The Golden Era of Teaching Economics at the University of Kelaniya: 1960-1970



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Front Row (Left to Right):


Treasurer, Sekara B. Thennakon; President, W.S. Silva; Lecturer, K.P.V. Karunarathna; Dean and Head of the Department, Prof. Jayantha Kelegama; Lecturer, K. Dharmasena; Lecturer, Kamal Karunanayaka; Secretary, Chandrasiri Manchanayaka.


Back Row (Left to Right):


Council Member, Sarath P. Thilakarathna; Editor, A.R. Sumathipala; Council Member, Upananda Varnasinghe; Assistant Secretary, Hudson Samarasinghe; Vice President, W.M. Premachandra Wijekoon; Assistant Secretary, Susiripala Gamage; Council Member, A.P. Wilson; Council Member, B.W. Mallawaratchie.


Prof. K. Dharmasena


The Beginnings


The VidyalankaraPirivena established on the 1st of November 1875 was bestowed with University status by the Government of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in the year 1959. That was in recognition of the valuable service the Pirivena rendered in promoting the teaching of oriental languages such as Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit and Buddhist studies which were much neglected under the long period of British rule in the country.


The Vidyalankara University which was renamed as the University of Kelaniya in the year 1978, and hereafter referred to in that name took some farsighted measures towards the advancement of its academic programme. To the area of linguistic studies were added the teaching of English and Hindi languages. The most noteworthy step in this regard was the introduction of arts subjects such as History, Geography, Philosophy and Economics to the academic curricula of which Economics became the most popular subject among the students of the Kelaniya University to be selected for their degree courses. That was largely because of better prospects of employment opportunities for those qualified in Economics.


However, as the establishment of the University of Kelaniya coincided with the implementation in 1959 of the state language policy of University teaching in the mother language, many in the University system cast doubts about the teaching of different subjects coming under the discipline of Economics in Sinhala. That was easily overcome by inviting two well-known Economists with high academic qualifications who set an example to others in conducting some difficult subjects coming under the discipline of Economics in Sinhala. That historic step paved the way for students from rural areas to select Economics for their General and Special degree courses. They were Dr. Jayantha Kelegama and Mr.Tilak Ratnakara who were appointed on different capacities to conduct lectures as well as to organize the newly established Department of Economics.


A brilliant product of the University of Ceylon, Dr. Kelegama joined the Central Bank of Ceylon as a staff grade officer at the inception from where he entered the internationally renowned University of Oxford and gained the doctorate in Economics. Apart from his distinguished academic record, Dr. Kelegama was a prolific writer who contributed articles of high quality on the burning issues of the rural economy of Sri Lanka to the Ceylon Economist and to Sinhala and English newspapers. In most of these research articles, he stressed the problems encountered by the rural peasantry such as landlessness and indebtedness and the need for revival of rural agriculture. These problems of the rural economy he raised not only made public awareness of them but also drew the attention of policy makers to remedial measures to solve them. Although Dr. Kelegama with an academic record of that sort was invited to be appointed as the first Professor of Economics of the University of Kelaniya, he was unable to accept it on a full time basis for two reasons. In the first place because of his long experience as a senior staff officer at the Central Bank and the valuable service he rendered since its inception, the authorities there persuaded him not to accept the Kelaniya University’s offer of the Professorship on a fulltime basis. An equally important reason was that Dr. Kelegama was also serving as an Economic Advisor to the Ministry of Trade and Commerce under the late Mr. T.B. Ilangaratne. Under these circumstances, the one and only alternative for Dr. Kelegama was to accept the Professorship on a part time basis which he did, so that the services he rendered to the Central Bank and the Trade and Commerce Ministry would not be affected.


The other distinguished economist with a sound knowledge of Sri Lanka was Mr.Tilak Ratnakara who on invitation not only became the first Senior Lecturer in Economics on a permanent basis but also acted as the first Administrator-in-charge of the Department of Economics of this University. He too was a brilliant product of the University of Ceylon to the extent that he got the rare opportunity of joining the academic staff of the Department of Economics of that University as an Assistant Lecturer because of his excellent performance at the Special Degree Examination in Economics. After serving in that capacity for a few years, he joined the Glossary Division of the Official Languages Department that was established in the mid-1950s and was heavily involved in the preparation of the English–Sinhala Glossary. That provided ample testimony to his sound knowledge of the Sinhala language which together with his academic achievements and University teaching experience, justified his being invited to hold the above mentioned position in the Department of Economics.


