Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Govt. barking up the wrong tree

Govt. barking up the wrong tree

Higher Education Minister S. B. Dissanayake has vowed to go ahead with the government’s private university project come what may. Speaking at the opening of the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) teaching hospital, as a guest of honour, on Friday, he said the need for private universities had been felt more than ever, given the increasing demand for higher education in the country.

Of 350,000 students who sat the GCE A/L examination about 150,000 qualified for university admission, but only 27,000 of them could be enrolled, Minister Dissanayake said. He may have sought to use these figures to justify the government’s decision to allow private universities to be set up as a way out, but the discerning public will ask him why the SLFP-led governments boasting of an ambitious plan to make Sri Lanka Asia’s Knowledge Hub have failed to develop the national universities to meet the ever growing demand for higher education. His statement, in our book, has all the trappings of a confession that the government has, like its predecessors, violated over one hundred thousand children’s right to university education though it makes a public display of its commitment to the protection and development of free education. Isn’t it a crime that 123,000 students eligible for university education are denied admission for no fault of theirs? There are street demonstrations against difficulties some successful GCE O/L candidates from underprivileged schools face when they seek admission to GCE A/L classes in national schools. But, strangely, there are no such protests against the blatant violation of the rights of so many successful GCE A/L students!

Sri Lanka has to keep pace with the changing world and we shouldn’t act like a bunch of troglodytes. Private universities may be allowed to set up their branches here and no one should be unfairly critical of them for political reasons. But, the government must not promote private university education in a bid to solve the numerous problems stemming from its inability to meet challenges in the higher education sector. No benefits would accrue from fee levying universities to the vast majority of eligible students deprived of their right to higher education as they cannot pay for undergraduate studies. (It was only recently that a little girl got arrested and hauled up before courts for stealing a few coconuts to raise funds for school repairs.) Of course, among them are some children who go overseas for higher education, but the exception cannot be made the rule. These children are the responsibility of the state. Minister Dissanayake, who benefited from free education and is now living in clover having entered politics, cannot be unaware of the fact that free education is not a kind of charity as funds for it come mostly from the indirect taxes paid by the ordinary public on goods such as haal, parippu, seeni, karawala, boomithel etc. It is a right that must be protected!

The best way the government could counter resistance to private universities is to do its utmost to develop the national university system and be seen to be doing so. It ought to increase investment in the education sector instead of taking on university teachers and ridiculing their campaign for allocating more funds for education. Unfortunately, it is busy trying to justify its failure to admit more students to national universities and its attempt to have private universities here. The critics of its private university project sound convincing when they claim that it has allowed the national universities to wither on the vine like Sathosa and the CTB so as to create space for the private sector to move in.

If the ruling party windbags with deep pockets and shallow minds think they could dupe the public into believing that they are having private universities set up with the public interest at heart, they are mistaken. They are only digging themselves into a hole by trying to hoodwink the resentful masses.

The Island Editorial()
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