26 September, 2020

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University Of Peradeniya: “Utopia” Never Lost

By R.P. Gunawardane

Prof R.P. Gunawardane

University of Peradeniya, formerly University of Ceylon, Peradeniya completed its Golden Jubilee last year. I read with great interest a series of articles published in newspapers regarding the Golden Jubilee and particularly about the present status and achievements of the University of Peradeniya. My particular attention is drawn to an article with the title “Utopia lost – The University at Peradeniya”.

“Utopia” never lost at Peradeniya

Utopia, by definition is an imaginary ideal or perfect state. If such a state existed in the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya at that time in the fifties, it remains today in a different form evolved over the next five decades. University of Peradeniya remains one of the most beautiful campuses in the world even today. Academically it has expanded from one-faculty university in the fifties to a highly complex university with nine different faculties covering almost all the disciplines, three postgraduate institutes at national level, three teaching hospitals for medicine, dental and veterinary science and many other academic and research centers and units. It has expanded tremendously in science and technology fields based on national needs. Like any other prestigious international institution, it has gone through ups and downs at different times during this evolution process as our country went through difficult periods. But University of Peradeniya remained resilient and never lost its luster.

Peradeniya University has many unique features in addition to its picturesque setting. Out of all the universities in Sri Lanka Peradeniya has the largest number of students residing in the campus. Out of the nine faculties, three faculties are unique to Peradeniya. The Faculties of Veterinary Medicine, Dental Science and Allied Health Sciences are the only such faculties in the Sri Lankan university system. Similarly, Departments of Geology, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Anaesthesiology are the only such departments in the University system at least until 2010. Furthermore, Science Education Unit and Nuclear Medicine Unit are two other unique entities at Peradeniya. Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture, the first PG institute created in the university system and the Postgraduate Institute of Science are national institutions attached to the University of Peradeniya. Main Library in the University of Peradeniya with faculty libraries in most faculties is the biggest such library in the university system.

In the fifties Peradeniya was dominated by the dons of the Faculty of Arts. Some of them were national figures excelled in various fields such as drama, economics, sociology, linguistics etc. In the 1950s we have seen a cultural reawakening with the production of Maname, Sinhabahu and other cultural features initiated by Peradeniya dons. However, in the late sixties and beyond university development took place with strong emphasis on science-based disciplines leading to scientific reawakening in the country. During this period many academics from disciplines such as science, medicine, agriculture, engineering and education came to prominence in the university and also at the national level. This trend was prominent particularly in the decades 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond. Although some specific names can be mentioned, I am reluctant to do so because I may inadvertently miss some important names.

I entered University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in 1965 and graduated in 1969. Since my graduation I served the Faculty of Science from 1969 for about four decades until my resignation in 2007. I have witnessed the various stages of development of the university during this period, although I spent a few years away from the university on overseas leave and also undertook a four-year assignment in the government service during the same period.

Golden Era-2

1950s were considered as the Golden Era of the Peradeniya university. In fact, this description is true in respect of the Arts and Humanities disciplines. It is therefore more appropriate to consider this as the Golden Era-1 of the University of Peradeniya. The situation gradually changed in the 70s because of the development of science-based disciplines in the university. Era of science, technology and enovation at Peradeniya began in the 70s and continued in the 80s, 90s and beyond. Young academics at the University of Peradeniya were preparing to face the challenges of the 21st century by using their talents and making use of advances in science and technology. There was a rapid advancement of scientific disciplines which includes natural sciences, medical, engineering and agricultural sciences in the university with the expansion of teaching, research and outreach activities in these disciplines during this period. Furthermore, there were sufficient number of faculty members who were national figures active in scientific research at the time. Some of them were serving government institutions as advisors or directors of governing boards. Thus, this era can be considered as the Golden Era-2 of the university of Peradeniya.

During this period a large number of young graduates with Ph.D.’s and some with advanced clinical training and qualifications mostly from the UK, USA, Canada and Australia returned to Sri Lanka and joined the faculties of Science, Engineering, Medicine, Agriculture, Veterinary Medicine and Dental Science. Many faculty members in scientific disciplines engaged in research relevant to the needs of the country with research grants from local and foreign/ international sources. Some of them while maintaining their research links with foreign universities, developed their own research groups at Peradeniya with grants from local and international sources. Despite some drawbacks the number of international research publications and the patents originating at the university remained at a consistently high level. Some of this work was done in collaboration with scientists from foreign countries such as UK, USA, Sweden and Germany. Because of these achievements Peradeniya was considered as a center of excellence in scientific disciplines.

The science-based faculties at Peradeniya recognized the importance of extension and outreach activities and embarked on an extensive programme to provide various services to the nation utilizing the expertise and the facilities available in the university. Some typical examples are science camps in the underprivileged areas and teacher training sessions in science subjects conducted by the Science Education Unit, patient care services provided by Nuclear Medicine Unit, dental health care services offered by the Dental Faculty and veterinary clinical services provided by the Veterinary Hospital in the campus.

Performance of students after graduation is an important factor in judging the quality of training in a university. We have witnessed the quality of graduates in the Golden Era-1 with pride. They have performed extremely well and held very important positions at home and abroad. Although not much publicized similar situation prevails in the case of students graduated in subsequent years. While those who remained in Sri Lanka excelled in their positions, those who migrated to other countries such as UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are doing extremely well. Since I am a resident in the USA for the last decade I am personally aware of the achievements of our graduates in USA. Our graduate students are doing extremely well in sciences receiving awards, scholarships and grants as reported by their professors in USA. Those with postgraduate qualifications are holding high positions in reputed universities, Pharmaceutical research and industry, major hospitals, IT institutions and prestigious research institutions in USA. This confirms the excellent quality of teaching prevailed in science based faculties during the Golden Era-2.

Way Forward

University of Ceylon, Peradeniya was the first university in the country and was not expected to be a ‘perfect’ university in the fifties although it had some novel features. Similarly, University of Peradeniya today is not perfect although it has many unique features and a great potential to achieve excellence. In fact, Peradeniya has enormous potential, diverse resources and many opportunities for improvement and advancement of academic disciplines and research in line with global trends.

Universities all over the world are changing rapidly in their approach towards teaching, research and service functions. Peradeniya should also make necessary changes in keeping with global trends and national needs to remain as a center of excellence.  Multidisciplinary approach coupled with team work and strengthening of international links are essential in the development of new courses and research programmes in the future. It is up to the present administration and the faculty members to take up this challenge at the faculty, senate and council levels and develop an action plan to achieve these objectives.

*Writer is an Emeritus Professor and a former Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Peradeniya

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Latest comments

  • 12
    2

    For a former Dean of Science, it is remarkable how Professor Gunawardana seem to measure the University’s success based on anecdote such as his experience of former students living in the West.

    A more objective or evidence-based metric may be peer-reviewed citations per faculty member. The Times Higher Education Supplement attempts to rank institutions by such measures, and, rather predictably, the hallowed University of Peradeniya does not appear even among the top 1000 universities in the world. That is obviously an unenviable position (University of Colombo is in the almost equally unflattering 800-1000 range). Other metrics could include the percentage that progress to graduate degrees, the percentage of unemployed and under-employed graduates (as opposed those who Prof. G feels are “are doing extremely well”) etc.

    So, let’s not yet toot our horns and live in, say, a Utopia, about the glories of this place. Its natural beauty (thanks to Shirley d’Alwis) appears only skin deep. Having myself been closely associated with this institution, I would consider it comparable to a large community college in the United States–one which is charged with providing students a theoretical undergraduate-level education with scant emphasis on critical thinking, innovation, or research that advances their respective fields of study.

    • 3
      2

      Lotuseater,

      For third world institutions, competitiveness of graduates matters more than faculty research. India’s IIT’s, for instance, produce a lot of BTech graduates who rise to the highest ranks of academia and industry in the US; even though IIT’s sometimes produce their own PhD’s who are big names academia, faculty research at IIT has not been something that is highly ranked by Western methodologies.

      And you show some ignorance about US community colleges. They are 2-year associate degree granting institutions, not 4-year colleges. In the US, there are many 4 year colleges that are very highly regarded and selective, especially in engineering: Harvey-Mudd, Rose-Hulman, Olin College. They are expensive and their graduates do well in academia and industry later.

      I think engineering at Moratuwa and Peradeniya can be compared to these colleges; SL universities should aspire to match or surpass these colleges; likewise in other scientific disciplines, before worrying about rankings based on faculty research.

      • 1
        0

        My point is that Sri Lankan universities, which have for 50 years provided free education, have yet to become hubs of innovation even for the local context. The focus is not to find people to join the CEB and push papers… but to help solve the deep systemic issues that have imprisoned this place as a “third world” country for so long. The goal should be to shun this third world “apita be ne?” mentality that you seem to espouse. Basically Sri Lanka’s free higher education system seems to be a horrible return on investment!

        If you are arguing that these universities should not focus on graduate level education, maybe you might agree at least that they ought to focus on innovation to solve local issues. For instance, the avalanche of non-communicable diseases in Sri Lanka… a classic example is the chronic kidney disease epidemic in Central Sri Lanka… local health authorities have been spinning their wheels on this issue for a decade and ultimately they just plead for foreign experts to come in… shameful. Can the Civil Engineers from Moratuwa help develop safer systems for the people who slither down tubes looking for gemstones? Can there be some emphasis on agricultural efficiency (it’s still not uncommon to see people sowing seeds wearing their amude’s)…

        • 3
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          Lotuseater,

          I agree with you partially about the return on investment, but you are kind of shifting the goalposts; you were the one who brought up rankings by Westerners, but now change it to leading innovation for the local context. Also, peer-reviewed citations are about becoming a paper-mill, not about implementable ideas; indeed, I would argue that using that criterion is in conflict with innovation for the local context.

          If the goal is to produce competent and innovative graduates, who can then go into society and find solutions to practical problems, then the universities should follow that goal and not worry about Western rankings.

          What Sri Lanka requires first is for the society as a whole to change its beliefs and thinking, ridding itself of delusions of grandeur, ethno-nationalism and racism, irrational thinking, etc. A commitment to such values as integrity, justice, equality and pluralism. Whenever that happens, universities will get better and better from there. Focusing solely on innovation and producing papers without first inculcating the right values in society, will lead the country nowhere.

          • 1
            0

            Agnos
            Thanks.
            I agree with much of what you say.
            The country lacks a sound policy on both school education and higher education.
            We inherited a colonial system designed to serve the colonial masters.
            The country is now a neocolony and the goal of many a pundit on higher education is how best we serve the neocolonial masters.
            I am worried about how higher education (I mean both university as well as other institutions of higher learning) is planned and delivered.
            The government wants to produce more and more graduates for political reasons. What the degrees are meant for or what the youth do on graduation is nobody’s concern.
            *
            Education has a social function which comes above all idealistic notions of its purpose and quality.
            We need a truly national economic policy from which will flow the needs of the various employment sectors. The vision of the government and its higher education authorities have to be based on the understanding of the needs of various sectors.
            *
            To illustrate how our higher education policy is guided by GFN foreign experts: The Course Unit system was imposed on our universities without the foggiest idea of how it is delivered. It failed to cure the obvious defects of the old system as well as evolved its new problems, partly from a severe lack of human resources and partly a failure to understand how it could be delivered.
            *
            Another curse is the system of merit promotion which has made wastepaper mills of our many of our academics who will do anything to be promoted professor.
            *
            Our priorities should change.
            You made a key point in the last paragraph.

          • 2
            0

            Good points, except you might agree that societal change on the scale you mention may be a slightly bigger task compared to higher education reforms!

            • 0
              0

              Piecemeal reforms in isolation from related broader issues achieve nothing, and can at times be counterproductive
              Educational reforms need a holistic view of problems of education.

  • 7
    5

    You should ask the Tamil students who studied there what king of Utopia it was for them, R. P was no angel either. Tamil students come in heads high and leave cowed down. Even engineering went to the dogs in the end. Life was horrible and dangerous. Both faculty and fellow Sinhalese students were vicious and gave false reports to the police.

    Ivor Jennings gets credit for whatever good Pera has.

    • 1
      3

      WANNIHAMI: I know Medical and engineering students were more than 50% of the intake of that particular faculty.. they had their Kovil at the top to every week. Did Sinhala Students had the same privilege in Yapanaya ever. Many deaprts were full of tamil lecturers but most were not TRIBALISTS at least from outside. I heard some department heads gave questions to Tamil students. Tamil students had problems from Tamil students because of Casteism. Anyway, I have been to many Universities. I did not see any place with that much natural beauty to enriched with many introduced plants which flowered beautifully. Only problem was students who destroyed the buildings, abused the facilities, interactions were like those of wild animals and they were doing strikes to solve international problems. but, they were being educated with poor peoples money.

