By R.P. Gunawardane –
It has been reported recently that the government is intending to bring the proposed Kotelawala National Defense University (KNDU) under the University Grants Commission (UGC). This will be an impossible task because the proposed KNDU bill is completely incompatible and inconsistent with the Universities Act of 1978. Therefore, bringing KNDU under the UGC is literally just like trying to fix round pin plug into a square socket!
There are many unanswered questions regarding this proposed bill. The UGC is the primary statutory body responsible for recommending the establishment of new state universities. It is doubtful whether the establishment of the KNDU and its administrative structure was ever discussed at the UGC. Have they sent any specific recommendations? What is the role of the UGC in this regard and what are their comments and recommendations? The general public needs an explanation from the UGC regarding this matter.
Establishment of national institutions of this nature should be done by extensive consultations and national debate in the form of group meetings, seminars, workshops etc. to finalize the draft. There is no evidence for such a national debate for this proposal. On the other hand, Universities Act of 1978 was a brainchild of a well-respected academic and a former Senator Professor Stanley Kalpage, who spent nearly two years with extensive consultations with academics and all the other stakeholders in the country. He held many meetings, seminars and workshops bringing in international scholars as well for consultations before preparing the draft bill. It was implemented with effect from 1st January 1979 and even after a period of over 43 years with many changes of governments, Presidents and Ministers it remains the backbone of the Sri Lankan university system even today. Although a number of minor amendments to this Act were brought in during the last four decades, the main features of the Act remain unchanged.
As practiced internationally democratic governance was brought into the university system maintaining the academic and administrative freedom within the university under the broad national guidelines stipulated by the University Grants Commission. The Universities Act of 1978 was not perfect as in many other cases and therefore further amendments are considered necessary in the current national interests and the global trends.
On the other hand, the proposed KNDU Bill is prepared by a group of military personnel without extensive national consultation or debate. It was not discussed or debated at national level outside the defense establishment. The UGC was not brought in and not officially consulted. Whole approach is completely militaristic and therefore it is not suitable for ordinary civilians for undergraduate studies.
The KNDU administration has a militaristic structure and the decision-making process is not democratic, mostly autocratic completely different from the state university system. University system in Sri Lanka follows international norms with democratic decision making at the faculty, senate and council levels. All unions- student unions, teachers unions, employee unions are functioning freely. Free expression of opinions, peaceful protests are all allowed as in other universities all over the world. On the other hand, KNDU has militaristic structure with no free speech and all unions banned. Thus, KNDU is incompatible with the universally accepted university culture and therefore it cannot and should not be called a university at all. It should be a Sri Lanka Military Academy or National Defense Academy of Sri Lanka. This can best be developed and modeled as a prestigious Academy for military training in Sri Lanka by following the model of some reputed and prestigious international military academies listed below.
1. United States Military Academy, West Point, USA
2. Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, UK
3. PLA National Defense University, Beijing, China
4. Pakistan Military Academy
5. National Defense Academy of India.
Reputed Military Academies in the world do not have medical schools/faculties to produce medical doctors. Normal practice is to recruit medical doctors graduated from other universities and giving them special course of military training for a year leading to a postgraduate diploma prior to their confirmation.
Thus, there is no reason for the KNDU to have a medical school since there are sufficient number of medical graduates produced by our medical schools in the country. The selected medical graduates after recruitment can be trained in this academy and award them the appropriate qualification/ Diploma prior to their confirmation in the military service.
It must also be stated that in the first instance the KDA Medical School was established by the Defense Ministry without any consultation with the University Grants Commission. It is also a state medical school, although it does not come under the UGC. In the state sector new medical schools are established based on the need after a careful study of the infrastructure needs for teaching, clinical work, library and availability of teaching staff in different academic and clinical disciplines among many other factors. This is usually done by the UGC through its Standing Committee on Medical and Dental Sciences. Apparently the UGC has not been consulted officially and this procedure has not been followed. Thus, it is clear that even the initial establishment of this institution was done without following the proper procedure. In such a scenario it is hard to imagine how standards can be maintained or monitored in the absence of any expertise in the defense establishment.
There are many serious issues that may arise under a militaristic and autocratic administration of a higher education institution like KNDU. Some of these issues are, abuse of admission policy, possible quotas for military families, favoritism in recruitment and promotion of staff, variable fees, examination frauds and lack of a standard procedure for quality assurance of academic programs resulting in the refusal of recognition of the diplomas/degrees awarded by this institution.
It was reported that School Teacher Unions have taken up this issue seriously and many protests have been organized. Whole nation should salute the Teachers Union and their leaders for taking up this national issue seriously and organizing protests. On the other hand, our university community particularly university teachers are relatively silent today. Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) which is traditionally vociferous on these matters is not expressing their opinion freely. It is disheartening to note that our academic community is silent regarding the vital issues of immense national importance. A mild halfhearted response in the form of a news release issued by the FUTA is not adequate for a vital issue of this nature affecting the entire higher education system in Sri Lanka.
The dangers posed by the proposed KNDU bill to the Sri Lankan higher education system is much more than the dangers expected from an institution like the SAITM. In fact, we could have retained the SAITM like any other private higher education institute in Sri Lanka by making appropriate adjustments and controls. The GMOA protested strongly against the existence of the SAITM but remains calm with mild and soft approach to the KNDU issue which brings more damage to our entire higher education system in Sri Lanka.
The proposed structure for the KNDU may be suitable for a Military academy, and such an institution should be developed as a prestigious Military Academy to grant Diplomas and degrees for military personnel. It should be renamed as Kotelawala National Defense Academy (KNDA). Such institutions are available in countries like USA, UK, India, China, Pakistan and in many other countries. This academy can be modelled and further developed using such a model not as a national university in the Sri Lankan context.
*The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka