Last Updated on March 13, 2022 by Panduka Herath
The Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) notes with grave concern that the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill which was already tabled in parliament but not taken up for voting due to massive public protests and dissent within the government has resurfaced under the guise of an ‘amended bill’.
As we point out below the changes made are cosmetic and there is no change to the substance of the bill, and it poses a grave threat of militarizing higher education in Sri Lanka. We also note that the government is attempting to push through this highly controversial bill at a time when the country is facing its gravest economic and governance crisis since independence and call upon the government to immediately halt this process and withdraw the bill. The KNDU Bill is hardly a policy priority at this moment when the country’s economic life has all but ground to a halt and people and industries are struggling with 8-hour power cuts, fuel and gas shortages and the concomitant disruption of livelihoods.
The amended bill continues to allow civilian education at KNDU, and it allows education in all disciplines without restricting the functions of the university to defence and military studies. It also facilitates a fee levying higher education space that can be expand limitlessly and create a parallel highly unregulated higher education system outside the state university system in which student admission is not based on merit but the financial strength of the students’ social background. The so-called ‘amended bill’ retains a highly militarized governance structure from top to bottom and the Board of Governors, the top governing body of the university, is full of military officers including the topmost military officers of the country, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Chief of Defense Staff, Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, and the Commander of the Air Force. The Vice Chancellor also remains a senior officer of the armed forces. Under the ‘amended bill’ there continues to be a Head Quarters, the high-level operational body of the KNDU, filled with military personnel. This is a body placed above the Council which in a normal civilian university is the supreme administrative forum.
The ‘amended bill’ has further introduced a highly controversial amendment to include the Chairman of the UGC as the member of the Board of Governors (prior to the amendment it was restricted to a nominee of the UGC). While already the representation of the UGC – the institute that carries the prime responsibility of regulating and safeguarding the interests of the state university system – within the Board of Governors of the KNDU leads to a conflict of interest, naming the Chairman of the UGC as a member of the Board of Governors at the KNDU exacerbates this conflict of interest. As those who are familiar with the issues within the existing KDU are aware, the presence of the Chairman of the UGC at the existing Board of Management of the KDU has made him complicit in decisions that seriously undermine the state university system which has even led to court cases where he is a respondent. His presence within the Board of Governors of the proposed KNDU – with greater powers to dominate and expand this military-led system of higher education – can pose a serious threat to the interests of the existing state university system. As past experience has shown the UGC chairman has been unable to represent the interests of the state university system within the Board of Management of the KDU but has only served to undermine the interests of the state university system while facilitating the expansion of KDU and its military model of education.
FUTA therefore urges the government to unconditionally withdraw the KNDU Bill immediately. As we have explained in detail in a number of our previous communications, FUTA unreservedly rejects civilian education within a highly militarized structure such as the KNDU. Allow civilian education be given within the state university system and reallocate the vast amount of money channeled to KDU/KNDU to the state university system to facilitate its expansion, so that civilian student earmarked for KDU/KNDU can be absorbed into the existing state university structure. University education is a civilian affair and all across the democratic world universities are spaces that produce independent, free-thinking and creative citizens. A military-led education model will never achieve this and will only further contribute to tarnishing Sri Lanka’s already battered democratic credentials in the global community.
We would like to remind the government that the country is in a serious multidimensional crisis and on the verge of collapse unless urgent remedial action is taken. Rather than trying to re-package controversial bills that were soundly rejected by a vast cross-section of the people of this country, what the government should do is to focus on the multiple crisis faced by the country and find immediate solutions. FUTA is determined to defeat the KNDU Bill and will take all possible measures to prevent militarization of high education in the country and mobilize broad social and political support against this ‘amended KNDU Bill’ unless it is withdrawn immediately.