Photo courtesy of Ada Derana

The debate over the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill has become a scorching issue in the past few weeks. It has been heated not only due to the resistance from civil society and other political parties – mainly the Left – and the intense parliamentary debate on it but also because the government has taken steps to illegally arrest and detain protesters using the quarantine laws and thereby attempted to suppress the voices of the opposition. After all, why did people come to the streets against the KNDU bill? How does if differ (and similar too) from just another private university establishment? What are the changes brought about by the introduction of a new law in relation to Kotelawala Defence University that is already functioning?

Is this draft against the objectives of Kotelawala Defence University?

General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy was first established by the Act of Parliament cited as the Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy Act No. 68 of 1981. The main purpose of the academy was to serve as a joint services academy where cadets of the three wings Sri Lanka Army, Navy and Air Force are trained before they go for their pre-commission training to their academies. The Academy was upgraded to university status by the Amendment Act No. 27 of 1988.

It is essential to have an educational institute that provides the armed forces in a country with the proper training and other technical and subject related knowledge they require for their services. We see no issue with such establishments. Such military universities and academies operate in many parts of the world. Other disciplines required for combat such as country planning, law, engineering, medicine and several other combat-related disciplines are taught at such universities. Kotelawala University was started with such an intention and it is necessary for the State to spend money for the enhancement of its armies. However, the issue is that the new Act excludes the Kotelawala University from the purview of the University Grants Commission (UGC), which is in charge of the administration of State universities in Sri Lanka. Any university that decides to enter a civil education should not be operated without regulation and the quality assurance of the UGC. For example, Article 15 2 (1) of the Bill clearly states that the KNDU is established out of the purview of the UGC Act No. 16 of 1978. Accordingly, KNDU has an autonomous power over regulating itself unlike other State universities that are operating under the UGC. In fact, KNDU bill legalizes a complete, parallel military administration system for civil higher education purposes with autonomy.

Will higher education militarize through this bill?

As mentioned above, this bill suggests a parallel institutional structure outside the UGC that operates under the purview of a Board of Governors.

The Board of Governors of the KDU is appointed by the Minister of Defence and will consist of nine members. This includes the Secretary and Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, one nominee each from UGC and Treasury, Chief of Defence Staff, the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University, who is a military officer. According to this format, at least five of the nine members are from the military. If the Secretary is also from the military (currently he is a retired general from Sri Lanka Army) only three of the nine Governors will be outside the military. The Board of Governors will have wide ranging powers to determine entry qualifications, the minimum qualification of academic and non-academic staff, establish quality assurance mechanisms, to decide and establish affiliated institutions to award degrees. It can appoint standing committees for subject disciplines and for determining academic ethical standards. All these powers are currently held by the UGC and applied with standard regulations equally among all State universities.

The bill empowers KNDU to admit both local and foreign fee-paying students, therefore it will function on a profit basis like any other private university; however the standard of education provided is not determined by the UGC. When it comes to civil education, the military shall not have the power to determine the standard of education for civil students attending a State university. Such a 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.

Does KNDU produce disciplined graduates?

The word “discipline” has become one of the words that have been largely abused in recent times. The notion that Sri Lanka is where it is today because of its “undisciplined” citizens has been subtly embedded in the minds of the common people. In fact, military discipline is not the same as civilian discipline.

The student handbook (Day Scholar’s handbook) that is given out to students at KNDU can be the best example. According to the disciplinary rules;

“20. ….. 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.”

“24 …. Disciplinary actions will be taken against students who in any way disrupt lectures.”

“28. 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.”

“29. 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.”

Moreover, “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.

These rigorous disciplinary rules may apply to military officers but not for the civil youth who enter into universities. University education should ideally the door to a new world that expands the horizons of knowledge that encourages free thinking and questioning. It is by no means a so-called disciplined space where what the teacher says is heard and accepted without question. Love, dissent, creativity, politics and critical thinking should also be encouraged in the university space. Free education is not merely about providing education with no cost; it is also about obtaining an education with free, independent thinking. The civil administration of a country should be taken over by the citizens who receive such discipline. Discipline built through repression applies to military systems, whereas dissent should be encouraged in a civil university. Therefore, KNDU is not an institution appropriate for civil higher education.

The attempt to bring KNDU Bill is not an isolated incident in the process of the militarization of higher education but one step in the long-running militarization agenda of the State of post-war Sri Lanka. There have been various attempts by the government to militarize higher education in the past as well. For example, the proposal to provide compulsory leadership training to students enrolled in universities was such failed attempt. The leadership training, which was provided by the Army, was also an attempt to suppress the free political thinking and voices of the youth and fortunately it had to be withdrawn after certain period.

What about the right to obtain private education for someone who can afford?

This is the popular question that many people often raise. In fact, without the free education policy, many of us today would not have this knowledge and freedom of speech. The main objective of free education is to include free education in the public policy that is equally accessible to all irrespective of class, caste, ethnicity, gender, social status or any other grounds. The backbone of this policy is to provide free education up to university level. Unfortunately, only a small portion of GDP (about 2%) is allocated to education compared high allocation to the Ministry of Defence. In order to uplift the free education policy the government should, instead of providing government funding to private universities, improve the resources and learning opportunities of the existing State universities. However, in the case of KNDU, public funds are provided through the Ministry of Defence to a private, profitable education institute.

There is no issue with establishing private universities in a country by private investors under strict regulation and purview of the State. With the existing limited places, students who do not have the opportunities to study at public universities can be offered the opportunity to pursue a degree of their choice at private universities. As we all know, there is a need to strictly regulate the quality of existing private universities.

Establishing a non-regulated State system for private education is not the answer to the issue. Although it is a right of a person to study at a private university for a fee if he or she wants to, the State should not channel public money to function as a for-profit supermarket for education. It will further jeopardise the right to free education of thousands of children and youth. The government’s entry into the for-profit business of education is the first attempt to break the backbone of the policy of free education.

What is to be done?                                     

There is no issue with continuing the KNDU as a degree awarding institution for military personnel. The expenditure borne by the Ministry of Defence will help maintain the quality of the military service. Therefore, first and foremost, the military must stop interfering in the education of civilians, which is currently the responsibility of the Ministries of Education and Higher Education. Second, the myth that “highly disciplined” military officers will succeed when they are appointed to all civil administration institutions in the country must be dispelled. Civil administration must be the work of properly trained and educated civil administrative officers. Third, the opportunities provided by the government for free higher education are needed to be expanded while there is a dire need to improve the quality of the courses and infrastructure of existing universities. These are the steps what a government with a genuine desire to improve education should do at this moment.