An Interview with SB Dissanayake by Chamitha Kuruppu
Admitting the Government has launched a campaign to eliminate JVP-led student movements crippling the university system in the country, Minister of Higher Education S.B. Dissanayake points out such moves should not be misinterpreted as student suppression.
Explaining the reasons behind setting up non-State universities, Dissanayake claims that although the Government is in a genuine effort to improve the standards of education in the country, its attempts will be fruitless until the JVP stops politicising universities and higher education institutes. Dissanayake, once a strong leftist, started his political career as a university student and says he was the longest serving President of the Inter University Student Union. Following are excerpts of an interview:
Q: Could you briefly explain the programmes and projects carried out by the Ministry of Higher Education at present?
A: We have taken measures to modify and improve the courses conducted in all universities in Sri Lanka. We also want to improve the quality of the courses offered in all the universities and all other higher education institutes.
Meanwhile, to keep the academic staff satisfied, we are hoping to increase their salaries. Under the same programme we will address issues related to the non-academic staff such as salary anomalies and provide them better facilities.
Moves are afoot to provide better facilities that will enhance the quality and standard of education such as hostel facilities, improve library facilities, have more computer labs, find a solution to the shortage of qualified teachers and have more experienced and skilled teachers in universities and higher education institutes. Improving sports and talent development and welfare activities are also being taken into consideration.
In an attempt to improve the knowledge of English language among students, we want to make English the course medium in all institutes. We are currently engaged in doing the groundwork for this move.
The President is hoping to provide 100 scholarships for foreign university students. We are also looking forward to enrol around 500 foreign students for courses offered in our universities.
But our foremost priority will be to establish the ‘freedom’ of students in all universities and higher education institutions. It is important that we have well-disciplined students in this country, especially in the higher education sector. Every attempt will be taken to make sure that the first, second and third priority of students is education. They cannot have any other priority that disturbs or interrupt their education, which is their main goal.
Q: Explain the changes that will be made under educational reforms?
A:There are 78 registered private higher education institutions. According to statistics, 56 institutions are still in initial stages and 30 institutions are functional at present. In the past the Ministry didn’t have any link with these institutions. But now we have started a programme to have a close coordination with these bodies in order to monitor them closely. We want to bring these organisations under a regulatory body. An Accreditation and Quality Assurance Council will be appointed especially to have an eye on the quality of the service provided by these institutions.
We have complaints flooding in about the quality and functioning of these institutions, so having a close monitoring is essential. Organisations that function smoothly and guarantee a quality service will be provided with more assistance from our Ministry. At the same time, we will have to take stern action against others who take innocent parents for a ride and play with their money.
We have already started discussions to get down around 15 non-State international level universities into the country. We have approached and held discussions with 24 highly-recognised international universities.
Intellectuals and academics in our country have provided projects to set up private universities in Sri Lanka. We are also looking at such options. Once the legal work is done, we will take immediate measures to set up these international universities in Sri Lanka. By the first quarter of next year we will have seven to eight universities functioning in the country.
Q: How would you describe the sudden push for private universities?
A :I don’t like to use the word private universities. The correct term should be ‘non-State universities’. Most international universities are not private and they cannot be defined as profit-making entities. Most of these universities have been initiated by various religious organisations, charity organisations or similar bodies.
The reason for the sudden urge? Well, there are a number of reasons. Mainly that the Government is unable to provide higher education facilities for over 10,000 students. These are children who cry out for further education, but unfortunately the Government is not in a position to respond their cry.
In 2009, 131,000 who sat for Advanced Level examination were qualified to enter university. Apart from that, there are over 10,000 students who sat for examinations such as London A/Ls. We enrolled 22,000 in universities; another 3,500 were taken in at technical colleges, around 3,000 in secondary level mechanical colleges and another 2,500 in private higher education institutions.
Apart from that, nearly 6,000 to 7,000 leave the country every year to pursue higher studies. Altogether some 38,000 students somehow realise their dream of pursuing higher studies. But the sad part is that over 50,000 students in Sri Lanka want to continue their higher studies. But other than the 38,000 I mentioned before, everyone else has to drop their dream of continuing their studies. They don’t have the money to go aboard to study in private universities.
By introducing non-State universities we are hoping to provide opportunities for these students to purse higher education in these internationally-recognised universities under free education.
