KNDU Bill and salary issues rock education sphere | Daily News

KNDU Bill and salary issues rock education sphere

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa meeting the Teachers’ Unions.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa meeting the Teachers’ Unions.

The controversial Bill to expand the legal scope of the Kotelawala Defence University, which is lined up for debate on Friday, will swing Parliament into action again this week.

The General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill was taken up in the House on March 8, 2021, but the Government decided to put off its vote to give more room to consider further amendments as the Opposition as well as some sections within the Government itself raised concerns on the Bill, in its initial form. The Bill was originally gazetted in 2018 by the then Government, but not moved in Parliament due to mounting protests.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led National People’s Power (NPP) took up arms against the Bill from the outset and demands to scrap it. The main Opposition Party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa also expressed its dissent on the Legislation, noting that the KNDU could operate as it is now purely as a defence university without any changes to its legal framework.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and several Leftist parties in the coalition Government had also spoken against the Bill. The Government, in a bid to iron out differences of opinions of its own camp on the Legislation, invited its Members to come up with amendments as they deem fit, and those were discussed at back-to-back Parliamentary Group Meetings on Monday and yesterday. As things stand, the Bill is likely to be done and dusted with further amendments at the Third Reading, surmounting various pressures from several quarters.


Outside Parliament, the education sphere has been caught in a whirlwind of protests over the past few weeks due to twin struggles, one relating to the salaries of teachers and principals and the other relating to the much-debated KNDU Bill.

A number of unions of teachers, principals, university students and lecturers have joined forces in organising agitations in various parts of the country over the above two issues, successfully turning the media spotlight on them. This was despite health concerns that the protests could turn out to be COVID super-spreader events. The Government, which took some protestors off for quarantine after a demonstration by teacher unions in Battaramulla, has largely left the demonstrations untouched afterwards perhaps due to the controversy it generated.

Most of the teachers have stayed away from online teaching activities since July 12 demanding immediate redress for their salary grievances, and ditching the KNDU Bill remains another demand of their agitation campaign. They have also withdrawn from the practical examination-related duties of the GCE Ordinary Level Examination. This has however left the students in limbo, having already spent more than one year out of school.

Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU) General Secretary Joseph Stalin and Ceylon Teachers’ Services Union (CTSU) General Secretary Mahinda Jayasinghe are seen in the forefront of the campaign. They have decided to continue their trade union action in defiance of the Education Ministry’s instructions for all teachers and principals, in line with a Government circular issued over the weekend, to report for their duties from Monday. All other sectors of the Government had resumed normal services from Monday, despite concerns over mounting COVID cases.

At the same time, the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA), the prominent Union associated with University academics, announced last week that they too would withdraw from online classes for University students to register their opposition to the proposed Bill, dealing a blow to university students.

It could be seen that the joint protest campaign of the unions in the realms of education and higher education has gathered steam ahead of Friday’s scheduled Parliamentary debate on the KNDU Bill.

Unions adamant

The Government held several round-table talks with representatives of those unions to find common ground, but the discussions had ended in a stalemate leaving matters open as at the beginning of this week.

The cadre of teachers and principals exceed 240,000 in Sri Lanka (Incidentally, the Government had inoculated most of them against COVID with the hope of gradually re-opening the schools from this month). The cash-strapped Government, which is also facing a period of economic slow-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been unable to set aside a lump sum for a pay hike as demanded by teachers and principals (who say this problem has not been addressed for 24 years) at this juncture. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa made this fact clear when he met the representatives of protesting unions at Temple Trees last week. It has been estimated that a salary hike at this stage for the teachers and principals would cost around Rs.68 billion, a huge sum the Government could ill-afford at this time due to economic constraints.

The Prime Minister, who is also heading the Cabinet Sub-Committee to look into the salary anomalies of teachers and principals, told the Union Members that the Government as a policy agrees that the prevailing salary anomalies have to be minimized and action would be taken in that regard gradually, as the current state of the Government coffers do not support an immediate step in that direction. It was just last week that the Government repaid a US$ 1 billion Bond and more loans are due to be serviced soon amidst a forex crunch.

This response, however, did not go down well with the Union Members, who were sceptical that it was only a half-hearted comment aimed at buying time. They argued that the Government had nothing to complain about financial difficulties when it was spending extravagantly on certain far less important affairs over the past year. They pointed out that the successive Governments over the past 24 years have turned a blind eye to their salary grievances.

At yesterday’s Cabinet press briefing Cabinet Co-Spokesman Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana stated that the Prime Minister was to hold another round of discussions with the Teachers’ and Principals’ Unions yesterday to come to an amicable settlement. The Minister said the first step in resolving the teacher-principal salary anomalies would be taken in the next year’s Budget scheduled for presentation in November this year. Several ministers who gave voice cuts to the media after Monday’s Cabinet briefing said the teachers’ salary anomaly issue was off the table for the time being due to the state of finances in the country.

