SRI LANKA: Attempting to impose payment for higher education on poorly paid wage earners 

Basil Fernando

The attacks on the students and rhetoric against them appear in many of the reports covering Sri Lanka today. The Minister, S.B. Dissanayake is heard over television channels talking in the crudest language against the students using such words as “haraka” (bulls and buffalos) which is rather unbecoming of a minister dealing with education. This is rather the type of language used by drunkards and thugs. The minister’s use of such language comes as no surprise as he had to pay for the use of such language with two years of rigorous imprisonment when he used it against a Sri Lankan court. He does not appear to have learned anything from that experience. He continues, going on record by stating that not only have a number of students been imprisoned but that he will have no problem sacking a thousand students or more if they obstruct his proposals.

This minister’s style reminds us of that of a former minister of education, Mr. I.M.R.A Iriyagolla from the UNP government of 1965, who provoked the worst student protests after independence. His provocative statements eventually caused the government of the time a great loss by the massive victory of the coalition government in 1970.


What is perhaps more important than the minister’s language are his proposals. One of the greatest achievements of Sri Lanka in the 20th Century was the development of the universities such as the ones at Peridiniya, Sri Jayawadenapura, Keliniya and Colombo as well as many other institutes of higher education which has expanded the capacity of the country to produce educated citizens that are very much needed. The proposal of the present government, if successful will change these educational institutes into ghost towns where they will be unable to recruit the best of the teachers. Eventually they will be unable to function due to the withdrawal of funding from the government.

The proposal for the establishment of private institutions is not just an attempt to expand educational opportunities but rather an attempt to replace the existing educational institutions with others where admission will be based on the capacity of the students and their families to pay for their tuition fees. This ambition goes against the most important achievement of the Sri Lankan people in the 20th Century which was the initiative for free education for which the country has earned a high reputation throughout the world.

In a country where the salaries of the wage earners is so low imposing the payment of tuition fees is likely to cause major upheavals in the country in the near future. So far, the wage earner could rely on the state resources at least in the area of education and thus, it was a major benefit to the family. If the burden of tuition is to be imposed on the wage earners it can be done only if there was to be an enormous increase in salary levels. However, the government has already indicated quite clearly that this is not possible within the near future. The government talks of development as the greatest priority and asks that sacrifices are made by the people even in terms of foregoing their basic needs such as food and other items in order to achieve this development. This simply means that a salary improvement on any scale which will enable the ordinary wage earner to be able to pay for the education of his children is not going to happen.

Under such circumstances the imposition of fees for higher education on the basis of payment will naturally create a social conflict which the ordinary wage earner would find difficult to avoid. They can avoid it only if they are willing to sacrifice the education of their children. Given the high value that the average Sri Lankan attaches to education this is unlikely to happen. Under these circumstances attacks on higher education is likely to cause a disturbance of peace far greater than the government might contemplate.

At the moment the minister is trying to concentrate his attack on the students who are opposing his moves, calling them terrorists. S.B. Dissanayake’s only basis for claiming any qualification to be in the political field is his own past as a student leader. In the 1970s when the coalition was in power Dissanayake was a student leader in the Vidyogoda University. He was the leader of the Communist Party student wing. This period was known as the student power period where the students, in fact, went far beyond their scope, even interfering in academic affairs and even influencing attempts to get their degree certificates by creating disturbances within the campus.

A person with such a past claiming to be the advocate of violence against students protesting for their basic rights may be ironic. If Mr. Dissanayake’s activities as a student leader of his day were not characterised as terrorism then neither can the activities of the students of the present day.

Perhaps Mr. Dissanayake has an expert knowledge about the ways in which the student movements are built and certain groups attract students for their cause. It may be on that basis that he is calling for the withdrawal of hostel facilities for male students as it is these hostels where the students are said to be “politicised”. In fact, at a time when the entire state apparatus is being accused of being politicised and where every citizen is learning that the only way to survive is gaining political patronage it is not surprising that the students themselves may be thinking along the same lines. Reform in that area is possible only if the entire political structure of Sri Lanka is changed to exclude the need for politicisation for the purpose of survival. Thus, the talk of the politicisation of the students smacks of hypocrisy of the highest level.

Some media agencies have also joined in referring to the students as terrorists and that comes as no surprise. In a country where media freedom has degenerated and the international media indexes place Sri Lanka as one of the worst countries in the world, some media agencies survive only by their servile attitudes towards the existing regime.

These newspapers are unable to ask the simple questions of the minister about his own past as a student leader and whether his present behaviour is consistent with that past. Today’s media does not even have that simple freedom to be able to question ministers on their past. A degenerated press places the label of terrorism on everything and today they even talk of bread terrorism, egg terrorism and perhaps now also student terrorism. The use of such words only dilutes the discourse and justifies the use of violence against legitimate activities. Thus, the media is contributing to the imposition of additional burdens on the wage earner to pay for the education of their children at a time when there is no possibility of the improvement of their wages.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-119-2010
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Right to education,