The postponement of the Sir John Kotelawala National University (KNDU) bill, which was to be taken up for debate in the parliament on 06 August, saved both the government and the country a lot of trouble. The government awakened to the fact that it had unnecessarily provided the Opposition with a rallying point, and provoked protests amidst the current health crisis. A further escalation of street protests had to be prevented.

Covid-19 is ripping through the country and destroying many more lives than in the past. The hospital system is already overwhelmed. Health workers are getting infected. The death toll has risen to about 100 a day, and the situation is bound to worsen unless some drastic action is taken to curb the spread of the pandemic, according to public health experts. It is a nightmare come true.

The government’s decision to put the KNDU bill on holdmay also have been influenced by the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), which is seen to be sympathetic to the SLPP. The GMOA went all out to have the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) medical degree programme scrapped, but has acted with remarkable restraint as regards the incumbent government’s efforts to promote private medical education through the KNDU bill. It apparently made some behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to persuade the government not to proceed with the bill. If the parliament had taken up the bill, the GMOA would have had to resort to trade union action,placing itself on a collision course with the government. Both the government and the GMOA wanted to avoid such a situation.

The Association of Medical Specialists (AMS), which is known for its balanced views on crucial national issues, and proposes sensible solutions, also took exception to the KNDU bill, and urged the government to defer the enactment of it andallow adequate time for all stakeholders to make their views known. A media statement, signed by AMS President Dr. Lakkumar Fernando and AMS Secretary Dr. R. Gnanasekeram,asked the government not to repeat the same mistake as the previous administrations that permitted the establishment of the North Colombo Medical College and the SAITM.

Fathered by UNP, adopted by SLPP

The KNDU bill came into being, in 2018, during the UNP-led yahapalana government, which however was wary of going flat out to have it enacted. The incumbent government made so bold as to try to have it ratified. Ironically, Opposition and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa, MP, who was a Cabinet minister in the yahapalana administration, has called for the cancellation of the KNDU bill! SJB MP and former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, however, has spoken in favour of theKDU. He drew the attention of Parliament, on Friday, to what he called the positive side of the defense university.

Only the JVP and the other leftist parties have consistently opposed the promotion and expansion of private education, which they consider a threat to free education. However, the leftist allies of the SLPP government would have been left with no alternative but to vote for the KNDU bill if it had been put to the vote in Parliament.

SLFP and the KNDU bill

The postponement of the KNDU bill could not have come at a better time for the SLFP. The government announced its decision less than twenty-four hours after the presentation of theSLFP’s report on the bill to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It offered to back the bill in case it was taken up for debate, but requested the President to have the proposed amendments incorporated into it.

What has been reported of the SLFP report sent to the President indicates that it has addressed four main concerns expressed by the stakeholders including university teachers, the Opposition, university students and school teachers—an attempt to militarize higher education, the possibility of educational qualifications being lowered for enrollment, especially for the KNDU medical degree programme, a threat to free education,and the placement of the KNDU outside the purview of the Education Ministry and the University Grants Commission (UGC).

The SLFP has, in its report submitted to the President,requested that the Z-score ranking prepared by the UGC be adopted as the enrollment criterion; the KNDU be placed under the purview of the UGC, loans be made available to students and recovered when they are gainfully employed, and civilians constitute the majority of members of Board of Governors as well as the functional organs of the KNDU.

The SLFP has mentioned in its covering letter to President Rajapaksa that it agrees with the government on the following:higher education sector should be upgraded and geared to market needs; more opportunities should be provided to university graduates; a solution needs to be found to the problem of Sri Lankan students leaving for even developing countries for higher education; the process of producing university graduates should be rid of delays, and problems such as indiscipline and ragging in universities have to be solved.

The SLFP is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Even if the government had gone ahead with the bill without accommodating the proposed amendments, and put it to the vote, the SLFP would have supported it.

If the SLFP’s proposal that the KNDU Board of Governors and functional organs consist of more civilians than military officers is adopted, the government’s purpose will be lost; what the government is planning to achieve through the bill is to expand the Kotelawala Defense University to cater to more civilians and generate revenue, and not to convert the existing defense university into a civilian university.

The bill says the Board of Governors, the governing authority of the KNDU, shall consist of the following members:

(a) the Secretary to the Ministry of the Minister assigned the subject of Defense;

(b) the Additional Secretary to the Ministry of the Minister assigned the subject of Defense;

(c) the Chief of Defense Staff;

(d) the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army;

(e) the Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy;

(f) the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force;

(g) the Vice Chancellor of the University;

(h) a nominee of the University Grants Commission

(i) a representative of the General Treasury nominated by the Secretary to the General Treasury.

Of these nine members, seven are military officers and the Defense Ministry bureaucrats. The Vice Chancellor is also a military officer appointed by the President. This is how the government wants the Board of Governors appointed.

The functional organs of the KNDU shall be the following:

(a) the Head Quarters;

(b) the Council;

(c) the Senate; and

(d) the Faculty Boards.