Every year children who go abroad for higher studies takes almost Rs. 25 million out of our country. We have to save this money. We also hope that by having international universities in the country, we will be able to improve the condition and standards of our local universities through competition.
Within five years we are looking forward to attract foreign students to come to Sri Lanka to study in these universities. That way we can bring foreign money to Sri Lanka, which can be utilised to improve our universities. We will also be able convince academics, intellectuals and expertise in the academic field currently based in other countries to come back to Sri Lanka and serve their motherland.
Q: If this comes under free education, who will have to bear the cost?
A: That is one condition we will have. We will ask these universities to have a slot of 20 per cent for our students and the rest they can have as they wish. That way they will be able to cover the cost.
Q: Is this the first step towards privatising education?
A: We refute such allegations. Our main focus is continuing free education in the future, improving the quality of education and making the end result more appealing to the job market. So whatever programmes and projects we carry out, we will not let anybody distract our main focus on free education. This is a fact. For example, if they try to approach our academic staff and take them over to their universities, we will not let them do that. We will somehow keep our staff in our institutions.
Q: Why can’t you take measures to improve our universities and higher education institutions so that they provide better facilities and increase the student intake to find a solution to this issue?
A: There are a number of reasons why we can’t do that. Firstly, it is with great difficulty we provide the opportunity for 22,000 students to enter university. There are universities with zero facilities such as the University of Trincomalee and University of Vavuniya. There are no facilities at all. Every other university lacks many basic facilities. The situations of higher education institutions such as the technical colleges are much worse. We need approximately Rs. 300 billion to fulfil these facilities and it takes a long period to do that
On the other hand, the State universities alone cannot take our education to universal standards or bring universal education methods to Sri Lanka. India is the best example in this regard. It hasn’t been more than 10 years since India introduced non-State universities. Today there are more than 3,200 such institutions in India and they are very popular and recognised. In China there are over 4,000 private universities.
In this world there isn’t a single country that has only state universities. Cuba and South Korea have only state universities, but the education systems in those countries are in a mess. If you select the best universities in the world, the first 1,000 universities are all non-government universities or state-run universities that charge for education. If we want to make education universal, this is the only way to do it.
Q: What do you have to say about the sudden student suppression taking place in the country?
A: I do not agree with your question. I don’t like to use the term ‘student suppression,’ simply because there is no such thing. There are few students, perhaps less than one per cent, who try to sabotage the smooth functioning of universities and other higher education institutions and mislead students. These students are the ones who suppress their own colleagues.
I was the longest-serving President of the Inter University Student Union, serving for more than two-and-a-half years during my time. Almost 10 to 15 student unions competed with each other during the elections at that time. But for the past 12 years the JVP has not been allowing other student unions to hold an election.
They are threatening students who are against them, they harass and assault students who are against them and they have forcibly occupied hostels, including ladies’ hostels. They have killed some students. They threaten and assault vice chancellors and academic staff. Today the universities in this country are more like prisons run by the JVP.
The JVP does not allow the students to go to a library. Students are not allowed to work on their assignments peacefully. They are not allowed to submit assignments in print form. Although the courses are conducted in English, students are not allowed to talk in English inside universities.
First Year students are only supposed to wear rubber slippers and girls can only wear ‘cheeththa’ dresses during the First Year. First Year students should also refrain from taking part in sports. This clearly shows how brutal and inhumane the rag is nowadays.
JVP students have forcibly occupied hostels merely to carry out their political work. In Kelaniya, the girls’ hostel has been encroached by boys; in Gampaha, the Ayurvedha University students are forcibly living in hospital wards; the Directress of the Dehiwala Technical College had been chased out by the students and they were living in her house for a period of time.
In some places the boys are not allowed to tuck their shirts in. Would you believe that in one institution both girls and boys are not allowed to wear undergarments during the rag season? What type of mentality would these students have to be so inhumane towards their own brothers and sisters? Do you still think we should act deaf and dumb and let these cruel and insane activities continue?
Take my word, over 90 per cent of the students are happy that the Government has launched this programme and happy about the freedom they will soon have. We are talking about the best students in the country; they are the ones who will be doctors, engineers, scientists and managers in future. These students want to complete their studies and then serve this country. Unfortunately the JVP is ruining everything for mere political reasons.
We are going to be very firm and take every possible measure to eliminate these pointless and unwise political activities among university students. Like I said before, neither I nor the Government is against students engaging in politics, but we cannot let the JVP destroy the university system in this country. We will stop them in every possible way.
