The Consultative Committee on Defence recently agreed to present the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University Bill to Parliament for the second reading. Accordingly this bill is  to be presented in the Parliament on 8th July. Meanwhile Political parties, civil society, lecturers, students, trade unions and other groups in Sri Lanka have called on the government to withdraw the proposed Kotelawala University Bill which they fear could pave the way for privatisation of the higher education sector and militarisation of universities.

The Committee  was held under the chairmanship of State Minister of National Security & Disaster Management and State Minister of Home Affairs Chamal Rajapaksa and the participation of Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Major General (retd) Kamal Gunaratne. Former President Maithripala Sirisena, Parliamentarians Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, Tiran Alles,  President’s Counsel Jayantha Weerasinghe, Vice Chancellor of the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University were also present at this meeting.

Addressing the meeting, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence said that the University, which was initially intended to provide University education to members of the security forces, was expanded to provide education to civilian children as instructed by H.E. the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his tenure as the Secretary of Defense.

The Secretary to the Ministry of Defence said that the University, which is currently producing a disciplined generation of students suitable for the job market, is highly regarded and in high demand in the society including parents and students with the completion of courses within a specified period being one main reason for this.

Major General (retd) Kamal Gunaratne also said that all these courses are organized with the highest quality and that the University will continue to work towards the realization of H.E. the President’s policy of providing university education to all students who pass their Advanced Level.

“The Act on this University was initiated in the year 2009. This Bill has a history of 12 years. It was to be presented to Parliament in 2018 post having it prepared under the involvement of many scholars having it referred to the legal draftsman and to the Attorney General after conducting number of studies on it. Although the then Minister of Defense Maithripala Sirisena tried to do so, due to various reasons it was not possible at that time,” Major General (retd) Kamal Gunaratne further added.

Vice Chancellor of the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University, Major General Milinda Peiris addressing the committee stated that the Universities Act, which was established by an Act of Parliament in 1981 has been amended on several occasions but the university has not been given the required structure.

The Vice Chancellor said that the university, which currently has 11 faculties, was once ranked 4th among military universities. Therefore, he pointed out to the Committee that this Act is important to further develop the activities of this University and to elevate it to a higher level.

Speaking at the committee meeting, the Parliamentarians present said that the country is losing a lot of money as many talented children who do not have access to university education are tempted to study at universities in other countries. Therefore, it is very important to have the opportunity to study more quality courses at a lower cost through this university, the MP’s further stated.

On 21 June IUSF staged a protest in the capital Colombo demanding the withdrawal of the bill. During the protest a tense situation arose between police and students as police tried to disperse students, as public gatherings are banned during the current COVID-19 third wave.

IUSF Convener Wasantha Mudalige said that with the bill, the government was “moving towards military dictatorship”.

“If this bill passes, this will be the greatest risk for free education,” he told University World News, adding that more protests were planned.

“Under the guise of an epidemic, government is trying to pass the bill which is destroying free education. The government has obstructed a peaceful protest organised by students against the bill. If the government is trying to pass this, all forces must line up against it,” Amila Sandaruwan, national committee member of the Teachers’ Service Union, told University World News.