22 June, 2024


Why Aesthetic Education Needs A Breakthrough In Sri Lankan Universities?

By Saumya Liyanage

Dr. Saumya Liyanage

There has been a long debate on why aesthetic education is needed for a balanced development of a human being. Further, it is also widely discussed that how theatre, dance, music, visual arts, and other art forms could contribute to a sustainable development of a country. UNESCO along with the UNDP published a series of documents after a global survey of creative industries in 2008, 2010, and 2018. These reports showed how these industries directly contribute to the development of national economies. In Sri Lanka, along with sustainable development project initiated in 2015, this discussion was germinated and subsequently forgotten when other priorities of development agendas dominated in the local elections and political debates. This paper therefore intends to discuss the current situation of aesthetic studies in Sri Lankan Universities and also argue how this aesthetic education needs to be revitalized in the wake of 21st century to meet current pedagogical reforms. Further this paper suggests that fine arts and other related degrees need a drastic and qualitative change in order for these disciplines to survive in the torrents of neo-liberal economic changes taking place in the local and global scale.

Currently, there are many departments and schools that teach aesthetic subjects in Sri Lankan Universities. University of the Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) Colombo, University of Sri Jayawardanapura, University of Peradeniya, Sri Palee Campus, University of Colombo, University of Kelaniya, Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies (SVIAS) in Batticaloa and Ramanathan Academy of Fine Arts, Jaffna University are some of them. Among these institutes, UVPA which was established in 2015 is the only university with three faculties to teach music, theatre, dance, and visual arts. Recently established Government University faculties such as faculties of technology also have aesthetic components to teach dance, film appreciation, theatre, and music. Rationale behind introducing aesthetics subjects to science streams provides a limited understanding of the value and scope of aesthetic studies. A few decades back, the debate was about whether arts can be used to change social differences; to ignite revolutionary sentiments; or to emancipate people from their oppressive apparatuses. Now the discussions about arts and aesthetics have been shifted from arts for political purposes to arts for individual healing. Hence, there are two key arguments that are ambivalent in the field of arts, especially in pedagogical context: first, aesthetic education is valid because it cultivates empathy. Secondly, it is vital for human development because it heals minds of people.

Empathy & Beyond

In aesthetic education, one of the key concepts to be realized through arts is the idea of empathy. However, within the context of Sri Lankan academia, the understanding of the idea of empathy is limited and also misleading.  Etymologically the idea of empathy is understood as the ability to feel and relate to other person’s feelings and emotions. But there are many interpretations and definitions to the concept of empathy found in literature.

The idea of empathy is always defined through individual attainment of arts. The artiste as a social being demonstrates this higher emotional quality of empathy through expressing her feelings and emotions via artistic practice. One misleading factor in this understanding is that the idea is devoid from its social and intersubjective domain. This interpretation is misleadingly confined to an emotional quality that is being generated in the head of the artist and expresses through her/his artistic mode. But what I am arguing here is that the idea of empathy does not confine to an individual creator but is always intersubjective. Let me explain the idea of intersubjectivity that has been first developed by philosopher Edmund Husserl and later developed by other phenomenologists such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricœur, and Sartre. The notion of intersubjectivity refers to the embodied mind (the mind that is not limited to a particular brain of the body but operates throughout the body) and further not limiting to an individual but understood as a social phenomenon. In other words, intersubjectivity is the human mind that operates beyond the limits of a brain or the human body but going beyond the self-reference to the other environments including other bodies of human beings. Therefore, the ultimate target of aesthetic education is not confined to develop empathic individuals but it depicts wider and broader objectives bringing inter-human understanding, engagement, and collaboration.

Tradition and Preservation

Preserving and promoting traditional arts and craft can be one way of learning and embodying traditional knowledge pertaining to arts and crafts. However, many of the fine arts departments in the Sri Lankan University sector are merely focusing on studying the history of arts and craft and preserving traditional forms. Preservation and archiving is a matter related to other institutions but not for Universities. Universities are established to revive those traditions. Therefore, it is pathetic to assume that the preservation and learning the histories of arts and crafts is still the core of our arts education. UGC led quality assurance programs and World Bank funded projects have been trying to promote restructuring existing degree programs. (The argument is that a quality education today is accessible with the IT and English language proficiency. This assumption is partially true. For instance, current scholarships in theatre and performance studies are successfully accessible only through English language). But departments of fine arts, theatre, and dance have not been able to comply with those proposals and suggestions to restructure their curricula in order for candidates to achieve research and other professional targets. One of the major obstacles is the less competent academics who teach arts and traditional practices of dance and drama. They are not ready to take new initiatives and challenges to change and integrate new subject contents. It is clearly observed that English language proficiency and IT skills among traditional academia are very minimal. Therefore they create a shield of ‘preservation of tradition’ and ‘nationalistic sentiments’ depicted in traditional curricula to safeguard their inabilities to deliver new curriculum reforms.

As discussed earlier, the major threat to the new reforms is less competent academic community who continuously oppose to those new reforms. The majority of those so called academics have a traditional training and they are much into craftsmanship than being academically qualified individuals. Hence they are less competent to write curriculum, apply new assessment methods, and deliver subject contents in a language other than their mother tongue. The track record of their publications, research, and collaborative projects with other Higher Education Institutes (HEI) are minimal and the pedagogical system is merely operated as traditional ‘kalayathana’ model.

Fine Arts

In most of the fine art degree courses, many subject areas such as theatre, visual arts, dance, photography, cinema, and other related subjects are delivered as three years or four years honors degree courses. However, these degree programs have not been able to produce quality arts educators, creative artists, or arts researchers for the country. Many study programs produce fine arts teachers for the school system and their skills and knowledge about contemporary development of such disciplines and their theoretical and philosophical implications are intentionally ignored. In fine arts education, Universities have not been able to produce graduates who are competent to pursue professional careers or as postgraduates who could conduct quality research that could widen the scope and depth of the discipline. The key problem of these courses currently conducted at various fine arts departments is that they don’t have a proper graduate profile or objectives to produce researchers or creative artists in their degree programs.

Despite these structural limitations of the said degree programs, some ambitious academics are trying to expand the scope of these degree programs by introducing professional training and research components to enhance the quality of undergraduate education. However, it is clearly observed that those attempts of developing existing fine arts degree programs are being contradicted with the existing learning environments and administrative structures of Universities. Furthermore, graduates who have been motivated to become creative artistes are also been demotivated because their objectives of becoming creative artists are not encouraged within the University study programs. Even though some graduates want to become creative artists, the existing creative industries do not absorb their creative capacities. Ironically, some of those graduates are being recruited as admin assistants to various Government offices.

Subject Benchmark

Fine arts degree programs have been primarily written based on the ‘Subject Benchmark Statement in Fine Arts’ (2011) published by the University Grants Commission (UGC). Later, the UGC introduced another benchmark titled ‘Subject Benchmark Statement in Performing Arts’ (2010) which did not qualitatively differ from the previous fine arts benchmark statement. However, the whole conception of the idea of ‘performing arts’ was based on the false conception that the new and current developments of the said discipline could be captured through the concept of ‘performing arts’. The first subject bench mark for fine arts education was published ten years back, the subject contents that have been captured in the bench mark is stale and older than what the world has achieved at the time in teaching fine arts in Universities.

Over the last two decades, arts education especially performing arts has been developed through multidisciplinary approaches. With the advent of postmodern era and cultural theories, a new umbrella term was introduced as ‘performance studies’ to capture the traditional pedagogy of theatre, fine arts, and performing arts studies. Departments of Performance Studies have been established in many leading Universities in the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia by marking the paradigmatic shift in performing arts education. In recent years, with the contemporary challenges faced in University education, departments of creative industries and creative economies have been introduced for undergraduate and postgraduate studies. However, these tendencies and developments have not been integrated in Sri Lankan arts education and we are still stagnating in fine arts education which is focused on arts history and preservation of tradition.


The continual rejection of new reforms in research and innovations in fine arts education in Universities are revealed in many ways. One major ideological shield is that this traditional academia propagates the idea of preserving and securing Sinhala national culture and it is argued that those HEIs are established to achieve these objectives. This can be clearly seen in some of the Universities where the majority of degree courses are still taught in Sinhala medium and none of the Muslim or Tamil students are accepted for degree programs. In the meantime there is another group of academics who are more opportunistic and also anti-progressive in University reforms. However, the irony is that they appear as reformers in their social interfaces. These so called progressive individuals are also opposed to dynamic reforms taking place in the University sector because more or less they have a poor competence, training, and knowledge to amalgamate new reforms. These academics have not completed their PhDs or have gained them in local Universities. Therefore both groups are interdependent and have a pseudo-neo liberal critique towards changes. UGC led quality assurance standing committee along with internal quality assurance committees in Universities are conducting program reviews and institutional reviews. However, those recommendations proposed by review committees are not been fully amalgamated in study programs. Millions of rupees have been spent to conduct those activities over the years but the UGC, Quality assurance agencies, or Universities have failed to achieve what those reviews have proposed.

