Photo courtesy of The Island

“The character of an educational system depends upon the character of the society for which it is designed. In a totalitarian system the education system is designed to establish among all sections of the population the opinions of those who for the time being control the destinies of the nation.” Report of the Special Committee on Education, Ceylon (Sessional Paper XXIV, November 1943) para 3, 11.

The institutional architecture proposed by the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill should be a cause for concern and anxiety for proponents of education and of a democratic society. The KNDU Bill seeks to enable the KDU, despite being a Defence University, to admit civilians for its programmes of study. Therefore, the Bill read as a whole a) undermines the very purpose of higher education for civilians, b) will change the landscape of higher education by advancing its marketization and leading to its militarization and c) place at further risk the already ailing higher education system in the country.

Higher education and human flourishing

As individuals we may seek higher education for different purposes whether it be for social mobility, financial security, personal satisfaction or simply to gain knowledge. As a society, however, it is useful every so often, to ask ourselves about the purpose and role of higher education. While each of the foregoing may be reasons for pursuing higher education, the purpose of higher education, I would argue, is to advance human flourishing, broadly understood. In each context, this may mean something slightly different but a country’s policy and institutional structure for higher education ought to have certain goals. These goals reflect our collective learning about the purpose of higher education over time. Amongst these goals ought to be the development of critical thinking, including the capacity to question the status quo. It must include a commitment to the pursuit of new knowledge, the dissemination of knowledge and the development of the capacity to translate knowledge to practice, in context. Without a higher education system that works towards these goals, society cannot flourish. Constitutional theorists argue that universities are knowledge institutions that ought to guarantee the pursuit of truth in an independent and autonomous manner, adhering to ethical and academic norms. In this way, knowledge institutions such as universities protect and promote democracy too.  The goals of education and higher education are lofty and may seem unreachable. But we would not be where we are today (in the progressive sense), if those who came before us, did not dare to challenge the status quo and aspire to these lofty goals. It is now our turn to carry the torch.

An ailing higher education system

The KNDU Bill has to be understood in the broader context of higher education in Sri Lanka. It would be foolish to pretend that all is well with the current state of affairs in the higher education system. In the state funded universities, maintaining academic standards is difficult due to brain drain, lack of quality and due to underfunding (among other factors). The incidence of ragging has a debilitating impact on the entire system. Lack of transparency and accountability in university governance, in many instances, leads to our universities failing to live up to their mandate. In other words, many are critical of the failures of the state university system for failing to deliver on the goals of higher education. The academic community, myself included, has to take its fair share of blame and responsibility for these shortcomings.

Beyond the state funded higher education system, the ad hoc liberalisation of the provision of higher education has led to a curious case. Institutions register under the Board of Investment Law to offer external degree programmes of foreign universities. There is no local monitoring of academic quality of these programmes except for a procedure whereby some institutions obtain UGC recognition. Some see these courses as a pathway to citizenship in other countries. Other than seeking enrolment in overseas universities, this is the only alternative available to students who do not obtain admission to state funded universities, if they can afford it.

These developments take place in a global context where education is viewed by many as a business for profit and in some cases not-for profit. This is similar to how health care is perceived too. The logic of money has taken root in the provision of education. Educators across the world have been calling attention to this crisis. The rapid expansion of external postgraduate degree programs without due attention to capacity and quality can also be seen to be motivated by money for the academics and institutions alike.

A defence university: important and essential

The General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University was established 1980-81 for the purpose of offering degree programmes to Officer Cadets. The Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy Act of 1981 established the Academy and by way of an amendment, the institution was declared to be a university in 1988.

A state funded university dedicated to offering degree programmes and related courses of study for members of the armed forces is both important and essential. Through such an institution the armed forces can be provided with the education and training they require to serve Sri Lanka to the best of their ability. However, the proposed KNDU Bill does not seem to have this as its primary concern. The Bill is expected to have ‘regard to the need and importance of making available opportunities for achieving academic and professional qualifications to persons who intend to serve in the Armed Forces.’ However, of the members of the governing body of KNDU none are appointed on the basis of their academic or professional credentials (see further below on the governing body). Secondly, the KNDU is diluted in its purpose. It seeks to do away with the distinction between military and civilian higher education. This proposal therefore defeats the purpose of a Defence University and thereby undermines the potential to develop our Armed Forces to their highest potential while directly and indirectly militarizing Sri Lanka’s higher education sector. In other words, the KNDU Bill is internally inconsistent and is not designed to meet even its self-declared objectives.