The Head Quarters of the University shall consist of the following officials:

(a) the Vice-Chancellor; (b) the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Defenseand Administration); (c) Commanding Officer (Administration); (d) the Adjutant; (e) the Registrar; (f) the Bursar; and (g) the University Sergeant Major. (2) The Head Quarters shall be the operational andadministrative body of the University.

The Council of the University […] shall consist of

(a) the following ex-officio members – (i) the Vice-Chancellor; (ii) the Rectors of Campuses;

(iii) the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Defense and Administration); (iv) the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic); (v) the Directors of Training of the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka; (vi) the Dean of each Faculty;

(vii) the Adjutant; (viii) the Registrar; and (ix) the Bursar. (b) the following nominated members: (i) two other members of the Senatenominated by the Vice-Chancellor; (ii) a representative of the Ministry of the Minister assigned the subject of Defense nominated by the Secretary to such Ministry; (iii) two members nominated by the Secretary to the Ministry of the Minister assigned the subject of Defense, from among persons who have rendered distinguished service in the educational, professional, commercial, industrial, scientific oradministrative fields; and (iv) a representative from a university

established or deemed to be established under the Universities Act, No.16 of 1978 nominated by the Chairman of the University Grants Commission.

The Senate of the University shall consist of–

(a) the following exofficio members: (i) the Vice-Chancellor; (ii) the Rectors of the Campuses;

(iii) the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Defense and Administration);

(iv) the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic); (v) the Heads of accredited and affiliated

institutions; (vi) the Dean of each Faculty; (vii) the Adjutant; (viii) two Senior Professors from each

Faculty; (ix) the Registrar; (x) the Squadron Commanders; (xi) the Head of each Department of Study;

(xii) a Staff Officer of Grade II of the Faculty of Defense and Strategic Studies; and (xiii) the Librarian. (b) the following nominated members: (i) such number of Associate Professors and Senior Lecturers as is equal to the total number of Faculties, nominated by the Vice-Chancellor; and (ii) such number of Lecturers as is equal to the total number of Faculties, nominated by the Vice-Chancellor.

The Faculty Board of the Faculty of Defense and Strategic Studies of the University shall consist of the

following persons:

(i) the Dean of the Faculty; (ii) Heads of Department of the Department of Defense

Studies and Department of Strategic Studies; (iii) Squadron Commanders; (iv) Staff Officer Grade II;

(v) Sports Officer; (vi) Mess Manager; (vii) Troop Commanders; and (viii) Training Support Officer.

Thus, it may be seen that the government is not likely to accommodate the SLFP’s proposal for appointing more civilians to the Board of Governors and the functional organs of the KNDU than military officers.

The KNDU bill does not specify the admission criteria for civilian students, but the defense university will not find it difficult to follow the Z-score rankings prepared by the UGC, as suggested by the SLFP, because that is widely considered thebest scaling method.

Student unions and KNDU

The JVP and its offshoot, the Frontline Socialist Party, have been leading the protests against the KNDU bill, from the front. They are dependent on their university student wings to recruityoung cadres and conduct protest campaigns. They dominate the state universities but have zero presence in the private higher educational institutions, where students try to get their money’s worth, and are not interested in politics or protests.

The Inter University Student Federation’s resistance to the KNDU is due to more reasons than one. It is opposed to fee-levying universities, which it considers a danger to free education. Besides, if the KNDU bill is passed, it will threaten the interests of the student unions because they will not be able to expand their operations to the KNDU. The new law to be made will not even allow anyone considered ‘undesirable’ to enter the KNDU premises. The bill says:

Where the presence of any person within the University, other than of any Officer, member of the staff or a student of the University, is in the opinion of the Vice- Chancellor not conducive to the welfare of the University or its students, the Vice-Chancellor or any officer authorized by him in writing in that behalf may, after giving such person an opportunity of being heard, serve on such person by writing under his hand, a notice prohibiting such person from entering or remaining within the precincts of the University or within such part thereof as may be specified in such notice. Such prohibition shall remain in force until revoked by the Board.

Any person who is prohibited from entering or remaining within the university precincts or part thereof and who without reasonable cause, enters or remains within such precincts or part thereof in contravention of such prohibition, shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction after summary trial by a Magistrate, be liable to a fine of ten thousand rupees in respect of each day or part thereof on which he has entered or during which he has remained, within such precincts or part thereof. (4) An offence under subsection (3) shall be a cognizable and a bailable offence within the meaning of the Code of Criminal Procedure Act, No. 15 of 1979.

If the KNDU bill is enacted, it will set a precedent inimical to the interests of university student unions. Other state universities may be compelled to emulate the KNDU in handling student politics. This is a worrisome proposition for theuniversity student activists and the political parties they belong to.

 A comedown for the government?

The government could have rushed the KNDU bill through Parliament, because it has the required numbers to secure its passage, but such a course of action would have caused unwanted problems at this juncture. Protracted protests would have made the task of controlling the pandemic even more difficult. So, the government swallowed its pride and allowed its opponents score a victory in the KNDU battle with a view to winning the war, later on.

Having avoided a perfect political storm, the government iswaiting until the time is opportune to have the KNDU bill ratified by the parliament. Its critics are not likely to give up so easily. They are sure to put up stiff resistance, again. So, the problem is far from over.


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