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2nd January 2000
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Peradeniya: Perfection of a dream

Prof. Ashley Halpe, reflects on the changing face of campus life

In October 1952 we happy few! arrived in the promised land envisioned by the founders of the Ceylon University Assoication in 1905. Though we had got to Peradeniya before noon, nothing was ready. I slept on the mattress on the floor for a couple of weeks but we managed, rather enjoying the picnicking and the novelty. Food was plentiful: afternoon tea was practically a fourth meal, every dinner was accompanied by a dessert and a Sunday lunch was always special.

The whole concept was tremendous. This was no Oxford or Cambridge growing at its own sweet pace over the centuries and evolving a visual splendour of dreaming spires or of colleges by the Cam by imperceptible increments. Peradeniya was all planned.

Peradeniya was for me very much a bowl of plenty, the perfection of a dream, the embodiment of what the way of life I had dimly envisioned as the "university" (I cannot remember ever having thought of it as a degree factory).

Peradeniya became to me a kind of "gama", the only "gama" I have known, and those undergraduate and post-graduate years were the years of my discovery, when I put down roots in this community which "one never leaves", as Sir Ivor put it, when friendship, arguments, poetry and finally, love were inextricably a part of a personal realization of a university ideal of a matrix that had both unique beauty and seeming permanence.

But Peradeniya has of course, changed dramatically and many times. The 1960s saw the rising tides of admission and the cultural revolution in 1956 engulfing the university. While the arrival of the other faculties made Peradeniya a complete university living upto its name we were still the University of Ceylon the strains of accommodation and social relationships, accentuated by the growing restlessness in the country at large, made the Sixties a time of growing stress and turbulence. Student politics often threatened ugly confrontations between parties while student demagogues attempted trials of strength with the authorities with more zeal than wisdom.

That the stress and uncertainty have become a part of our way of life is common knowledge. Open turbulence and the return to an uneasy continuance of academic and residential life have become an expected ebb and flow. It seems at times that Peradeniya staggers on, reeling from blow after blow; at others, one is amazed by the institution's powers of recuperation from seemingly mortal wounds.

When the structural and academic crises are viewed in relation to each other, a most serious crisis is the crisis of values which presses on our attention. The inability of the university system to deliver better student performance is clearly symptomatic of pedagogic insensitivity and lack of will, casting long shadows back over the cautious approach to the expansion project.

However, it is also the case that long experience of state interference with university structures and of disruption, along with the general public's lack of concern have tended to make academics more oriented towards the predictable processes, relating to well defined and laudable academic goals of research and publication.

But, of course, these curricula and pedagogic issues are only one aspect of the present problem of values in our universities. We can hardly forget that we have recently been made forcefully aware of stduent frustration, "kekkuma" at social inequality, and politically directed violence, while the continued incidence of sadistic ragging and such manifestations as cultural Puritanism on one of the campuses, also point to deep seated socio-cultural insecurity.

We are deeply conscious today of the socio-economic causes of youth unrest since the mid-Sixties, of the national dimensions of the issues and predicaments involved. But perhaps, we should wonder why university education and university life seem to do little to moderate radical disorientation of the young men and women who enter university today.

The massive extension of higher education and the refashioning of the elite that it implies is already very much underway. Hence, the nature and quality of that education, and of the university experience at its centre, become a concern of major importance. Given the considerable complexity of the system already in existence, and the much greater complexity of the system that is being developed, it would seem to be particularly important to have at the core a philosophy of higher education that would give coherence and perspective to the increasing diversity.

New initiatives are urgent, the close re-examination of current structures and methods are essential. We can but hope that such measures will lead to an attitudinal change.

We can derive some comfort from the reminder by a senior historian that "the fiftieth year in the life of university is nearly the end of the foundation years" and that "it would take many decades more before one is entitled to talk of its maturity".

Despite all this, a new wave, bigger each year, of bright, expectant faces floods the corridors as each academic year begins and Peradeniya teachers set new boundaries to research in field and laboratory and achieve international publication. The events and activities of the Jubilee year of university education in Sri Lanka have richly expressed the spectrum of Peradeniya experience and achievement. (Extracts from 'University Education after 50 years of Independence' and 'Forty Years On')

The writer was senior lecturer, Dept. of English, University of Peradeniya


The reverse brain drain

Prof. S. Mahalingam who came from Malaya to study and later teach engineering in Sri Lanka recalls the Peradeniya era

Malaya in the days before its independence included Singapore, and was home to many English-educated Ceylonese who had found well-paid employment in a wide area of government service. Since there was no university education in the country until 1949, many "Malayan-Ceylonese" sent their sons to Colombo, or Britain if they had the means, for tertiary education. On completion of their studies, the young men faithfully returned to Malaya where good jobs were readily available.

I was one of the exceptions to this general trend when, after graduating in Colombo with an External Degree of the University of London, I opted to join the staff of the University of Ceylon in 1950, at the inception of the Faculty of Engineering.

Ceylon was indeed a very attractive place to live and work in at that time as it had been barely touched by the world war, and was totally free of the post-war political turmoil that engulfed most of the countries in South Asia and South East Asia. Development work in a new faculty would obviously give much job satisfaction, and we had a fine team of men to work with.

