Universities then and now


By Srima Warusawithana

Calgary, Canada

Universities are very much in the news these days. Here are some lines I composed about the wonderful teachers we had in our ‘varsity’ days. They were akin to Royalty and even now after half a century has passed we remember them with affectionate gratitude.


A tribute to our teachers Bio Science Group of 1962, University of Ceylon, Colombo 3

Professor P.P.G.L Siriwardena, Dr. R. S.Ramakrishna, Dr. Wannigama, Dr. Perlyn Pereira,

Dr. M. Ladduwahetty, Prof. W. Fernando, Dr. Arudpragasam, Prof. B. L. T. De Silva, Dr. Damayanti Atapattu, Dr. Dassanayake, Dr. Morgan Thambiah, Dr. Raja de Fonseka.

(with apologies to the names I may have missed)

Four decades ago and just out of school

In the portals of that hallowed seat of learning,

Adorned by teachers great and good,

We stood in awe, for we were blessed in receiving,

Knowledge and wisdom, from these gentle men,

Fair-minded, kind and good and just,

They were the royalty we knew and revered,

When learning and fun were blended with trust:

They trod the straight and narrow path,

Of doing their duty with neither failing nor flaw;

They gave of their best, they treated us clean,

They had no slaves, they had no queens;

Work was their master, duty their aim,

There never was a moment when we could complain;

Times have changed and our kings are gone,

Away from this arena, some for evermore;

Circumstances have forced many to go away,

And poorer our Motherland is weeping today.

How, when and why have the Universities descended to abysmal depths is a dilemma for most of us who were undergraduates in days gone by. Some months ago, University teachers called off a long drawn out stoppage of work. There were pay hike demands and other demands some of which could be reasonable and worthy of attention.

It is most opportune for the authorities that govern the university system to now lay down some rules for university teachers that would be for the greater good of education.

Respect for and confidence in educators

University teachers are highly paid professionals – though they may not feel that the pay they receive is adequate. But, there are perks in this profession which others with similar qualifications may not enjoy. Holidays, vacations, sabbatical leave are some of these. The freedom and flexibility in duties of university teachers are not enjoyed by professionals in other vocations.

Entrusted with the youth of today they must consider their duties as sacred and conduct themselves in a manner worthy of respect. Students need to have respect for and confidence in the teachers.

Universities meant to be hallowed portals of learning, honoured institutions that must endeavour to give unto the country and to the world thereby the best minds, the best brains, the best skills have sadly now become infamous due to corrupt practices, churning out substandard degrees, unskilled men and women who are misfits in their professions and in adult life. Honest academics of high integrity and dedication are a rare breed today.

University of Ceylon, Colombo Faculty five decades ago has not only just changed its name now to University of Colombo Sri Lanka but has undergone great and grave changes despite the overall advancement in technology and educational facilities. It is with much respect, admiration and gratitude that I recall the names of my teachers – Professors BLT de Silva, Morgan Thambiah, Raja de Fonseka in Botany, PPGL Siriwardena, Ramakrishna, Wannigama, Dharmawardena, Ariyaratne in Chemistry, Fernando, Arudpragasam, Ladduwahetty, Hilary Crusz in Zoology (pardon me if I missed out any names) who made learning sheer joy. Professor Siriwardena’s Inorganic Chemistry – the section on Metallurgy were pure gems of knowledge he gave us in his polished, inimitable lively style. Professor Raja de Fonseka came once a week from Peradeniya and began teaching us the way to draw botanical diagrams in their accurate proportions. I remember what a hilarious lecture that first one was at the commencement of our practical class. Professor Arud’s ‘vertebrates’ and ‘skulls’ lessons fifty years on are still a vivid memory.

We as students were never glued to our books but wonderful teaching, timely guidance tempered with strict discipline made us good lifelong learners. These were men of honour, held in high esteem by us students as well as by the entire academic community and by society. They were strict disciplinarians but succeeded in instilling discipline and values in us not with malice or hatred but with patience, gentleness and love.

I remember the day the College House (it was a men’s hostel then) dog ‘Gamma’ strayed into our afternoon Chemistry lecture theatre along with us and stayed there ever so quietly until the lecture was over. Dr.Ramakrishna as he walked in to class had been informed by the lab attendant Narayan that two students (I was one) had taken a dog into class. Dr.Rama firmly called our seat numbers and requested us to meet him after the lecture. Dr.Rama was large and stern in appearance but in truth a gentle giant. He asked us why we did this and warned us never to get into such mischief again. Many of these good men are now no more. I shall refrain from saying any more about some of them who have taken their places. However, it is refreshing to note that some like these excellent educators of yore such as Professor Valentine Joseph, and among the younger educators Kirthi Premadasa, Sumedha Jayaweera, SRD Rosa, Upul Sonnadara still remain who are held in high esteem by the students who were blessed to receive knowledge and guidance from them many years on from the time when I was a student.

Ethics and solid values have deteriorated overall in society and universities are no exception. A few years back there was a case of an academic who tried to smuggle out of the country chromosomes from rare endemic plants. It was reported that this multi-million dollar ‘gene smuggling’ racket had been happening for 10 to 15 years. A person from the cream of the intelligentsia of the land earning millions of dollars was caught in the act of brazenly robbing our motherland. Who were his accomplices? More academics for sure! Some at least would have been aware of this malpractice if it had gone on for years.

Then again there was a heated debate going on via the media between two big names in the academic world, on the topic ‘generic and branded drugs’. At times it was insulting and coarse language used by each other – disgraceful! Academics are expected to set an example to the younger generation.

There are also gimmicks by some academics donning pristine pure white and appearing in the visual media talking big on virtuous living when their own values are superficial and their life in shambles.

There are dons who have never done any worthwhile research, never written a scientific paper after their PhD dissertations, yet carry on till their days end on the university staff simply because their work is never assessed and there is no system of ‘tenure’ in our university system.


The primary responsibility of a department head in a faculty is to observe and evaluate every teacher impartially and assess the quality of teaching. In the absence of such a process, few at least would come in to class unprepared and dole out some photocopied notes to pass the time. These are common lapses for which the authorities are accountable. The validity of such assessments could be questioned, objections could be raised. But even if a teacher is safe for a while there will surely come a judgement day when all who are responsible would have to answer for the omissions.


One such reform that must come into the system – even at this late stage is the introduction of a continuous scheme of evaluation of the teachers. This is prevalent in all universities in North America and I believe in many other countries as well. Teacher evaluation by students and by peer groups and higher authorities is a distinctive part in the career of teaching. It is done regularly and continuously all throughout the career

Tenure track is also an integral part if one embarks on a tertiary level teaching career. It is a sort of ‘probation’ period when one’s skills in teaching are assessed. Tenure is awarded only on successful completion of this period which ranges from 3 to 7 years depending on each university.

A university teacher is entitled to benefits only after being awarded the tenure. During this probation period the teacher could be asked to leave if work is found to be unsatisfactory. The system of ‘hire and fire’ is not very pleasing but nevertheless a common occurrence in countries like Canada. It helps to keep employees focused and diligent and productive all throughout their career. For a conscientious and efficient educator, this type of positive evaluation lends encouragement and a sense of self-esteem.

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