The Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) is facing a grave crisis as the government has restricted funding since 2019 leading to, what Prof. B. Dilipa Witharana, President of the Teachers’ Association, described as a “crippling blow to the academic work of this higher seat of learning”.
Although the OUSL charge fees from students pursuing a wide cross section of study courses, the payments are nowhere near millions of rupees charged by private higher education institutions in the country, he told a news conference in Colombo on Friday.
Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, a lecturer and committee member of the Association, said that earlier the Treasury provided a financial allocation of Rs. 190 million per month to meet the recurrent expenditure. These funds were sufficient to cover the salaries of all the permanent employees.
“However, in 2019, the funding was reduced to Rs. 150 million per month resulting in a deficit of Rs. 40 million, which meant it was not possible even to cover the payment of salaries”, she noted.
Ms. Amarasuriya said that Rs. 350 million was required per month to run the university, which was able to raise Rs. 100 million per month through students’ fees for capital expenditure such as infrastructure, buildings, library etc.
As it was possible to meet 100% of the monthly salary bill with Rs. 190 million Treasury funding, there was no issue, but the reduction of the allocation by Rs. 40 million led to a financial crisis.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic compounded the situation as there was a drastic drop in students’ fees and “it ate into our savings”, she said.
“In any case, students’ fees meet the capital expenditure and are not meant to run the university”, she explained.
Prof. Witharana said that the OUSL raised the issue of restricting funds to this key institution with Higher Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena and his response is still being awaited.
“The lack of funds has impeded the work of the university, where hundreds of students pursue their higher education”, he complained.
A letter submitted to the Minister in this regard outlined that the OUSL system has seriously eroded following the restriction of its funding source from the Treasury since mid last year.
The OUSL is the only state educational institution which facilitates distance learning, and pruning the level of government funding has placed limitations on the very objective of its establishment by then President J. R. Jayewardene as an important academic institution, he noted.
Prof. Witharana said that over the past 40 years, the academic ambitions of the working population of the country were fulfilled with opportunities to pursue degree programs in a wide cross section of subjects.
Committee member of the Open University Teachers’ Association, lecturer Harini Amarasuriya said the Rs. 40 million funding deficit has placed the institution in crisis. Staff salaries and research facilities were affected because of Treasury restrictions on finances that were due.
Dr. Mahim Mendis, a committee member of the Association, said the responsibility for the future of the OUSL rests with the government. The institution was set up to facilitate those in jobs to further their careers in their respective fields of endeavor.
With funds restricted, research conducted in many fields may be disrupted in contravention of the basis for higher education. Restriction of Treasury funds would ultimately result in the OUSL being privatized. Antecedent repercussions would be that the Open University concept would not be fulfilled with higher education restricted only to the affluent, he warned.