Existing challenges

It is well argued and proved that arts education and research produce quantifiable outcomes and knowledge generation. Scholars such as Patricia Leavy (2005, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2017) and others have written much about how arts based research contribute to the cultural and social developments. Therefore, fine arts, theatre, dance, music, and other disciplines need a speedy reform by integrating theoretical and philosophical developments that have occurred in the last two decades.

Many departments of fine arts are being threatened by the reforms and changes happening in Universities around the world. Major critique is that these departments have not been able to produce commercially viable graduates. Similarly Sri Lankan Universities and their fine arts and performing arts degree programs are also been continually threatened by these neo-liberal economic and educational policies proposed by the UGC or the Ministry of Education. New Governments, their education ministers are uttering the same and repeated mantra of developing entrepreneurial graduates. Policy makers and decision makers do not have a clear idea about how these arts, humanities, and social sciences could be further restructured with current need of social and cultural development of the country. The common mantra that we hear day and night is that the University education should enhance English language competency and IT skills allowing graduates to compete with the private sector job opportunities.


Aesthetic education needs a drastic change in order to keep these disciplines as a source of sustainable development of human being. The British Council and the Institute for policy Studies Sri Lanka (IPS) have collaboratively published a report titled ‘Creative and Cultural Industries in Sri Lanka’ in 2018. This report encapsulates a wealth of information and recommendations on the current condition of cultural economy of the country. These recommendations allow us to rethink about the ways that our graduates could contribute to enhance the cultural economy of the country. In order to sustain this idea and produce valuable graduates from our Departments, there are major changes that need to be initiated. First and foremost, Ministry and UGC level policy makers and administers should understand that arts education is not only about educating our kids on Sri Lankan culture and craft. Arts education, especially research in arts and humanities is a deeper academic endeavor and it is not only about refining craftsmanship but developing graduates who are culturally, socially, and politically sensitive and thoughtful to propose better social and cultural changes for the next generation.


Arts education is needed not just because it provides entertainment or healing but there are many other socially driven meanings to arts practice and education. Hence first, the UGC quality assurance and other agencies should focus on redefining the arts education and propose to draft a new benchmark for performing arts programs. New development of arts based research, performance practice and performance studies need to be considered when the new benchmark is drafted. Traditional conception of preservation and especially aesthetic entertainment should be set aside in order for the new ways of thinking about arts education to be implemented in the University sector. The existing structures of fine arts Departments should be restructured and a new set of academics should be recruited in order to deliver novel subject contents. Furthermore, the infrastructure should be revisited and revised. Without these innovative infrastructures, the goals of teaching, learning, research, and training cannot be fulfilled. If the current Government has a genuine ambition to revisit the existing arts education in this country, speedy action needs to be implemented to understand the role of the cultural industries in the Sri Lankan economy. In so doing the Government should support to establish new arts education initiatives to comply with cultural changes happening in the local and global level.

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Latest comments

  • 6

    I share the concerns of the author and urge the need for aesthetics as part of all education.
    However, aesthetic values need to be cultivated in children when they are very young.
    With schools overburdened by huge syllabi and learning by rote and tutories stealing the leisure hours of the child, who can impart aesthetic values in a child?
    Even ethical values are not imparted to children who are trained for rat races starting at Grade 5.
    Aesthetics without ethics will be hollow.
    Universities can build on what aesthetic values exist but they cannot be nurseries for aesthetics.

  • 2

    There are far too many so-called “aesthetics” graduates being churned out, simply because in comparison to technological education, it takes far less resources, and skills in the teachers. Dr Liyanage is an articulate breath of fresh air , head and shoulders above the stuck-in-2500-year-old-culture Arts teachers.
    In some countries it is possible to combine subjects such as Biochemistry with ballet. This could be a way of making aesthetics feasible as a profession.

    • 3

      Fully agree.
      Our problem is that the primary and secondary education systems are stuck in the mud by exam-oriented learning and choking students with instruction in school and after school

  • 1

    OC are you serious? How about combining a degree in Buddhist Civilization with Ragging? Get a good B.A. (BCR) and any political party will employ you.

    • 0


    • 2

      Buddhist Ragging? No, maybe something harmless like Vegetarian Fisheries.

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