The proposed KNDU has the authority to admit ‘public servants and other persons’ for its programmes of study. It offers students who are not offered admission to state universities but unable to afford education overseas or in an overseas affiliated local institution an opportunity to enrol for a degree programme locally. It is in this context that the proposed KNDU Bill ‘makes sense.’ If the Student Guide for Day Scholars of the KDU is anything to go by, it would offer a ‘ragging free’, ‘disciplined’ environment for study.  However, the institutional structure in the proposed KNDU Bill is antithetical to the very idea of higher education. I list out my reasons for taking this view:

  1. A central role for the Minister of Defence

The Bill provides for the Minister of Defence to be responsible for the ‘direction and administration’ of the legislation. The Minister has the authority to ‘issue to the Board of Governors…written directions in regard to matters as he may consider necessary’ (clause 6, emphasis added). A corresponding duty has been imposed on the Board of Governors to ‘comply with all directions issued by the Minister’ (6 (3)). The Universities Act too carries a similar provision (section 19 and 20). However, the Minister concerned is the Minister of Education and the Minister’s directions are limited by law to matters of national policy relating to finance, university places, medium of instruction and to ‘enable him to discharge…his responsibility for university education and the administration’ of the Act. Moreover, under the Universities Act, ‘every such direction’ must be tabled in Parliament ‘as soon as possible.’ The authority of the Minister is prescribed and is subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

A Minister of Defence is an elected political representative who, at the most, will have expertise and experience in representative politics and to some extent (presumably) on the subject assigned. Such a Minister will legitimately have loyalties to the government of the day, to his political party and even to his constituency. Even in this theoretical sense it is clear that independence from politics in a Minister’s actions would be difficult to expect. In contrast, the administration of a university necessitates independence from external and political influence as well as a commitment to facilitating the free flow of ideas and thinking including academic freedom of staff, students and its institutions.

It is worthwhile recalling that the Sri Lankan Supreme Court has held that ‘academic freedom and autonomy are essential requisites for the attainment of the objectives of any institution of higher education’ and that any erosion of such freedom amounts to a violation of our freedom of thought and conscience and our freedom of expression (In Re Universities Amendment Bill, SC Determination 1999, SC Minutes 3 May 1999). This is why, in the Universities Act of 1978 under which state universities are governed, the University Grants Commission (UGC) is placed at the apex. According to the Act and in practice, the UGC is required to act independently subject to the directions of the Minister in charge of Education. For instance, the Minister may require the UGC to report to her on the activities of a university.

  1. Governing body not independent

The proposed KNDU will be governed by a body that, comprises of military personnel (Chief of Defence of Staff, Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force), the Vice Chancellor, public servants appointed by the President (the Secretary and Additional Secretary to the Minister of Defence), representative of the Treasury and a nominee of the UGC. Under the Universities Act, the UGC is appointed by the President and includes senior academics from state universities. These academics hold office in their individual capacity as experts. Moreover, the legislative mandate of the UGC provides for the UGC to act independently. Moreover, the governing structure of respective state universities as provided for by the Universities Act, preserves to a significant extent the principles of institutional autonomy. The governing authority of the KNDU on the other hand is comprised of personnel who are required by their very job description, to either maintain adherence to the values of an armed force or to that of the public service. Neither of these values promote the values essential for developing higher education for a civilian population.

  1. Centralised governing structure

Moreover, unlike in the state university system which, to a significant extent provides for a democratic governing structure, the KNDU is centralised. The Dean of a Faculty in the KNDU will be appointed by the Vice-Chancellor with the ‘approval of the Board of Governors’ (clause 13). In contrast, in state universities, the Faculty Boards elect their Deans (section 49) and they are therefore accountable to their Faculty Boards and represent their Faculties to the Senate and the Council. As with the universities under the UGC, the KNDU proposes to establish a Council and a Senate, described in the Bill as a consultative body and an academic body respectively. The mandate of the Senate is not described in the KNDU Bill. Under the Universities Act, the Senate has the authority to recommend actions on academic affairs to the Council including on appointment of examiners.

In general, under the Universities Act, the Senate ‘shall have control and general direction of instruction, education, research and examinations’ in universities (Section 46(5). The Senate comprises, among others, senior academics and representatives of Faculty Boards and therefore, epitomises the democratic and autonomous character of university governance. In contrast, the KNDU Bill vests all final decision-making power with the governing body. This body does not represent the academic community but rather the defence establishment and the interests of the government of the day.

Civilians in military education

The proposed bill seeks to clothe with legality measures already underway at the Kotelawala Defence University to enrol civilian students and to offer them degree programmes alongside of military students and within an ethos of a Defence University. The Act of 1981, as amended, does not seem to provide the KDU with the power to enrol non-military students for study. Nevertheless, it seems that sometime after 2000, fee-levying civilian students have been enrolled by the KDU. In 2018, this was taken a step further by absorbing the medical students of SAITM to the KDU. Today, ‘Day Scholars’ as the KDU describes civilian students, can enrol at the Faculty of Allied Health Sciences, Faculty of Engineering, Faculty of Law etc to read for a degree programme on a fee levying basis. Given the apparent absence of a legal basis to enrol and confer degrees to civilians, this practice raises several questions, which I will not consider in this present analysis.

The proposed KNDU Bill provides a legal basis for offering admission, on a fee levying basis to civilians, described in the Bill as ‘public officers and other persons’ (clause 5(a)). Many may welcome this initiative on the basis that it provides access to higher education to those who are not offered admission to state universities and cannot afford higher education overseas. The concern about the lack of access to higher education locally is valid, but I take the view that permitting the KDU to enrol civilian students on a fee levying basis is not the solution to that problem.

