Government-imposed power cuts that have been occurring in Sri Lanka since January – the worst power outages in over 25 years – have seriously affected students and teachers at a time when many are relying on online education.
The power cuts are being imposed due to spiralling global oil prices, exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, together with an economic crisis as Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves drop to a record low.
According to an Asian Development Bank report on online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic published in September 2020, Sri Lanka made a remarkable transition to online higher education in response to the pandemic. A survey quoted in the report said 90% of student respondents in Sri Lanka had said they were able to access online university classes.
However, with ongoing power cuts, online teaching and learning are now severely affected. Parents and teachers said the power crisis, coming on top of the pandemic, has affected students physically and mentally.
Since the end of January, Sri Lanka has imposed daily hours-long power cuts on a rolling basis between 8am and 11pm. As the crisis deepened, from the first week of March onwards, seven-hour power outages have occurred almost daily – the longest power cuts experienced in the country in 26 years.
Teachers have had to suspend online classes and universities have delayed exams.
Anushka, a PhD student at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, said students were unable to submit academic reports before the deadlines. “This is a terrible situation; we can’t work on our theses. Laptops and computers cannot operate. Even Wi-Fi is not working. I simply cannot achieve the deadline,” she told University World News.
The power crisis has forced students to study using homemade kerosene oil lamps and candlelight. Political parties, civil society, lecturers, students, trade unions and other groups in Sri Lanka have been protesting against the government in the streets and through social media.
About 25% of Sri Lanka’s electricity is from oil-fired power plants. But due to the country’s severe shortage of foreign exchange, in part due to a collapse in the foreign tourism sector during the pandemic, and from a reduction in Russian tourists since the invasion of Ukraine – Sri Lanka is popular with Russians – the government has been unable to purchase enough oil. Several power plants have had to shut down due to a lack of fuel.
Sri Lanka has been experiencing an economic crisis for several years. According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the country’s foreign reserves dropped to US$2.36 billion in January 2022. When the current government took office in November 2019, it was more than triple that, at approximately US$7.5 billion.
The lack of foreign exchange has also led to shortages of imports including food, medicines, cement, fertilizers and car parts. Supermarkets have been forced to ration staple foods.
On 18 March, final term examinations of schools in the country’s Western Province and elsewhere were cancelled due to a shortage of paper and other materials due to the economic crisis. According to the Department of Education of the Western Province, printers of examination papers were unable to secure foreign currency to import the paper and ink they needed.
As the energy crisis escalated, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed the nation on 16 March and requested the public to limit as much as possible their use of fuel and electricity during the crisis period.