I am passing by the Open University of Sri Lanka on my way to work and I cannot help but notice a banner displayed inside the campus premises facing the Nawala road. The banner says, something to the effect of “රාජ්ය විශ්ව විද්යාල පද්ධතිය දිය කර හරින කොතලාවල පනත හකුලා ගනු” (Roll back the KNDU bill that destroys the State University System!) and “අධ්යාපනය මිලිටරිකරණය නොකරනු” (Quit militarizing education!) Is this so-called controversial bill genuinely a threat to our free education system or is it just the proverbial boy crying Tiger, Tiger? Let’s find out. [Image Credit: Official Website of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University]
What the heck is the Kotelawala National Defence University Bill?
If you asked the people opposing the bill on social media and outside it “What is the KNDU Bill?” you will learn they don’t know the head or tail of the bill in question. What the heck is the KNDU bill then? Basically, it’s a bill the government has proposed for expanding the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (a higher education institute exclusively for military service personnel at the moment of this writing) to enable civilians to benefit from it. To train public service officers through the KNDU so that they can be of greater service to the country is another goal of the proposed bill.
However, the opposition and other political parties, as well as media and some educators, are calling for the complete withdrawal of the bill citing it is a precursor for (1) Militarizing Education and Eliminating Academic Freedom (2) Commoditizing the Free Education System, and (3) Producing substandard graduates because the said University and its higher education program is not under the purview of the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka. (Although the KNDU administration is in favor of making amendments) Let’s see how rational these claims are?
Can the Bill militarize Education and eliminate the Academic Freedom?
On 16.07.2021 Ground Views website and the Daily FT website on 03.08.2021 criticized the proposed bill on the grounds it seeks to militarize education by imposing the rules, regulations, and codes of conduct intended for military personnel over civilian students. Articles on both The Ground Views and the Daily FT had quoted the undermentioned excerpts from the KNDU Student Handbook which they vaguely misinterpreted and mispresented as “rigorous disciplinary rules” applicable only to military officers but not for the civilian youth who enter universities. (Had they sought to clarify these rules with the KNDU administration? No! Why would they when they can quote, misinterpret and mispresent them out of context?)
- All students shall adhere to the road signs within University premises and shall use sidewalks all the time when walking from one place to another.
- Disciplinary actions will be taken against students who in any way disrupt lectures.
- Married ladies and gentlemen will not be enrolled in the degree programmes conducted at the University, as Day Scholars. Marriages during the first degree will not be allowed by the University except for lateral entry students and those who are reading for the second degree.
- In case of pregnancy during a course of study, the University will be compelled to discontinue the female Day Scholar from the degree programme, until such time she seems fit to continue with her studies.
- Disobedience or disrespecting or arguing unnecessarily with lecturers is a punishable crime at KNDU. Students are not allowed to join any clubs or societies that are not designated by the authorities.
Now, state-run institutions may not have formally adopted rules, but they do have unwritten rules and codes of conduct that govern student behavior. Besides, when I read the student handbooks issued by the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and the University of Kelaniya I learned those universities have similar rules. Either the critics of the proposed bill haven’t had time to read those student handbooks or they deliberately and hypocritically ignore these similarities! The problem here is not the rules. The problem is the politicians, biased media, and a few educators who misinterpret the rules for their advantage.
The bill is also criticized for its ability to eliminate academic freedom and prohibit dissent, citing the Lima Declaration in this regard. The Lima Declaration was adopted by the World University Service (WUS) at its sixth General Assembly held in the year 1988. It defines academic freedom as “Freedom of members of the academic community, individually or collectively, in the pursuit, development, and transmission of knowledge, through research, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation, teaching lecturing and writing”
According to Dr. Sisira Pinnawala (Director – Veemansa Initiative, Colombo and retired Professor in Sociology, University of Peradeniya) who was interviewed by the Sunday Observer, there is nothing in the proposed bill restricting academic freedom as defined in the Declaration. Section 7 Part III of the bill, according to critics, inhibits dissent and freedom of expression at the university. Dr. Pinnawala, on the other hand, points out that Section 20 (3) of Part III of the Universities Act 16 of 1978 gives the Minister of Education the same authority as the proposed bill. So the bottom line is there’s no basis for the claim that the bill could be used for militarizing education and eliminating academic freedom.
Note: The said bill is available to the public through the official website of the Parliament of Sri Lanka. It’s doubtful how many critics have read it, however.
Can the Bill lead to the Commodification of Education?