Q: Do you agree with allegations that the Government is trying to suppress the JVP through this move?
A: No, I don’t agree with such an allegation. The JVP is a political party and there is no need to suppress it. What we need to do and are trying to do is stop the JVP from misleading the students and holding back innocent students from their main priority, which is education.
We have enough evidence to prove that it was the JVP that led almost all the unfortunate events that have happened so far. It is the Inter University Students Movement that is behind all of these incidents. When we go to courts, it is the JVP lawyers who come with these students.
People today have no respect for an undergraduate. When you say you are a university student, what is the response of society? They look at you in disgust. Who is responsible for that? It is the JVP. We have to stop that; we cannot let this continue anymore.
A few days back the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura had received a phone call late at night from the people in the area complaining the students were drunk and making a huge noise and partying, disturbing the neighbourhood. When the Vice Chancellor went to the site to talk to these students, they assaulted him. Some of them were Buddhist monks and later we found out that they were active JVP leaders. Isn’t it pathetic?
We have statistics that show that over 79 per cent of Buddhist monks who receive university education leave priesthood once they complete their education. That is a bad trend. Some action is needed to stop that. There is no point having temples all over the country if we don’t have priests.
Q: What action will be taken against the students who engage in such unacceptable political activities?
A: We don’t want to hurt or hunt anyone. I am personally against the Police getting involved in this. I don’t like the students being arrested by the Police. When your child does something wrong, will you hand him over to the Police? You will take whatever action against them and make sure the child does not repeat the same mistake.
Whatever action that needs to be taken against these students should be done at university level. Unfortunately, due to the involvement of the JVP, the vice chancellors or the lecturers are not in a position to take any action against the students. The JVP is not letting them do it. So the only way to control these students is through the Police. Therefore, we are compelled to seek the assistance of the Police in this regard.
Students who were arrested following some of the recent incidents have confessed that the JVP either misled or threatened them to take part these events. Some have asked for pardons, assuring they will not get involved in such activities in the future. I personally arranged lawyers to release these students. We have to stop the JVP trying to hurt students, vice chancellors and lecturers who are against its political vision. Why would everyone agree with such a fascist mentality?
Q: Do you believe that through measures such as student suppression or setting up private universities, the Government can overcome the present crisis situation in the education sector?
A: Let me clear this again; there are no private universities. What we want to have is non-State campuses. There is no student suppression at all. We want to stop the JVP from misleading students and interfering with the education system in this country. This is a human mission carried out by the Government to free the students suppressed by the JVP. That’s the truth.
The Government is in a genuine effort to end the crisis situation in the education sector. We are doing everything possible to improve the quality of our education and to take it to an internationally recognised standard. But until we stop the JVP we are unable to do that.
Q: The private sector eternally complains the local graduate does not fit the job market. What action has been taken in this regard?
A: We have had discussions with the private sector and got their opinion on the changes we need to make in this regard. We have the representation of the private sector in the University Council too. We have changed some courses accordingly. Unfortunately, we cannot make any of this materialise unless we stop the JVP acting irresponsible inside universities. The JVP is not allowing the students to talk in English within the premises. What sick mentality is that?
Q: Don’t you foresee a danger in being stern against the students, which could possibly lead to another arms struggle?
A: The JVP is distancing the students from lecturers, stopping them from using the library and forcefully getting them on to streets. There we foresee a danger of another armed struggle. I don’t see any risk in the Government trying to stop such hazardous activities by the JVP.
Q: We don’t see a significant increase in the allocation of funds for the education sector in the Appropriation Bill, although it is essential to improve the quality of education in the development process. Your comments?
A: I agree that we don’t have much of an allocation from the Budget. There is a lot of loose talk that the Ministry of Defence has the highest allocation and sectors like education are being ignored. But people should realise that it is difficult to attract funds for defence. No one will lend money to train our soldiers or buy required weaponry. But we can always get assistance from the international community to improve the education sector, for example to build a school or a repair a library or improve facilities of a school or a university.
We have Austria, Korea and Japan lined up to lend money with no interest and with a longer grace period. We received US$ 500 million under a World Bank project to introduce improved courses in universities and improve the standard of the remaining courses. We have more than enough money for the education sector.
Q: What do you have to say about the allegation that the country is heading towards a dictatorial regime?
