By Laksiri Fernando –
Peradeniya undoubtedly was picturesque, but could it be said about its education as well? With the risk of gaining criticism, I am again critically relating my personal experiences at the university of Peradeniya (University of Ceylon) between 1964 and 1968, first year at the Colombo campus. I might come back on more theoretical stuff some other time.
Peradeniya conformed more to our aspirations as school children obviously than Colombo campus. But it was primarily in terms of facilities. When I sat for the HSC in 1963, Royal College being the assigned centre, none other than Doric de Souza was the centre’s chief supervisor. That was an inspiration to answer the examination well as he was one of our symbols of a university don. December 1963 was the last HSC before it was replaced by GCE (A/L). Perhaps because of these changes we had to wait until September 1964 to enter the university. Thereafter, there was no major delay, unlike today, we graduating in 1968. But there was no convocation held for us at Peradeniya. The initial delay and the absence of a convocation were signs of some emerging problems.
We were in the second batch of the Colombo campus in the faculty of arts. The first batch was called the Gopallawa batch allegedly mixed up with some manipulations in the university intake to suit personal requirements. When I went to Peradeniya, however, Monty Gopallawa was there from the beginning and he was extremely an amicable person. Those who applied for certain subjects like philosophy even residing in the Colombo district straightaway could go to Peradeniya. Therefore, the story was that the Colombo campus was primarily reopened to accommodate Monty, but he was comfortably at Peradeniya while the others of the first batch had to undergo lectures in the race course. That is how it was reputed as the Aswa Wiswa Vidyalaya (horse university) among the media critics.
It was natural under such circumstances that the students feeling some injustice.
Then what was the first wrong of Peradeniya that I detected? The haphazard opening of the Colombo campus. The move also signified that Peradeniya had come under political pressure even during Nicolas Attygalle’s time as the VC.
My selection of subjects were Economics, History and Sinhala, and therefore I was at Colombo. By the time I entered, there was a new arts theatre built, however it had the seating capacity only for around 450 students. The total number of students was around 800 and many of them offered Sinhala as a subject. Our lecturers tried to put a brave face to the situation and for the first lecture each came in their ceremonial gowns. The situation was quite warm or rather hot as there were no air conditioning and no fans except on the stage! The cooling system was air-blowers from underneath the stage, but not suitable for such a large crowd. There were many who were standing for Sinhala lectures without seats. However, the new arts theatre was better than the Grand Stand of the race course, where we had the initial welcome reception.
Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Ariya Rajakaruna and Sucharitha Gamlath came for Sinhala; A. D. V de S. Indraratna, Victor Gunasekera and Chandradasa Munasinghe for Economics and Lakshman Perera and Lorna Deverajah for History. They were undoubtedly a very good team of lecturers. Were they reading notes? No, not at all. Most of them were creative and inspiring. Sarathchandra allowed us to ask questions in that jam-packed arts theatre, but got mildly annoyed if we asked too many!
Those days, the best or the most senior academics were asked or opted to teach the first year students. This tradition has now fallen flat, many of the seniors feeling demeaning of them to teach the novices and pushing the junior lecturers for the task.
The system of tutorials was the most useful both at Colombo and Peradeniya. We even could skip lectures, but not tutorials. H. A. de S. Gunasekera as the head of the department of economics at Peradeniya had a strict system of attendance marking. This tradition has also waned giving priority to lectures. It was not possible for the seniors to conduct all tutorials for the first years, but nevertheless they were involved. I had the benefit of having some of the most seniors as my tutors at Colombo. Professor Lakshman Perera was the most impressive for history, while Victor Gunasekera or Chandradasa Munasinghe being equally competent in Economics.
There are now universities in Australia where there are no lectures, but only tutorials. Learning material and guidance are given through internet.
When we entered the university, we were given a record book and a library card. Although there was no permanent health centre at that time in Colombo, initial health check-ups were conducted by some visiting doctors and nurses and any serious issue was referred to the medical faculty. I remember getting an anti- rabies injection. The present health centre (Samson Bungalow) on Reid Avenue was the faculty club or staff rooms to my recollection.
The present College House (Regina Walauwa) was not the administrative centre at that time either, but our poor Library. It was rather in chaos. Many books have arrived from Peradeniya or purchased anew but not catalogued properly. But the staff members were extremely helpful. The seating capacity for reading also was not enough, many used to take a book and read even sitting at the edge of the veranda floor all around the Walauwa. One could borrow a book for the day by handing over the record book with an identification slip given. Our library card was used for one week borrowings but that also was restricted for two books, if I remember correct.
There were no proper student common rooms particularly for the girls, therefore the students used to hang around all over the place particularly under trees with the risk of a crow or a bird dropping the waste. There was a small building on the right side before the college house, perhaps a change-room for the tennis players before. Students could play table tennis or carrom but the facilities were again limited. Some of my friends, Abeyseela in particular, who became a successful lawyer after graduation, used to spend most of their time over there.
Next to that small building, there was a large makeshift student canteen with no walls, but only a roof on pillars. Seating capacity was enough, but food was of poor quality. There were makeshift toilets for both girls and boys next to that, but quite appalling. Most of the time we used to take refuge at Vijaya Hotel for lunch, on landside of the Galle road, just before the Bambalapitiya junction. Although it was called a hotel, like many other such ‘hotels,’ it was a restaurant. The location must be the Great Wall (restaurant) today. We had our own short cut from there to the campus, via school lane and then the Queen’s road. Traveling daily from Moratuwa to Bambalapitiya by train, some of us also had another short cut via Arthur’s place encircling the then Majestic cinema from the station to the Galle road. We hardly used the Bullers road, now Bauddhaloka Mawatha.
