Dr Bandula Gunawardane, the new government of Sri Lanka’s higher education minister, has given the green light to several education reforms, including a new push to allow branches of world-class universities to be set up in the country.
On 22 January, cabinet ministers approved a proposal to establish a ‘free education investment zone’ to attract investors who wish to set up branches of world-class foreign universities. The government will provide an attractive package including basic infrastructure facilities, and land and tax breaks to foreign investors. It has already allocated land for the project in a proposed 700-acre investment zone located in Horana, close to the capital, Colombo.
The government is planning to follow the model of the Special Economic Zones programme that Malaysia executed during the 2000s to attract investors.
Gunawardane says the aim is to attract foreign and non-residential students to pursue higher education in Sri Lanka, with the intention of making Sri Lanka an education hub in the region.
According to the submitted cabinet paper, the ministry is mainly focusing on attracting students from South Asian and East Asian countries, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Maldives and Indonesia, all countries it identifies as having a growing middle class whose parents face financial difficulties sending their children to Western countries.
It also thought that the establishment of foreign branch campuses will minimise brain drain and encourage local students who have left the country to come back.
Every year about 10,000 Sri Lankan students go to foreign countries seeking higher education opportunities, draining more than US$400 million in foreign exchange out of the country.
Several attempts by the previous governments to introduce private universities and branches failed due to huge student resistance. The proposed private university bill put forward by the Rajapaksa government was withdrawn in 2012 because of huge student opposition, for instance.
The government is planning to host an investment symposium in Sri Lanka in June this year to bring together about 40 world-class foreign universities’ heads. The higher education ministry is seeking financial assistance from the government to develop the infrastructure facilities in the economic zone and to organise the investment symposium.
The master plan, which is under discussion, will include road access to the investment zone, electricity, water supply, internet, transportation, aesthetic activities, urban planning and other activities.
Proposals also suggest that 5% of the intake of the international branches should be allotted to local students under a special scholarship programme; and the establishment of a knowledge-sharing programme through the academic staff of those international universities.
The president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, won the election in November after pledging wholesale changes to create a new education system based on innovation and knowledge. Last month, in line with its promise, the new government announced a radical plan to provide employment opportunities in the state sector for about 50,000 unemployed graduates by 1 March this year.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s major university student union, Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), which has prevented several attempts at education privatisation in the past 42 years, has demanded immediate withdrawal of the proposal to set up international branch campuses.
In 2017, due to months of protests and strikes by university student unions, doctors’ unions, parents and other trade unions, the government had to abolish the controversial South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) – commonly known as Malabe Private Medical College – which is Sri Lanka’s first private medical university.
Political analysts are predicting a wave of protests by university students over this proposal in coming days. University students are planning separate protests in front of seven universities on 10 February. Meanwhile, the government is getting ready for possible student resistance by dedicating an ‘Agitation Site’ in Colombo, an allocated space for public protest and demonstrations.
“Government is again trying to privatise the free education and legalise degree shops; we request all those who previously fought against the SAITM to join with us again to defeat the government’s move,” IUSF Convener Rathkarawwe Jinarathana Thero told University World News.
“Education is a right; it is not something to sell; education is not property of the president nor higher education minister. As a student movement we have fought for the past 42 years against education privatisation. With that experience we will take students to the streets again against the government proposals.”
Apart from the ‘free education investment zone’ proposal, Higher Education Minister Gunawardane has submitted two separate cabinet papers proposing the setting up of ‘chartered universities’ and the restructuring of universities and university institutions.
Sri Lanka has only 15 state universities and only 30,000 students are admitted annually out of the 330,000 who sit A-level examinations every year. The limited capacity of the universities means many young people miss out on the opportunity of obtaining a higher education.
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