At the very beginning, the teaching of Economics at the University was limited to the General Degree Programme and in course of time the number of students selecting that as a subject for the degree course saw a rapid increase. In the first place, it was due to the better prospects for employment in the public as well as in the private sector for those qualified in Economics. The other was the success achieved by Prof. Jayantha Kelegama and Mr.Tilak Ratnakara at the initial stage of teaching the difficult subjects coming under the discipline of Economics, initially at the General Arts Qualifying (GAQ) and General Arts Degree level in Sinhala. For the GAQ examination, the subjects under the discipline of Economics were Principles of Economics, Economic History, and Political Science and those for the General Arts Degree level were Principles of Economics, Monetary Economics, Economic History, and Applied Economics.


Expansion of the Faculty


The early 1960s also saw the commencement of the Special Degree Course in Economics for which the compulsory subjects were Principles of Economics, Monetary Economics, Applied Economics, Statistics, and Economic History and the subjects for specialization were limited to Monetary Economics and Statistics. With the enrolment of a large number of students to read Economics as a subject for the GAQ, General Arts Degree Examinations and latterly for the Special Degree Examinations with the above mentioned two subjects for specialization, there arose the need to strengthen the academic staff of the Department to lecture on different subjects as well as to conduct tutorial classes. That was easily overcome by adopting two strategies by Prof. Jayantha Kelegama and Mr.Tilak Ratnakara. One was, with the dual purpose of maintaining the quality of teaching Economics at a higher level as well as to enhance the academic reputation of the newly established Department of Economics of the Kelaniya University, to enrol some highly qualified and well known economists from the Central Bank of Ceylon as Visiting Lecturers to lecture on some subjects coming under the Special Degree Course in Economics. They were Dr.Warnasena Rasaputram (Statistics), Dr. G. Uswattearachchi (Monetary Economics), and Mr. P.B. Karandawela (Applied Economics). As a long-term measure, the other step taken was to appoint some probationary Assistant Lecturers to lecture as well as to conduct tutorial classes, who in course of time with postgraduate qualifications would rise in the academic ladder and thereby reduce the dependence on Visiting Lecturers. With that vision, those appointed in that category for different subjects in the early 1960s was Mr. B.L.P. Mendis (Statistics), Mr. K.P.V. Karunaratne (Monetary Economics), Mr. Kamal Karunanayake (Political Science) and myself for Economic History.


Some of those who joined the academic staff of the Department of Economics at the very beginning were able to hold high academic positions in course of time at the Kelaniya University. Mr.Tilak Ratnakara who became an Associate Professor and the Head of the Department of Economics in the late-1970s was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the Kelaniya University for the period 1982 to 1985. Kamal Karunanayake after completing his Ph.D. degree in Political Science at the University of Birmingham in the year 1972, was back at the Department, and held the Chair of Economics. His political affiliation with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) from his University student days was such that in 1989 he was appointed as a Member of Parliament from the SLFP National List.


I too was fortunate enough to join the University of Kelaniya at the very beginning and after successfully completing my B.A. Degree in Economics at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, in 1959. Thereafter, in 1969 I joined the London School of Economics and completed my Ph.D. Degree in the year 1973. My Ph.D. thesis on ‘The Port of Colombo 1860 – 1939’ was considered as one of high quality which made it to be the first doctoral thesis to be published by the Research Publication Services Division of the Ministry of Higher Education, Sri Lanka in 1981.


Change of Guard


Prof.Jayantha Kelegama with his profound academic knowledge rendered a valuable service during the seven years from 1960 to 1967 while he was heavily engaged in services in the public sector. After laying the foundation and building blocks for the Department of Economics in the 1960s, and producing some brilliant students who later occupied prominent positions, Prof. Kelegama resigned from this post in the year 1967.


