Colombo Telegraph

Rev. Dr. Walpola Rahula: Trailblazer In Sri Lanka’s University Education

By W.A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A. Wijewardena

A man both hated and loved

Reverend Dr. Walpola Rahula became the Vice Chancellor of the then Vidyodaya University of Ceylon in October 1966. He left the post abruptly in July 1969. The period he served as the Vice Chancellor was very short. But that was a period of extreme turbulence in Sri Lanka’s universitysystem. He managed to wade through the turbulence maintaining discipline in the university, promoting academic freedom among Dons and laying the foundation to facilitate the successive generations to take the University to the future.

Outwardly, he was a man of steel and for that reason, he was hated by many. But innately, he was a man of sympathy, consideration and understanding. For that reason, he was loved by all.

A Vice Chancellor with rich international experiences

Much has been written about his contribution to Buddhism and the promotion of Buddhist Philosophy in the West. But very little has been written about his contribution to university education, especially the management education in Sri Lanka. This article is an appraisal of his contribution in that area.

Rev. Walpola Rahula came to head the Vidyodaya University armed with experiences gained personally in the educational systems in three different countries. He had completed his PhD at the University of London and therefore he was well-conversant with the British educational system. He was a Don at the Sorbonne University in France and it made him familiar with the system in the Continental Europe. He was also a Professor at the Northwestern University in USA making him privy to the American system as well.

The combination of the experiences he had gained in these three systems helped him to plan out the direction which the Vidyodaya University should take for its destiny in the future. The period he had was short, but the reforms he introduced have been long-lasting.

Providing university places to stranded Commerce students

One such path-breaking reform was the recognition of the students who had completed their GCE (Advanced Level) Examination in Commerce Stream for admission to a university in Sri Lanka. Today of course, Commerce is a respected and much demanded stream of study in Sri Lanka, both at the Secondary and Tertiary levels, but that was not the case in early 1960s. In 1960, a student could study commerce subjects, namely, book-keeping, short-hand and typing, commercial arithmetic and commerce, only for the GCE (Ordinary Level) Examination.

Walpola Rahula

After passing the Examination, they had to seek employment either as a book-keeper or as a stenographer cum typist. There were no subjects offered in the commerce stream at the Advanced Level examination; nor there were teachers who could teach those subjects at that level. This was introduced to school curriculum only in 1963 with a few selected schools providing facilities for students to take the examination. These students were supposed to sit for the GCE (Advanced Level) Examination in December 1965 with a view to entering a University in October the following year.

But, there was no university in Sri Lanka which was ready to accommodate them. The University of Ceylon had a Bachelor of Commerce Degree Program but students were admitted to that program on the basis of their performance at the Intermediate Examination at the University and not on their performance at the AL examination. The Vidyalankara University was not interested in accommodating them and offering them a degree course in the relevant field. The Vidyodaya University had at that time two honours degree programs, one in Business Administration and the other in Public Administration which had been started in 1959. But students had been admitted to these two programs based on practical experience in the private sector or the government sector by following a special admission procedure.

It was Rev. Walpola Rahula, on the recommendation of Professor Dharma de Silva, Head of the Department of Business and Public Administration that agreed to accommodate these commerce students to Vidyodaya University to do a degree in Business Administration. At the same time, those who had done arts subjects for the AL examination were accommodated to the degree in Public Administration.

This bold decision taken by Rev. Walpola Rahula, taking into account the future development needs of the country, paved way for successive generations of commerce students to get admitted to Vidyodaya University, now re-designated the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. After 1970s, all other universities started to recognise, in competition with each other, the commerce stream at AL for admission to those universities making commerce now a normal subject. But, had Rev. Walpola Rahula not taken that decision in 1966, the commerce education at university level in Sri Lanka would have died of a natural death with those who had offered commerce subjects for AL examination getting stranded midway.

