Sri Lanka Brief
FeaturesThe private universities debate

The private universities debate

 Dr. Kumar David -A Bill to allow the establishment of private fee paying universities – they will invariably be in partnership with an established overseas institution – is being drafted in great secrecy and will soon be rushed through parliament. The ever pliant Supreme Court will certify it as an urgent Bill as it did with the foul 18-th Amendment to the Constitution and the recent Act nationalising 35 enterprises.
The effect of the pending legislation will be the strangulation and burial of the public university system.

The universities, especially the JVP led student bodies, are on the boil; protest marches are breaking out frequently and the Minister of Higher Education, one SB Dissanayake, is threatening hell and fury against obstructionist forces. The case of the student bodies and the majority of the academic community is that what the government is attempting to scuttle Lanka’s entire university free education system. This reading is made against the background a sharp pro-business rightward turn in economic policy, allegedly concocted in cahoots with the IMF.

The suspicion that the government is bent on undermining the country’s university system, now 100% public, but for one hotly contested medical school, is justified. The allegation is substantiated by the treatment successive governments have meted out to the universities for decades. While neighbours like India, Singapore and Malaysia are proud of their public universities and venture to grow their best into centres of international excellence, Sri Lanka has simply starved its universities of: (i) funds (library, laboratory and lodgings), (ii) a research ethos and opportunities, (iii) national recognition, and (iv) international connections. The suspicion that the government wants, a by now problematic and potentially expensive public university system off its hands, and would like to delegate high-flyer slots to new fee levying private universities is justified. Then a second class rump public university system will be retained for the jako (derogatory Sinhala word for plebeian) classes.

In principle the establishment of private universities is a good thing; it expands opportunity particularly for those who can afford to pay, but if it is to be built over the dead body of the public universities by a government with step-motherly motives, well that’s another matter. Oxford and Cambridge or India’s IITs, JNU and IIS Bangalore would not be bothered if private colleges open; the competition will be second rate except in business schools. When you run your public universities to the ground instead of growing them into centres of excellence then privatisation is an entirely different story.

In this context the GCE (A/L) examination mess is being seen as a deliberate conspiracy by the government and the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to turn the public against the free education system and pave to rush through the new Bill. Though I find the conspiracy thesis a little far fetched it has taken a grip on the public mind. Swathes of public opinion buy into the conspiracy allegation; parent’s associations, teacher’s unions and grass roots bodies are mobilising for a showdown. The confrontation between the government and the student-teacher-parent combine may turn out to be a more serious conflict than currently meets the eye.

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