The vacancy created by Dr.Kelegama’s resignation from that post was filled by Dr. F.R. Jayasuriya by being appointed as the Professor of Economics of the University on a permanent basis in the year 1967. Prof. F.R. Jayasuriya one of the first to join the academic staff of the University of Ceylon, established in 1942, made use of his teaching experience to introduce some innovative measures of historic importance in teaching economics at the Kelaniya University. In the first place, through the introduction of new subjects for specialization, he set an example for other Universities to follow suit. Since 1942 the subjects for specialization by University students enrolled for the Special Degree Course in Economics were limited to Money and Banking, Accountancy, Statistics, Economic History, Political Science and for some time, Sociology. Taking into consideration the changing economic scenario in Sri Lanka, Prof. Jayasuriya took the decision to introduce Estate Management, Agricultural Economics, Industrial Economics, Accounting, and Transport and Tourism as subjects for specialization which were of contemporary importance.


To teach these new subjects there arose the need to get the services of those who had a theoretical knowledge as well as practical experience on those fields of study which could not be obtained within the University system. That was overcome by inviting well known persons who were academically qualified as well as with practical experience in the relevant areas of study such as for example, Mr. T.B. Subasinghe, Director, Agrarian Research and Training Institute (ARTI) for Agricultural Economics, Mr. H.M.S. Samaranayake, Director, Sri Lanka Tourist Board on Transport and Tourism, and Mr. Raja Bandaranayake, a distinguished Attorney-at-Law for Industrial Law. Prof. Jayasuriya, who served as the Head of the Department of Economics till 1974, also took the unique step of not limiting the teaching of these subjects to the theoretical side. He made arrangements to make the students undergo a training programme for a short period in institutions relevant to their fields of specialization.


The method of teaching Economics at the Kelaniya University during this period differed from that generally followed at present in the University system as a whole. These new students had a fair knowledge of English and besides, there were English instructors to teach the language in the University, and thus were able to read without difficulty. Hence, in keeping with the dictum that in the Universities students are not taught but they learn, the teaching staff of the Department of Economics did not resort to dictate a lecture note on the topic concerned but stressed the main points so as to encourage the students to read and enrich their knowledge. That not only freed the students of what is known as ‘bibliophobia’ but also made them fully occupied in their activities.


Taking all these into account, it is no exaggeration to state that the measures taken by Prof. Jayantha Kelegama, Mr.Tilak Ratnakara,and Prof. F.R. Jayasuriya with the able assistance of the other members of the academic staff were so fruitful that the decade 1960 – 1970 emerged as the golden era in the teaching of Economics at the University of Kelaniya.


Students of the Era


The prevailing academic atmosphere of this sort together with, as was mentioned earlier, the better prospects for employment opportunities for those qualified in Economics, saw an increasing number of students selecting Economics as a subject either for their General or Special Degree Courses during this decade. Of them, there was a set of students who were fortunate enough to hold responsible positions in the public sector and a few others who, through their engagement in social service activities enhanced the reputation of the Department of Economics of the Kelaniya University. In the early 1960s, some Buddhist monks too selected Economics as a subject for their General Degree Courses when that was taught only at that level. Of them, one was the late Venerable Attudewa Chandrasiri Thero who entered the teaching profession after his University education and subsequently became the Principal of Sri Dharmaloka Vidyalaya, Kelaniya, which position he held until his retirement. The other is Venerable Professor Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thero, who too read Economics as a subject for his General Degree Course during the same period. Afterwards, he successfully completed his postgraduate degree course in the field of Oriental Languages at the Sri Jayawardhanapura University and secured a Professorship post in that field of studies. After retirement from that post, the Venerable Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thero became the Chancellor of that University.


Among the large number of lay students who selected Economics as a subject either for the General or Special Degree Courses during the decade 1960 to 1970 there were some who became prominent through their involvement in public service or social service activities. In this regard, mention must be made of G.I.D. Dharmasekera (known as ‘Castro’ at that time), the first student leader of the University of Kelaniya who through his behaviour and involvement in student activities set an example to the student community. At that time, he never made students to resort to violent activities or of boycotting lectures to win student’s rights. Now leading a Buddhist way of life, he is popularly known as Anagarika Dharmasekera. Two of his contemporaries, Mr. T.M.S.B. Tennakoon and Mr. Christie Silva who also did Economics as a subject for their General Degree course, held high administrative positions at the Kelaniya University. The former having joined as an Assistant Registrar rose to the position of a Deputy Registrar and before retirement became the Registrar of the Ayurvedic College, Yakkala, affiliated to the University of Kelaniya. Mr. Christie Silva who too joined as an Assistant Registrar retired after serving as the Registrar of the University.


