Kotelawala Defense University has been a hot topic in society for the past few months. Lanka Courier Editor in Chief Nilantha Ilangamuwa met with its Vice-Chancellor Major General Milinda Peiris RWP RSP VSV USP ndc psc MPhil (Ind) to discuss the objectives and prevailing situation of the university as well as the new act initiated to ratify through the Parliament.
Major General Milinda Peiris joined the Sri Lanka Army as an Officer Cadet in 1980 and had his basic training at the Officers Training School in Madras, India and at Sri Lanka Military Academy, Diyatalawa. He was commissioned into the 1st Reconnaissance Regiment Sri Lanka Armoured Corps as a 2nd Lieutenant on completion of his training. Since then, he held vital and important appointments in the Army commensurate with each rank held, and he reached the pinnacle of his military career in 2016 when he was appointed as the Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Army. Major General Milinda Peiris is a graduate of National Defence College, New Delhi, Command and Staff College, Bangladesh and Armour School, Fort Knox, Kentucky, USA.
As a pioneer squadron commander of 4 Armoured Regiment, he led tank squadrons to many crucial battles, and he commanded the 5th Regiment of the Sri Lanka Armoured Corps with distinction. He was also the Commanding Officer of the Officer Cadet Wing at the Sri Lanka Military Academy. Subsequently, he commanded the 561 Infantry Brigade and 232 Infantry Brigade. Thereafter, he commanded the Armoured Brigade. He was the Director Operations at the Joint Operations Headquarters and had been appointed as the Defence, Military, Naval and Air Attaché for Sri Lanka in the USA. Major General Milinda Peiris Commanded the 22 Division in Trincomalee as the General Officer Commanding during the period of liberation of the East by the Security Forces. On return from National Defence College in India, he was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) on 28 December 2008. Under his patronage, the university expanded to be a fully-fledged university consisting of nine academic faculties, and he was instrumental in developing KDU to lead in the world of tertiary education, lighting the torch of wisdom in thousands of students both local and foreign.
Especially, during his tenure as the Vice Chancellor, he took an untiring effort to establish the Medical Faculty of KDU, which became nationally and internationally known for its unique ability to produce military medical graduates of the highest caliber to fulfill the healthcare requirements of the tri-services, state sector and society at large.
In July 2014, Major General Milinda Peiris was conferred with the “Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education” by the World Chancellors and Vice Chancellors Congress in recognition of “the strategic and iconic position occupied by him in the fraternity of Vice Chancellors as an agent of change in global education. Further, he was conferred with the “Education Leadership Award” by the World Education Congress on 23 July 2015.
Excerpts from the interview;
Can you talk to us about your role as VC at KDU
I have always had an inclination to education and have served as VC at KDU for over eight years. In 2007 KDU was named as Defense University, nothing much had changed until 2009. It was after I came that I suggested to the board for KDU to be made into a university. Until such time it was still the KDA. There were five departments but there were no faculties, so we studied the structures and began implementing it.
What is KDU?
The KDU concept was mooted by founder of the KDU General Denis Perera, who was commander of the army then. The other two commanders, Navy Commander Admiral Deshamanya D. Basil Gunasekara and Air Force Commander Harry Gunathilake forwarded a white paper to the President at the time J.R. Jayawardena on establishing a tri-force academy. They studied the NDA model which is in Pune India, and the Australian Armed forces academy, the procedures and methodologies adopted and the suggestion was put forward. The land was given by Sir John Kothalawela.
There seems to be a lack in our education sector or a discrepancy in the ways nationalism is taught and practiced. How do we change it?
I think we need to assess the areas that we are not addressing and find ways and means to overcome it. KDU we try our best to impart such knowledge which is why we started off with strategic studies and international relations. We are now focusing on strategic communication. We have had student research forum and they are all directed to think of national security from various perspectives. Most of the degree programs in the country do not address these areas unless it is subject specific. But we need to start educating our children from secondary level of what problems the country is facing. The geography, past history is equally important. But what we do is always try to remove those subjects like history thinking it is not important but that’s not true.
Do you think free education exists in Sri Lanka?
In those days in the primary level we never saw many going for tuition but nowadays we see children going for extra classes from primary level. Free education is there for namesake but parents are spending a lot of money on secondary and higher education. Even when it comes to higher education, I know of instances where they go for extra classes because the tutor does not teach. Actually speaking free education does not mean free of charge. A lot of people think free education means it should be provided free of charge. For me however free education means the child having the right to decide which school he or she wants to go and the subject they want to study – where universities are concerned.