When it comes to the KNDU Bill, protesting Unions and Opposition Political Parties have again refused to budge. They have not been agreeable to any amendments, but demand to do away with the Bill in its entirety. They however agree that the KDU can function as it is.

‘Day Scholars’

In brief, the proposed Bill introduces structural changes to the KNDU to broaden its scope. Founded as a Defence Academy in 1981, it has come a long way over the past four decades to achieve the status of a fully-fledged and renowned University. The University has been named after former Prime Minister General Sir John Kotelawala as it was established in a 48-acre land at the Kandawala Estate in Ratmalana donated by him.

In addition to military oriented study programmes and training for officer cadets of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the KNDU, updating its degree programmes, has opened doors for civil students to study in the areas of Engineering, Law, Medicine and Management etc. for quite some time now for a fee. The civilians following these fee-levying degree programmes are known as ‘Day Scholars’ in the University. The proposed Bill gives legal effect to such changes made over time.

Recently, when the much-disputed South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) in Malabe was abolished, its medical students were absorbed into the KNDU as ‘Day Scholars’.

KNDU Vice Chancellor Major General Milinda Peiris, taking part in a media forum to discuss the Bill, recently underlined that the merging of ‘Day Scholars’ with ‘Military Cadets’ has not been detrimental as some argue.

“This joint atmosphere among students has produced a profound setting for civil-military cooperation enrichment within the society. With the admission of ‘Day Scholars’ in 2012, a constructive competition could be seen among the students. ‘Day Scholars’ do not undergo military training, but they also gradually develop soft skills, leadership qualities and talents in music, toastmaster sessions, and sports etc., which are helpful to shape their future and make it brighter,” he commented.

The Bill also introduces a nine-Member ‘Board of Governors’ headed by the Defence Ministry Secretary for administrative purposes. Within the University, strict rules and ethics, guided by military ethos, apply to both civil students and officer cadets with a view of maintaining overall discipline.

“The draft Bill will not hinder free education in any way. Its provisions enable the KNDU to maintain a ragging-free and disciplined environment conducive for education. Ninety per cent of the lecturers in the KNDU are civil academic staffers. No local or foreign private institutions are affiliated with the KNDU. No under-qualified candidate will be admitted to the University and it will also not entertain requests from influential persons or sectors,” Defence Secretary General (Retd) Kamal Gunaratne has assured.

Bolstering this stance, the Vice Chancellor elaborated that the KNDU would not be an umbrella to govern other State universities or to overrule the powers of the University Grants Commission (UGC), as claimed by the protestors. “This measure is merely to be on par with other internationally recognized universities,” he added. In recent years, Sri Lankan universities have plummeted in World University Rankings and attempts are being made to reverse this trend.


Concerns raised by those opposing the Bill are mainly three-fold. Firstly, similar to the objections which were raised against the SAITM those days, slogans of protecting free education have been trotted out at this instance as well. Some fear that the Bill, as it allows the KNDU to establish its branches and connect with other local or foreign higher educational institutions, will put free education in jeopardy with a spate of privatization and marketization of the higher education sector. How valid this argument is in the contemporary higher education sphere in Sri Lanka is a different debate entirely.

Secondly, some are of the opinion that the Bill will lead to the militarization of the higher education sector. They point out that seven out of nine Members in the Board of Governors are top brass of the defence establishment. The critics are also opposed to the Board of Governors having to receive directions from the Defence Minister, who is currently the President.

Thirdly, there is contention that the strict disciplinary measures for students and staff, as provided in the Bill, will stifle academic freedom and independence to a considerable extent. They observe that such norms are only suitable for a military setting. They point out that such rules do not encourage questioning, alternative views, creative ideas and radical thinking, but merely produce tame individuals who blindly follow the instructions they receive.

“When the Government imposed a blanket ban on all agro-chemicals, 100-odd university academics wrote to the President elucidating the possible repercussions of the decision but also proposing to go for a gradual phase out. Such a letter would not be possible had they been staff members of the KNDU. The KNDU Bill requires the adherence to national policies without any questioning,” former JVP Parliamentarian Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa remarked.

“Limiting the intellectual freedom of civilian students in higher education is a threat to their personal development. A military education may emphasise discipline, but it should not be at the cost of intellectual freedom,” commented Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) MP Eran Wickramaratne.

Some independent analysts observe that out of all the above grounds for objections, this allegation carries a lot of weight and needs to be sorted out to preserve the very purpose of higher education. At the same time, there is no doubt that Sri Lanka needs more universities, State and private, to provide more opportunities for students and to prevent the outflow of foreign exchange to universities abroad. 

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