The decade also witnessed some Kelaniya University students of Economics who through their excellent performance at the Special Degree Examination rising to high positions in the academic ladder within the University system. Dr.Karunasena Kodituwakku who joined the academic staff of the Department of Economics of the Sri Jayawardhanapura University ended up his University career as the Vice Chancellor of that University. Through his political affiliations with the United National Party (UNP), he was able to become the Minister of Human Resources Development and Education (2002-2004) as well as to serve as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Japan. Dr. (Mrs) Ajitha Tennakoon (nee Chamarasinghe) and Dr. Mrs. J.M. Pathirage (nee Podimenike) are two students of that period who through their excellent performance at the Special Degree Examination were selected as Assistant Lecturers and are presently serving as Senior Lecturers in the Department of Economics of the Kelaniya University. Dr.(Mrs) Ajitha Tennakoon also held the responsible position of the Head of the Department of Economics.


The Central Bank of Sri Lanka was yet another prestigious institution which recruited some of the brilliant students of Economics of this decade and in course of time enabled them to hold highly recognised positions. They were late Mr. M.B. Dissanayake, Deputy Governor, Mr. W. Weeraratne, Deputy Director, Bank Supervision, and Mr. H.A.G. Hettiarachchi, Controller of Exchange. Students of the same period in other prominent professions that come to mind are: Mr.Suripala Gamage, at present serving as the General Manager at People’s Bank in Kurunegala District and Hudson Samarasinghe, veteran broadcaster now serving as the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. Others of this decade who having held important positions in the public service and in retirement are: Mr.Ramya Siriwardhana (District Secretary, Matale); Mr.Premananda Atapattu (Deputy Inspector General, Police); Renton De Alwis (Chairman, Sri Lanka Tourist Board) and Mr. Premaratne Bannahake, (Deputy Inspector General, Police). One of the students who entered the legal profession and became a leading lawyer was the late Mr. Mahinda Salpitikorala.


Finally, a factor of not less importance was the heavy involvement in national politics by some students of Economics of this decade. As stated earlier, Dr.Karunasena Kodituwakku a strong UNP supporter from his student days was able to win a parliamentary seat and become the Minister of Education. Late Mr. H.B. Wanninayake was another student of the Kelaniya University of that time who read Economics as a subject for his Degree Course and became a UNP Member of Parliament representing Nikaweratiya electorate in the North Central Province. Mr. A.D.B. Ekanayake, a contemporary of Dr.Karunasena Kodituwakku was another student, who after his University life got himself heavily involved in politics. From 1977 to 1989 he was a UNP Member of Parliament representing the Medirigiriya Electorate and held the portfolio of District Minister for Polonnaruwa District from 1983 to 1989. G.I.D.Dharmasekera became an active politburo member of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the late 1960s and early 1970s and later joined the United Left Front before quitting politics.


A Tribute


The decade 1960 to 1970 compared to all other periods was a golden era in the teaching of Economics at the University of Kelaniya. In recognition of Prof.Kelegama’s contribution for building up the Department of Economics and his other services to the Nation, he was honoured with the title "Arthashastra Shiromani" by the University in 2002 and a Volume of Essays in his honour was brought out in 2009 by Dr.Ajitha Tennakoon, Head of the Department of Economics. Prof. F.R Jaysuriya too was honoured with a Felicitation Volume in 2008 by the University and Prof. Tilak Ratnakara is always respected and remembered by the students. The Department of Economics at the University of Kelaniya is greatly indebted to these three towering figures for building up and uplifting the Department. Shortly, the Department will unveil portraits of Prof. Jayantha Kelegama, Prof. Tilak Ratnakara and Prof. F.R. Jayasuriya who are no longer among the living but who were undoubtedly the key pillars of this golden era of teaching Economics at the University of Kelaniya.


(Prof. K. Dharmasena taught Economics at the Department of Economics, University of Kelaniya, from the early 1960s and became the Head of the Department during the period 1987 to 1998. During 1990-1993, he served as the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and in 1994 became the Vice Chancellor of the University until his retirement in 1998).


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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