The critics opposing the said bill also claim it will lead to the commodification of education. (Regardless of Minister Eran Wickramaratne in this video claiming the children of the parliamentarians opposing the bill are studying in private universities in Sri Lanka and overseas.) According to Dr. Pinnawala however, contrary to the claims of the critics, fee-based education is not the same as selling education for the sole sake of profit. He also mentioned that the vast majority of fee-charging educational institutions around the world are not-for-profit establishments.
He went on to say that in nations where fee-paying colleges are the norm, such as the United States, stringent regulatory mechanisms such as accreditation agencies and other systems of standard maintenance are in place to ensure academic quality. Second, as other countries’ experiences illustrate, even for-profit institutions cannot charge exorbitant rates since students are intelligent consumers. Frankly speaking, the critics are mixing Apples with Oranges when they say the bill will lead to the commodification of education.
Should the KNDU come under the purview of the Universities Act?
It’s a fact that General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University is not and will never be under the purview of the University Grants Commission. According to Ground Views, this move would result in thousands of substandard graduates being produced by a state university that is no longer regulated and these graduates may become involved in the country’s civil administration system. Now, I have a question? Where was the UGC when the Government appointed Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda Thera to the office of the Chancellor of the University of Colombo?
Although it’s the president who nominates the chancellor of each university the UGC should have interfered when he appointed an underqualified person to the office of the Chancellor. Later the graduates on a move to protest the appointment refused to accept their degrees from Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda Thera at the graduation ceremony held on December 17th, 2021. Although individuals in favor of the appointment in defense of the government condemned this move by the graduates, the former president Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga issued a statement applauding the move.
How those graduates acted that day was very polite. They demonstrated their protest politely and silently. Various people have expressed different opinions on the incident. I see this as the day when democracy was upheld in the country. They acted democratically to uphold the democratic values of all the people without taking weapons or using foul language.Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Former President of Sri Lanka
May I remind you that KNDU is not the first university to be established by a separate act? The University of Vocational Technology and the Ocean University of Sri Lanka are two other universities that are exempt from the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978. At the time they were established, there were no protests. Besides, not many nations have UGCs or similar institutions, and having one authority with all accrediting powers could be problematic. It grants total power in defining standards in the long run. Accreditation will benefit the country’s higher education if it is freed from the university academic bureaucracy and made independent. In a nutshell, there is no basis for the claim the graduates produced by the KNDU will be substandard because the university or its higher education is not under the purview of the UGC.
For those who believe I am siding with the current government and backing the proposed bill, did you know the KNDU bill was first proposed in 2018 by the Good Governance regime but did not proceed with it due to strong opposition from stakeholders? Ironically, the bill is brought forward by the then opposition and it is now criticized by parties who earlier fought to take it to Parliament. This shows that it is not the merits or the demerits of the bill but political mileage that concerns the critics.
Speaking of the not-for-profit fee levying higher education model of the proposed KNDU bill, it is a viable alternative for those who are denied access to university education. After all, only 1/5 of those who qualify are accepted into state universities. In that regard, the bill aims to provide access to education for people who cannot afford to send their children overseas or pay excessive fees at locally established international institutions. Based on these facts my final verdict is that any opposition against the proposed bill is nothing more than the proverbial boy crying Tiger, Tiger!
At the end of the day, the KNDU bill would provide another option for students who are unable to pursue their higher education through other means. The proposed bill is not for forcing parents to send their children to KNDU. If parents and students are satisfied with the services provided, they can continue their studies at KNDU. If unsatisfied they can consider other avenues of higher education. The bill doesn’t give any legislative leash to the university authorities to hold back any dissatisfied student from leaving.
In conclusion, education must, without a doubt, be regarded seriously, and laws should not be enacted haphazardly. Concerned citizens have the right to recommend and demand improvements, and discussion, dialogue, and improvements should all be part of this process. However, as MP Eran Wickramartne highlighted although 1,90,000 candidates become qualified to receive university education only 35,000 candidates are admitted to the universities. I feel the KNDU bill is a second chance where the 1,55,000 candidates that are left behind can pursue their dream of higher education. Therefore, it would be unfair to call for the complete withdrawal of the bill, as it will eliminate that second chance hundreds of thousands of young people will have at higher education.
Sirasa TV with Shameer Rasooldeen on July 23rd, 2021 hosted a very constructive debate on the proposed bill with Dr. Namali Sirisoma (Director of Career Guidance Unit at the Kotelawala Defence University), Dr. M.T.M. Mahees (Senior Lecturer Gr. 1 – Department of Sociology, University of Colombo), Dr. Athulasiri Samarakoon (Senior lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the Open University of Sri Lanka), Dr. Harinda Vidanage (Visiting lecturer, MPhil/Ph.D. Program Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) University of Colombo, MA International Relations Program at University of Colombo). Watch it here if you missed it.
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