Prospects for foreign, private universities raise hopes

The first steps to establish foreign university branches and private universities in Sri Lanka will be taken in 2023, bringing a glimmer of hope to the Sri Lankan education sector, which was hard hit by last year’s political upheavals – which saw the detention of hundreds of students – and the country’s debilitating economic crisis.

According to a Central Bank report, Sri Lanka recorded negative economic growth (-8.4%) in the second quarter of 2022 and is suffering the deepest recession since independence from Britain in 1948. The country has the seventh highest food price inflation in the world, according to the World Bank, while usable foreign reserves dropped to record lows (US$1.80 billion in November 2022 compared with US$7.5 billion in November 2019), according to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

In May 2022, Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt for the first time in its history and suspended repayment of US$51 billion in foreign debt.

Political upheaval

Political unrest last year saw the expulsion of two leaders by the people through a struggle named Aragalaya (the Sinhalese word for ‘struggle’). Sri Lankan students and young people played a key role in unseating the country’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa through a peaceful struggle.

In a unique turn of events, parliamentarian Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party, with only one seat in the parliament, became the Sri Lankan president.

After the new government was formed, police arrested about 130 protesters, including activists directly involved in the peaceful movement. The arrests included Wasantha Mudalige, leader of the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF), Sri Lanka’s largest and most powerful student union.

Students last year intensified their fight against the detention of their leaders, some of whom have now been held for over 150 days, while human rights organisations have demanded an end to government crackdowns on peaceful protests.

Seven human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, called on the Sri Lankan government to immediately end the arbitrary detention of Mudalige.

However, the government has shown no signs of pulling back, arresting two more students – Kelum Mudannayake, president of Kelaniya University Students’ Union, and activist Dilshan Harshana – on 2 January 2023, ostensibly for damaging public property during a protest.

Foreign university branches

Against this backdrop, the proposed reintroduction of foreign university branches, which is expected to earn foreign currency through international student fees, represents a ray of hope for the higher education sector.

During the interim budget speech in parliament, Wickremesinghe proposed to facilitate the establishment of branch campuses in Sri Lanka, including those geared towards the study of medicine. The Sri Lanka government is planning to provide all facilities through the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka, the country’s investment promotion agency.

“Sri Lanka needs to encourage private investment to provide educational opportunities to foreign students. Many countries in the world have opened educational opportunities to foreign students in a manner to build their foreign reserves. In the South Asian region, Bangladesh, India and Nepal have already opened up their countries to foreign students to build up their foreign reserves,” the president said.

He went on to say that by setting up foreign university branches in Sri Lanka, the country could earn US$10 billion in foreign exchange annually through international student fees.

He requested all parties to support changes to the 1978 Universities Act so that private universities could be established. He said once the new bill is presented, he will take the responsibility of getting it through parliament.

Sri Lanka’s State Minister of Higher Education Dr Suren Raghavan said the government was planning to set up branches of five internationally recognised universities in Sri Lanka in the next three years. Among these are two universities from the United States, two from the United Kingdom and one from Australia.

According to leading student migration consultancy agencies in Sri Lanka, increasing numbers of Sri Lankan students have been going abroad for higher education since early last year, taking valuable financial resources with them. Sri Lanka has only 17 state universities admitting only 42,000 students annually out of the 350,000 who sit A-level examinations every year. Limited university capacity means many young people miss out on the opportunity for higher education.

Several attempts by previous governments to introduce private universities and branches failed due to student resistance. A proposed private university bill put forward by the Rajapaksa government was withdrawn in 2012 because of student opposition.

Similarly, the Free Investment Zones proposal, a project for higher education privatisation, also failed due to student resistance.

Education reforms

During the 2023 budget, Wickremesinghe proposed setting up a Quality Assurance and Accreditation Board to ensure the quality and accreditation of degree courses in universities.

Raghavan also proposed to create endowment funds for all universities along the lines of endowments at Ivy League institutions in the United States. Under the proposed system, graduates of Sri Lankan universities will contribute to a fund for several years. Those funds can be used for research and innovation.

Education Minister Susil Premajayantha said a group of 11 members of parliament have been appointed to study all opportunities for expanding higher education and a report is due within two months.

Presenting a new proposal for education in 2023, Premajayantha told parliament that information technology would be added as a core subject of the GCE Ordinary Level examination from 2023 and artificial intelligence would be introduced as a school subject from Grade 8.

“Still, we are continuing with the outdated examination-centred education system with only minor reforms. Therefore, we have to change this system and stand up with the changes that the younger generation is demanding now. We are ready to do revolutionary social change through an educational transitional process,” the minister said.

