University Education:
The Peradeniya Model and its demise


By Eric J. de Silva
Continued from Wednesday

When the new government found the one university that existed at the time ‘dragging its feet’ despite the mounting pressure, it decided to establish not one but two more universities by raising the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas to university status, although it had earlier pledged to do so only in respect of Vidyalankara Pirivena which had come out openly against the then ruling party in the run-up to the General Elections of 1956. In introducing the second reading of the bill for the establishment of the two new universities in September 1958, the Minister of Education spelt out the following objectives:

(a) giving the Sinhalese language its due place in the scheme of higher education in the country,

(b) training of teachers for the university entrance classes in Sinhala medium schools, and

(c) provision of additional facilities for higher education for the large number of students who were seeking admission to the University of Ceylon, but were turned away for want of accommodation.

The bill became law as the Vidyodaya University and Vidyalankara University Act No.45 of 1958, and came into operation on 1st January 1959. With the establishment of the two new universities, the monopoly held by the University of Ceylon as the only university in the country came to an end.

Commenting on the events that led to the establishment of the two new universities, K.M. de Silva (1995) says that the University of Ceylon faced pressure from the new government on two issues. These were (i) an increased intake of students, especially in the arts and social sciences and (ii) the medium of instruction in the university, which in effect were two facets of the same problem as "the students who were seeking admission in increasing numbers had been educated in Sinhala and Tamil, and expected to be taught in those languages at the university". The university, he points out, confronted formidable constraints in coping with this pressure due to it being a residential university and an increased intake was dependent on an increase in its residential capacity which is necessarily slow and expensive. In addition, he says that most of the staff were either unenthusiastic or hostile to the change and it was not possible to get qualified and competent staff at short notice. To quote his words: "The government regarded these problems as urgent and did not await a solution through negotiations with the University of Ceylon; it decided instead to raise the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara pirivenas to the status of universities."

This, de Silva describes, as an ad hoc and short-sighted decision as the government had already appointed a three-man Commission (the Needham Commission) to review the work of the University of Ceylon, and make recommendations on future policy on university education in the country. In saying so, he ignores the fact that the decision to raise the two pirivenas to university status was taken in November 1957 well before the appointment of the Needham Commission in February 1958 (see D.T. Gamage, 1996)

The Vidyodaya University and Vidyalankara University Act No.45 of 1958 which came into operation in January 1959 closely followed the model set in the University of Ceylon Ordinance of 1942 while making a few concessions to the two traditional centres of learning. Thus, a position of patron was introduced to accommodate the venerable head of each pirivena as an ex-officio member of the University Court. Similarly, provision was made to appoint five members of the Management Committee of the pirivena to the University Council, while enabling its size to be maintained at the level of the University of Ceylon Council.

Both the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Universities were, however, not residential and only male students were allowed to enroll as internal students, though provision was made for female students to graduate as external candidates. Another interesting feature was that other institutions, mostly pirivenas, approved by the particular university were able to present students for examinations conducted by it, like in the case of the London University. While Vidyodaya commenced admitting students in 1959/60, Vidyalankara did so in 1960/61, both universities providing only for the humanities and the social sciences during this initial phase. They taught in the Sinhala medium from the very outset relieving, at least to some extent, the pressure on the new government to honour its promise. The winds of change were soon to reach Peradeniya too when, in 1960, it was compelled to admit to the Arts Faculty 330 students who had received their entire education in the swabhasha medium, a development which the Peradeniya Scheme had not envisaged, and a virtual emergency operation had to be performed using both material and human resources ill-equipped and ill- prepared for the task.

To quote G.P. Malalasekera (1969): "With the dawn of 1960, the pressure of numbers seeking admission to the University (of Ceylon) became irresistible. The government of the day, acting on the basis that a ‘qualified applicant’ was deemed to have a ‘right’to a university education, compelled the University to admit a large batch of students to the Arts Faculty in 1961, at least half of whom (numbering over 600) were to be non-residential students – ‘External’ students as they were called – with the right to attend lectures and limited access to library facilities. The position of these ‘external students’ was anomalous in the extreme; they deeply resented their ‘second class’ status, and formed a core of discontented and disgruntled students within the university community. More significant, their admission to the University marked the first breach in the ‘residential’ system at Peradeniya, and the University of Ceylon became a ‘semi- residential’ university". Thus collapsed one of the main pillars of the Peradeniya model, the concept of a residential university so strongly advocated by its early visionaries and made a reality by the efforts of its founder Vice-Chancellor, W.Ivor Jennings.

