The Peradeniya Model and its demise

University Education:


Continued from Monday

By Eric J. de Silva

Admission to the university, at the time, was restricted to those who had received their education in the English medium, as the medium of education in the university was English, and only English medium schools had the privilege of preparing students for the University Preliminary (Entrance) Examination conducted annually by the University of Ceylon with no government intervention. This did not mean that the annual intake to the university came largely from so-called English speaking families, as is often assumed. Those who wanted deliberately to show that they were cut out from the others and hardly used their mother tongue in social discourse fell into a somewhat closely knit group within the university community, referred to as the ‘kulturs’ whom Prof. Ashley Halpe (who, incidentally, was two rooms next to me in his final year) had recently described as the "Colombo-based right-oriented junta". From a total of about 35 ‘freshers’ admitted to Ramanathan Hall in 1954, my belief is not even 10 belonged to it. This ratio, applied to the total intake, meant that the so-called kultur group was less than one-third the total number of new entrants.

This is explained by the fact that the Buddhist and Hindu revivalist movement that began at the close of the 19th century had already started taking English medium education to the ‘non-westernized’ segments of the country’s population that had hitherto remained outside its reach, even before the Central Schools and the free education scheme arrived on the scene. The Central Schools and the free education scheme only hastened a process that had already commenced by taking English medium education to those who could not afford to pay for it. Due to a combination of all these (three) factors, the large majority of university entrants were from Sinhala/Tamil speaking families by the time I entered the university. I was one such, hailing from a lower middle class family in Galle, having had almost my entire education at Mahinda College established in 1892 during the early years of the Buddhist revival.

Conditions appeared to be near idyllic at Peradeniya in the mid-fifties. It was not surprising that Jennings had said "no university in the world would have such a setting", the truth of which I realized later in life having seen many universities in different parts of the world. By this time, the administration building, the arts building and a large number of houses for the staff had been built, and the basic infrastructure was in place. Although the library building was not yet ready, the temporary facilities made available in the main arts building were reasonably satisfactory to meet the needs of the undergraduates, although at peak times one had to be going round to find a vacant seat. The facilities that were already in place at Peradeniya were, in any case, far superior to what would have been available in Colombo had Peradeniya not come into being, though the Economics Department, to which I belonged after the GAQ (General Arts Qualifying) year, was still housed in a temporary, war-time structure. There was a spacious canteen providing an excellent array of food and soft drinks, in addition to the usual tea and coffee. Inside the same building, there was also a men’s hair dressing salon (‘barber saloon’ in popular parlance) staffed by a competent ‘barber’ who claimed to have worked in one of His Majesty’s ships during war time. There was also a billiards table for those that way inclined, though only a handful!

Ramanathan Hall provided a well-equipped and comfortable room to every occupant, which only the more affluent families would have been able to provide, back home. The older halls had larger rooms, even better equipped (with water on tap and a wash basin), which were shared by two except in the case of final year students who had a room for themselves, though not later on. Each hall of residence had a spacious dining hall with a large enough kitchen and pantry to go along with it. I remember how surprised visitors to Ramanathan Hall were to see the ultra-modern equipment its kitchen had. All three meals plus afternoon tea, which always came with a snack, were served in the respective dining halls for which students had to pay Rs.210 per term (the equivalent of which at the current value of the rupee would, I believe, be around Rs. 21000. Not all the resident students had to pay this amount, as most of them were entitled to quarter, half or three-quarter bursaries, based on their family incomes (not to forget those who willfully under-estimated their actual income to enjoy the benefits of the subsidy). An additional Rs.10 had to be paid as the registration fee every term and another Rs. 10 as laundry charges (or the ‘dhoby fees’ as it was called).

Each floor at Ramanathan had a spacious common room with provision to play carom and table tennis, in addition to a ready supply of the daily newspapers and a fair selection of popular magazines to read. There was also provision to play badminton out in the open areas. The quality of the meals provided was excellent and was as good as what a middle class home, at the upper end of the scale, would have been able to provide. However an occasional food strike was not totally unheard of, as proof more of the insatiable nature of human expectations and the proclivity of young people to look for an opportunity to create some mischief to amuse themselves, if not to cause some annoyance to the authorities. Last but not the least, the toilet facilities were as good as or better than anything provided elsewhere in the country. It goes without saying that similar provision was there in all the other halls of residence as well.

Sir Ivor Jennings was still the Vice-Chancellor when I entered Peradeniya, and was in his final year at the helm of the university that he ‘created’. Jennings was a constitutional lawyer of international repute, and an intellectual with a liberal background. He had not only functioned as unofficial adviser to D.S. Senanayake in negotiations with Britain during the period leading to Ceylon’s independence, he had also been the architect of the 1947 constitution under which we were governed. More than everything else, he was widely acknowledged as the super-man who brought into being the marvel at Peradeniya, to which both its staff and students were privileged to belong. All this made him stand tall among the rest of the university community and carry a halo around him, and any criticism of his administration, even by the most radical elements on the campus, tended to be muted than loud.

