The legacy of Professor E.F.C.
Ludowyk and an overview of the promise and performance of the University of Ceylon - IV


University of Peradeniya

 By Tissa Jayatilaka

(Text of the 18thLudowyk Memorial Lecturer recently delivered by Tissa Jayatilaka, an alumnus of the University of Peradeniya and Executive Director of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission.)




(Continued from yesterday)

Any objective student of the history of the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya will have to admit that not heeding Jennings’ sage advice, has had a disastrous effect on the institution. Whilst democratization of education was desirable and indeed called for, inadequate and ad hoc planning by non- specialists led to over-crowding at Peradeniya. By 1960, a significant number of entrants to the University of Ceylon could not be accommodated in its halls of residence. A new category of non-residential or external students came into being. They could attend lectures and tutorials, make use of library and other facilities but had to live off campus. Between1963-1965, the University population doubled itself and the University could not accommodate the total intake of students to the Faculty of Arts and Oriental Studies for the academic year 1965- 1966. A second Medical Faculty was established in Peradeniya in January 1962 and the Engineering Faculty came into being in 1964.

It was clear that the state had not planned ahead properly to meet the unprecedented expansion from 1959 onwards in the higher education sector, consequent to the introduction of swabasha and the democratization of higher education in general. And as inevitable problems in regard to university administration began to mount, so did the politicization of the University grow. In the hasty search for a possible solution to the challenge of the growing demand for higher education, measures were adopted to solve immediate problems without much thought for the future. The Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya Pirivenas, two Buddhist seats of learning, were hurriedly elevated to universities in 1959.

By the early 1960s, the University of Ceylon had begun to grapple with serious internal problems arising from mismanagement and student unrest. These problems were compounded by external interference in the affairs of the University. The government of the day responded by appointing yet another commission –The D.C.R.Gunawardene Commission of August 1962 to look into the causes for this mismanagement and unrest and to recommend measures to arrest them. The commission’s report submitted to the government in July 1963, was extremely harsh on the University and contained some startling proposals. The Commission went as far as to recommend that the University Court, the Council and the Vice Chancellor should cease to function for a period of 18 months so as to cleanse the foetid atmosphere at the institution and to seek to resuscitate the University administration. The Commission wanted a University Grants Commission established and powers and functions of the University vested in it. The government of the day ignored the severe recommendations of the Commission.

The next striking change in the higher education sphere came with the introduction of the Higher Education Act No. 20 of 1966 that made the Minister of Education responsible for the general direction of higher education with a National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) to assist him in the task. As K.M. de Silva has pointed out, this piece of legislation ‘was in every sense a major turning point in the history of university education in Sri Lanka’. It certainly led to the demise of the concept of an autonomous university that Jennings had envisaged for us.

From 1966 onwards, the University of Ceylon, suffered one crisis after another. The Minister of Education of the time, I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla was both controversial and unpopular among the academic community. So much so that senior and respected dons of the University of Ceylon who had hitherto kept away from party politics now began to participate in political rallies of the opposition United Front (UF). Many University students and dons openly campaigned for the UF in the election of 1970, partly due to that coalition’s promise that if it came to power, it would restore University autonomy and provide for the expansion of university expansion by setting up three new universities.

In keeping with this election promise, the new Minister of Education of the UF government, Badi-ud-din Mahmud introduced a bill to regulate higher education in the country. It seemed to provide for much that was needed: a University Grants Commission to promote the growth and balanced development of universities and a progressive measure to introduce greater staff and student participation in university administration. Soon thereafter the insurrection of April 1971 broke out and there was a strong belief in government circles that university students had played a significant part in organizing the event. Although it subsequently became apparent that university students had played a very minor part in the rebellion, the government withdrew the promised bill and introduced in its place, a totally different piece of legislation that became law on 15 February 1972 as the Higher Education Act No. 1 of 1972. In significant ways, this Act was even worse that the Higher Education Act No. 20 introduced by Mr.Iriyagolla.

The overwhelming defeat of the United Front government in 1977 paved the way for the introduction of yet another higher education law by the new United National Party government. The aim of the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978 was to return to the traditions of university governance of the Jennings era. Although there were commendable new features in the new legislation, it too began soon to feel like an exercise of changing pillows to cure a headache. One began by now to get the feeling that national politics and university politics were getting enmeshed to an alarming degree. Violence broke out in 1982 after the Students’ Council elections at Peradeniya in December of that year. And when the university reopened for the second term of the academic year in January 1983 as K.M. de Silva tells us ‘more menacing political influences from the national political scene began to intrude into student activity. Events in the north of the island were beginning to affect the students’.