Ceylonese parents in Malaya planning higher education for their children usually had in mind the Ceylon University College, the Ceylon Medical College and the Ceylon Law College. After the war the Ceylon Technical College was added to this list.

When I left Malaya in 1946 to follow a degree course in engineering at the Ceylon Technical College (CTC), Colombo, there was no university in Malaya, nor were there any plans for one. A commission was appointed in 1947 to prepare proposals for a university in Malaya, and I believe Sir Ivor Jennings, our Vice Chancellor, was a member. The University of Ceylon, established in 1942, after its beginnings in 1921 as the Ceylon University College, was clearly a good model for a national university in a small, newly-emerging country. There was one big difference, however. The University of Ceylon had a 21-year period of preparation for university status, and during this period it had gathered a corps of experienced teachers, so that there were no transitional difficulties.

University education arrived in Ceylon in 1921 in the form of a University College preparing students for some of the external degrees of the University of London. With steady expansion and diversification of its courses, the college soon became a well-recognised centre for external degrees. The official history of the University of London (1986) records that:

"It was established before the war that a third of the external students (of the University of London) carried out their studies at teaching institutions in London, about a third at university colleges in the provinces, and about a third carried out their studies privately. About a tenth of them were resident overseas with Ceylon providing the largest proportion..."

The plans for the creation of the University of Ceylon took a leap forward when a new principal was appointed to the University College in 1941. He was Dr. W.I. Jennings, a reader in the London School of Economics with a distinguished record of research, and several books to his credit. Due to his untiring efforts the Ceylon University Ordinance (No. 20 of 1942) was passed by the State Council, and the University of Ceylon was established on July 1,1942 by the amalgamation of the Ceylon University College and the Ceylon Medical College.

Dr. Jennings became the first Vice-Chancellor. In addition to drafting the Ceylon University Ordinance he also prepared the Statutes, the Acts and the Regulations which collectively provide the legal infrastructure for university self-government. He undertook this demanding task as there was no one else in the country at that time with any knowledge or experience of university management.

The University of Ceylon was established as a "unitary, residential and autonomous" corporation and it had a small, compact and efficient administration. At the inception there were four faculties- Arts, Oriental Studies, Science, and Medicine -and a total enrolment of 904 students. The fifth was the Faculty of Engineering.

I joined the staff at the inception of the Faculty in July 1950. The Dean was Prof. E.O.E. Pereira, a much respected engineer, a man of integrity, vision and courage. He provided the Faculty's leadership almost unbroken for nearly twenty years- the best years in the history of the Faculty. The country owes him a debt of gratitude for his outstanding services.

During our golden years, before the decline set in, we produced some brilliant engineering graduates many of whom have had successful careers abroad.

Some of them have risen to the highest positions in the profession and in academia in their adopted countries, and their success has been a source of pride to the Faculty.

S. Mahalingam is an Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Peradeniya.


This colonial hangover

Fifty-two years after Independence, apartheid still exists in Sri Lanka, writes Imran Vittachi

The occupants of Nuwara Eliya's Hill Club, both human and animal, never smile. Upon entering this mausoleum-cum-museum, provided one is deemed 'suitable' to set foot in there by the management, a welcoming party is on hand to greet the traveller, comprising the resident stuffed bear, buffalo and leopard. They stare wildly into space, all victims of a succession of club members, who, since its founding in 1876, partly killed the boredom of their lives as planters or civil servants, while posted to Sri Lanka by going on island-wide safaris.

From their perches, these animals look on as the club's more morose inmates, the permanently-stationed platoon of Sri Lankan clerks, waiters, bell-hops and bus boys shuffle back and forth along the red-carpeted corridors of this Tudor-style mansion going about their daily grind.

"Dress is informal except from 7.00 pm onwards when Gentlemen shall wear Tie & Jackets and Ladies shall wear suitable attire when utilising Public rooms. No Jeans & Shorts, neither Sneakers nor Sandals, will be permitted to be worn by members in the Public area after 7.00 pm. National Dress, of course, is permitted."

After nationalisation of the tea industry led to the club opening its doors to Sri Lankans, but only on the "sufferance" of its European members - local tea plantation executives were barred from the club's public rooms.

"Whenever the London directors would come down and stay at the Hill Club, on the club premises they could only meet with and discuss business with plantation superintendents inside their bedrooms," said one observer.

By one account, national golfing champions - whose names and titles are on display at the Golf Club next door - were barred from the club.

And, even in 1998, according to Hill Club policy, Sri Lankans can only be admitted as permanent members on recommendation by standing ones. Sri Lankans, nevertheless, can enter the Hill Club as guests of permanent members.

To an ignorant tourist, who pays between 100 and 1000 rupees to gain access to the club and take snaps of or capture moving images of the club on video camera, it may appear that the Hill Club has long shed its colour bar. But, according to a club receptionist, it still applies where temporary members are concerned, from whom, according to a Hill Club administrator, it gets most of its revenue.

"Only foreigners are allowed in as temporary members," he told this traveller, without the slightest trace of shame or embarrassment. "Sri Lankans can come in or become members, but only if they are brought in by permanent members."

This article has been reproduced from the Sunday Times Golden Jubilee Independence Supplement of 1998

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