University Education:The Peradeniya Model and its demise


By Eric J. de Silva

The formative years

The primary and secondary education system that came to be established in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known then) during the British colonial administration was a two track system. While one track provided education in the vernacular (the word used to describe the local languages, Sinhala and Tamil) for the masses, the other track provided what was considered to be an elitist education in English for a select few in a more exclusive setting. While products of the first group of schools ended up as vernacular teachers, ayurvedic practitioners, ‘notary publics’ and the like, products of the English medium schools were able to get the more sought after and remunerative jobs in government service or the plantation sector, for which knowledge of English was a basic requirement.

Other than for the Medical and Law Colleges established in the 1870s, the colonial administration did not provide any avenues for post-secondary education, the only exception being a limited number of external degrees offered by the University of London. A handful of the very rich had even a better option of proceeding to Britain or at least to India, and obtaining their degrees as internal students. The Buddhist and Hindu revivalist movement which gathered momentum in the latter part of the 19th century led to a considerable expansion of secondary education in the English medium with the result that the educated Ceylonese began to agitate for the expansion of higher education and the establishment of a university. The position as at the turn of the century was best summarized by the Registrar–General, P. (later Sir Ponnambalam) Arunachalam, in his Census Report of 1901 when he said that "our so-called ‘higher education’ ends where it should begin" i.e. at the level of the English Sixth Form, and this was not considered satisfactory.

K.D.G. Wimalaratne (More Open than Usual, Ed. R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, 1992) recounts how the Ceylon Social Reform League formed in 1905 demanded the establishment of a university, and how in its organ ‘the Ceylon National Review’ Ananda K. Coomaraswamy emphasized the need for a cultural renaissance in the country and put forward a scheme for a University of Ceylon. The agitation for a university led to the formation of the Ceylon University Association in 1906 with P. Arunachalam, who turned out to be one of the leading campaigners for a university, as its first chairman. To quote Wimalaratne: "As the national revival gathered momentum during the first decade of the twentieth century, the proposed University came to be regarded as the symbol of the national renaissance. The Ceylon University Association was to claim that the University was an essential prerequisite for the existence of the nation and that, without sitting idly, the Ceylonese would have to actively work to arrest the process of denationalization as a duty they owed to themselves and to posterity." It is important for us to remember that the university was conceived of by these early visionaries as a residential institution.

It would be seen from the above that there were two compelling thoughts behind the agitation for a national university. The first was the educational need of expanding the limited avenues available at the time for post-secondary education. The second had a cultural dimension which placed the university as an integral part of the cultural renaissance that the country felt entitled to experience after centuries of colonial rule. In 1912, a sub-committee of the Legislative Council appointed by Governor McCallum (known as the Macleod Committee) recommended the setting up of a University College for the preparation of students for examinations of the University of London. "The committee stressed the need for a local alternative for families who could not afford to send their sons to England for education, particularly in view of the development of a fairly large opulent class" (G.P. Malalasekara, Education in Ceylon, A Centenary Volume, Part 111, 1969)

Governor Chalmers who succeeded McCallum in 1913 expressed the view that the University College should ultimately be converted into a university granting degrees, and that it should be affiliated to an English university, preferably Oxford. He wanted it to be residential in character, the students residing in hostels leased by the government to educational organizations. Thus it would be seen that, like the residential concept, the Oxbridge model too came into the discourse much earlier than is commonly believed. Not only did the Secretary of State for the Colonies accept this recommendation in principle, it also led to the appointment of a committee by the Oxford University to advise the Governor.

The First World War, however, held up developments and the Ceylon University College saw the light of day only in 1921. The idea of affiliation to Oxford fell through, and instead the newly established University College prepared students for the external examinations of the University of London. The Ceylon University College was intended to be a half-way house to a full-fledged university and Robert Marrs, an Oxford academic who assumed duties as its first principal in 1921, was determined to see that it evolved into an autonomous university. In October that year, the College Council appointed a committee to draw up an academic programme for the proposed university, and this was completed by the end of academic year 1922/23. In the following year, the Board of Studies went on to draft even the detailed syllabuses. A couple of years later, in June 1925, Marrs finalised a draft university ordinance basing it on the recommendations of the Sadler Commission for Dacca and Lucknow Universities in India (Malalasekara, 1969).

In the meantime, a block of 95 acres along Bullers Road had been allocated for the construction of a residential university, and even the funds required for buildings and equipment allocated by 1924. However, before construction could commence, a controversy arose about the proposed location, with many alternative sites being proposed. In June 1926, Governor Hugh Clifford appointed a committee to recommend a suitable site, and this committee proposed a site at Uyanwatte in the Dumbara valley. This too was found to be unsuitable, resulting in sites at Mavilmada and Aruppola being proposed, also in the Dumbara valley.

In 1927, the Legislative Council resolved that a unitary and residential university should be established at Aruppola, and that a commission should be appointed to work out the details. The term ‘unitary’ appears to have been used to mean the merger of the Ceylon Medical College established in 1870 with the Ceylon University College, and bringing them under one administration. The Legislative Council decision led to the appointment in 1928 of a Commission headed by Sir Walter Buchanan-Riddell. In its report issued in January 1929, the Buchanan-Riddell Commission (commonly referred to as the Riddell Commission or the University Commission) recommended that the proposed University of Ceylon should be unitary, residential and autonomous, and that it should incorporate the main features of the Oxbridge model. Thus, the broad profile of the university was agreed upon well before Jennings arrived on the scene.

In recommending halls of residence for the students, the Riddell Commission said very categorically that "the collegiate life associated for centuries with Oxford and Cambridge would give the maximum opportunities of corporate life and of daily association between students of all sorts and condition for living in close contact with each other and with senior members of the University ………". Even with regard to the structure of degree programmes, the Riddell Commission emphasized the importance of the Oxbridge model and stressed that "we adopt the practice of Oxford and Cambridge, which have consistently adhered to one title of Bachelor of Arts for the first degree and reserved specialized degree titles for postgraduate or research courses". (David Thenuwara Gamage, Evolution of Universities and Changing Patterns of Governance and Administration, 1996).

Continued Tomorrow

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