By R.P. Gunawardane –
It has been reported that the debate of the KNDU bill in the Parliament has been postponed allowing more time for a national debate. This is a good gesture on the part of the government in response to many protests against this bill by the masses. Particularly, all the school teacher unions, Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) and the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) have strongly protested against this bill. In addition, the Executive Committee of the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) has issued a statement stating that they are opposed to this proposed bill.
Furthermore, most political parties in the opposition have vehemently opposed the draft bill. Some constituent parties of the government have also expressed their reservations on this bill. This means that it is a controversial piece of legislation which needs further examination prior to presenting it in the Parliament.
Incompatibility of the bill with Universities Act
In my previous article I have stated that this bill is incompatible and inconsistent with the Universities Act No.16 of 1978 and therefore it is not possible to bring the proposed KNDU under the University Grants Commission (UGC). This was in response to a news report suggesting that the government is intending to bring the KNDU under the purview of the UGC.
In fact, the incompatibility and inconsistencies can be seen clearly if one goes through the Universities Act No.16 of 1978 section by section, page by page and paragraph by paragraph carefully. There is no way the proposed KNDU can come under the purview of the UGC. Multiple amendments or any number of amendments to the Universities Act will not solve this issue because the two Acts have completely different approaches.
It is difficult to understand how such a proposal is coming from a government with so many academics holding high positions. It is apparent that no serious consultations, discussions/debates have taken place even within the government establishment regarding this act.
This government has the highest number of academics in top positions than in any other previous governments formed after independence in 1948. Leading the government team of academics is Professor G.L. Peiris, Minister of Education whose portfolio includes the state university system. He was also a former Vice-Chancellor of University of Colombo and a founder member of the National Education Commission of Sri Lanka. He and other senior academics from various universities serving this government are well aware of the details of our university system and the contents of the Universities Act. Yet, the government has done a tremendous blunder by introducing such a bill without a serious scrutiny and as a second thought trying to bring KNDU under the UGC.
Violation of Sir John’s Last Will
Late Sir John Kotelawala wanted this institution to be a Military Academy for training military personnel. Thus, it is a violation of his last will if it becomes a traditional university under the UGC and there may be legal implications as well. Thus, this institution should be developed according to Sir John’s wish as a Military Academy to train only military personnel and therefore it should not be a traditional university. Thus, the existence of the Medical School is also questionable and therefore this aspect should be studied by a competent committee before taking a final decision. In any event, all civilian medical students should be transferred to a state medical school to continue their studies.
Apparent and hidden dangers
There are many apparent dangers of this bill leading to militarization of higher education system in Sri Lanka. It attempts to mix civilian higher education with military training under an autocratic military structure of administration. This is not suitable for academic advancement of civilian students. Furthermore, under military administration there is no healthy debate on issues and nothing can be questioned. Under such administration many irregularities can occur particularly in administering admissions, examinations, recruiting staff, disciplinary matters and in many other academic and non-academic issues.
There are many hidden dangers in addition to apparent dangers of this bill. One such danger is that when it is in the statute books, the government can bring all the other universities under this rule by a gazette notification under emergency. There are many other hidden dangers which will lead to destabilization, disorder and unrest in our university system leading to national calamity.
Fee Levying Status & Free Education Policy
KNDU is a state education institution but it is fee-levying. A fee is charged from the students against the government policy. This is contrary to the free education concept of the state education institutions initiated by Kannangara education reforms. According to this policy education should be provided free of charge up to undergraduate level. Thus, all state universities are strictly following this policy of non-fee levying for all their undergraduate courses.
Some argue that Open University charges fees from students and fees are charged for external degrees conducted by the state universities. This argument is not valid because open university programs and external degree programs of other state universities are offered mainly for employed students who cannot study in a full-time institution. It is a nominal fee that can be paid by these employed students.
On the other hand, there are number of non-state sector fee-levying university level degree awarding institutions operating in this country. There are over 20 such institutions approved by the UGC. They are also performing an enormous service to the country by providing alternative avenues for university education to our deserving students. These institutions also can supplement the state university system by cooperating in different ways. Thus, these institutions also should be guided by an accreditation and quality assurance mechanism provided by the government.
It is necessary to stress that further expansion of university education to non-state sector should be accompanied by (i) an independent accreditation mechanism and (ii) need-based scholarships and loan schemes for students. Broad-basing the providers of university education will introduce an important element of competition to the system. This competition is healthy because it will certainly improve quality and considerably reduce the cost of training providing more variety and opportunities to needy students.
Financial Status of KNDA
KNDU is a fee levying institution and it claims to be financially independent. However, it is reported recently that this institution is in serious debt to state owned banks like National Savings Bank and Bank of Ceylon over tens of million rupees with treasury guarantee as indicated in their audit reports. At the same time our state universities are underfunded and unable to get their supplies for teaching and research. This facility available to KNDU is not available to other state universities providing free education to all students strictly following the government policy.
Right thinking people of Sri Lanka appeal to the government to withdraw this KNDU bill without any further delay in the midst of this worst pandemic faced by the humanity in this century. There is no other option available to the government other than the withdrawal. Once the bill is withdrawn honorably, a new Kotelawala National Defense Academy (KNDA) bill may be developed with wide national and international consultation in conformity of the wishes of late Sir John Kotelawala to establish a reputed Military Academy in Sri Lanka to train local and foreign military personnel. It should be established by using a separate Act outside the Universities Act No.16 of 1978.
*The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka