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Cablegate: Sri Lanka: University Education: So Many

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

041220Z Apr 05





E.O. 12958: N/A



1. (SBU) Despite a constitutional duty to ensure "universal
and equal access to education at all levels," the state-run
national university system in Sri Lanka, hamstrung by
politicization, resource shortfalls and successive
debilitating strikes, accommodated fewer than 14 percent of
qualified secondary school graduates in 2004. Intensive
political opposition--primarily from government coalition
partner Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)--has successfully
shut down, at least for the time being, Government plans to
accommodate some of the overflow by expanding the number of
private degree-awarding institutions. In the north,
administrators and students at the University of Jaffna face
some of the same challenges as their southern counterparts,
with the added complication of the near-monolithic influence
of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ideology.
Although administrators and students seem to realize that the
current education provided by the state-run university system
does not adequately prepare a sufficient number of students
for the competitive modern job market, any proposed reforms
are certain to elicit vehement and well-orchestrated
opposition from the JVP. End summary.

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2. (U) The responsibility of the Government of Sri Lanka
(GSL) to provide free university education to all qualified
citizens is, like so many other social entitlements enshrined
in the Constitution, one that the GSL is hard put to satisfy
adequately. (Note: Article 27 (2) (h) of the Constitution
lists "the complete eradication of illiteracy and the
assurance to all persons of the right to universal and free
access to education at all levels" as one of numerous
Directive Principles of State Policy guiding Parliament, the
President and the Cabinet toward "the establishment of a just
and free society." End note.) Constrained by resource
shortfalls, hamstrung by divisive partisan politics, and
plagued by recurrent and debilitating strikes, the
overburdened state-run university system, which consists of
13 regional universities and one extension school, could
offer places to fewer than 14 percent of qualified secondary
school graduates in 2004 (14,850 students out of the 108,000
who passed the national examinations). By offering 14 new
degree programs, the University Grants Commission (UGC),
which administers the national university system, expects to
expand the number of slots available to 16,255 in 2005--a
modest improvement that still leaves more than 90,000
qualified students out of luck and out of school each year.
(Note: Not included in these statistics are the estimated
additional 90,000 students who complete the requisite amount
of advanced level schooling, sat for the national examination
and do not pass. If these students are added to the equation
as well, the state-run university system accommodated just
over 7 percent of competing secondary school students in
2004. Universities abroad, primarily in India, absorb about
another 2 percent, according to UGC estimates. End note.)


3. (U) Once admitted to these elite ranks, students,
especially lower-income students from outlying areas who must
rely on state-funded dormitories for housing, are subject to
intensive political lobbying-cum-indoctrination by the
affiliated student wings of parties in control at particular
dormitories, according to administration and student sources.
The student wing of the pro-Marxist Janatha Vimukthi
Peramuna (JVP) has long been the most extensively organized
and most influential group, particularly among liberal arts
students. The JVP union dominates the liberal arts schools
of 11 of Sri Lanka's 13 national universities (Jaffna and
Eastern Universities, in the predominantly Tamil north and
east respectively, are the exceptions). (Not surprisingly,
the rigorous academic standards demanded of law, medical,
engineering and (to some extent) management students have
left little free time for politicking, and the JVP, according
to most accounts, has thus not developed a substantial
foothold among those populations.) Annual student elections
provide a predictably bitter forum for partisan politics to
polarize and divide student bodies, often resulting in
physical clashes between groups, strikes to protest an
unfavorable election result, or (more commonly) both.

4. (U) Nor are strikes limited to protests against election
outcomes. Instead, student unions are commonly mobilized
(again, most often by the JVP) to strike on a variety of
pretexts, including a wide range of GSL policies. A quick
review of the current state of play at universities across
the country on April 4 revealed the following:

--Ruhuna University (in the southern district of Matara)
closed for over a month due to student strikes;

--Colombo University: Arts and Law schools re-opened April 1
after a 10-day closure imposed by strikes; Management school,
on strike throughout March over student elections, scheduled
tentatively to reopen April 18;

--Sri Jayawardenapura University closed for 10 days in March
due to clashes/strikes; closed again the first week of April
due to ongoing political strife;

--Peradeniya University (Kandy): violence between pro- and
anti-JVP students April 3 prompted a faculty decision to
close down the campus for an undetermined amount of time;

--University of Jaffna: closed last week of March because of
a strike by non-academic staff protesting the dismissal of
the Registrar; strike by a rival union threatened for the
first week of April.


5. (SBU) Most of the current strikes disrupting studies at
universities over the past month were prompted by JVP
opposition to administration plans to address the shortage of
university slots by allowing selected private institutions to
award degrees in some fields. About 10 such
"degree-granting" institutions have already been recognized
by the UGC. According to UGC Chairman B.R.R.N. Mendis,
however, President Kumaratunga directed that applications
from another five be kept on hold after vigorous opposition
to the proposed expansion from JVP-aligned student groups,
who have branded the initiative as yet another GSL attempt at
"creeping privatization." A member of an opposing student
union speculated that the JVP, which views the state-run
university system as its exclusive breeding ground for future
die-hard politicos, sees the move as potentially undermining
the party's monopolistic grip on young students. Private
degrees will not be free, the student reasoned, leaving
candidates in those programs little spare time to engage in
strikes and other political activities. UGC Chairman Mendis
voiced the same theory, and offered the following additional
interpretations: (a) Recipients of private degrees may prove
more competitive in the global job market than those educated
by the public sector; (b) GSL failure to meet the demand for
university slots strengthens JVP claims of Government
mismanagement/malfeasance/disregard for the masses.


6. (SBU) The University of Jaffna, while spared a
hyperactive, strike-prone JVP student union, faces other
significant challenges. Students there are free from the
worries and disruptiveness of partisan politics on campus;
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) proivdes the only
political ideology on offer. (Note: The JVP student wing
maintains a nominal branch at the Jaffna campus as well, but
it is not politically active. End note.) According to
University Vice Chancellor Professor S. Mohanadas, students
in Jaffna "strike frequently" (usually to protest some step
by the GSL or the Sri Lankan Army--Army vehicle accidents are
a common pretext) "but not very long." A strike during the
last week of March was called by one union representing
university staff to protest the dismissal of the Registrar; a
rival union, on the other hand, threatened to strike if the
Registrar were reinstated. Despite these mutually exclusive
demands, Professor Mohanadas expressed confidence that the
issue would soon be resolved.

7. (SBU) The national standard imposed on northern
students--who must complete their secondary education in
sub-standard facilities--creates wide disparity, the Vice
Chancellor indicated. While the south may suffer from a
surfeit of too many qualified students and too few slots, the
north has the reverse problem: too few students even qualify
for admission. Because students from the north are typically
weaker in English than their southern counterparts, he noted,
many local applicants cannot pass the examination. Mohanadas
said that he had requested the UGC to grant an additional 5
percent quota for students from especially underprivileged
areas (i.e., the LTTE-controlled Wanni) in the budget for
2006. Similar previous requests have been turned down by the
UGC, he reported, on the grounds that slots for southern
students would also have to be increased commensurately.


8. (SBU) A surplus of 93,000 advanced level graduates kept
out of the university system is clearly a need that the
private sector can help fill. Competition among private
institutions could help ensure higher standards and graduates
better equipped to meet the needs of a global marketplace.
This is not, however, a need that the JVP, despite its
rhetoric about helping the masses, finds politically
expedient to meet. A more competitive university system
could reduce the JVP's virtually unopposed grazing rights
among student populations, thereby inhibitiing its ability to
expand its membership and entrench its hold among
well-educated but under-employed Sri Lankan youth. As with
other proposed reforms (Reftel), the JVP can be expected to
invoke the "privatization" bete noir to keep this eminently
sensible GSL initiative at bay.


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