Private universities a timely necessity

Wednesday, 23 August 2023 02:20 –      – 32

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The protest march organised by the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) last week, calling for the abolition of private universities in Sri Lanka, specifically NSBM Green University, Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) and Lyceum, once again stirred up the debate about the necessity of establishing private universities in Sri Lanka. Following the protest, lively discussions took place in social media platforms about this polarising issue.

Sri Lanka has 17 State universities but only about 30,000 students are admitted annually out of the 350,000 who sit the university entrance (A-Level) examination every year due to the limitations of the State university system. Some of the students, who are unable to gain admission to State universities, pursue higher education overseas. However, for those students who cannot afford foreign higher education, private universities are the only pathway through which they can realise their dreams of becoming graduates.

The IUSF is affiliated to the Frontline Socialist Party, while some time back they were associated with the JVP/NPP. The IUSF has always been at the forefront in terms of strenuously opposing any moves that permit the participation of the private sector in provision of higher education in Sri Lanka. It is a regressive political movement that does not have anything constructive to offer to the country. Even the politicians, who vehemently object to private campuses in public forums, ironically send their children to the same places which they ridicule by describing them as degree shops. Few years ago, the deceit of the prominent NPP politician K.D. Lalkantha was exposed when it was revealed that he had sent his daughter to a private higher educational institute although he was a fierce opponent of the plan that was underway to set up the private medical college – SAITM.

People who oppose private universities conveniently ignore that children of the wealthiest parents in Sri Lanka opt for foreign universities by spending enormous amounts of money. It must also be noted that due to ragging-related incidents in Government universities, parents are reluctant to send their children to Government campuses even though they gain admission. In certain instances, brutal and cruel forms of ragging have caused huge emotional and physical stress on students.

Last year, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the only local State university graduate in the history of Sri Lanka to become either Premier or President, remarked in the Parliament that $ 3 billion goes out of Sri Lanka annually to other countries because of Sri Lankan students going abroad for higher education. He also added that by setting up foreign university branches in the island, the country could earn $ 10 billion in foreign exchange annually by attracting international students.

The persistent opposition towards private universities in Sri Lanka has benefitted the economies of countries such as China and Bangladesh. A number of Sri Lankan students go to both China and Bangladesh, particularly to study medicine, every year. No wonder that Bangladesh, which was one of the poorest nations in the world a few decades ago, is progressing admirably as a nation, while Sri Lanka continues to stagnate owing to narrow-minded political ideologies. Thankfully for Bangladesh, they do not have to deal with destructive forces such as the IUSF/FSP/NPP like Sri Lanka.

In this backdrop, it is heartening to note that President Wickremesinghe at the 36th Annual Conference of the Organisation of Professional Associations, held last week – took a progressive stance by expressing the Government’s intention to engage the private sector in forming universities in the future. As he very rightfully elaborated during the Interim Budget Speech last year by quoting from the lyrics of the famous Sinhalese song Aju Thapara Lahila, we are spinning in one place while the world is moving fast and leaving us behind. The time has come to eschew our dogmatic thinking patterns and move forward like the rest of the world.



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