Reform strategy in higher education
Text of speech delivered by Higher Education
Minister Prof. Wiswa Warnapala at the launching of the World Bank’s Sri
Lanka Higher Education Sector Report at the Galle Face Hotel on July 17,
Prof. Wiswa Warnapala
The legacies of the colonial model, primarily the Colonial
University, in a way, still persist within the system as this tradition
made a significant impact on the institutions of higher learning which
came to be established in the 20s.
In India, the first University was established in 1857 whereas as in
Sri Lanka, what was established in 1921 was an apology for a University;
the University College was established in 1921 to prepare candidates for
the degrees of the University of London.
The system of University education, since it began formally in 1921,
has been in existence for little less than a century, and the increase
in their numbers during the last 40 years has been almost phenomenal.
There is also a marked tendency to create more and still more
Universities; there is also the demand for the establishment of new
faculties like Medicine. This shows the interest which, people, at
large, have developed in higher education.
The expansion of the secondary school sector in the last 50 years has
had a tremendous impact on the demand for higher education, and the
number of Universities had to be increased in response to this growing
demand for more and more higher educational opportunities in the
country. It was discovered that mere multiplication did not necessarily
imply a proportionate improvement in quality, standards and intellectual
It needs to be pointed out that there is a deterioration in the
standards of intellectual activities of the Universities, and this, in
my view, needs to be analysed from the point of view of the historical
In the period of the colonial university, which functioned on the
basis of a restricted intake, the education imparted by the University
made students strangers to their own traditional beliefs and their own
culture and language. In this context, I would like to quote Rajendra
Prasad, former President of India who highlighted a vital aspect of the
colonial university; he stated that “Universities were undoubtedly
situated physically on the land and under the sky of India, but in their
spirit, they had more in common with England or Europe than with India”.
What was taught to them in the places had absolutely no relevance to
their home or to the life of their country’.
This was the characterization of the colonial university which, in
the case of Sri Lanka, displayed a set of unique features, some of which
were linked to the aspirations of the then nationalist movement. It was
one segment of this movement which campaigned for a fully-fledged
independent and autonomous University, which, in their eyes, was to
‘contribute to a renewal of indigenous Ceylonese culture’.
The University College had an examination system which had a foreign
curricula which, as Prof. Ralph Peiris pointed out, ‘resulted in the
retardation of the indigenous languages and the stultification of
creation of the University of Ceylon in 1942, an attempt was
made to break away from the tradition and the University began
to give prominence to Oriental Languages and Culture, resulting
in the emergence of traditional disciplines as the dominant
areas of study in the University
Therefore, with the creation of the University of Ceylon in 1942, an
attempt was made to break away from the tradition and the University
began to give prominence to Oriental Languages and Culture, resulting in
the emergence of traditional disciplines as the dominant areas of study
in the University.
Jennings, in his own way, saw the absence of a cultural background in
the Colonial University and he, referring to the available tradition
associated with a few learned monks, stated “this tradition is extremely
valuable, for though it does not provide a foundation on which to build,
it enables the University to realize as its task, not the creation of a
pale of imitation of the Western culture, but the revival of an ancient
civilization which would, in the process of re-development, absorbs the
best that East and West could produce, and at the same time to associate
a cultural renaissance with the nationalism of the politically-conscious
classes”. Jennings, in fact, stated that “elsewhere colonial
universities are not likely to have this advantage”.
It was on the basis of this tradition, which came to be established
within the University of Ceylon in its initial phase, that traditional
disciplines came to be enthroned in the entire system, and even the
Universities, which came to be established in the 60s and 70s, emulated
the same, and the curricula was based on this orientation.
It was this intellectual tradition which culminated in the
establishment of Universities with strong Arts Faculties, which gave
prime of place to both Humanities and Social Sciences, and this
over-emphasis on such subjects created an army of Arts graduates, whose
employment became a problem for the Sri Lankan State.
Though the Osmund Jayaratne Committee in 1970 did a study of this
subject and proposed a rationalization scheme of the university courses,
this was not implemented.
However, it opened the eyes of the policy-makers for the need for
diversification of the courses in the Universities.
The growth of the Arts stream, though part of the legacy of the
British period, was entirely due to the nature of the secondary school
system in the country, which, from the British times, remained highly
weighted in favour of the Arts subjects.
In most of the provincial schools, which are not as equipped as the
National Schools, most of the students offer Arts subjects at the A/L
examination, and this resulted in a large increase in the Arts intake.
In making adjustments in relation to the access, this phenomenal
increase of Arts students need special consideration as the country,
with the assistance of the World Bank, proposes to diversify the system.
To be continued