COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Police in Sri Lanka fired tear gas on Wednesday at thousands of students protesting against a private medical university they say could jeopardize the nation’s tradition of state-funded education.

About 5,000 university students defied an official ban on the protest and marched through the capital of Colombo to a city park. They were engulfed in billowing tear gas as they tried to leave the park and resume their march.

The issue has sparked months of demonstrations in the island nation, with doctors and students urging the government to shut down the private South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine, the only private university in Sri Lanka currently training medical students.

Rayan Jayalath, an organizer of the protest, said the private university is a stepping stone toward the complete privatization of education.

“This will open the floodgates for many private universities, and that will drastically affect children from poor families,” he said.

The university has been the center of controversy since its establishment in 2008, with students from state-run schools and government doctors questioning its educational standards. The institute says its standards and facilities are better than those of state-run universities.

A legal battle has been continuing since last year over whether to allow graduates of the university to work as doctors.

Government doctors staged a one-day strike earlier this month, demanding that the government acquire the medical university.

For more than half a century, Sri Lanka has provided free education through the university level. Private schools also exist, but the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine is the only private medical school. A private medical university that opened in the 1980s was acquired by the government due to student protests.

There was no immediate response from the government to the protest.