It is reported in the mass media that the
Peradeniya University had to be closed following the disruption
of a ceremony organized by the university authorities to name
the new residential hall built at Peradeniya after late founder
Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings . It was reported that a
certain student union had obliterated the name of Ivor Jennings
and thrown away the new sign board the previous day and written
the name of one of their student leaders. Probably, these
politically motivated at the Peradeniya University may not know
who Jennings was? Therefore, I am prompted to write this article
to highlight the contribution made by Sir Ivor Jennings in
conceptualization of the university education in Ceylon during
the colonial era. Owing to the present education system and lack
of reading, most students or may be even young members of the
university academic staff may not be having a clear picture of
the contribution made by this gentleman. They need to be
educated on the reasons why the existing halls of residence were
named after Sir James Peris, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Arunachlum,
Mars, Akbar, Wijewardana, and Hilda Obesekara et al.
Sir Ivor Jennings was a highly respected
academic during the pre independence era.
He was instrumental in drafting the constitution
of the country at that time as well as the establishment of the
first fully fledged university in the country. Controversial as
he was at that time, his positive contributions to the setting
up of a model university with his concept of higher learning can
never be underestimated. Certain controversial statements he
made during that time were highly criticised by locals. They
were on the provision of free education, use of the mother
tongues as the medium of instruction up to the level of
secondary schools, the expansion of educational facilities in
the country and the like. His description of Ceylon as a
cultural desert provoked the public.
In 1929, the University College was planned for
500 students and in 1942 the University of Ceylon, residential
university was planned for 1600 to 2000 students. Today there
are more than 15 universities and nearly 100,000 students.
Although Ceylon enjoyed a well developed system
of primary and secondary education at the end of the 19th
century there were hardly any opportunities available locally
for the study of the Arts and Sciences beyond the secondary
school level. The Colombo Academy, later known as Royal College,
was the most prestigious secondary school at that time.
Agitation for the provision of higher education
in the island and for the establishment of a University began by
the mid 19th century. This agitation gathered momentum by the
beginning of the 20th century and the Ceylon University
Association, formed in 1906 by a group of western educated
elite, urged the establishment of a national University. Owing
to the persistent demands of the Association the government
decided in 1913 to set up a University college. Mention should
be made of the objectives of the establishment of this institute
of higher learning for the benefit of this present generation.
It was essentially to produce intellectuals and promote
independent thinking, logical arguments and research.
However, indecision regarding the nature and
status of the institution to be set up, its location, and
eventually the intervention of the First World War hindered
further progress and it was only in 1920 that the government
purchased a private building called the "Regina Walawwa" on
Thurston Road in Colombo which came to be known as "College
House" for the purpose of setting up the University College. The
College was formally declared open in January 1921 in the
building originally designed for the Royal College located on
the Thurstan Road opposite College House but later used by the
Faculty of Science. Since then "College House" remained the
nerve centre of the University system in Sri Lanka. Mr. Robert
Marrs M.A.(Oxen) was the first Principal of the Ceylon
University College in 1921.
From its inception, the University College was
regarded as only a preliminary step, a half-way house, the
ultimate goal being the establishment of a fully fledged degree
granting University. However, the lukewarm attitude of the
government, the fierce and protracted controversy over the
location of the new university which came to be known as the
"Battle of the Sites" between Colombo and Kandy, legislative
reforms, the great depression and the Malaria epidemic delayed
the establishment of a fully fledged university.
More than a decade later the University of
Ceylon was established on July 1, 1942 by the Ceylon University
Ordinance No.20 of 1942. The University was to be located in
Peradeniya and was to be unitary, residential and autonomous.
With the establishment of the University, the two Colleges, the
Ceylon Medical College and the Ceylon University College, lost
their separate identities and were absorbed into the new
Institution. The first Principal of the University College was
succeeded in 1940 by Sir Ivor Jennings, who was also the
Vice-Chancellor designate of the new University. His main task
was the establishment of the University in Peradeniya.
Sir William Ivor Jennings :
Jennings, born in Bristol on 16 th May 1903, was
the only son in his family. He received his early primary school
education at Queens Elizabeth’s Hospital (name of the school),
Bristol and then entered the University of Cambridge to study
Mathematics and Political Science.
