The university and he maintenance of academic standards


Address by Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa at the 12th convocation of the Rajarata University on April 5, 2012. Degree of D.Litt. Honoris Causa was conferred on him on that occasion.

The University is an institution which produces and disseminates universal knowledge. According to its design various arts and sciences are studied as grouped together in its various units termed the Faculties. It is because of its diversity of intellectual concerns that it is called "university" in English and: vishvavidyalaya in Sinhala. The generally held view is that the scholar who has undergone a university education is a person with a wide knowledge and a universal vision.

It is opportune here to quote what Sir Ivor Jennings, the father of Sri Lanka’s university education had to say on this subject. I should mention at the outset that in this talk today I will be referring to him as well as to the experiences of the first university in the island established by him nearly seventy years ago. Fourteen more universities were established in Sri Lanka subsequently. The University of Ceylon established in 1942 can be considered as the common heritage of all those institutions. That is why I thought it proper to refer to those pioneer experiences. While each and every university in Sri Lanka today has its own identity which all of us should honour, it will also be useful to find out where we began and how we faced some pertinent problems which are vital to all university institutions even today In the handbook prepared by Vice Chancellor Jennings in 1948 the aim of university education is described in the following manner. That is, to,

"Produce educated men and women in the fullesst sense of that phrase, men and women who are capable of fulfilling any function in the world that may fall to their lot, citizens of high intelligence, complete moral integrity, and possessing energy, initiative, judgement, tact and qualities of leadership"

As such the aim of university education was to create people who were complete in every way. It was to be ensured that the university graduate was not merely a person who had obtained the knowledge necessary to engage in a profession, but one endowed with a personality which was beneficial to the society at large.Very importantly, the there was an emphasis on the moral integrity of the product of university education. Whether it be in the field of arts, science, medicine or engineering the university was to be capable of producing a good citizen who had a cultured vision going beyond the narrow confines of his particular discipline. This task of producing "educated" men and women Sir Ivor and the pioneers of the University of Ceylon sought to do during those early days.Although established as a pragmatic step in Colombo in July 1942, the university was shifted to its destined site in Peradeniya in October 1952. The fervent hope of Jennings and many others who took the "road to Peradeniya" was that in its promised site the university would evolve into an institution worthy of its name.. As the university was a residential institution it was possible to utilize all 24 hours of the day to mould "men and women who were educated in the fullest sense of the phrase" That was accomplished by means of students interacting among themselves, student = teacher interactions and other activities outside the classromm such as seminars, discussions, special lectures, religious and cultural activities etc.

Different environment today

We know that the environment in the universities today is very much different to what was there in the days gone by. We do not have fully residential universities today. Hence we are not in a position to accomplish some of the things that were achieved at that time. But I believe that many of the things said in that statement are valid even for today. We should be able to produce graduates of high moral integrity. For that. not only the university as an institution, but the whole society should get together. Furthermore, the requirement of academic standards is a factor common to both then and now. I am particularly keen to bring up the issue of academic standards today because when we are about to celebrate seventy years of university education in Sri Lanka in July 2012, we hear often about the poor quality of the graduates produced by the universities these days.

It is a truism that a university degree should be of the highest academic standard. Leaving aside matters concerning the moral character mentioned above, the graduate should be competent in the field for which he has obtained the degree whether it be language and literary studies or history, sociology and other social studies, or chemistry, physics and other pure sciences, or medicine or engineering, If not, the "degree" he has obtained will be a mere scrap of paper. It needs be emphasizes that this matter of academic standards is common to all university degrees whether it is the Bachelor’s Degree, B.A. or B.Sc., which is only an entrance to the world of scholarship, or it is the Master’s ,M.A or M.Sc.,. which means a "master" of the subject, or the M.Phil., meaning special insights into the subject, or the Ph.D. which signifies an original contribution to knowledge. The holder of the degree should be an embodiment of the meaning signified by the degree. If that is not so, the public funds spent to give that degree would have been a mere waste. If an institution were to employ him giving credence to that piece of paper which he flaunts, he will be a burden to that institution and it will be a national crime to pay him wages. What I want to say is that our universities should not be accomplices in such crimes.

I mentioned earlier that my speech today will be based on some of the experiences of the first university is our country. Also, as I said earlier,the Rajarata University of Sri Lanka, which holds this convocation today, and all the other universities in our country are progenies of that pioneer institution. I hope therefore that reflecting on those experiences will at least induce us to aspire to some of those ideals reflected in such experiences.


While our neighbour India under colonial rule was able to open several modern universities such as Calcutta and Madras in the 19th century it was only in the third decade of the 20th century that a tertiary educational institution was opened in Sri Lanka as a response to years of agitation by our intellectuals. It was the Ceylon University College (1921) an affiliate of the University of London whose degrees were those of that university. After 20 years of its existence Sir Ivor Jennings who was assigned the task of establishing an independent university for this land observed that he saw no university atmosphere in the University College in Colombo ( see his Autobiography The Road to Peradeniya, pp. 88-107). Before coming to Sri Lanka he had wide experience of university institutions, in England as well as abroad. While basically an expert in law he was considered an authority in other disciplines such as economics and political science. When we read his autobiography we note that this man of high academic caliber, once he understood the potential held by the proposed institution took up the task in earnest. It became his mission to establish in "Ceylon" a university of the highest academic standing which would have the pride of place in the world of learning..

