minimum of resources is allocated to ensure the functioning of the education system”.

FUTA said that despite “extreme challenges and difficulties”, and acknowledging that “the general lack of resources required for a university to function makes keeping universities in operation practically impossible”, rather than university closures “we need a more creative and committed response from the government to the impact of the current economic crisis on higher education”.

“The university authorities, including the vice-chancellors, deans and registrars, are in a hopeless situation as the government is not offering any kind of credible strategy or assistance to face this situation,” it said.

FUTA added: “We appreciate the difficulties that have arisen for students, such as the lack of adequate hostel facilities which has resulted in overcrowding, illness and poor sanitation, prohibitive food and transport costs, and poor-quality foods.

“We understand that these difficulties are on top of the uncertainties that the economic crisis has brought for them and their families.”

It also pointed to staff who “are faced with the uncertainties brought about by the lack of transportation and, where available, the rising cost of transportation”.

“We need a system in place that would allow university staff to have transport facilities to report to work. [And] for students in hostels to have their basic nutritional needs and other livelihood needs catered for.

“Without such a system, simply shutting down institutions in an ad hoc manner will lead to catastrophic breakdown in the entire education system,” it said, noting that the closures come after education has been severely impacted by the two years of the pandemic.

Bleak outlook

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the economy had “completely collapsed” and was seeing signs of a possible fall to the very bottom.

He said school education had collapsed as a result of the crisis, but said the relevant authorities were taking necessary steps to address this, including the formulation of a plan to give priority to school buses and school vans when providing fuel.

Education Ministry Secretary MN Ranasinghe told COPA on 15 June that the education sector as a whole had entered a “very serious and complex situation” and it had become more difficult to manage the situation in the face of the economic crisis than it was during the pandemic.

In May, Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt for the first time in its history and suspended repayment of US$51 billion in foreign debt.

From 20 June, Sri Lankan authorities announced a two-week shutdown of government offices as public transport was crippled due to fuel shortages and lack of dollars to pay for new fuel orders. Only 9,000 private buses are operating out of a fleet of 18,000.

Trains are still running but are heavily overcrowded, while limited fuel supplies are issued only for essential services as scheduled fuel shipments are delayed. Kilometres-long fuel queues have been seen as motorists and riders wait for days to refuel vehicles.

Schools closed

Authorities decided to close government and private schools in the Colombo zone and in nearby cities and in the main cities in other provinces until 27 June due to the prevailing fuel crisis. Outside the main cities, school principals were given permission to make suitable decisions regarding their schools.

Rural and regional schools with fewer pupils are still functioning as transport difficulties are not affecting the pupils and teachers. The government has also introduced a system, expected to be implemented until 31 December, to temporarily attach children to the nearest school.

Officials have advised switching to online teaching for schools, but government-imposed power cuts that have been occurring in Sri Lanka since January have seriously affected online education.

The Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka has agreed not to impose power cuts from 8am until 1pm to facilitate online teaching on weekdays.

Aid funding

According to a UNICEF press release, more than 5.7 million people, including 2.3 million children, in Sri Lanka require humanitarian assistance. Sri Lanka is among the top 10 countries with the highest number of malnourished children and the numbers are expected to rise further.

Save the Children Sri Lanka, a charity organisation, is implementing a ‘food for education’ programme across 887 schools in the country, many of which will be impacted by the latest closures.

A recent needs assessment by Save the Children “shows that 50% of families are really struggling to support their children’s education, and some children are already dropping out of school. Parents are having to decide whether to buy data to access online classes or use this money for food. Faced with such a decision, families make the life-saving choice. But at what cost?”

“Children across Sri Lanka have had a terrible two years, with COVID-related school closures completely disrupting their ability to get a basic education. This economic crisis is making things worse. Not only are schools closing once again, but families have even less resources at their disposal to keep kids learning than they did before the pandemic,” said Ranjan Weththasinghe, Save the Children’s director of programmes in Sri Lanka.

The World Bank said it is currently repurposing resources from previously approved projects to help the government with some essential medicines and school meals for children of vulnerable families.

In coordination with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other development aid partners, the World Bank is advising the government on appropriate policies to restore economic stability but does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macro-economic policy framework is in place.

FUTA says negotiations with the IMF, including any conditions agreed to, must be transparent. The association wants government to continue spending on health and education at least at current levels.

Serious situation

According to the Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka’s inflation hit a record high of 45.3% in May. Food inflation has increased to 58%.

In a special announcement in parliament on 22 June, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka is facing a far more serious situation beyond the shortages of fuel, gas, electricity and food.

“Our economy has faced a complete collapse. These issues can only be resolved through the reviving of the Sri Lankan economy. In order to do this, we must first resolve the foreign reserves crisis faced by us,” he said.

“It is no easy task to revive a country with a completely collapsed economy, especially one that is dangerously low on foreign reserves. If steps had at least been taken to slow down the collapse of the economy at the beginning, we would not be facing this difficult situation today. But we lost out on this opportunity. However, we must come out of this situation. If not, we will be unable to seek solutions to any other issue in the country,” he further said.

The country’s main university student union, the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), blames the government for exacerbating the economic situation. It said it planned a series of protests in Colombo and other cities demanding the resignation of the president and prime minister.

“We have given a deadline to government to step down, but they have not done so. We are ready to intensify the protests,” said IUSF Convener Wasantha Mudalige.

Students and young people have been protesting in front of the president’s office in the capital Colombo since 9 April.