Jennings (1903-1965) was a remarkable scholar
who was the founder Vice chancellor of the University of Ceylon
from 1942 to 1955, Master of Trinity Hall in Cambridge from 1955
and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge from 1961
to 1963. He was conferred honourary doctorates in law by many
He had been a teacher at the University of Leeds
and at the London School of Economics and Political Science,
before his appointment as the second Principal of Ceylon
University College in 1940.
In addition to the plan for the implementation
of the infrastructure of the new university at Peradeniya,
Jennings had his own vision and concepts regarding the higher
education at the newly established University of Ceylon.
Jennings had a strong opinion that one of the
flaws in higher education was the tendency to give paper
qualifications the pride of place. According to Jennings these
paper qualifications were venerated more in Ceylon than in
England. Jennings strongly argued that the objective of the
university education was not to prepare students for London
According to Jennings, the London examinations
made matters worse in Ceylon by making the paper qualification
even less relevant than usual. English education in Ceylon was
therefore dominated by English examinations. The tendency to
regard the examination as the end in itself and not merely as a
means to test knowledge was therefore accentuated. There were
university students who could draw perfect isotherms but had
never seen a thermometer.
Concepts of higher education:
At the time of the formation of the University
of Ceylon at Peradeniya provision of "useful knowledge" in
lectures and classes was considered a small task. The task of
educating nearly all those who would lead the country in
government, in business and in the professions was considered
supreme. It is obvious that one cannot become a leader simply by
studying a subject up to elementary level required for a degree
or even beyond. An engineering graduate with first class honours
may be useless, if he is not equipped to do his job. Similarly,
an arts graduate with first class honours in Sanskrit or Western
Classics may pass Civil Service Examination, but he, too, may
fail in hi job. Clearly, what is necessary is to train him to be
a citizen and to assume his responsibilities as a citizen quite
independently of his employment or profession.
According to Jennings ‘the red brick
universities could not provide ancient traditions and beautiful
architecture, but they could provide only common rooms, playing
fields and halls of residence. Therefore, when new universities
are established great care has to be taken to provide the
environment to develop characters and citizens in complex social
Jennings said, "There is not the slightest doubt
that if the university is worthy of its location it will be one
of the finest small Universities in the world. I need quote only
one testimonial from a Swiss professor who had never met me.
Having visited Peradeniya he took the trouble to write to me on
his way back to Switzerland assuming I am a Ceylonese."
Following is an extract of the letter written by the Swiss
Professor to Jennings:
"Although I did not have the pleasure of meeting
you during my short visit to Colombo, I feel urged to write to
you a few words of congratulations and appreciation after having
seen the new University of Ceylon under construction. The site
of this new highest school of your country as well as the
architectural shape aroused my enthusiasm and almost envy. There
is nothing like it in continental Europe. May this great
institution which was so generously planned by your people be
the heart and brain of the free nation of Ceylon and prove a
great blessing to your country."
Jennings consulted Sir Nigel Ball, who was the
then Professor of Botany and Mr. Parsons, the then curator of
the Botanical Gardens.The landscaping and planting trees were
undertaken by the botanical garden..
Pending the construction of buildings at the new
site, the University functioned in the premises of the
University College in Colombo. As buildings were completed at
Peradeniya , faculties and departments were gradually shifted
there. The first to be moved was the Faculty of Agriculture.
Ceremonial opening of the University of Ceylon
at Peradenya was on 20 th April, 1954 by the Queen Elizabeth and
the Duke of Edinburgh before the departure of Jennings in 1955.
The autobiography of Sir William Ivor Jennings published forty
years after his death in 1965 stated the followings.
"I have had an interesting ten years in Ceylon,
because I discovered the secret that life is not worth living
unless one has a job of work on hand, and that the best sort of
job is something of a constructive nature. For me it was a "nine
to four" job. Quite often it has not been nine to four pm but
also four to nine pm. And even nine pm to nine am. "
(The writer acknowledges the information derived from Mr.
H.A.I. Gunatilaka in the Autobiography of Sir William Ivor
Jennings" titled "Road to Peradeniya.")