By May of 1983, ugly and unruly events that had never occurred before in the history of the University of Peradeniya, were beginning to take place. Nor have these unsavoury happenings, I regret to note, been recorded in accounts about the recent history of Peradeniya that are available to the general reader. I owe such information as I have on the perilous events of this era to my secondary school Principal and member of the University Council in 1983, Mr. Kenneth de Lanerolle, whom I quoted at the beginning of this presentation. On the 18th of May 1983, the Council of the University of Peradeniya appointed three of its members with Mr. de Lanerolle as Chairman to inquire into disturbances that shattered the peace of the University on the evening of the 11th of May and continued sporadically till the 10th of June. The de Lanerolle Committee submitted an Interim Report after 10 days of enquiry without prejudice to the Final Report (a comprehensive analysis of the entire campaign of violence), both of which dealt with the same phenomenon. The Committee said:

It will be appreciated if all reports dealing with the recent disturbances are evaluated together and are read as one document. However, while the Interim Report was tabled at a meeting of the Council and acted upon, the more important Final Report (issued on 6 December 1983) never saw the light of day.

Prior to his death several years later, Mr. de Lanerolle presented me his copy of both reports for future reference, and now let me quote relevant extracts from them to understand how far we have moved away from the ideals of Jennings and Ludowyk. Let me begin with the following:

A sub-warden is known to have summed up the May-June disturbances as a reflection of present day trends in the country. At first glance, this seems too simplistic an explanation. While it is true that a university is a microcosm of the larger world outside and cannot function in isolation, it is at the same time a captive segment pledged to higher education and for that reason, not expected as of necessity to mirror all the ugly features of society, however sick or bitter or fragmented.

In the context of the awful shock that the entire country sustained in July 1983 (just a month after the University disaster), the sub-warden’s remark acquires a new significance. We recall what was often quoted in the old (University College) days: What the University thinks and does today the country thinks and does tomorrow. Of course this was an ideal; but it remained in the thinking of pioneers like Robert Marrs and Ivor Jennings and their teams of committed academics. What we seem to have today is a grotesque twist to the University of Peradeniya’s leadership role in society. What we intend to engineer at the national level we first try out in the university. This is one reading of the unhappy phenomenon under review.

All, however, was happily, not doom and gloom at that time in Peradeniya. There were those who responded in a humane manner as sensitive and educated members of a community of scholars are expected to. ‘In this desperate situation’ the de Lanerolle committee tells us:

[The] stand taken by the University Teachers’ Association is worthy of note. Immediately after the first phase it met in emergency session and among other things requested its members to refrain from teaching until such time as the evicted Tamils returned. At least two professors (at some risk to their person) visited the Halls of Residence at night in order to dialogue with the students. In the Council, however, the Association’s decision not to teach met with a mixed reception.

Another happy feature of the disturbance was the kindness shown by several Sinhalese students to colleagues by warning them of possible attacks, advising them how to avoid danger and agreeing to look after their belongings in their absence. One outstanding gesture of compassion was made by a Sinhalese student who had led a Tamil academic away to safety after he had been mauled and abandoned in front of Wijewardena Hall.

If Jennings and Ludowyk could have witnessed these acts of compassion and humanity by the latter day men and women of the University of Peradeniya, they would have been reassured and heartened.

One of the concluding o0bservations of the suppressed de Lanerolle Committee Report is also worthy of quotation because it seems to have (perhaps unwittingly) anticipated the absolute horror of the 1987-1989 period at Peradeniya. Here it is:

What took place at the University of Peradeniya in May –June, may, on the surface, not appear very serious, especially after the holocaust of July which overtook the country. But it would be quite wrong to under estimate its significance and, for that reason, to pass it off with a mild rebuff. Great oaks from little acorns grow; likewise great crimes stem from small misdemeanours.

Prof K.M. de Silva in his monograph titled The Sri Lankan Universities from 1977-1990; Recovery, Stability and Descent to Crisis, describes in detail how the system at Peradeniya floundered and slid into deep crisis from 1985-1989. In the period between 1987-1989 in particular, the student members of the JanathaVimukthiPeramuna (JVP) had an iron grip on the universities and they are considered responsible for the assassination of two Vice Chancellors and some others whom they suspected of being security personnel in civilian clothes. Retaliation by the state thereafter was swift and as brutal as the violence of the JVP had been. Before the end of 1989, the leadership of the JVP was eliminated and the universities were reopened after almost six months.

Almost twenty years after this violent phase of the University of Peradeniya, we are presently living in a time, not only here in Sri Lanka but elsewhere in the world as well, when it is difficult to be optimistic. When we reflect on the political situation or the state of higher education in our land, it is difficult not to feel despondent.

