KNDU Bill: Polarising views hit struggling education process

  • No UGC Act as President stated, only a Universities Act: FUTA
  • Pressing need to amend and introduce new provisions to Act
  • KNDU Bill presently under Defence Ministry, not Education Ministry
  • Free education in tertiary education is a myth: Dr. Gamage
  • Bill to be taken up for parliamentary approval on 3 August

By Yumiko Perera

The Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill has been at the forefront of discourse recently and has managed to garner the attention of the masses, sparking debate amongst several sects in the country. The polarising views on the matter have not only caused unrest, but also put more strain on the already struggling education process in the country.

Addressing the Maha Sangha on 17 July, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that the obstacles that exist in the “University Grants Commission (UGC) Act” would be removed and the Kotelawala Defence University would be brought under the purview of the UGC. However, the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) pointed out in a statement that there is no “UGC Act”, per se, that should be amended. 

Speaking with The Sunday Morning, FUTA President Prof. Shyama Banneheka stated: “It is not clear to us what the President or the Government intend to do at this point. He mentioned something about amending the UGC Act; however, there is no such thing as the UGC Act. We assume that he was referring to the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978, and the lack of certain provisions in the aforementioned Act.”

According to Prof. Banneheka, the Universities Act is a strong piece of legislation that has been around for nearly 43 years. He noted that there is, however, a pressing need to make certain amendments and introduce new provisions to the Act, for it to fit into the present-day context. However, he reiterated that even if minor changes are to be introduced into the Universities Act, this needs to be done through a broad consultative process that includes all stakeholders in question, and that the Government’s hasty, non-consultative, and ignorant attempts at university and higher education reform would eventually result in the creation of an education system and culture that lack quality and rigour, further eroding the fundamental values on which the country’s education system is built. 

“The Universities Act is very strong, and we believe that that is why it has survived so long, which is why we do not anticipate any major changes. However, the Act at present does not have anything about online education, and I believe quality assurance is another aspect that needs to be taken into serious consideration, especially when it comes to university education,” he noted. 

Reiterating that the Government should not interfere with the Universities Act without proper advice from those in the field, he further noted that the Government must not mix civilians with military education, and highlighted that the existing Kotelawala National Defence University must be restructured so that it serves its intended purpose of providing higher education and training to officers of the tri-forces.  

He further added that the KNDU Bill stands as a significant deflection from the free education policy that the country has adhered to over the decades. 

In a media statement signed by Prof. Banneheka, FUTA stated that the move by the Government was a realisation of its 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 release stated. 

FUTA highlighted a “major contradiction” in the proposed amendment as well, claiming that if the KNDU is brought under the UGC as a “specific purpose university”, it would automatically invalidate, and render illegal, all the civilian programmes currently operating without regulatory sanction in the university. 

Furthermore, the strongly-worded statement questioned the Government’s motives for this change, asking: “What purpose does it serve? Is it to realise some crudely understood idea of a ‘disciplined society’?” 

FUTA further stated that the Government will not be able to apply a military model to civil society to achieve its visions of a ‘disciplined’ people. 

“‘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. We would like to remind 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 costs.”

Furthermore, speaking with The Sunday Morning, University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman senior Prof. Sampath Amaratunge stated that the Bill is presently under the Defence Ministry, and not the Education Ministry. However, if the UGC had any concerns regarding the Bill after thoroughly studying it, especially with regard to the independence of education, it would be brought up with the Ministry of Education. 

“This is at the parliamentary level at the moment, and we are looking forward to consulting the AG in this regard. While what sort of amendments would be introduced has not been discussed as of yet, I believe discussions in this regard would be underway soon,” he further noted. 

Several sects of the country have raised concerns over the Bill, citing reasons such as the potential militarisation of education and the lack of UGC oversight, as well as the composition of and the extraordinary powers vested with the KNDU governing body. However, renowned academic, senior research fellow at LIRNEasia, and Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL) Co-coordinator Dr. Sujata Gamage, speaking with The Sunday Morning, shared that although the country boasts of free education for all, there are significant disparities that many fail to acknowledge. 

“Free education, when it comes to tertiary education, is a myth. We only accept a mere 7.8% of students into our universities, and what of the remainder? What options are we giving them? We must understand that this isn’t free education, but free education for a select few,” she noted.

Speaking with regard to the role of universities in Sri Lanka and the need to evolve, she noted that although the universities in the country offer technical and vocational education, many aspire to pursue degree programmes. 

“We give free professional education, but only to a select few. We offer little to no options for the rest. I believe that system needs to change. Whilst offering free education to all children is a necessity and gives us many social benefits, we need to look at the bigger picture,” she noted.

“The education budget we spend per student, especially when it comes to higher education, is significantly higher than the normal amount spent by other countries in the region, and over the years, it has only increased, but at the expense of school education,” she elaborated, adding that there is a segment of people who attempt to maintain their privileges under the guise of free education. 

Emphasising that the teachers’ unions seem to be fighting the wrong battle, she stated: “They are fighting against the privatisation of KDU. However, the KDU is a state-owned entity, and they charge a fee from their students. Meanwhile, the school-level education in the country is neglected every year; this is yet another classic case of misplaced priorities.”

Attempts to reach Minister of Education Prof. G.L. Peiris and Education Ministry Secretary K. Kapila C.K. Perera for comment, were futile.

Meanwhile, according to the Parliament Department of Communications, the debate on the KDNU Bill would be taken up after further consideration by the Consultative Committee on Defence, The Sunday Morning learnt.  

Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa has informed the governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) parliamentary group that the Bill will be amended and taken up in Parliament on 3 August for parliamentary approval.

Furthermore, following a discussion held between teachers’ trade unions and officials of the Presidential Secretariat last Thursday (22), the trade unions have been granted the opportunity to meet with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa before 30 July in order to discuss their issues, including salary anomalies, The Sunday Morning learnt.

According to the teachers’ trade unions, the Minister of Education is to submit a proposal to the Cabinet of Ministers on 26 July with regard to the issues teachers are facing at present, and a meeting would be held on the 27 July between the Minister of Education and the teachers’ trade unions to discuss the aforementioned proposal.