Jennings had been the automatic choice to be Vice-Chancellor of the new university when it came into being as the successor to the Ceylon University College in 1942. Not so was Sir Nicholas Attygalle who succeeded him although some indication of events to come was there when he was appointed to act for Sir Ivor during the latter’s absence on leave in the early part of 1955. Although a senior professor at the Medical Faculty in Colombo and a member of the Senate (the upper chamber in our bi-cameral legislature at the time), he was much less known in the country and the academic community than the other aspirant to the post, Professor G.P.Malalasekara from the Peradeniya campus itself.

Prof. Malalasekara was not only Professor of Oriental Studies and a scholar of international repute, but also a leading Buddhist activist who had associated himself with the Sinhala-Buddhist revivalist movement of the time. He was instrumental in getting the Buddhist Congress, of which he was President, appoint a committee (popularly known as the "Buddhist Commission") in April 1954 to inquire into and report on the state of Buddhism in the country. The government, from the time of D.S. Senanayake, had initially resisted but later agreed and prevaricated on the demand to appoint such a commission, and did not take too kindly to the step taken by the Buddhist Congress. By the time the Vice-Chancellorship of the University fell vacant, the committee set up by the Congress was touring the country collecting evidence and creating a great deal of public interest, much to the embarrassment of the government which, by now, was led by Sir John Kotelawala, a close kinsman of Attygalle. Though statutorily, the selection of a Vice-Chancellor was by no means a ‘political’ act and was in the hands of the University Court, Attygalle’s kinship with Sir John appeared to have weighed the balance heavily in his favour, in addition to the fact that the Medical Faculty had several more departments than any other faculty in the university and, therefore, had the largest number of votes in the Court. Thus, Sir Nicholas Attygalle became the second Vice–Chancellor of the University of Ceylon in mid 1955, in succession to Sir Ivor Jennings.

Jennings seems to have had fears of the political authority arrogating to itself the power of selecting the Vice-Chancellor, vested by law in the University Court, and had written to the Prime Minister as follows:

"I hope you will allow me to say, as a constitutional lawyer, that this is not a problem for the Cabinet. The Cabinet is the appropriate body to decide policy; it is not an appropriate body to discuss personalities. You have never been afraid of responsibility, and the responsibility is yours. I am very willing to help, because I do not want to see fourteen years of work in Ceylon destroyed by "politics", in any sense of the word."

Jennings could have written in this manner because of his personal friendship with the Prime Minister and, even more, the high profile he had as an adviser to the government on constitutional matters. His words put beyond doubt his firm commitment to the concept of university autonomy, held sacrosanct at the time. On an earlier occasion (January 1953), in a memorandum addressed to the Prime Minister, Jennings had said: "if political control were introduced by this Government it would in due course be exercised by this Government’s successors." For him, "the position of the Vice-Chancellor was of very crucial importance for safeguarding the autonomy of the University" as students would, otherwise, regard him as a "stooge" of the party in power (Amal Jayawardane, 1992).

It was well-known that a pro Vice-Chancellor group and an anti Vice-Chancellor group had emerged among some sections of the teaching staff after the appointment of Attygalle as Vice Chancellor, but this did not percolate down to the student community or in any way disrupt the day-to-day functioning of the university. The Vice-Chancellor remained a distant phenomenon and hardly entered the day-to-day life of the undergraduate. Jennings’ presence at Peradeniya was, of course, more visible to students than Attygalle’s, as they had the privilege of coming face to face with him on campus roads while on his regular walks, with walking stick in hand and his pet dog by his side! Sir Nicholas, by contrast, was hardly seen around campus except occasionally, firmly lodged in the back seat of his car with his chauffer at the wheel! Although on the face of it this may look too trivial a thing to mention, it was symptomatic of the change that took place in 1955. A dark skinned aristocrat (of sorts) replacing a white man with a working class background!

During the very early years of the University (i.e. before its shift to Peradeniya) Jennings had underlined the need for very close interaction between the academic staff and students. He thought that "the tradition of aloofness which had developed in the Public Service (the reference was to the University College days when it was no more than a government department) was carried into the University, and too many members of the staff think that their work had finished at 4.30 p.m. It is unhealthy for the University to have too many of such ‘passengers’." (Amal Jayawardane, 1992)

Continued tomorrow


The word "swabhasha" should replace the word "English" in the second sentence of the paragraph starting with the words "It is a moot point" in my article (continuation) appearing in The Island of Monday 7th Februay 2011, and the corrected version should read as follows:  

"No doubt, there were a few mavericks at Peradeniya who strongly supported those who campaigned in the country for making Swabhasha the medium of instruction right up to university level, but that did not make it government policy."

 The error is regretted. 

 Eric J. de Silva

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...