I have seen poorer university facilities in Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and even in Japan. The question therefore was not only about facilities, but what you get at the end. A general arts degree, wasting three years was quite unsuitable to the economy or society. Totally unstructured academic years were unproductive. There were lectures and lectures, but not even an examination after the general arts qualifying (GAQ) until the final examination in your third year! Therefore, the people tend to do politics or mischief other than studies.
The system is largely changed today, academic years replaced by semesters, and the end of two-year final examinations replaced by a continuous assessment system. However, it is still questionable whether the present ‘lecture system’ and the course contents are up to the modern requirements and standards.
Education at Peradeniya
It would have been extremely boring and difficult to repeat the same routine for three years, if I were not selected to Peradeniya to do a special degree in Economics. More correctly, it was a degree in political science within economics. Political science was not clearly separated from economics those days, and most of our political approaches were based on economic analysis. That was positive.
All who were selected for Economics, after the second year, sitting for what was called special arts qualifying (SAQ), could select specialization in Banking, Accountancy, Statistics or Government. There were six common papers and three papers in the field of your specialization. The common papers included banking, accountancy, statistics, political theory, in addition to economic principles (microeconomics) and applied economics (macroeconomics). In the latter two areas, specialization was not available which was a weakness. The most unproductive (or ‘liberal’!) was the lectures dragging on for two years after the SAQ without any assessment. The lack of a research component also was a major weakness.
The additional three papers for specialization in political science were: Advanced Political Thought, Commonwealth Constitutions and Comparative Government. They could have been more practically oriented, focusing on election studies, political economy, constitutionalism, public policy and political culture etc. There was a parallel degree as B.Com. since 1963, while ours went as BA (Econ). There was no separate department for political science until 1980, although a chair was created in 1969.
The number of students for the special degree in economics in all three media were around 25 and not more. Most of the economics students selected banking or accountancy. There was one, Paranavithana, who did statistics and did well. Some of his courses were taught by lecturers from mathematics. The best performance in Economics in my batch was by Piyasiri Wickremasekera. There were 7 who selected government as specialization; 2 in English medium, 1 in Tamil medium and we 4 in Sinhala medium. The best performance was by Lalith Chandrasekera in English medium.
We did have an array of good and inspiring lecturers as Buddhadasa Hewavitharana, Victor Gunasekera, H. M. Gunatilake, W. D. Lakshman, Chandra Wickremesinghe, Gamini Fernando, S. Sumanasekera and Neil Karunatilake for Economics and related subjects. Almost all had their doctorates by that time or later. We had K. H. Jayasinghe, C. Monnakulama and Ranjith Amarasinghe for Government. Wiswa Warnapala was overseas at that time for his PhD. Prof H. A. de. S. Gunasekera, as the head of the department took only limited number of lectures for banking specials. By that time Prof F. R. Jayasuriya had left after a dispute. S. (Tawney) Rajaratnam, N. Balakrishnan and M. Sinnathamby and few others were for Tamil medium. All the above of them were doing lectures in English as necessary. Prof A. J. Wilson was mainly for English medium political science.
Question of Medium?
Had there been a deterioration of standards due to the shift of the medium to Swabasha? Yes, most certainly at the point of graduation, particularly in the case of general degree students. Special degree students were forced to use English, otherwise it was difficult to obtain a class. Therefore, the ‘class struggle’ motivated them to learn English! Even in this respect, the general degree students were neglected and their course modules were too general. There was no particular motivation for the general degree students to learn English.
Our time was a period of transition. Many of the special degree students who followed lectures in Sinhala or Tamil could have followed or sat for assessments in English. However, they had to follow the medium through which that they entered the university. That rule was strict and no flexibility. Before we were admitted to the university, there was an English appraisal test to determine who could be exempted and also to classify others to different levels. The English intensive courses were conducted accordingly. However, I have no idea about their effectiveness as I was exempted with some others.
Those who did major in political science in Sinhala medium were Gamini Abesekera (Ananda), Chandrakanthi Dharmadasa (Vishaka), Ansumali Peiris (Princes of Wales) and myself (Prince of Wales). V. Sundaralingam was in Tamil medium and Lalith Chandrasekera and M. L. A. Cader were in English medium. After graduation, Lalith and MLA joined the department almost immediately; Gamini joined the Central Bank and Sundaralingam and I joined as assistant directors of commerce, before I joined the university. Ansumali migrated to UK to follow a professional career and Chandrakanthi worked for English newspapers for a while. There was no particular unemployment problem.
Our batch in economics, with different specialities, was perhaps an exceptional group. Some joined the Central Bank (5), some the Ministry of Commerce or Planning (4); and those who were committed to further research and learning joining the university staff (8). Eventually, 6 obtained their doctorates overseas. Danny Atapattu was one who was committed for a continuous academic career unlike some of us. Chandrasena Maliyadde was one who performed well in the public service. Justin Martin, after Central Bank became a leading entrepreneur.
However, when I look back it appears to me that those who did well were those who had some competence in English. Without opportunity to learn English properly in schools or even after entering university, the others were terribly disadvantaged. It was also the fact that people who came from rural areas, with some clear exceptions, were largely handicapped. That was not right. There were many other wrongs, but no space to discuss further. I must apologise if I had inadvertently hurt any feelings of anyone when I mention names. Without those names, this memoirs must have been lifeless.