The minister has also announced that the country’s 19 teacher colleges will be converted into national education universities aimed at producing high-quality teaching graduates.

In another unique proposal for the new year, Sri Lanka is planning to establish an International University for Climate Change to further knowledge, share experience and provide education, training, capacity building and development of programmes in the areas of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The Sri Lanka government allocated LKR100 million (US$275,000) for the university during the 2023 budget. The government is also seeking the support of the Asian Development Bank to set up the university to be built in Kandy.

As Sri Lanka is celebrating its 75th year of independence from colonial rule on 4 February, the government is planning to establish several new universities. The University of Government and Government Policies, the University of Agricultural Technology and the University of Sports will be established in the coming years.

“Measures will also be taken to establish a university to train officials on government and state policies. We should establish an agricultural technology university if we need our agriculture to be modernised. Also, we hope to establish a sports university to train the country’s athletes to international standards,” the president told parliament.

Student unrest

Sri Lankan university students intensified their fight last year against the arrest and detention of student leaders, including Mudalige, whose IUSF played a key role in organising the peaceful protests.

Mudalige was arrested under the country’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows up to a year’s detention without trial and has been detained for almost over 150 days. Police say Mudalige was detained to investigate charges of incitement. On 17 January the court remanded him until 31 January, despite a bail application.

Students have launched a broad-based movement with trade unions, civil organisations, artists and university lecturers to free all detained activists and against the “anti-democratic repressive programme” of the current government, including the controversial use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

In addition to the protests currently taking place in front of universities, students plan massive future protest marches in the capital. Students joined the first protest march in Colombo on 5 January and later on 17 January, demanding the release of student leaders.

Amnesty International South Asia called on the Sri Lankan authorities to drop what it describes as “baseless” terror-related charges against Mudalige and other protesters and to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and end its use.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government has indicated it plans to table a new counter-terrorism act to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The impact of the crisis on students

Sri Lankan students were hard hit during 2022 by rising prices of food, accommodation and transport as well as the price of stationery and other educational materials.

Throughout the year, educational activities in almost all universities and schools were hampered by protests, general strikes, curfews, a fuel crisis and ongoing power cuts. There is also a major shortage of exercise books and other educational materials due to import restrictions.

Sri Lanka temporarily shut down at least four state universities and closed schools for several weeks due to the fuel crisis and a collapsing economy.

Unable to hold in-person classes, many universities and schools returned to online teaching, but government-imposed power cuts made this difficult and officials had to postpone many exams including the university entrance (A-level) examination and GCE Ordinary Level examinations taken at age 16.

Premajayantha, the education minister, said about 25% of students are currently badly affected by the increase in prices of educational materials, and hopes to implement a programme to provide school materials at a subsidised price for them in the future.

He also said a proposal will be presented to the cabinet to remove the Cess tax, which is imposed on all imports and on school equipment, precipitating a price reduction.

Meanwhile, the Asian Development Bank forecasts that Sri Lanka’s economic growth will be -3.3% in 2023 and the latest United Nations World Food Programme assessment reveals that 86% of Sri Lankan families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and in some cases skipping meals altogether.

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

Ongoing student campaigns

Amidst a dire national economic situation, Mudalige sent a letter from his detention centre asking people to choose the struggle rather than kneel before government repression and economic pressure. He said the IUSF is ready to make any kind of sacrifice to continue the struggle.

“People struggle with a lot of expectations, but the government has not been able to fulfil those expectations yet. After Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sent [away], Ranil became the president. Now the Ranil-Rajapaksa ‘junta’ is doing the same old work. People are being heavily taxed, electricity bills [have been] increased, people who are still eating one meal a day will starve to death, billions of stolen money are sent out of the country, as revealed in the Pandora Papers, education, health and the country’s assets are [being] privat[ised],” he wrote.

“During the 2022 struggle, we achieved many achievements. With that experience, the struggle must be carried forward until a final victory. Unconditionally, take to the streets in an organised manner. Let’s fight for our lives. Let’s fight for our future generations. As a student movement, we are ready to make any kind of sacrifice for that,” he said.

Despite Mudalige’s impassioned pleas, however, fewer people are turning up at recent protests. Political commentators say this may be due to some extent to recent government concessions such as reducing power cuts, some alleviation of the cooking gas shortage and a reduction in fuel queues through a rationing system.

Political commentators say that many are optimistic about the new president. This is partly because negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are at a final stage and inflation has been controlled to some extent during the last few months.

Sri Lanka has already reached an IMF staff-level agreement and is expecting a US$2.9 billion bailout early this year.