FUTA expresses dismay at sudden amendment of Universities Act

The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations has expressed its dismay over the government’s sudden decision to publish a Gazette notification amending the Universities Act of 1978, they stated in a statement issued today.

The government issued a gazette notification on Tuesday (20), amending the Universities Act of 1978 to include “universities for a specific purpose” within the purview of the University Grants Commission (UGC). This sudden and ad-hoc amendment to the Universities Act appears to be a calculated move to bring the Kotelawela National Defense University (KNDU) within the purview of the UGC.

“Reacting to the major public opposition building against the KNDU Bill, it appears that the government is attempting to push ahead with its distorted project of mixing military and civilian education through this amendment. The government and its advisors are meddling with the higher education regulatory framework of this country either with malicious intent to destabilize the entire university system or in absolute ignorance of the far-reaching consequences of their actions,” FUTA said.

In their last statement, FUTA highlighted its opposition to ad-hoc changes to the Universities Act of 1978.

“This amendment realizes our worst fears. By surreptitiously attempting to bring the KNDU within the purview of the UGC the government hopes to achieve the same objectives contained in the KNDU Bill. The University Grants Commission is an entity that regulates civilian university education in the country. It has neither the expertise nor the capacity to regulate a defense establishment,” they said.

FUTA said that if the KNDU is brought within the purview of the UGC, it will result in a situation where the UGC’s authority is undermined and questioned.

“Time and again we have witnessed how the military hierarchy is unwilling to submit to civilian authority. This is understandable. Within a military structure there is no consultative decision making. A military decision-making system by default follows a command and execute model. However, the Universities Act of 1978 and the UGC follow a completely oppositional model. They work through a democratic model based on consultation and compromise. These are values deeply enshrined within the Universities Act of 1978. Therefore, this amendment, if passed in parliament, will result in a direct conflict between civilian and military spheres of authority – an unwelcome and unnecessary conflict created by the hasty bull-in-the-china-shop attitude towards regulatory reform adopted by this government,” they stressed.

In addition, FUTA said that there is another major contradiction in this amendment, which the government’s advisors appear to have missed in their haste.

“If KNDU is to be brought under the UGC as a ‘specific purpose university’, which would naturally mean a university set up for the ‘specific purpose’ of educating military officers, how can civilian programs of study be a part of this university? The classification of KNDU as a ‘specific purpose university’ will automatically invalidate and render illegal all the civilian programs currently operating without regulatory sanction in the university. It is apparent, therefore, that through its hasty, non-consultative tinkering with the Universities Act of 1978 the government has created a situation that can result in further confusion, uncertainty and instability in the higher education and university sector in this country,” they said.

FUTA asked the government why it is in this undue haste to legitimize an unsustainable and distorted system of mixing military and civilian education.

“What purpose does it serve? Is to realize some crudely understood idea of a ‘disciplined society’? Discipline within a military institution is maintained through an inflexible command structure and the fear of harsh punishment against those who question or deviate from this command structure. ‘Discipline’ in civil society is created through the inculcation of values and a legal structure to which people subscribe. A military model cannot achieve this,” they said.

FUTA further reminded that this democratically-elected government that Sri Lanka has a proud tradition of representative democracy that has withstood many civil uprisings and an armed conflict for over seven decades.

“During all this time the military played its specific role and the police and the courts of law in this country functioned as the arbiters of discipline and justice in civil society. This balance must be maintained at all cost. We urge the government to refrain from using this amendment to the Universities Act to forcibly yoke a military institution into the civilian administration structure of the UGC,” they requested.

Instead, FUTA asked the government to immediately restructure the existing Kotelawela National Defense University so that it serves its original, intended purpose of providing higher education to officers of the tri-forces.

“At the same time, we insist that current civilian programs of study in this university be transferred to the existing university system in this country. The time has come to end this distorted drama of non-merit based militarized civilian education performed at the expense of public tax payer money. Military education can and should have its own domain and civilian education should be left in the hands of able, competent and qualified civilian educators,” they concluded.