Ivor Jennings with able assistance from Lyn Ludowyk and other colleagues laid so secure a foundation for the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya that despite all the problems and tribulations that the University today has confronted since their departure and the negativity around us notwithstanding, one could still end this assessment of the institution’s promise and performance on a note of cautious optimism. The odds against success have been very great, and yet the University has survived with some of its spirit intact and prevailed over a succession of difficulties including a series of catastrophes, that could have destroyed a system with less secure foundations. To those of us who have had the privilege of studying here during better times, it has been an exhilarating and enriching experience. The sadness with which we view the decline and what might have been a great institution is mitigated by the hope that the resilience the institution has demonstrated through very trying times, will ensure a renewal of its spirit, and a fulfilment, in some degree, of the promise of its early days. Even when a mood of pessimism is warranted by the realities of the day, the gloom is often lifted when one contemplates, as EdiriwiraSarachchandra has done in his Curfew and a Full Moon (1978) the natural beauty of its location:

If ever a community of young and old sought the tranquility and inspiration of a natural environment in which to engage themselves in the pursuit of knowledge, they could not have found a place where nature was more kindly or more anxious to please than the valley of Peradeniya. You pass ugly little towns all the way, Yakkala, Warakapola, Kegalle, Mawanelle, till you come to the bridge that goes over the Mahaweli. Then, through the arches formed by the bamboo branches that droop over the river from both its banks you catch a first glimpse of the archaic-looking buildings of the University built there only a little over a quarter of century ago. You turn right after crossing the bridge, and enter into a world that you would never have believed to have been there. A world apart, indeed, which has been often condemned for being so, for being an ivory tower in which the youth of the country grew up without a care for the masses who were not as fortunate as they. But as you go through the campus and see more of it, you wish, however just the condemnation may be, that there were a few more spots on earth left, like it.

The Peradeniya campus is beautiful at all times of the year, but particularly in the months of Durutu and Bak, which correspond to Spring in colder climes. Then, it is like a vast pavilion decked gaily, as if for a festival, with festoons of flowers hanging overhead and yellow petals falling lightly from them to rest in the cool green grass and make a carpet for the feet, while bourgainvillaeas twine themselves into multi-coloured trellises all around. The shimmering vault of the noonday sky resounds to the cry of the kovularising higher and higher up the scale and ending in a crescendo of longing.

And the nights are enchanting, wrapped in mystery. A thin transparent veil descends on everything, making the jagged edges of the day look smooth and muffling its coarser sounds. The fireflies – one can almost hear them rustling like strands of tinsel in the green darkness of the Cyprus trees. For hours one can watch the silent commerce in the sky of moon and stars and clouds, among themselves, never understanding and not wanting to, what it is all about.

Unfortunately this most glorious season falls in the third term of the academic year, which is examination time for the students. Hence it is rare that they get the time to enjoy the beauty around them, or to make love in the crisp moonlight on the banks of the Mahaweli. All day and half the night, they keep to their rooms and swot, emerging only for the unavoidable meals and an occasional cup of tea and a cigarette. During this term, therefore, the campus is completely deserted, and one feels it is a pity that all the efforts that nature seems to be making to please the human eye are wasted. There is not even a demonstration or a strike to break the monotony that is campus life for a great many of its residents. Only such an event would bring some animation to the senior common room, where otherwise the teachers quietly sip their tea while reading the papers and walk away as quietly.1


Colin-Thome and Ashley Halpé, Ashley (eds.) (1984) Honouring E.F.C. Ludowyk Felicitation Essays,Tissera Prakasakayo Ltd., Dehiwela.

De Lanerolle, Kenneth M. Student Disturbances University of Peradeniya May – June 1983 Vols. 1 and 2, 6 December, 1983. Unpublished Report of the Committee of Inquiry Appointed by the Council of the University of Peradeniya in May 1983.

De Silva, Eric J. (2013) Politics of Education Reform and Other Essays, Sarasavi Publishers, Nugegoda.

De Silva, K.M. (n.d) The Sri Lankan Universities from 1977 – 1990: Recovery, Stability and the Descent to Crisis.

—. (ed.) (1977) Sri Lanka: A Survey, C. Hurst & Company, London.

De Silva, K.M. and Tissa Jayatilaka (eds.) (1997) Peradeniya: Memories of a University, The International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy.

De Silva, K.M. and G.H. Peiris (eds.) (1995) The University System of Sri Lanka Vision And Reality, The International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy.

Ekanayake, Dharmasiri (2012) SahithyayanHa Vichara Kalawa, Samskriti Publications, Boralasgamuwa.

Gunawardana, R.A.L.H. (1992) More Open Than Usual? An Assessment of the Experiment in University Education at Peradeniya and its Antecedents, Aitken Spence Printing (Pvt) Ltd., Colombo.

Jennings, Sir William Ivor (2005) The Road to Peradeniya An Autobiography, edited and introduced by H.A.I Goonetileke, Lake House, Colombo.

Ludowyk, E.F.C. The East – West Problem in Sinhalese Literature. Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), No. 6, 1957.

—. Mixed Thoughts On An Asian University, Universities Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4, August 1958.

—. The English Department, 1921 – 1956. Navasilu. The Journal of the English Association of Sri Lanka and the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, Sri Lanka (Peradeniya). No. 3, December 1970, pp.1-6.

Samskriti, Special Edition on Dharmasiri Ratnasuriya – DharmasiriEkanayake,SusilSirivardana and G. Usvatte – Aratchi (eds.), Gangodawila, Nugegoda.

Sarachchandra, Ediriwira (1978) Curfew and a Full Moon, Heinemann, London.

University of Ceylon, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Annual Reports of the Council, 1947- 1950.


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