When in 1960 the beautiful environs of Peradeniya University campus was enveloped with blossoming roses, and the trees were getting donned with flowers of all hues as 644 fresher-youngsters, entered the portals of this citadel of higher learning, perhaps, not quite aware that they were the first symbolic group representing Sri Lanka’s post-independent educational reforms. [...]

Sunday Times 2

The age of transition commenced with the batch of 1960


When in 1960 the beautiful environs of Peradeniya University campus was enveloped with blossoming roses, and the trees were getting donned with flowers of all hues as 644 fresher-youngsters, entered the portals of this citadel of higher learning, perhaps, not quite aware that they were the first symbolic group representing Sri Lanka’s post-independent educational reforms.

It was in 1960 the first swabhasha educated youth selected from all parts of the island congregated to seek university education. A privilege, thus far, enjoyed by the youth educated only in English was gradually transferring to those educated in Sinhala and Tamil as well. However, as the ’1960 batch were in a transitional period’, to borrow from Aldous Huxley and repeated by late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, they were a mixture of varied hues as the Peradeniya campus environs, in June. They were all conversant with the language of English too, as they were only the gradualists, in this transition period, moving out of English, – due to certain decisions of educationists; later all of them had to, ironically, master the language of English in their sojourn in professional life.

Swabhasha and free education
With the swabhasha stream were also another set of students who had studied in the English medium, as the last crop, in this passing phase, who gained entrance in 1960. Most of these students could use the ‘kaduwa’ – English language, as later termed, with less RSs, acronym for ‘wrong speech.’ Thus, they were a good mélange of all three media perhaps, looking forward to change the future – moorings of Sri Lanka in the politico-socio-economic landscape. Most of them were liberal arts students: except for those from the faculties of agriculture, veterinary science, and dental sciences. While the latter graduates, entered their specific professions ear-marked for them, the majority of the liberal arts graduates entered civil, military, police and private sector business professions; the majority entered the administration, in the varied segments; they, in fact, contributed to a vast change, or they themselves became cogs in the wheels of change; whether the results of their endeavours were all to the benefit of the nation has to be assessed by future historians.

The period 1960-1964 was ‘the best of times and the worst of times, we had everything before us and nothing before us’ as Charles Dickens said in the ‘Tale of Two Cities’, which was the English text book, for our senior school certificate examination. The significance of 1960 was that history was being created, in the educational sphere which started in 1944 under the free education scheme to offer higher education to under-privileged segments of social fabric, mainly children studying in Sinhala and Tamil. The dream envisaged by the father of free education, C.W.W. Kannangara was coming to fruition only in 1960. It was a welcome move. He wanted English to be taught to these children as a subject; whether it was done properly is still an un-answered question.

Residential principal
The 1960 Peradeniya batch saw the weaning away of the last vestiges of the privileges of a residential university at the salubrious climes of Peradeniya, on the banks of the Mahaweli modeled and designed on the lines of Oxford and Cambridge, situated on the tributaries of the Thames, by that giant educationist, constitutional stalwart and later vice-chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings. It was sad to see that edifice demolished indeed; if the changes that took place were of a positive nature towards nation-building it was understandable; but demolishing the very stratum of a strong educational edifice was not the crying need demanded by the nation anyway, or by the architects of free higher education to the under-privileged.

In 1961, Peradeniya University amended the residential principle, to accommodate a bigger intake of students. They were firstly to be enrolled as external students but later it was decided to classify them as ‘non-residential’. These poor students had to live in uncongenial boarding houses while a portion of their batch, which got few more marks, lived in the halls of residence. The University Act was amended to accommodate the increase of the numbers of students, known as the ‘residential principle’. Until 1964 there was an increase of student intake to all faculties. More halls of residence were constructed on the right bank of the Mahaweli, to meet the demand for hostel facilities. Akbar-Nell hall was one of these. A welcome move was the entrance provided to the medical, engineering and science students too, to Peradeniya, in 1963 and 1964. The University of Ceylon Peradeniya thus became a full-fledged all embracing citadel of higher education; but in the liberal arts faculties, the unique privileged quality of university, gave way, to an institution serving mass-education. The 1960 batch was not docile onlookers to all these changes some of which were salutary but others not far-reaching. They reacted demonstrating against the independence enjoyed by the academia at this citadel.