The explosion of numbers seeking university admission as a result of the medium change was virtually making the university system stand on its head - the worst affected being the Arts and Oriental Studies Faculties. To cope with the increased numbers a second ‘teaching unit’ was established in Colombo in 1963, limited to general degrees. Malalasekara shows how the university population doubled itself between 1963 and 1965, and the Thurstan Road Unit could not accommodate the anticipated intake in the Arts and Oriental Studies Faculties for the academic year 1965-66, resulting in it being extended into the Race Course at Reid Avenue.

The students admitted to the ‘Race Course’ were herded into the old grand stand from where race-goers watched horse-racing in days gone-by, and made to listen to lectures delivered on the public address system. Due to its historic connection with the old race course, the new university unit came to be called derisively, though not without reason, the Ashva Vidyalaya! The number admitted to this unit for the academic year 1965-66 was as high as 2904 out of a total of 3990 admitted to the arts and social science courses of the University of Ceylon in that year (see KM de Silva, 1965). A sad commentary on what university education had come to be in less than two decades of the establishment of Peradeniya as a centre of excellence for providing university education in idyllic conditions - a potentially world class university!

In the meantime, the second Medical Faculty which the Peradeniya Scheme envisaged had been established at Peradeniya, and the first batch of students admitted in January 1962. While the Engineering faculty was shifted to the Peradeniya campus in October 1964, the story in regard to the Science Faculty was somewhat different due to the larger numbers seeking (or qualifying for) admission to this faculty. According to S.A. Kulasooriya "the first phase in the shift from Peradeniya consisted of the establishment of units or sub-departments as they were called, of the parent departments located in Colombo. This began in the early sixties. Even as late as 1966 the process of the transfer of personnel and resources was not completed. In that year with the creation of a separate university based on the Colombo units of the University of Ceylon, a full-fledged Faculty of Science with the same departments as at Colombo was, at last, established at Peradeniya" (see The University System of Sri Lanka, 1969)

The Vidyodaya University and Vidyalankara University Act No.45 of 1958 did not make any substantial inroad into the concept of university autonomy which the University of Ceylon Ordinance of 1942 had provided for. However, it is well known that officials of the Ministry of Education exercised some degree of informal control over the two new universities, formalized to some extent in the case of the Vidyodaya University by the appointment the Senior Assistant Secretary in the Education Ministry, to function concurrently as Administrative Assistant to its Vice-Chancellor. Apart from this, and the inevitable spill-over effects that the larger policy decisions relating to the medium of instruction and the increased intake had on the management and administration of the universities, there was no overt threat to the concept of university autonomy from the government of the day.

The early sixties saw the University of Ceylon grappling with internal problems arising from mismanagement and student unrest as well as externally induced problems. We saw how in 1960 it was compelled to admit to the Arts Faculty 330 students who had received their entire education in swabhasha which required it to teach in all three media, English, Sinhala and Tamil, a development which the Peradeniya Scheme had not envisaged; and how in 1961 it was compelled to admit a large batch of students to the Arts Faculty, at least half of whom (numbering over 600) were to be non-residential students, another development which the Peradeniya scheme had not anticipated. These naturally led to considerable managerial problems, and disaffection among both the student community and the staff.

Mounting dissatisfaction about the way the universities functioned made the government appoint another Commission (D.C.R. Gunawardena Commission) in August 1962, to recommend measures that should be taken to improve their efficiency as well as co-ordinate their activities. The Commission’s report submitted in July 1963 was particularly harsh on the University of Ceylon. It commented on the concentration of power in the hands of its Vice-Chancellor and the factionalism that was rampant among the staff, and blamed the administration for allowing the conditions to degenerate to such an extent.

Vice Chancellor Attygalle had been pictured by witnesses as an autocrat with strong likes and dislikes, who did not tolerate opposition. The Commission found substance in the charge that he dominated the Court, Council and Senate and that these bodies acquiesced in his actions far too readily. It went so far as to recommend that the University Court, the Council and the Vice-Chancellor should cease to function for a period of eighteen months in order to clean the atmosphere and revitalize the university administration. They wanted the powers and functions of the University vested, during the said period, in the University Grants Commission which they recommended should be established (Gamage, 1996). This was a stunning blow to the University of Ceylon, established with so much hope and expectation a mere twenty years prior to that!

In respect of the other two universities, the Commission went beyond its terms of reference, and recommended that they be closed down. It appeared that they felt these two universities had only helped to sully the image of the institutions that they had replaced. The Commission recommended that two new campuses of the University of Ceylon be opened in their place, one in Colombo and the other in Jaffna. While the government did not act on any of these recommendations for reasons which it will not be too difficult to understand, the situation at the University of Ceylon, in particular, kept on deteriorating.

Continued Tomorrow


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