Prof. GH. Peiris

Professor GH. Peiris

Message from the Chancellor

This message is formulated in the belief that, since the University of Peradeniya is approaching its 80th anniversary, it would be an appropriate stage to take stock of what it has achieved and failed to achieve, when set against contemporary needs in higher education rather than the visions that prevailed among those who constituted the vanguard of the ‘National University Movement’ in the 1930s and the ‘40s.

What could well be considered the foremost achievement of the University in the first two decades of its existence was its harmonious integration with the rapidly expanding system of general education in the country, while providing talented scholars from even remote rural areas of the island scope for upward social mobility, transcending the disintegrating barriers of archaic socioeconomic impediments.

The capacity to reach standards of academic and professional excellence comparable to those of the best universities in the world within a relatively short time-span of existence as an independent seat of higher learning − remember that in several fields of Medicine and Dental Science the ‘University College’ was producing only ‘Licentiates’, and the old ‘Technical College’ where aspiring Engineers received practical training was not a degree-awarding institution − should also be reckoned among the major achievements of the ‘University of Ceylon’.

The third major success of the University of Ceylon of that time was that it catered to the academic and professional manpower demands at the higher levels of the labour force of our country. For instance, in the aftermath of according the two famed Buddhist monasteries of Vidyōdaya and Vidyālankāra (1957) and the ‘Katubedda College of Technology’ (1972) university status, the University of Ceylon served as the main source of a large part of their senior staff. The Colombo-based ‘Law College’ was also constantly fed by our graduates. Until about the mid-1960s, the elite levels of administration and the professional fields of Medicine and Engineering were being manned almost entirely by the best among our graduates.

Meanwhile, at Peradeniya, there was an efflorescence of the ‘Arts’ and the ‘Humanities’ featured by projects which involved the compilation of a Sinhala encyclopaedia; and an encyclopaedia of Buddhism; the production of an authoritative University of Ceylon History of Ceylon; strengthening of  an all-island survey of the economy of rural Ceylon pioneered by Professor Das Gupta; internationally acclaimed works on aspects of Buddhist Philosophy by K. N. Jayatilake; the far-reaching impact of Professor Hettiarachchi and his senior colleagues to the lexical development of Sinhala without which it would have been almost impossible to use it as a medium of communication in the sciences (in Thamil the required vocabulary was available in South India); and  the regularly published research journal University of Ceylon Review, besides other  journals of wider participation such as Piyawara and Sanskruthi that depended largely on the Peradeniya ‘Arts’ community. The Sarachchandra-inspired thespian breakthrough continued over many years to be enriched by a whole generation of our highly talented alumnae.

Critics of the university at Peradeniya often tend to trivialise the forgoing achievements while making diverse accusations such as deteriorating standards of learning, the prevalence of an increasing mismatch between the academic and professional skills produced by the university and the manpower needs of the country, mismanagement and waste of resources made available to the university, and uncontrolled indiscipline and lawlessness in the university community. In the recent past a charge has also been made that Peradeniya, to a greater extent than the other universities, has fallen prey to advocates of political violence and anarchy.

In this brief message it is not possible for me to place these charges under critical scrutiny. What could however be stated as a generalisation on all these alleged failures is that they are based on half-truths and misconceptions especially on their causal nexus. For instance, the widespread notion that there has been a decline of standards does not apply to those fields of learning that attract the most gifted among the school products. The glut of graduates in certain fields of study throughout the recent decades is a consequence of defective streamlining of students at senior secondary level and of misguided policies followed in university admissions. To both these problems there has been a formidable aggravating impact of policies pertaining to the medium of instruction. The kernels of reality that some among these charges such as lawlessness especially in the  form of barbaric ‘ragging’, and in malpractices pertaining to resource-management and lawlessness contain are amenable to corrective measures, provided the principle of the ‘rule of law’ is effectively imposed by the government on university communities. Indispensable to such corrective measures the grant of autonomy to the university in academic affairs including university admission, curricular reform, and the recruitment of staff.

With the University of Peradeniya at the age of 80 outranking all other institutions of higher learning in Sri Lanka, there is reason to state that it has the potential to reach par in international rankings with the most prestigious universities of South Asia well before it reaches centenary anniversary provided it is liberated from excessive bureaucratic controls of a politicized centre.

Professor GH. Peiris