A: That allegation was levelled against the Government following the 18th Amendment. Let me ask one thing, for people to protest against the 18th Amendment, did we have the 17 Amendment functioning? This was first brought in during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s regime with the support of the JVP as well the UNP. Now, did she ever appoint the IGP or the Election Commissioner recommended by the Constitution Council during her time? She didn’t make any appointments recommended by the Constitution Council
We see there is lot of opposition against the removing the time barrier of contesting for the presidency. Ranil Wickremesinghe has lost 18 times; not only the UNP but the entire country is demanding that he step down from the party leadership. Is he doing it? No. He has a fake Party Constitution that enables him to act according to his wishes. This man is pointing his finger at President Rajapaksa who is at the peak of popularity. People want the President to rule this country.
On the other hand, President Rajapaksa has to compete once again and come through an election. So what is the base of all these unnecessary allegations? What is Ranil doing? He is not allowing Pradeshiya Sabha members to vote; he is not letting his members go to the villages and work for the people; he is not having the party convention. What is he trying to do? Contest in the next election. And this very same man is accusing President Rajapaksa of being a dictator. Isn’t this a joke?
We talk about great kings and rulers throughout the world. Lee Kuan Yew, for example, is adored and admired throughout the world. He ruled the country for many, many years and never let the opposition rise during his regime. Take Mahathir Mohamed; he didn’t give a single opportunity for opposition parties to raise their voices. He ruled for many years. General Park in South Korea, Emperor Meiji, they were all the same. They were great leaders. They did so much for their countries. Why can’t Mahinda Rajapaksa do it?
Q: Is it true that except for a few ministers who are close to the President, others in the Government have no power?
A: I am new to this party. It is true that I was once the General Secretary of this party, but there were situations and I rejoined recently. Therefore, I don’t try to be part of the circle or the group people talk about. I see one thing; all the ministers in this Government try to do an honest job and the President is willing to help them. The President helps and assists me in everything I do for my Ministry. And he appreciates all the positive things that I do for the development of my Ministry. We are all satisfied and hopeful of a better future.
Q: People are afraid to criticise the President or his Government following General Sarath Fonseka’s incident. Why is it that the Government takes stern action against people who raise their voices against its corruption and misconduct?
A: Who is saying all this? Is there anything like that? Don’t we have media freedom at its highest level in this country? Now the General’s incident, there is a lot of talk about the court martial. Except for one member, the other two were appointed by General Fonseka for court martial during his tenure. Over 6,000 soldiers were court-martialled during his time.
If the President had not appointed Fonseka as the Chief of Defence Staff, he would have court-martialled Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya, the present Army Commander. Now when the Army Commander tries to court martial him for whatever wrong things he has done, why is Fonseka pointing fingers at President Rajapaksa? There are incidents of top officers in the Army being court-martialled by Fonseka simply because his girlfriends were advised by these officers to be more disciplined.
There are a number of complaints against Fonseka of corruption, fraud and rape. It’s true that he contributed immensely towards the victory of the war, but in the meantime there are many wrong things he did during his tenure. People in this country need to understand this. How would it be if Fonseka won the presidential election? Will he let President Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa live in peace?
We have opposition members joining the Government day after day. Soon after the general election was held, Abdul Cader who became first in the Kandy District came to meet me. He wanted to meet the President. I spoke to President and explained that Cader needed to see him. But the President asked him to wait. He said that we need to have a strong opposition so people like Cader have to remain in the opposition.
In fact the President has said this to be many opposition members who joined the Government as well as some strong opposition members, who listened to the President and stayed back in their parties. The President never threatened anybody to cross over; nor did the Government offer them money to join it. The opposition members are voluntarily crossing over to the Government because they can’t stand the damage Ranil Wickremesinghe is causing to the UNP anymore.
Q: What do you have to say about the restructuring process of the UNP?
A: The UNP does not need any restructuring; all that needs to be done is to remove Ranil Wickremesinghe from the party leadership. Ranil has changed the constitution so that no one can expel him from leadership.
Each and every appointment and recommendation in the UNP is 100 per cent in the hands of Ranil. He is so power-hungry that he is not letting the leadership go away from him. See how pathetically he is clinging on to the leadership when everyone else in one voice says they want him out.
Take my word, all the big talk about party restructuring is a sham. He is all out to contest in the next election and he is doing everything possible towards that end. He doesn’t care about the UNP.
COURTESY: FINANCIAL TIMES