Modernisation of curricula in business and public administration

Rev. Walpola Rahula’s contribution to management education did not end there. He also actively supported Professor Dharma de Silva in modernising the curricula of the two degree programs in Business and Public Administration at the university. Before that, the relevant curricula were based on the British university system in which the honours students had to sit for nine papers at the end of their fourth year at the university and all those nine papers were in areas which had little relevance to either management or administration. This was known as the end-of-the-year assessment system.

By that time, the American universities had changed their curricula as well as the assessment system considerably by adding more management and decision making subjects to curricula and moving into a continuous assessment system where the students were assessed at the end of each semester. Professor Dharma de Silva came up with a new syllabus for the two degree programs where the number of subjects was increased from nine to 20 and annual examination system where students were assessed continuously. This is where he ran into trouble from his colleagues at the university who did not think that it was desirable to change the accepted tradition.

At a recent ceremony organised by his students to felicitate him, Professor Dharma de Silva confessed to the gigantic difficulty he had faced in having the new degree program approved by the University. He said: “I had the difficulty in getting the support from my own Faculty, the Faculty of Arts. But the Vice Chancellor Rahula Hamuduruwo was very firm. He told the Senate that the University should go for modern methods and this should be the beginning. Then, the Faculty of Applied Sciences yielded and finally the changes were carried by the Senate. If not for the insistence of Rahula Hamuduruwo, this would not have happened. For this great service he had done, whenever I offer flowers to the Buddha, I offer an extra flower on behalf of Rahula Hamuduruwo.”

The wide international experience which Rev. Walpola Rahula had got from both USA and the Continental Europe had made him see the need for these changes in the curricula of Ceylonese universities and he wanted to set an example at the Vidyodaya University for others to follow. In fact, in years to come, all other universities have emulated this example and the successor to Vidyodaya, the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, has done it all the way even adopting the Grade Point System for assessing the students.

The Iron Vice Chancellor

Rev. Walpola Rahula was a fine university administrator too. In 1967, all the four universities in Ceylon became hotbeds of student agitations demanding more and better facilities to students. They had a rightful claim because, except the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, none of the other universities had even the basic facilities for students.

The newly-established University of Colombo had just been set up on the old Racecourse Grounds, earning its nickname ‘The Racecourse University’. Students at Vidyodaya University too went on a full-scale boycotting of classes and the academic work at the University was totally paralysed. However, behind those just demands of the students, there was a political arm that worked secretly to embarrass the government in power and Rev. Walpola Rahula wanted to save Vidyodaya University from this wanton political interference.

He, true to the man of steel he had been made of, was very firm from the beginning. He promised to students that action would be taken by the University Administration to improve the conditions including the hostel facilities. But the political arm did not want to listen to such pacifying promises and the strike continued. Then, Rev. Walpola Rahula gave a deadline for students to return to classes and announced that if they fail to do so, they would be treated as having resigned from the University voluntarily. The University will take action to fill the vacancies by recruiting a new batch of students since there were a lot of qualified students out there desirous of entering a university.

Students first thought that this was a bluff and did not care for the threat. But when the deadline drew closer, parents of students got agitated and sought a meeting with the Vice Chancellor. They had pleaded with him for an extension of the deadline so that the parents could further discuss the issue with their children and persuade them to call off the strike. The iron man inside Rev. Walpola Rahula had only one answer: “The deadline is a deadline and under no circumstance, will it be extended.”

The deadline arrived and all the students, except the student leaders, queued up in front of the University’s Sri Sumangala Building to sign their ‘oath of allegiance for continued education’ at Vidyodaya University. Strike was broken at Vidyodaya and so was at other universities. Student unions were banned and student leaders were suspended from the University. All the newspapers in the country cried in headlines the following day calling Rev. Walpola Rahula “The Iron Vice Chancellor”.