Expanding opportunities for higher education, including on a fee levying basis, is a long felt need in Sri Lanka. To achieve that aim, it is possible to further develop the Open University of Sri Lanka or even establish a new university. Mandating a Defence University to admit fee paying civilians might appear to address this need. However, it will do so in ways that undermine the very goals of higher education and will at the same time, dilute the very purpose of a Defence University too. KNDU therefore cannot be the solution to the issue of lack of access to higher education.

Militarization and marketization

As noted before, the primary opposition to KNDU is that it seeks to offer higher education for civilians through an academic institution that is in effect suitable, at the most, for training of personnel in the armed forces. Moreover, the KNDU Bill vests the KNDU with the power to establish campuses, colleges and ‘other specialized institutes, schools’ (clause 5(o)). KNDU can therefore expand itself and proliferate. The enactment of KNDU will therefore lead to further militarization of Sri Lankan society and particularly its higher education sector.

As I have noted elsewhere, militarization is a process whereby military-like systems and values determine political and social values and behaviour (P Wallensteen Global Militarization (Routledge, 2019)). Military values such as respect for hierarchy, compliance with orders and strict discipline and military-systems are essential to address specific, national defence needs or emergencies and to ensure the protection of a society under grave existential threat. The questioning of established norms does not serve well, in general, in those situations. Yet outside of those contexts, such questioning does. Out of the box, disruptive thinkers with creative solutions to existing problems, people who can critique the status quo, leaders who can bring together a diverse group based on their agreement rather than on force or coercion are a pre-requisite for human development and advancement. If we wish to encourage young people to develop in this way, we need to cultivate a very different set of values in our systems of education. For some time now, Sri Lanka has experienced the impact of the militarization of its police force. The appointment of retired military personnel to senior positions of public administration have given rise to concerns about the militarization of governance. The KNDU Bill is seen as a step in that same direction but this time, into higher education.

Some examples from the current rules for KDU day scholars as provided under the Student Guide for Day Scholars (2020) illustrate this point. Rule 24 states that ‘[d]isciplinary actions will be taken against students who in any way disrupt lectures.’ Rule 28 states that ‘[m]arried ladies and gentleman will not be enrolled in the degree programmes.’ Rule 29 states that ‘In case of pregnancy during a course of study, the University will be compelled to discontinue the female Day Scholar…’ Rule 36 states that ‘[I]nattention or paying less attention to lectures by Day Scholars, as may be evident by sleeping, conversing, reading irrelevant material, or causing any other form of distraction shall not be tolerated and corrective punishment shall ensue.’ One may concede that such rules may apply to members of the armed forces. But these types of rules sit at odds with the values of academic freedom, critical thinking and self-directed learning. Military type discipline is antithetical to the academic freedom that universities and seats of learning are required to cultivate if they are to fulfil their mandate and responsibilities to society. Through the proposed KNDU these values will reach its civilian students and through them to society.

The KNDU model is not only one of militarization alone but one that combines the marketization of higher education with militarization. Experiences across the globe suggests that subjecting higher education to the logic of demand and supply leads to academic standards being compromised both in design of higher education programmes and in their delivery. The Bill provides for KNDU to ‘affiliate with local and foreign higher educational institutions, including technical, vocational or professional institutions’ and to ‘charge fees for the provision of any courses of study, training and instructions including educational and professional, to the public or any institution’ (clauses 5(h) and (i)). All decisions made in this regard will of course be subject to the directions of the Minister in charge of Defence and under the management of the governing body. Moreover, the very existence of KNDU as proposed, can indirectly undermine the purpose and place of state universities in Sri Lanka. Underfunded and underpaid State universities may struggle to serve its non-fee paying undergraduates and be compelled to offer postgraduate courses at higher fees, thereby prioritising (rather than balancing) financial considerations over that the goals of higher education.

Proposed amendment to the Universities Act

More recently, the Minister of Education has gazetted a proposed amendment to the Universities Act, which among other things, will empower the Minister in ‘consultation with’ the UGC to ‘establish a University for a specific purpose’ (clause 2). The proposal does not define a ‘University for a specific purpose.’ There is no information available in the public domain which would help the public or even the university community to appreciate the reason for the proposed amendment. What does it mean to ‘establish a University for a specific purpose’? Why is the Universities Act, as it stands now, inadequate for the recognition of a new university? The public, including the academic community have a right to know the answers to these questions and to be consulted.  Moreover, the timing of this intention to amend the Universities Act raises questions as to whether there is a link between announced intentions by the Government to bring the KDU under the purview of the UGC.

Destiny of a nation

In anticipation of self-rule for Ceylon, visionaries like C.W.W. Kannangara recognised that the destiny of a nation depends to a significant degree on a robust and free policy on education which is governed and administered by institutions and individuals that are independent of prevailing political winds and impartial before competing ideas. That vision has been under threat from the time it was conceived, in most societies including in our country. The KNDU Bill is the latest manifestation of that threat and in fact even presents a new formulation of that threat: a university mandated to admit civilians, administered under the directives of the Minister of Defence, governed by the defence establishment and public administration.