Gen Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University Bill: Why it’s a bad idea


Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy was established in 1981 by Parliamentary Act No. 68 of 1981. The Academy was granted University status by the Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy (Amendment) Act No. 27 of 1988. In 2007, it was renamed as General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University.

 The original objective of the Academy, as stated in the Act, was to provide training for ‘pre-officer cadets’. Act No. 68 of 1981 states that a five-member Board of Management should be appointed by the President to administer the academy and that a Commandant of the Academy, a senior officer starting from the Army, followed by the Navy and Air Force in rotation will be appointed for a period of three years at a time as the chief executive officer of the academy. 

It is clear that the original intent of the Academy was to train cadet officers to serve in the forces. This is not unusual: most countries have specialised institutions for training military officers. However, due to the growing demand for higher education in the country the KDA (subsequently known as KDU) started opening up to non-military (civilian) students as well as establishing study programmes in a range of fields including law, engineering, medicine, management etc. 

Also, when SAITM closed down its Medical Faculty, students from SAITM were offered registration at KDU. Thus, the university has been expanding in an ad hoc manner without the necessary legislative reforms. It is clear that the need for the university to be regularised is long overdue. However, the proposed legislation seeks to go beyond this need and poses many threats to the higher education sector. 

This Bill was first put forward in 2018 by the then Government, but due to widespread protests and criticism, it was not presented to Parliament. The current Government has now placed the same Bill to be taken up by Parliament. At the moment in Sri Lanka there are 16 universities administered by the Universities Act of 1978 and coming under the University Grants Commission. 

This includes the Open University of Sri Lanka, which was established by Special Ordinance, No. 3 of 1980. There are five other State universities, including KDU, which do not come within the Universities Act of 1978, but have been established through other Acts of Parliament. But the significance of the proposed Bill is that it seeks to empower the KDU with the same powers currently held by the UGC – allowing it in effect to establish a parallel higher educational network, managed by the Board of Governors of the KDU.

 KDU will be legally (and not informally as it is currently doing) able to provide higher education in any field of discipline and not be confined to training the Armed Forces. In other words, the KDU will function as any other University, except that it will be subject to the culture and ethics of the military and be governed by the military and unlike other State Universities, be fully fee levying.

 The Board of Governors of the KDU will be appointed by the Minister of Defence and will consist of nine members. This includes the Secretary and Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, one nominee each from UGC and Treasury, Chief of Defence Staff, the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University, also a military officer. 

This means that at least five of the nine members are from the military. If the Secretary is also from the military (as it is now) only three of the nine Governors will be outside the military. The Board of Governors will have wide ranging powers to determine entry qualifications, the minimum qualification of academic and nonacademic staff, establish quality assurance mechanisms, to decide and establish affiliated institutions to award degrees. It can appoint standing committees for subject disciplines and for determining academic ethical standards. In short, it will have all the powers currently held by the UGC. 

Unlike the other State Universities, KDU will be a fee-levying University and will have the powers to recognise and give accreditation to other degree awarding Universities as well. These powers are currently only given to the UGC. The UGC is made up of Commissioners appointed by the Minister for Education, and also has nine members. The current commission is made of six members who have served in senior positions or are serving in senior positions in one of the State Universities.

 Of the other three, one is the Secretary to the Commission, the others are a nominee from the Treasury and a lawyer. The UGC has Standing Committees for each discipline made up of the Deans from the relevant faculties. For example, the Standing Committee on Social Sciences is currently chaired by a Member of the Commission who is the former Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo. The other Members are Deans of Faculties of Arts and Social Sciences from the State Universities. 

Thus, decision making is in the hands of those from the relevant discipline. While there are many problems with how the UGC functions, the structure recognises the importance of discipline expertise and academic values in decision making. In contrast, the KDU Board of Governors has no place for academic expertise. 

Rather, it is seen purely as a management and administration body. The University system for which it is responsible is viewed narrowly as a corporate body, like any other corporate body. The one issue to which attention has been paid in the Bill is the need to protect a military ethics within the institution and its related units.

 The Minister of Defence has the authority to instruct the Board of Governors to take all steps against any ‘national security threats’ (undefined) or what the Minister deems as a threat to the ‘smooth’ functioning of the University. It also has the authority to demand any information from an employee or student in the interest of national security and to prohibit any person deemed a threat to national security from entering the University precincts or ‘any part thereof’.

 The Act does not allow for the establishment of student unions, a practice in any University in any part of the world, especially those that value democracy. According to accepted global higher education principles and values, Universities are expected to maintain a spirit of academic freedom in order to facilitate the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge independently. 

This includes critical engagement with and acceptance of dissenting views. The idea of academic freedom recognises the need for scholars to engage in a field of inquiry that may be seen as ‘inconvenient’ by those in power. This is an accepted principle in the pursuit of knowledge, since challenging existing accepted ‘truths’ is essential in the search for new knowledge. 

Yet, military culture is completely opposite to this ethic, since the military requires absolute obedience and unquestioning loyalty. Traditions within the military (salutations, regimentation etc.) are in place to instil this culture. It is clear that KDU has been established with little or no understanding of what a modern University should be like. Instead, it is modelled on the highly controversial model of a corporate University, where output rather than quality and process is considered, with a military model of discipline. 

While there is no argument of the need for discipline within the military, the idea that other sectors of society require the same type of discipline is not just controversial but alarming. Yet, with the proposed Bill, there is a very real possibility that graduates from KDU will enter the public sector and the private sector trained within such a military ethos. 

While this caters to a currently popular demand for ‘discipline’ in society – that is knee-jerk reaction to very real and serious weaknesses in our institutions and in our communities. As it has become all too obvious today, the military cannot be expected to respond all our problems – arguably there is a role for the military in our society, but there is an equally if not more important role for civilian expertise, sensibilities and thinking as well. 

The proposed KDU Bill offers a privatised, military model of higher education, which will take Sri Lanka on a trajectory towards militarisation of society as a whole. Of course, the military has a right to train its officers in military related disciplines – that is why military academies exist in all countries. Usually, when the military requires expertise from other disciplines, they recruit civilians. 

It is to the advantage of a successful military to obtain civilian perspectives. But when the military attempts to enter education in unrelated fields from a military mind-set, it represents an extremely dangerous tendency: the idea that the military can and must control all aspects of our lives and of our society. There are many other problems with this Bill which cannot be gone into in this article due to constraints of space – but, there is no doubt that this Bill poses a real threat to the quality of higher education in this country and must be withdrawn.

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