A man who delivered his promises

Rev. Walpola Rahula was true to his promises. The construction of a new hostel facility to accommodate the female students was started just in front of the University. Summer Houses were set up at various places on the University Grounds for students to relax and discuss their academic as well as personal matters. Benches were erected under the shades of mango trees so that students could sit and wait for lectures. A new Science Faculty Building was planned and action was taken to lay the foundation for the building by the Governor-General who was the Chancellor of the University with the Minister of Education, Pro-Chancellor as the Guest of Honour.

Castigating the Minister of Education in public for eroding independence of universities

This was a critical as well as a risky decision because the Minister of Education I.M.R.A. Iriaygolla could not attend any university in Sri Lanka without been hooted by the students. If this had happened at Vidyodaya in the presence of the Governor-General, that would have been a serious damage to the good name of the University. Rev. Walpola Rahula wanted to stop it by using his enormous persuasive and managerial skills.

Two days before the planned foundation laying ceremony, he summoned all the students to the University’s Bandaranaike Hall and this writer was one of the attendees at the meeting. Rev. Walpola Rahula said: “Children, I know that you have problems with the Minister of Education for his unwanted interference in the country’s universities eroding the academic freedom which the universities in the country had been enjoying for long. But, creating an incident at the ceremony which is attended by the Governor-General will be damaging and ugly. Let me scold the Minister in the strongest language possible in my speech. You just keep quiet and behave as civilised students.”

This message drew to the hearts of the students and the whole ceremony passed without any incident. But Rev. Walpola Rahula in his speech castigated the Minister for his unwise interference in the country’s higher educational system and its irreparably damaging impact on the development of an intellectual base in the country. The Minister would not have been happy to hear it in the presence of the Governor-General but Rev. Walpola Rahula did not mince words when he wanted to call a spade a spade.

In appreciation of the cooperation extended by the students, the following day he lifted the ban on student unions and removed the suspension orders on the student leaders. They came back to the University, completed their degrees well and ended up in top positions in Sri Lanka as well as outside.

Decision to leave Vidyodaya with dignity

But, Rev. Rahula’s speech that day had its boomeranging effect. Instead of being grateful to Rev. Rahula for allowing him to visit a Ceylonese university without being hooted, the Minister is said to have harboured an animosity against him. The relationship between the two men deteriorated to such a low level that in July 1969, Rev. Walpola Rahula surprised the whole country announcing his resignation from the Vice Chancellor’s Post due to personal reasons. This sudden decision by Rev. Walpola Rahula shocked the entire university.

The students, led by their charismatic leader Mahinda Wijesekera – later, a national level politician – invited the Vice Chancellor to a meeting of the students to be held at the Bandaranaike Hall. This writer was present at the meeting where he explained the reasons for his resignation. He said that the country’s universities were facing the danger of becoming politicised, eroding the academic freedom which is necessary for the country to prosper. As a single person, he cannot stop the oncoming disaster. He had taken this decision after careful thought and now he does not want to change it for any reason. So, he was going away and the University will get a new Vice Chancellor. He pleaded to students that they should cooperate with him.

His early warning that the universities in the country will get politicised eroding their intellectual base was prophetic as the subsequent events have demonstrated.

His parting advice to students: Be independent thinkers capable of standing on your own feet

Then he confessed why he was tough with students. He said: “Children, I want all of you to be free thinkers, independent of all those who are there to exploit you for their greedy agendas. You must stand on your own feet and be the future leaders of this country. I was tough with you because you had become unwitting victims of crafty people out there who want nothing but power for them.” The Vice Chancellors of Vidyodaya University in that initial era had always left a message for the successive generations of students to follow. The founding Vice Chancellor, Welivitiye Sri Sorata Nayaka Thero advised the university students to be “probing, critical and rebellious”. Rev. Walpola Rahula wanted them to be “independent thinkers capable of standing on their own feet without being intellectual slaves of others and become future leaders of the country”.

That message alone is sufficient for the nation to appreciate the contribution made by Rev. Walpola Rahula to the making of a ‘wisdom based society’ in Sri Lanka given the current wave of extremism that has plagued it from all sides.

*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, could be reached at

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