  • 6
    0

    Dear Prof.
    I agree with you in Sri Lanka..
    P/Uni is No number in its educational service and its academic credibility.
    No one doubt about it ..
    It has done a great service and we pray it will provide more good service. And produce some best brains in SL.
    Sciences faculties are producing some good result and good research outputs…
    We could talk it in details..
    No one doubt about it ..
    But the system is corrupt in admisntraiton..and in arts faculty.
    I would write volumes on this..
    All juniors are promoted with political influences and inferences..
    Teaching pedogogies are outdated.
    Still lecturers dictate like parots
    SS are copying from old.notes .
    We have not produced in recent time historians as we had in the past .
    We had so many good history profs in the past ..all are gone.
    Likewise all other subjects..

    So many crooks are in senior post without good qualification..

    • 0
      0

      Dear Prof,

      Recommendation: Move the Arts Faculty to Bintenna or Mahiyangana.

      The other faculties at UP will thrive.

      Some time back, the IQs of the different faculties and Departments were measured. The Arts faculty was the lowest and at the bottom, guess with a wide margin.

  • 2
    5

    During the JVP times while the UoP was on and off functioning, we used to raid the campus so we could get some R and R.

    • 5
      1

      RETARDED (Rtd.) LUNATIC (Lt.) Shameless Perera
      If you did, then the raid itself was illegal because rarely has search warrants being issued to the University. The only exception was during the 88-90 ‘Beeshanaya’ period and that too by those with an ulterior political motive and vendetta to silence their opposition members that were alleged to be hiding inside the Uni.

      • 1
        1

        Desapremiya

        Retarded. ……………Women Sniffing Shamless Perera is another fantasist. You could call him a Sri Lankan equivalent of Walter Mitty character.

        We need character like these to keep us entertained.

        • 3
          1

          Stupid Native Vedda
          As usual trying to meet an argument by calling people names like “retarded””shameless”etc A great display of Dravidian intelligence! Can’t contribute to a discussion intelligently and thinks that his choice of epithets would win the argument. What puerile thinking. The Vedda needs not only an education but some basic lessons in decent behaviour. Go back to where you came From! And I not referring to some half starvedmenatchie’s womb, but to the cultural milieu that produced such a despicable specimen.

          • 3
            1

            Percy,

            Do you want to know what we would do to fellas like him during the “Bheeshana Samaya”? We’d vaslinate his behind and go to work on it one after another.

            • 0
              2

              Retarded. ……………Women Sniffing Shamless men bugge****g Perera,

              ” We’d vaslinate his behind and go to work on it one after another.”

              Great, was that the only achievement you could claim as yours during your time sustaining “rein of terror”?

              • 1
                0

                Great

                We knew you’d like it.

      • 1
        0

        Deshapremiya,

        I am talking exactly about the “Bheeshana Samaya”.

  • 0
    2

    the last paragraph is very important. Even for Inorganic chemistry, there should have been an applied filed in which students were doing research to develop the resources in Sri lanka. I hope the govt was not interested. Multi-displinery approach is very important. IT is not the rolling out out of the same degree program. Because one a student comes out, they have to keep on learning many different new things. Technology should be applicable to every department. One stupid Tamil is complaining here. No one went to keep Tamil on their shoulder and cheer up. Stupid Tamils come every where to cry. why don’t you go and talk how Tamil Law students had been killed in Tamilnadu simply because they were dalits, they were killed. Anyway, it is was a beautiful place. In the long run only the students, and our own mayhem, made it not that entertaining

  • 5
    0

    Oh don’t tell me about present day University Education in Sri Lanka. It’s s place where they produce unemployable graduates. The private sector has vacancies for half million workers, yet unemployed graduates demonstrating for state employment, easy jobs to warm the chairs and suck the blood of the poor tax payers. They had a free ride, and want to have it until they die. Once I was on a trishaw, and driver said – if you want to develop the country, you should kill all the university students. I said – why. He said, they were not studying, and every day on the streets protesting from morning till evening. He further said – go and see the universities, posters all over like cow sheds. We had an export business, always many bigs issues just before the shipments. When we checked with managers and supervisors, they said there were few messing up everything. One day I asked them to bring them to me. I had a chat and told them due to their indefferwnce, shipments were getting cancelled, company was loosing money, if this go on, we had to close down, and hundreds of good workers might loose their jobs. Later we found out all the trouble markers were graduates. They were doing these due to the bad habits picked at the local universities. It’s high time those who are in authority take note of these, do some thing good about it for the sake of the country.