The other important factor is which subject area. In Sri Lanka if someone wants to study engineering only a small percentage gets that opportunity. The rest who do not make it are compelled to do or follow some other course. That is a child’s right to be able to choose. Here free education means that it should be given free of charge. As we know, 200 000 get through A’levels from 300 000. But only 42 000 make it into universities. But what of the rest? If those students who can pay go to universities, others should be given the chance.
What is this controversial KDU act all about?
As you may know act of parliament cited the Sri John Kothalawela Defense Academy No 68 of 1981, with that KDA was established. In 1988, Act no 27, elevated the Academy to University status. From there on KDA conferred degrees on students. In 2007, Act no 50, KDA was renamed as General Sir John Kothalawela Defense University. However, in 1998 and 2007, though it was given the authority to confer degrees the university structure had not changed. Because to be in par with local and foreign universities we needed a structural change. Earlier we had only five departments and then later wanted a faculty structures. We started off with medical faculty in 2007, followed by law, engineering, management – altogether we now have 49 degrees. Earlier we had only five. Why do we need an act? It is because we need to have a proper university structure. We don’t have space as it is now. We established two faculties in Sooriyawewa which is faculty for built environment and social sciences and faculty of computing. Then it becomes a campus. We cannot have everything under one roof. However, the degree programs we do here are only related to the defense sector. We will not have agriculture or tourism as those are not core fields. If we don’t have a act, there are difficulties in making decisions. Now in parliament, the opposition proposed to have two more educational experts to be included in the board of governors which we agreed to. UG to nominate two educational experts with expertise on administration. Some argue that apart from the three commanders and CDS along with VC will all be from the defense there will be more military officers. So there will be two others who are civilians. This includes UGC chairman, academics, treasury. It will be a balanced board by then. We also need to have quality assurance centers, research centers, international research office, gender and inclusion center. The act serves as the authority for us to establish these centers.
If it is so good, then why is there such opposition to this act?
Some say this is a process of militarization. Anyone with little common sense will understand that this act is there only to govern KDU. We can’t govern any other organization from a KDU act. The same clause was there in 81 act as well. For 40 years we have been in existence. When it comes to militarization, we must bear in mind we have civilian students inside. Since the war ended we have been working on expanding the university. In 2012 we established day scholar scheme and the then secretary of Defense the current president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa approved this concept. Our idea then and even now is to foster comradeship, friendship, cooperation among the tri-forces. When cadets undergo training together, these things are inbuilt. So when they go into three different forces, there camaraderie remains. This was evident during the conflict. During the war we found conflict among certain personalities who were not very cooperative, they didn’t have the same interest, or the desire to do something. Civil military module is something we teach in the staff college and we do at KDU as well, which is equally important. Some have civic battalion which are an important facet as they are the first to go into any area. We felt this mix of cadets and civilians studying together is important and will enhance cooperation. These students however have to pay. We have nominal amounts and offer a laptop to everyone. We don’t there to be any disparities. It’s the same reason we give them the uniform. So they are all equal.
Then they say there’s no freedom here because its militarized. At KDU if you have the percentage of military and civilian academics. Its only 10 percent military and 90 percent civilian academic. Cadets have a strict routine. Day scholars come in only from 8am to 2:15pm and they learn to together. And there’s no military training for day scholars. And most of the time although classes are over in the afternoon, many stay back until their parents come and spend it studying together.
It is clear that due to limited resources we have also limited intakes and a bulk of students are going abroad. Will the expansion of KDU address this issue?
We are not going to do much expansion, but as we improve the infrastructure we can accommodate more. This year as well we got 6000 applicants but we can’t even take 600. There is stiff competition because we prioritize quality over quantity.
Is there any mechanism that we can apply to stop students from going abroad?
One is the existing system including KDU, we can expand a little more. But I would suggest, even state universities should have a component for filtering students. The trade unions may go against it, but we can. Other means is to start off government owned few universities with collaboration with private sector and establish them with proper approvals and quality assurance. The quality accreditation and assurance council which we are planning to set up will be crucial in deciding which institutes and universities to confer degrees upon. This idea was mooted when the Prime Minister was the then President but it could not be accomplished due to opposition. People don’t realize the value of having these mechanisms. We have to develop and ensure capacity building of these places. The private sector must also get involved. Otherwise each time we will have to talk about people not getting education.
There are state, non-state and private universities. Many of the students who come to KDU, if not for KDU, they would have gone abroad.