Peradeniya Uni. An Utopia lost: An Utopia to be regained


Jolly Somasundram

"A sylvan 2,000 acre verdancy, no longer does a Pera Uni make, Nor spacious residential facilities, provide it an intellectual great. Minds dull and quiet, sans achievement, supplicate With outstretched hands, "What is there in it for me? Give me a break."

(With apologies to Lovelace)

Leelananda de Silva (Leelananda), in an article published in the Sunday Island of January 7, discussed a lost utopia that was- the sole University of Ceylon (U of Cey), Peradeniya. He also offered suggestions for a regained utopia. This is the appropriate time to do so.

The 75th anniversary of the founding of the Uni of Cey was celebrated in 2017. But prior to it- in 1975- its revered all island name suffered a substantial diminution when it got downgraded as the University of Peradeniya. (The downgrading continues apace, the hallowed original U of Cey, now bears a degenerated name card-University of the Central Province- following its latest rebirth. Probably the downward spiral will end only when it is called the University of Thumpane! The impelling reason for the name change was to scoop away its distinctive brand name, to a level equal that of the amoeba-like post 1960 proliferating swarm of Sri Lankan universities. Some of these new born universities were repainted secondary schools!

As pointed out by Leelananda, the U of Cey was established - after animated debate - by this country’s great and the good, (Leelananda mentions their names), "who though were not always in agreement on all university issues, were in agreement on one thing, to do the best by the country in building new institutions of higher education". This mindset, gave birth to the U of Cey, built on 2,000 acres of dilapidated tea land. "I am Oxymandias, look on my works ye Mighty, and despair." And despair they did! The reputation earned by U of Cey, burgeoned in its first 10-15 years which was considered its golden period. When selections to the U of Cey appeared in the Ceylon Daily News, bliss was it in that great dawn to be alive, but to be selected an undergraduate of the Uni of Cey was very heaven. (Leelananda was a brilliant undergraduate in this golden period).

The Uni of Cey was considered second only to the Uni of Makerere of Uganda. Makerere suffered the same fate as Oxymandias, "nothing besides remains round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck./ Boundless and bare,/ The lone and level sands stretch far away". The U of Cey even in its diminished avatar as the Uni of the Central Province, part retains its original allure. Even today, it is considered among the first nine beautifully landscaped universities in the world, its competing claimants being Cambridge (1209), Virginia (1819), Cape Town (1829), Stanford (1891), Harvard (1636), Otago (1869), Xiamen (1921), Aarhus (1928). Leelananda says its landscapes are a national treasure which should be hived off, amalgamated with the Botanical Gardens and managed separately.

The quality of an university is judged by its faculty and cultural output. Leelananda names some of the faculty which graced U of Cey. Perhaps, because he was writing from memory, he had overlooked a few others, including his own revered HA de S Gunesekara (Economics). Others were Paranavithana (Archeology), Gulesekeram (Geography), Doric de Souza (English). LaBrooy (History), Hettiaratchi (Sinhala), Vidyananthan (Tamil) and WS Karunaratne (Pali). Leelananda mentions the iconic role played by the Uni of Cey in cultural efflorescence. The first production of Maname was at the wala in 1956. Preceding it, were lively productions by Dram Soc, all eagerly looked forward by the English speaking playgoers in Colombo. Its appearances were social events. No longer do any of the many universities, including the University of the Central Province, provide cultural leadership. The glory days of Uni of Cey and its degenerates are over.

But the Uni of Cey cannot be allowed to meekly follow the Makerere route to oblivion. Uni of Cey has to be re-branded. All ingredients of an excellent university, in the modern context need to be discerned and incorporated into a fresh institution, very much like what was done to establish the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), which are outside the purview of the Indian University Grants Commission. IITs are of such a standard that just being invited to an interview for student selection would ensure a highly attractive dollar job.

As much as the deliberations of the great and good led to the creation of the University of Ceylon, it is best that a similar study team be formed to offer recommendations on the form, operation, management, financing of an exceptional tertiary institution of higher education that needs to be formed. Possible names for consideration for the study team are, Gananath Obeyesekere, Jayantha Dhanapala, Leelanda de Silva, G. Usvatte-aratchchi, Savithri Gunasekera, Danesh CasieChetty and Sarath Amunugama. The team could be chaired by Gananath Obeyesekere. All of them were undergraduates of Peradeniya during its golden period.

Issues, among others, which could be discussed by the study team could be,

1 An institution of excellence to be set up, as an independent commission under the 19th amendment, to undertake research, education, consultation and training, on all aspects of knowledge, knowledge generation and dissemination,

2 An institution is the shadow of its founder, viz. Jennings. The selection of the founder President should be by the Constitutional Council,

3 The institution should be managed by a group of five, with a Vice-President,

4 The management group of five, should reflect all ethnicities and the two genders,

5 The institution should be fully residential with one student for one room,

6 The institution should be located in the present premises of the University of Peradeniya.

7. All staff, faculty etc of the present University of Peradeniya should be found employment in other institutions of higher education enjoying at least the same salary and benefits they are presently enjoying. (P. Kandiah, who had long service as the Librarian, and subsequently as Communist MP, called Peradeniya a paradise for parasites.) While this may be harsh many not fitting this description, it will be invidious to choose,

8 Such personnel be not precluded from finding employment in the institution,

9 From a specified date, no recruitment, or promotion to any post in the existing University of Peradeniya, be made,

10 Student selections to follow long term study courses should be based on overall selections made by the University Grants Commission. Those selected will have to undergo a subsequent weeding test formulated by the Institution.

11 The expenditure of the institution should be a charge on the Consolidated Fund and once made, cannot be reduced.

12 The salaries and perks should be determined by the institution.

13 The transition from Peradeniya to the institution should be completed within six years.

The recommended study group could be sponsored by the Friday Forum, which body has been offering advice on all manner of subjects. No official funds should be made available to this study group.

(Jolly Somasundram was an undergraduate at Peradeniya during its golden years.)


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