Who was Jennings and what was his contribution to Peradeniya?
by G. T. Dharmasena
Former Director General of Irrigation Department and presently the Consultant to the United Nation’s Office for Project Services(UNOPS)

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.

University College:

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 universities.

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 examinations.

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 organisations"


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.")


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