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Uni Students Up In Arms

2015 May 27

By Waruni Karunarathne

When C.W.W. Kannangara introduced free education to the country reforming the whole education system, the idea was to give all the level of society access to education, which however has become very bleak in the present context. State university students seem to be in a long lonely battle to safeguard the free education system which has now lost it appeal as every government that has come into power in the recent times seems to act forgetting the objective of the free education system.

University students in several Sri Lankan state universities continue to campaign for their demands on certain prominent issues that they have been highlighting for sometimes now but they have failed to get the attention of the education authorities to date. Convener of the Inter-university Students’ Federation (IUSF) Najith Indika told The Sunday Leader that at present there are several protests at university level to bring their issues to the notice of the authorities whereas the officials seem to overlook them. He said that the Sathyagraha campaign at the Open University against the increase of course fees has exceeded 150 days but the problem remains unresolved.

Najith pointed out that there is no reason for them to increase the course fees of the students if necessary fund allocations are being made. He added that following discussions with the University Grants Commission (UGC) as well as the Vice Chancellor, they had agreed to solve the issue by giving necessary fund allocations yet it has not been done. According to Najith, when inquired, the UGC says that they have made the necessary fund allocations, but the Vice Chancellor says otherwise passing the ball to the other.

Najith also stated that the government circular legalizing charging fees in schools still prevails. He added that the solution for the lack of funds in schools is not to charge fees from students but to increase the allocation of GDP for education. “Even if they cannot allocate 6% of the GDP for education, at least 2.5% GDP allocation would be sufficient to continue schools without charging fees from school students and to maintain universities. Before 2008, they allocated the least above 2% of the GDP for education whereas in the last budget only 1.1% of the GDP has been allocated for education. The government should increase the allocation without selling education,” he demanded.

He highlighted furher that at present the external degree programmes in universities like Kelaniya and Jayawardenapura are being sold for a huge amount of money which many students find hard to afford. He explained that the external degree programmes were created as the state universities cannot accommodate all the students who pass the A/Level examination. “Students with A/Level qualifications who could not get into the state universities should also have access to higher education. Earlier external degree programmes were offered for a very small fee but now they sell the external degree for a huge amount blocking the chance of many students from accessing higher education,” he noted.

Meantime, students of the University of Sri Jayawardenapura and Kelaniya are also on a protest against curbing the special intake students to subjects such as Pali, Buddhist Civilization and Sanskrit. Najith added that the purpose of education is not necessarily job oriented and therefore these subjects carry equal weigh and need to be given due recognition. “At present, there is a vacancy for 178 students in the Faculty of Humanities in the Kelaniya University for some subjects like Pali, Latin, Buddhist Civilization and Sanskrit. Those vacancies can be filled with special intake students – yet they are curbing special intakes,” he complained. Najith also added that despite the regime change, the new government is also following adverse policies towards state education and promote selling education and privatization. He raised his concern over the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) in Malabe as they have been granted to offer two new engineering degrees without a regulated system. According to Najith,, SAITM has been given approval under a ‘tender system’ to offer two new engineering programmes and is given a period of one to three years to recruit staff and to comply with the recommended standards and facilities so as to the degree can be offered from next month. Najith added that Malabe Medical faculty has also failed to meet the standards during the given time period but it continues to function.

Najith added that they have sought for a meeting with the Minister of Higher Education and the minister of education but they have not been willing to lend their ears.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Prof. Rohan Fernando, General Secretary of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) added that students of several university are right now on streets protesting in line with a different set of demands. With reference to the Open University issue, he said that some of the students’ demands are reasonable.

“The Open University issue needs to be sorted out very soon. This issue had gone to the UGC and higher levels. Our understanding is that even at the President’s, the ministerial level, and UGC level they intend to sort out this issue. But there seems to be certain elements in between that do not allow this issue to be resolved. It is the part of their strategy to sabotage the education system,” Prof. Fernando exclaimed.

He added that FUTA has not taken a stand on the issues related to the Bikku intake. However, he added that FUTA has taken a very firm stand that 80% attendance of the student should be maintained in all state universities as a prerequisite for the students to sit for the final exam. According to the Prof. Fernando, students are demanding to drop down that percentage but FUTA does not agree on that.

“As for the SAITM in Malabe and similar institutions, we are still of the same stand that we took in 2012. We have expressed our clear stand on that issue.

It is necessary to ensure that those universities regulate recommended procedures, upgrade their standards and comply with the required standards. We need to safeguard the state university system,” he insisted.

With reference to the circular legalizing fees for school students, Prof. Fernando added that there is a national steering committee for education and FUTA is one of the main elements in that committee – and the committee also consists of representatives from all the teachers unions, some of the administrative unions and IUSF. He added that this committee needs to discuss this matter seriously at that level.

Several attempts made by The Sunday Leader to contact, Minister of Higher Education Sarath Amunugama failed. However, Minister of Education Akila Wiraj Kariyawasam said that there is no barrier to students to meet him to discuss matters related to his ministr but added that issues related to universities need to be discussed with the Minister of Higher Education.

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