Higher education woes

Friday, 9 July 2021 00:04 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The pandemic may have brought about many negatives for the Government, whether it be managing the economy or the countries creaking healthcare system, but one ‘positive’ has been the cover it has seemingly provided for them to pass legislation away from the public gaze.

Earlier this year, it was the Port City Commission Bill which scarcely provided room for debate, and the latest is the Kotelawala University Bill, which has many stakeholders up in arms.

The Bill proposes to allow the existing General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU), which at present trains primarily 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 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. 

This is the point which many have taken umbrage to, with the latest protest this week resulting in several arrests, including that of Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) student protestors and Ceylon Teachers Union Secretary Joseph Stalin. That the arrests have been conducted under the pretext of the protesters violating pandemic-related guidelines on large gatherings, is problematic in and of itself, but is discussion for another day.

Rather, it is important that we take a closer look at the grievances these protesters have against the KNDU Bill, namely, that it could lead to militarisation of higher education in Sri Lanka. This is indeed something even the JVP has brought up in the past, stating that “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”.

That said, the fact remains that changes are undoubtedly required in Sri Lanka’s higher education system – especially when it comes to Universities.

Only about 17% of students who qualify for university entrance actually gain admission to a State university in Sri Lanka, leaving hundreds of thousands of promising youths behind. State universities’ inability to absorb all deserving students has resulted in an inequitable situation where students are forced to either resit the Advanced Level examination or seek alternate means of tertiary education or find employment via some form of vocational training.  Successive governments have attempted to find a balance between public and private universities but have found little success.

Sri Lanka should seriously consider following a system such as that found in Australia where universities are graded for transparency and local students are given prominence, but the system is so effective and efficient there are plenty of foreign applicants as well and the universities attract highly qualified teachers and administrators. 

Without such a transparent and independent regulatory system and investment mechanism, higher education in Sri Lanka is at risk of being sold to the highest bidder – or in the case of the KNDU Bill, the potential militarisation could pave the way for rapid militarisation, commercialisation and a decline of quality, standards and fundamental goals and objectives of university education in the country.

This is especially problematic as education will be a key decider of the living standards of future generations and the growth trajectory of the entire country. Saddled with an aging population, Sri Lanka needs to make the most of its human resources. 

Hopefully the Government can find a way to negotiate a better return for everyone keeping in focus the capacity to achieve universal social mobility as the ultimate indicator of the success of a university education.