Of course, university education which was a right of all youth passing higher school certificate at that time was restricted by the university entrance examination. While the then Vidyodaya, and the Vidyalankara universities which were just started could accommodate a reasonable number the capacity was still inadequate. Perhaps, to accommodate these increasing vast numbers in later years in 1963, lecture halls were constructed at the race course in Colombo. It was pithily named by some as ‘Ashwa Vidyalaya’. The 1960 batch could not protest the increasing intake to their university, as they knew that there was an unquestionable crying need for opening the doors of the university, for the younger generation; but they did protest against the ‘modus-operandi’ followed by the higher echelons of the political strata. They also pointed out the pathetic conditions in which the non-residential students were living in the neighbouring residences in Rajawatta, in which there weren’t adequate facilities. There were demonstrations organised inside and outside the university, by varied politically affiliated associations of the university, like the Economics Society, (Samasamaaja Pakshaya) the Socialist Society (Communist Pakshaya) and the Political Science Society (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna).

Graduate-employment, under-employment, unemployment?
They studied closely the fast changing scenario in problems among youth, that urged more seats in the university system, need for provision of employment to those passing out, and resolving the emerging youth unrest which they foresaw; they also knew that unless far-reaching reforms are brought about, the situation will get out of hand and explode and it did. 1960 Peradeniya batch was undoubtedly assured of employment when they passed out but they knew they will be the last such privileged lot. In the arts theatre and the ‘B’ room of Peradeniya how many debates and dialogues were conducted on this issue with varied political figures presiding? The writer himself was privy to such discussions as president of the political science society in 1963, affiliated to the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna.

In the subsequent years after 1964, the intake was further increased and the numbers swelled that only the final year students and first year students were granted accommodation in the halls of residence. The rooms, firstly meant for one or for sharing accommodation of two, were transformed to accommodate three and balconies too were transformed into rooms.

A change thus, envisaged in the 1944-1952, to grant free – higher education, inclusive of university education to the Sinhala and Tamil educated, culminated in the intake of 1960 Peradeniya batch. Since 1960 the subsequent batches were composed of mainly swabhasha medium students, and they faced varied vicissitudes emanating from politico-socio-economic changes brought about by ‘far-sighted or short-sighted acts of the political leadership’ of the subsequent era. It was in fact, for the last time that, the 1960 Peradeniya batch was offered appointment as teachers as soon as they left the campus, which was a great boon in terms of full-employment. The ‘graduate-unemployment’ really started from 1965-1966. Unfortunately this saga of educated-unemployment along with other socio-economic ills was the major reason which led to the ’1971 insurrection’ where the youth of the land revolted; firstly against a disequilibrium in the societal fabric, and secondly, against an intransigent bunch of a political leadership.

A conflict in conscience
The 1960 Peradeniya batch was at this time in 1971, holding key positions in professional life in the running of the country, as university teachers, administrators, businessmen, members of armed forces and police, school teachers, and leading lawyers etc, of course, with their seniors. It partly fell on their lot – these professionals – to quell an insurrection by youth with their own flesh and blood, for whom they had sympathies, for their just demands, while also pedaling softly, the government policy outlined to them in their professions. It was a challenge that they were trained to shoulder being this unique 1960 batch who had a beautiful blend of socio-economic ethos fine-tuned in them. Of course, along with their seniors in these professions they got a good grounding in facing a future to make a better Sri Lanka. This was a distinction indeed that the 1960 batch holds out as special. Today all these colleagues, past in their retirement could reflect on these years and breathe a sigh of relief and feel happy about their achievements, individually. Even in professions the 1960 batch marked a watershed as they were the ones who started the transition. What is emphasised here is that some of the seniors in these professions had a different thinking pattern and the juniors followed the ethos of the 1960 batch as they were of a different breed.

The Ceylon Administrative Service was started in 1965, replacing the old Ceylon Civil Service, and some members of the 1960 batch entered the service with another glamorous change where ten percent of the places were ear marked for young ladies. There were the beautiful dames from the 1960 batch adorning these places of responsibility, in administration. Later the examination abolished the quota system, on gender. The socio-economic patterns were changing one after the other for the 1960 batch. The names of those youngsters who became well known names later, are too many to be stated in this essay, but may be this souvenir will give the names with their respective professions. The striking feature was that they did not consider the professions as personal achievements but as a medium to serve the nation. Some of them became vice chancellors, like professors, C.M. Madduma Bandara, W.D. Lakshman, S.I. Siriweera, Tissa Kariyawasam; ministers of government like Professor Wishva Warnapala; some others became secretaries of various ministries, some as higher-ranking officers of the army, navy and police, some became top bankers, some reputed principals of colleges and institutes of higher learning some became private sector business tycoons and some entered the order of religions, some represented Sri Lanka as ambassadors abroad.

The 1960 batch faced two challenges that were not met by those before them namely the insurgency and the scourge of terrorism. In both cases they put the nation before themselves.

When the sun goes down below the Hantane hills towards Peradeniya gardens, the 1960 Peradeniya batch will pay obeisance at the university budu ge and the Getambe temple or other places of religious worship in and around campus.

To pay respects to their ‘alma mater’ the University of Ceylon then, University of Peradeniya, now for showing the way for generations gone and generations to come.

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