  • 1
    0

    I wonder if the author might recognise / understand what this piece says about my take… utopia ruined!

    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-story-of-looking-right-from-the-left/

  • 1
    1

    I think the unemployed graduates are partly to blame the govt which politicised the University management, lack of initiative from the govt to retrain and suitable training for those graduates. that should be part of the tertiary education. There should be specialised education training for specific needs. govt is not doing that. University Management also evaluate the success of graduates both inside and outside the country and if they are producing unemployable graduates, they should introduce new degree programs and should curtail the exiting overproducing programs.

  • 2
    1

    For example take Arts faculty’s Economics Dept. During Hewavitharana period all the recuritments done through outdoor connections and therefore today you can not find any professor there with international qualifications. No one had PhD from world top 100 Universities and no one has high impact (SCOPUS and ISI indexed) journal articles, etc. Same way newly established Management faculty is a mafia. Few Japanese and Cololmbo fake and joker PhD holders are there. If you want to get lost pride, advertise all the Chair professorship and allow outsiders to come by erasing in-side mafia culture.

  • 0
    0

    True; The University of Peradeniya was literally an Utopia; But that was then,several decades ago!
    For those who went through its portals in that halcyon era the present would be like walking into a huge Garbage dump!.

  • 0
    0

    Dear Professor Gunawardena,

    Your title for the article, although the content is brief and abrupt, clearly justifies the position of the UoP in today’s academia.

    Whilst I am not a graduate of the UoP, @ any level, I’ve ( and is) being involved in re-orienting the curricula of the degree program in Engineering, and also working in re-directing the curricula of the Engineering degree program offered by the University of Jaffna.

    As such, UoP has been supporting and nurturing the education system of Sri Lanka for many a years.

    I am humbly, a contributor @ present to the great cause that is the UoP .

    Cheers, and Best Regards,

    Dharshana W, Ph.D.

  • 0
    0

    Read CT of 27 January ~ “Cabinet Sleeps On National Audit Bill Despite More Than 100 Requests For Action: President”
    .
    It is claimed here that Rs 1 Trillion of foreign loans and grants received between 2004 and 2014 have gone down the gurgler.
    Had this money been invested in university research we will by now have a number of world class universities!

  • 0
    0

    Dear regular writers and readers,

    There are many serious drawbacks unmentioned in running our Peradeniya and other Universities, especially due to politics. Librarians have no reading knowledge …..truly speaking they all must be bibliographers & bibliophiles. Alas ! Many have no proper knowledge of English + other Languages. I include the SLNA and the Museums to that lot. They do not know what to buy and what to discard. You might find first editions of rare books at the pavement stores in McCallum Rd- DRW Mw. Dr A.Meegama formerly of the SLCB will vouch for this fact as a regular customer there.

    One exception could be the latest appointment to the post of Director General of the SL National Archives … Dr (Mrs) N. Seneviratne -Rupesinghe. Since the time of Mr Harish de Silva the place was managed by scientists, mainly. Now Mrs R ,like Herculese has started cleansing the Dept, another Augean Stables diverting her own river Alpheus with the advice of Mr De Silva and Prof. K.D.Paranavitane (as she acknowledges always.) Just as a test, go to its reading room and ask for newspapers or documents. The answer would be:
    1. The person doing the subject is not working today. 2. It is a heavy book, there is no one to carry it from the storeroom.3 Mrs/Mr X is retiring shortly and people are busy arranging the farewell. 4. Dr Paranavitane who knows the subject is not working today.
    Sometimes, readers/applicants come from far away towns and some from foreign countries for research. One see things changing gradually. Young blood is wanted at the top as now. There are some workers who are history majors, but application of that knowledge to sources available is nil and they are LAZY.

  • 0
    1

    Dear Prof RPG and other readers,

    To see how well Peradeniya U. Library is running, just ask them when one of the best collections in the country, that of the former renowned Librarian HAI Goonetilleke, was recd and where it is placed in the University now, with layers and layers of dust accumulating.

    If they say that the U. librarians have started putting them in shelves after cataloging , ask them for how long the books were there without any action being taken, and you will be surprised about the answer.
    Thanks.

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