After the propsed ‘Shari’a University’ was planning to offer graduate courses in Islamic studies
Radicalization of some local Muslims climaxed with the serial bombings that rocked the nation on April 21. The bomb strikes, committed by a handful of terrorists,altered and reshaped dynamics in multiple fronts. Obviously, foremost among them is the call for measures to ensure national safety. Alongside, in the process of de-radicalization, fresh measures are advocated for the regulation of Islamic religious studies. In this instance, the Batticaloa campus which is commonly called ‘Shari’a University’ is in the centre of controversy since it is perceived to be planning to offer graduate courses of Islamic studies.
"Auditor General found US $ 9.457 million received from from Saudi Arabia"
The campus buildings, with modern facilities for teaching and learning, have come up on a landmass in Punanai in Batticaloa, with Arabic architecture and landscape it its core. Be that as it may, it has not yet received the degree awarding status from the University Grants Commission (UGC). Nor has the UGC granted approval for any academic course. However, the campus awaits it. The approval of subject curricular will come under scrutiny now. Let alone, the campus is mired in controversy since the process, followed in its establishment,is flawed from the beginning.
Initially, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the establishment of this institution as the University College of Batticaloa was signed on August 11, 2013 by then Vocational Training and Technical Education Minister Dalles Alahapperuma and Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hisbullah as the Chairman of Sri Lanka HIRA Foundation. The MoU stipulated that it should be operated only as a vocational training institution, but not as a degree awarding institution.
HIRA Foundation is an organization registered with the Department of Social Services in terms of the Voluntary Social Service Organization (Registration and Supervision) Act. Mr. Hisbullah was its chairman when the MoU was signed. He was a parliamentarian, and therefore there was a conflict of interest as to how he could be a signatory to the MoU as a member of the very same government. How could he, as a parliamentarian responsible for policy-making, sign the MoU on behalf of a private charity organization? That is the question now raised. Be that as it may, he forged ahead with the signing of the agreement, though.
According to a report compiled by the Auditor General and discussed by the Committee of Public Enterprises (COPE), the approval was granted for offering two diploma courses - Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and Quantity Survey (QS) initially. The operation licence was valid for three years. Later on, despite problems, its registration had been renewed till May 21, 2019 to be operated as a vocational training institution.
The MoU stipulates that it should be opened for students from all the communities, but only 58 Muslim students had been enrolled after interviews conducted on May 10, 2014 for the two courses at that time.
"The land was handed over to HIRA Foundation on August 19, 2013 on an annual lease amount of Rs.56,000"
Land given to Batticaloa Campus contrary to original Mahaweli Development Plan
There comes the next stage of the project - that is to develop it as a fully-fledged university or a campus on a landmass in Punanai, Batticaloa. HIRA Foundation made the project proposals asking for a landmass from Sri Lanka Mahaweli Authority. The Director Board of the Mahaweli Authority granted approval on July 12, 2013 to lease a plot of land of 35 acres in extent to the project. The land was handed over to HIRA Foundation on August 19, 2013 on an annual lease amount of Rs.56,000.
The Auditor General has found that the land has been disposed of on an annual licence in contrary to the regulation 21 (1), the State Lands Ordinance No .8 of 1947. In the leasing out of this land, the original plan for the use of Mahaweli land had been disregarded. The original plan stipulated that this land area was meant for the Siddhapura town in Mahaweli Zone (A). Later, the Mahaweli Authority granted approval to amend the name of the lessee as Batticaloa Campus (Pvt) Limited. The application had been made for the environmental impact assessment only after the completion of 50% of work of the project.
Another 45 acres of land leased out later
The campus authorities were mot satisfied with 35 acres of land. So to speak, they made a fresh request for another additional 45 acres of land from the area for the development of facilities of the university such as hotels, cafeterias and sports. The Mahaweli Authority gave the go-ahead on lease basis.
Total acreage used is in excess of approved extent
However, the Auditor General has now found that the total land area used by the Batticaloa Campus is in excess of the extent officially approved.
Started as a vocational training institute, it was elevated to the status of a university named “Batticaloa Campus (Pvt) Limited on May 13, 2014 in terms of a MoU. Established on a plot of Mahaweli land, obtained on 30-year lease, it has been registered under the Companies Act.
Afterwards, the application was submitted on June 12, 2015 for the registration of it as a project approved by the Board of Investment (BoI). Along with Mr. Hisbullah, his son Hiras Hizbullah have been cited as the investors. The university intended to have separate faculties on Agriculture, Islamic Studies, Tourism and Healthcare and Engineering.
The application was rejected first due to the non-compliance of the finance plan with the investment plan, non-disclosure of foreign investment sources and the non-availability of details of subjects on Tourism and Healthcare.
A fresh application was filed on July 17, 2015 afterwards. The BoI cleared the project on condition that the degrees should be offered with its prior approval and in coordination with a foreign university. The initial investment, approved by the BoI, was US $ 4.75 million, but investment amounting to US $ 24 million had been made up to July 15, 2018, and up to US $ 26 million by January, this year. The campus authorities failed to disclose how investment was financed. Also, the Auditor General has found that US $ 9.457 million was received from Saudi Arabia.
- "MoU stipulates that it should be opened for students from all the communities, but only 58 Muslim students were enrolled after interviews"
- "The initial investment, approved by the BoI, was US $ 4.75 million, but investment amounting to US $ 24 million had been made up to July 15, 2018, and up to US $ 26 million by January, this year. The campus authorities failed to disclose how investment was financed."
Lacuna in accrediting degree awarding institution
Amidst all these problems, what is felt with urgency is the need to regulate degree awarding institutions. It is a major, long standing lacuna in the legal system of the country. The state universities are regulated by the UGC. Besides, there are 17 non-state degree awarding institutions coming under the purview of the Higher Education Ministry. They offer local curriculum.
However, the private degree awarding institutions which are affiliate foreign universities, and offer foreign degrees, are not monitored or regulated. According to the Ministry, over 80 such institutions are in operation in the country. Batticaloa Campus has sought approval from the Ministry to offer a local degree course in Information Technology. But, if it offers courses on other disciplines in affiliation with foreign universities, the government will have no mechanism to monitor.
Quality Assurance and Accreditation Bill
Against the backdrop, the stage is well set for the enactment of the Quality Assurance and Accreditation Bill, which was mooted by then Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake, has now reached the final stage. The original draft was modified under Ministers Lakshman Kiriella and Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. The bill is likely to see the light of day under present Higher Education Minister Rauff Hakeem.
The Bill, if enacted, will provide for the establishment of a commission more powerful than the UGC to regulate the operation of state and non-state universities. Time is both ripe and opportune for the enactment of the Bill, which has now received clearance from the Cabinet.