Arriving in the island in the last week of March, 1941, he assumed duties as the Principal of the University College, and lost no time in going to inspect the site of the proposed University on the first public holiday in early April.The State Council had decided in 1938, after a protracted "battle of the sites," to seat the university in Peradeniya. When Jennings confronted the proposed site, standing on a hillock near the New Gampola Road, the vision of the Lower Hantana hills tapering into the thickly foliaged valley ending in the banks of River Mahaveli enthralled him. Spreading the site plan of the university buildings that were to come up there and picturing in his mind the completed campus he exclaimed,

"I began at last to see the magnificence of the scheme. There was no doubt about a few years time the view from the Nanu Oya bridge will be one of the most famous in the world. …No university in the world would have such a setting" ( pp.178-9)

It was as if he had determined to create in that magnificent setting a great academic institution which was worthy of that setting. Therefore he stayed here not five years, as he had originally planned, but fourteen long years, first establishing the university in Thurstan Road as a pragmatic measure, and overseeing the building work in Peradeniya while functioning as the Vice Chancellor, and finally shifting it to the destined site in October 1952 and seeing to it that it would take firm roots in that ideal setting. He wrote in his autobiography,

"There is not the slightest doubt that if the university is worthy of its location that it would be one of the finest small universities in the world. I should feel sure of my own judgment in this matter even if the whole world denied it." (p.183)

Sir Ivor could speak with such confidence about the institution which came up under his guidance because he saw to it that it was established on firm foundations. Overseeing the buildings which were coming up he said "this university is to last a thousand years, so we do not want shoddy work" (p.183).The same determination was extended to other aspects of the university. He knew that if proper academic standards were not established at the outset itself that the institution he had founded would have no standing in world academic circles. What were the steps taken to ensure those standards?

Expatriate teachers

Those recruited to the academic staff were ones who had First or good Second class passes from the well known universities. In the early years the University of Ceylon, therefore, had a good number of expatriate teachers. A recruit to the staff had to obtain a post-graduate degree, normally a Ph.D. from a highly recognized European university. As for the examinations, the final year papers were sent for second marking to universities in England such as Cambridge, Oxford or London. All this was possible because the medium of education was English. The academics were expected to do research studies and expand the horizons of knowledge. Sir Ivor set the example himself. While being extremely busy building up a university and helping in the drafting of the constitution of independent Sri Lanka as well as sitting in various government consultative committees and drafting umpteen memoranda, some of which were in effect miniature books, he found the time to write and publish five books on constitutional matters, the British commonwealth and the economy of Ceylon in addition to revising and re-publishing several of his previous books on British law and the British constitution.

Competitive examination

In the new University of Ceylon, the students were selected by a competitive entrance examination ( consisting of four subject papers and one essay paper) conducted by the university itself, the setting of papers and marking done exclusively by the university academics. Those who obtained the highest range of marks were admitted directly. Others who had got borderline marks were given the opportunity to prove themselves at an entrance interview conducted by a panel of senior teachers chaired by the Vice Chancellor or a Dean. Once within the university, one could study three subjects in the first year and one had to face a Qualifying Examination at the end of the year.

The University...

If an A or a B pass was obtained in a particular subject one could apply to be admitted to a Special Degree course, which lasted three additional years, or, otherwise, do a General Degree course lasting two years. Those in the Special Degree programme had to face Special Degree Qualifying Examination at the end of the second year, and the two subsidiary course papers at the end of the third year before sitting the finals at the end of the fourth year. The final examination consisted of nine three hour papers.If a student was not up to the mark, he would be failed. When we read the Annual Reports of the early years we note that there were a fair number of failures .

As for the teaching, there were lectures and tutorials. At the lecture only guides to study were transmitted and a list of references was given which were to be consulted in the library. There was no dictation of notes. Even if one was able to write down all what the lecturer had said, it was not of much use when writing tutorials or in answering examination questions. In fact those who scored the highest marks at the examinations were those who displayed their conversance with the scholarly literature in the subject and thus proved their originality and initiative.

University students were expected to read widely. I can quote again what Sir Ivor had to say on the matter:

"Two books a week is a normal ration; three not unusual….This is the main part of the education of the undergraduate, and indeed, a student who does not read at least two books a week ,ought not to go to a University, because he lacks education, no matter how many examinations he has passed" (The Jennings papers in the Peradeniya University)

We can understand why the university is expected to build up a good library to which the latest publications are added regularly and which sees to it that current knowledge is made available by subscribing to the most noteworthy academic periodicals and journals from all over the world.

I hope I have given a glimpse of the manner in which the pioneering university in Sri Lanka attempted to maintain academic standards. In order to give an illustrative example how rigorously those standards were maintained please permit me to narrate a little story provided by Peradeniya’s former librarian, H.A.I (Ian) Goonetilaka who edited the Autobiography of Sir Ivor for publication. Mr. Goonetileke got the story from Clair, the elder of the two daughters of Sir Ivor. The education of the two daughters was disrupted by the father having to leave England. The younger Shirley, however, managed to graduate after studying in India and Australia. Claire, worked as a journalist and having worked for sometime as a BBC correspondent in Colombo sought admission to the University of Ceylon. Sir Ivor’s curt response was "You are not intelligent enough" For him the maintenance of university academic standards was supreme. Filial love did not come into the picture.Clair, however was not disheartened. Back in England, several years later, she passed the Cambridge university entrance requirements, entered it when Sir Ivor was its Vice Chancellor and graduated in June 1965, six months before his death. This little story is illustrative of the qualities "educated men and women in the fullest sense of that phrase" are endowed with. Here we have a father displaying his "complete moral integrity" and a daughter demonstrating her "energy and initiative" among other things.

One might raise the question whether talking about the good things of the past is of any use today where conditions are so much different. My response to that is that if we are keen to create a better tomorrow we should have ideals to which we can look up. Ideals are not bound by time and place. They are universal and timeless. When some human beings have demonstrated that they can be practiced we are encouraged to so ourselves. We know it could be done I like to end this speech with that positive note.

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