KNDU Bill, a new window of opportunity | Sunday Observer

KNDU Bill, a new window of opportunity

15 August, 2021

Despite the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths in Sri Lanka, precautions are being thrown to the wind as protestors gather in Colombo with various demands.

In an era where the right to be alive and safe has become a luxury, Sri Lankans now see health and safety being carelessly risked for political motives and short term gains.


The Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill is under heavy criticism mainly by the opposition parties along with the teachers’ demands to correct salary anomalies.

The right of expression and to conduct peaceful demonstrations is assured in any democracy. However, when it supersedes the countries’ health priorities, the motives behind the protests become highly questionable.

The key arguments against the Bill is the accusation that it militarises education and threatens free thinking. The opposition also criticises the fact that the KNDU would be outside the regulatory control of the University Grants Commission. The Bill is also criticised for the commodification of education. The KNDU Bill was first proposed in 2018 by the Good Governance regime but did not proceed with it due to strong opposition from stakeholders. Ironically, the Bill is brought forward by the then opposition and it is now criticised by parties who earlier fought to take it to Parliament.

Dr. Sisira Pinnawala, Director, Veemansa Initiative, Colombo and retired Professor in Sociology, University of Peradeniya said: “This shows that it is not the merits or the demerits of the Bill that matter but political mileage,” he said. As a country battered by terrorism, we have a constant fear of a militarised society. This fear is well reflected in the arguments that the KNDU Bill would eventually militarise education with KNDU formally proposed to become a fully-fledged university.


The KNDU is managed by a military establishment with its Vice Chancellor being a military officer. The initiative to enable servicemen to gain higher academic qualifications was first mooted in 1979. In 1980, General Sir John Kotelawala understood the need for an academy and donated the Kandawala Estate of 48 acres to the Government. The academy was named General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy in his honour. With the Act of Parliament No. 27 of 1988, the academy was elevated as a university offering degrees to officers.The Government is now criticised for proposing to expand the KNDU to enable civilians to take benefits from it. One of the objectives of the proposed Bill is to train public service officers, enabling them to provide better service to communities.

However, the KNDU Bill is criticised for imposing the same military rules, regulations and codes of conduct over civilian students.

“State-run universities may not have rules adopted formally but they too have unwritten rules and codes of conduct regulating student behaviour. There is a dress code and other restrictions imposed on first year students during ragging which euphemistically called welcoming new students,” said Dr. Pinnawala.


He added that there are no-go areas in state universities for certain groups of students. Those who do not conform are ostracised by students. “Therefore, the so-called conformity and regimental control are matters for interpretation,” Dr. Pinnawala said. The Bill is also criticised for threatening the academic freedom and not allowing dissent citing Lima Declaration in this regard. The Lima Declaration adopted by the World University Service (WUS) at its sixth General Assembly in 1988 defines academic freedom as the “freedom of members of the academic community, individually or collectively, in the pursuit, development and transmission of knowledge, through research, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation, teaching lecturing and writing”.

According to Dr. Pinnawala, there is nothing in the Bill restricting academic freedom as defined in the Declaration.

Opponents also claim that Section 7 Part III of the Bill suppresses dissent and freedom of expression in the University. However, Dr. Pinnawala points out that Section 20 (3) in Part III of the Universities Act 16 of 1978 gives the Minister in charge of education the same powers no different to that of the proposed Bill.Another argument against the KNDU Bill is that fee levying education would lead to the commodification of education, limiting the access to students from low-income households.


The opposition argues that education run by private entrepreneurs will have an adverse impact on the quality of education and eventually push the state out of its control. Then only the rich could afford higher education.

“This argument is over simplification of the situation,” said Dr. Pinnawala. “Fee levying education is not selling education for money with the sole motive of making profits.

The vast majority of fee levying educational institutions in the world are not-for-profit establishments.

In countries where fee levying universities are the norm, for example the US, there are strict regulatory mechanisms like accreditation bodies and other systems of standard maintenance to ensure academic quality is maintained.

Second, as experiences of other countries show market mechanisms prevent even for-profit-universities charging unreasonable fees as students are rational consumers. They consider value for money,” he said. The fact that the KNDU would not come under the Universities Act is also criticised. Opponents say that academic activities would then be decided by military thinking including the design and implementation of academic programs.

“KNDU is not the first university to be established by a separate Act. The University of Vocational Technology and Ocean University are two other universities that do not come under the Universities Act no. 16 of 1978. There were no objections at the time they were established,” Dr. Pinnawala said. He added that not all countries have UGCs or UGC like institutions and one authority having all powers of accreditation could even be harmful.

“In the long-term, it gives absolute power in determining the standards. The country’s higher education will be better served if accreditation is taken out of the grips of the university academic bureaucracy and make it fully independent.

Therefore, instead of bringing the KNDU under the accreditation mechanism of UGC, the Government is planning to do the better option of having an accreditation mechanism outside of the UGC for all universities and other degree awarding institutions,” Dr. Pinnawala said. The significant factor in the KNDU Bill is that it enables thousands of students so far deprived of education after the immensely competitive Advanced Level examination to pursue higher studies.

Only 1/5 of those qualified actually gets admission to state universities. The Bill in that sense is providing access to education for those not having the means to send their children abroad or spend on high fee-levying locally established foreign institutions.

The KNDU would be another window for students who are unable to pursue any other means of education. “No one is forcing parents to send their children to KNDU. If parents and students are satisfied with what is being offered, they have the option to get their education at KNDU.

The duty of any Government is to provide opportunities and this is what the Government is currently trying to do. The not-for-profit fee levying higher education model of the proposed KNDU Bill is a viable alternative for the unfortunate lot,” Dr. Pinnawala added.

Undoubtedly, education needs to be taken seriously and Acts should not be implemented in a haphazard manner.Discussion, dialogue and improvements should be a part of this entire process and concerned citizens have the right to suggest and call for improvement. However, it would be unfair by the majority to call for the withdrawal of the Bill entirely as this would be an opportunity lost for the thousands so far left out.