Image: “Militarisation in education is a valid concern; no less valid is the risk of the privatisation of education, nor even debates over the weaknesses of the system we’re defending with these protests.”
The protests over the controversial KNDU Bill continue to boil and simmer. This is the most serious and debatable piece of legislation the government has put up for enactment since the 20th Amendment. Depending on how you view it, it may also be the most questionable. It purports to create a parallel education system vis-à-vis the Kotelawala National Defence University, expanding it beyond its military base into civilian territory.
The timing of the protests could not have been worse for the regime. It’s not just the anti-KNDU slogans which are fuelling discontent: teachers are also campaigning against salary anomalies, anomalies that have for too long been left unattended and unresolved.
The protests over the Bill have attracted both censure and, to a considerably lesser extent, support. Given that it’s being proposed by a government that has, for all intents and purposes, lost its popular halo, opposition is bound to build up exponentially in the coming few days.
The timing of the protests could not have been worse for the regime. It’s not just the anti-KNDU slogans which are fuelling discontent: teachers are also campaigning against salary anomalies, anomalies that have for too long been left unattended and unresolved. Coupled with the prospect of a “medical tsunami” from the Delta strain, these protests do not bode well for a government engaged in a massive vaccination drive. This is what happens when you don’t tackle public sector concerns on time.
Opinion was not as sharply directed against the then powers that be when the yahapalana government proposed the same Bill in 2018. Back then the biggest critics of the Bill were the unions; social media did come out as openly against it as it has with this government. It tells us a lot about the unpopularity of that administration and the depths to which its successor has sunk in comparison, then, that everyone, from everywhere, is supporting the protestors, even if the latter are contributing to the spread of the virus.
To put it pithily, the present government is going through with the KNDU Bill what the J. R. Jayewardene regime went through in the aftermath of the July strikes.
I am yet to come across a post supporting teachers, lecturers, and students that cautions against massive rallies and vehicle parades in the face of the biggest coronavirus wave we’ve seen until now. Indeed, far from sympathising with the administration for ordering arrests of those violating quarantine laws, Sri Lanka’s social media youth has overwhelmingly joined the violators.
To put it pithily, the present government is going through with the KNDU Bill what the J. R. Jayewardene regime went through in the aftermath of the July strikes. Both administrations had come to power with massive majorities. In crippling the July strikers, the Jayewardene regime demonstrated its arrogance in a way that generated a massive backlash; as Dr Dayan Jayatilleka has noted correctly, it was the loss of legitimacy arising from this backlash which led the government to lose crucial popular support against Indian intervention at the end of the decade.
Options before the Government
To compare this with the present bout of protests against the Rajapaksa regime would be to compare karawala with mallum. And yet, they summon the faintest trace of the July strikes, in that this government, as with that one, is faced with two choices: either it can listen to the demonstrators and their demands, and resolve their issues, or it can reject their demands and enflame an already inflammable situation.
The government must realise that these campaigns are not unjustifiable: these claims are valid, and insofar as they touch on the issue of preserving free education.
In the interests of commonsense and with the benefit of hindsight, the government would be well advised not to choose the second option. The regime need not arrest or cripple the protestors to aggravate the situation; we are in the midst of the worst pandemic wave since last April, and all it takes to push us all over the precipice is to let these strikes continue.
The government must realise that these campaigns are not unjustifiable: these claims are valid, and insofar as they touch on the issue of preserving free education, one of the two biggest national assets we have – the other being our healthcare system – we ought to take stock of what exactly it is these students, teachers, and unions are hollering about.
The KNDU Bill involves a State run and managed entity and as such deserves bigger censure in the face of a (real or perceived) risk of it becoming a hobby horse for the private sector.
While much of the protests from social media and the Opposition raise concerns about the militarisation of education, those campaigning on the streets raise concerns about a more pertinent issue: the risk of our country’s free education system being penetrated by private interests.
These issues are interrelated, and they do dovetail with each other, yet for me the more important concern is the second one. As critics of the Bill have noted, this is different from the SAITM issue, in that while the latter involved a totally private entity, the KNDU Bill involves a State run and managed entity and as such deserves bigger censure in the face of a (real or perceived) risk of it becoming a hobby horse for the private sector.
Perhaps because of the government’s stake and the military’s involvement in the institution, even those otherwise in favour of private education, i.e. those who took the side of SAITM in 2016 and 2017, have joined the anti-KNDU bandwagon. Yet the Bill cannot and should not be viewed from their perspective; far from stopping with KNDU, teachers and students must engage in a nation-wide consciousness raising exercise, demonstrating against militarisation and the penetration of private interests into the public sector.
The validity of these two concerns is clear to everyone. But if we let one prevail over the other, we run the risk of letting those agreeing with the spirit of these protests on account of their anger against the present government dominate the discussion and hence sideline the far more important matter of preserving public education. To put it pithily, if we let the social media middle-class, as opposed to the unions, teachers, and students, and indeed the Left, hold the cards, those cards may come tumbling down one day when the problem is no longer that of education being militarised, but of it being privatised. Both militarisation and privatisation, of education, must thus be vigorously questioned and debated.
The defects of the education system
At the same time, the defects of the system must be opened to scrutiny. As equitable as it may be, free education in Sri Lanka is far, far from perfect. One does not have to tout the supposed virtues of private sector education to acknowledge this; the truth is that if standards have come down in our universities over the years and decades, the finger can’t always be pointed at the private sector. Nor should it be.
The demonstrators, those on the street, must ensure that their campaigns aim at, not two, but three birds: deride militarisation in the education sector, oppose private sector penetration into public education, and facilitate serious discussions about the weaknesses and strengths of free education.
The biggest strength in our free education system is that it is not run in line with profit motives; its biggest weakness is that it tends to lag behind in areas like research, analytical skills, and international standing. We are presently facing a massive brain drain and at the same time a huge deterioration in academic standards. In the absence of a mechanism to address these matters with, we will continue to slide from one frying pan to another fire. Neither students nor teachers, then, should shield themselves from these problems. They are valid, and unless they are resolved as soon as possible, there will be a build-up of anti-free education rhetoric within the free market lobby in the long run.
As things stand, the protestors and their supporters have much to gain from continuing to agitate. The demonstrators, those on the street, must ensure that their campaigns aim at, not two, but three birds: deride militarisation in the education sector, oppose private sector penetration into public education, and facilitate serious discussions about the weaknesses and strengths of free education. This is perhaps the only time in recent memory when both critics and (nominal) supporters of private education have joined hands in a campaign against a higher education institution. The risk of letting the debate slide over to one issue only is palpable; that is why those on the ground shouting, hollering, and campaigning must not lose track of the above mentioned three objectives. Militarisation in education is a valid concern; no less valid is the risk of the privatisation of education, nor even debates over the weaknesses of the system we’re defending with these protests.
There have always been onslaughts against free education in this country, at times led by the government, at others by the opposition. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that avowed neoliberals and even some liberals, associated with the opposition or the many anti-regime groupings, have been suspiciously quiet about the Bill; if they dwell on the latter, all they do is focusing on the militarisation aspect.
Unions, students, lecturers, and the Left in general, must therefore note the dangers of letting the discussion be dominated by these interests. We cannot let the cards fall into their hands. To do so would be to win the battle, but lose the war.
The writer can be reached at [email protected] / The Island