JVP, UGC, FUTA, SAITM and Higher Education

Island Editorial 

A damning indictment

JVP leader and Chief Opposition Whip Anura Kumara Dissanayake saw red the other day when a parliamentary committee report on the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) was presented to the House. Taking exception to the committee’s recommendations, which ran counter to the JVP’s position on the issue, he opposed a government move to have a debate thereon; he cited an ongoing court case pertaining to the issue as the reason. The government was, however, convinced otherwise; it said it saw nothing wrong with a parliament debate on the report at this juncture. It is apparently in a hurry to make Parliament’s position on the issue known to the judiciary while the case is on for obvious reasons. However, we believe that the matter is best left to the learned judges.

The JVP, which is usually seen to be playing political footsie with the UNP, has taken the government to task in Parliament on some issues the higher education sector is faced with such as drastic fund cuts and bureaucratic and political bungling. Its arguments sound convincing.

One, however, should not be so naïve as to believe that the JVP is opposing private universities out of any genuine love for free education. It and its offshoot, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), fear that they will lose their grip on the seats of higher learning which have become a fertile recruiting ground for them if the state monopoly on universities is done away with and private universities proliferate, providing students a viable alternative.

Given half a chance a large number of students who qualify for admission to state-run universities will opt for higher education at private institutions because the JVP and others of its ilk have ruined the national university system through lecture boycotts, bloody clashes, ragging and other such disruptive methods. By the time a Sri Lankan undergrad passes out the prime of his or her life has passed him or her by and students of his or her age in other countries have completed their postgraduate studies and/or are gainfully employed. The blame for this sorry state of affairs should be apportioned to successive governments and the ultra radical political elements with Marxist posturing who disrupt universities. Any political party which really feels for free education and is desirous of protecting it should ensure that universities function smoothly.

The JVP has, however, shed light on a serious violation of students’ right to education. The public ought to take serious notice of JVP MP Bimal Ratnayake’s allegation against the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the government, during the recent committee stage debate on Budget 2017 under the expenditure heads of the Ministry of Higher Education and Highways. He told the House that more than 2,000 deserving students who passed the GCE A/L examination were deprived of their right to university education every year owing to lapses on the part of the UGC and the government. The state universities could accommodate 24,000 students a year but only 22,000 were enrolled, he said. This is a damning indictment on the guardians of universities.

JVP MP Ratnayake deserves praise. His suggestion that Parliament be informed of the number of slots available at each university annually must be heeded. It will be interesting to see the reaction of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) to the JVP’s claim. Bureaucrats and government politicians cannot be expected to own up to their lapses and the university dons who have rightly called for an increase in fund allocation for education should look into the JVP’s allegation that a serious injustice is caused to as many as 2,000 students annually. The university teachers should go public with their findings and, if the JVP’s allegation is true, pressure must be brought to bear on the government and the UGC to increase the university intake forthwith.

We suggest that Parliament have a separate debate on the issue raised by the JVP. It is a crime to deprive students of their right to education.