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University of Peradeniya - more open than usual

University of Peradeniya holds its Convocation 2002 today. It is special because it is the convocation of its Golden Jubilee Year.


Plan of the University of Ceylon: Library and Faculty of Arts (right), Senate Building (Centre), Convocation Hall (left)

Compiled by Prof. H. Abeygunawardene

University of Peradeniya is the heir to the oldest university tradition in Sri Lanka as the successor to the University of Ceylon, that was established on 1st July, 1942. University of Ceylon, the first institution of its kind was established in Colombo on 1st July 1942, but it was shifted to the present site of great natural beauty at Peradeniya on 6th October 1952.

There is a very fascinating story behind the establishment of university system in Sri Lanka. University education had taken a long time to be introduced to Ceylon. Although European-style university education had an early start in India with the establishment of three universities in 1857, the colonial administration in Ceylon was in no hurry to confer the same benefits on its people. By the end of the nineteenth century there was a well-developed secondary school system in the island, but only a few who had the means were able to go abroad, to Britain or India, to pursue university education.

It was in the field of medical education, the first step in tertiary education was taken with the establishment of the Ceylon Medical College in 1870. The initial plans of the Medical College were modest. It was to be an "elementary school" for medical assistants. However, it expanded rapidly and was sufficiently well developed by 1888 for its Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery (LMS) to be recognized by the General Medical Council of Great Britain. Thus it became a medical school for fully qualified medical practitioners.

In 1874, a Council of Legal Education (later Law College) was formed to produce lawyers. In another development a Technical College was established in Colombo in 1893 to train sub-professional engineering personnel. Due to the lack of a clear government policy on technical education this college languished for many years without development.

Although there had been a proposal for a University of Ceylon as far back as 1884, very little progress had been made on this proposal until the end of the 19th century. A significant development came in the early years of the 20th century, with the formation of the Ceylon University Association in 1906 by a group of public-spirited citizens under the leadership of Sir Ponmnambalam Arunachalam (1853-1924). The initiative, influence and the sustained interest of this association led to the founding of the Ceylon University College on 1st January 1921 as a government institution at "Regina Walawwa", Thurstan Road (now Cumaratunga Munidasa Mawata), Colombo, which was renamed "College House". The Ceylon University College was granted recognition by the University of London to prepare students for Arts and Science external degrees.

Robert Marrs was the first principal of the Ceylon University College and he was assisted by a College Council. The staff consisted of five professors, three lecturers and four visiting lecturers and the total student enrolment was 155. The establishment of the University College was considered as only a preliminary step in the ultimate creation of a fully-fledged university. During its brief existence the University College had produced 580 graduates of the University of London. According to an estimate prepared by the University of London in 1938, Ceylon had provided the largest quota of external students outside the United Kingdom. The Ceylon University Ordinance No. 20 of 1942, enacted by the State Council, conferred on the university a two-tier pattern of academic self-government with a division of powers between the Senate and the Council.

The other laws required for university administration were provided by:

(a) The statutes made by the Chancellor on the recommendation of the Court,

(b) The acts made by the Council, and

(c) The regulations made by such authorities as the Council, the Senate and the Board of Residence and Discipline.

The university would be unitary, residential and autonomous, with its seat in Peradeniya, but until the buildings were ready it was to remain in Colombo.

The proclamation establishing the university was issued on 9th June 1942 and Dr. Jennings undertook the enormous task of establishing the university, amalgamating the Ceylon University College and the Medical College into a single university. A unitary, residential and autonomous university was created on 1st July 1942.

The university established in 1942 has changed its identity several times as indicated below due to changing of its location and subsequent legislation:

University of Ceylon 1942 - 1952

University of Ceylon, Peradeniya 1952 - 1972*

University of Sri Lanka, Peradeniya Campus 1972 - 1978

University of Peradeniya 1979 to present day (2002)

(* Note: Those sections of the university functioning in Colombo were integrated in 1967 to form the University of Ceylon, Colombo.)

Peradeniya

Though shifting of University of Ceylon to Peradeniya was decided as early as 1942, it took almost 10 years to complete the shifting. The Second World War, which had spread to the East in December 1941, had already produced an acute shortage of building materials, and in consequence the construction plans for Peradeniya had to be shelved. In the meantime the Peradeniya site had been taken over, for the duration of the war, by the armed services for setting up the headquarters of the allied South East Asia Command (SEAC). It was only in 1946 that construction work could finally commence.

Two consultants, Sir Patrick Abercombie and Clifford Holliday, did the planning and layout of the university complex. Shirley de Alwis attached to the Public Works Department assisted in designing work.

The first phase of the project was to be entirely on the right bank and the construction work was entrusted to the Public Works Department. The second phase would be the building of a bridge across the River Mahaweli and the development of its left bank. Unprecedented floods in 1947 threw the scheme into disarray, with major changes in the layout plans becoming necessary. The extensive use of manual labour also contributed to the slow pace of construction.

Dr. Ivor Jennings therefore had to face a multitude of challenges including the difficulties created by the escalating 2nd World War of 1939-1945, floods in 1947, frustrating delays, bureaucratic hazels and construction problems. With unflagging energy, enthusiasm and resourcefulness he carried out his responsibilities and saw that the transfer of first batch of students from Colombo to Peradeniya took place in 1949. These were students from the Departments of Law and Agriculture and also the third and fourth year students of the Department of Veterinary Science, which was at that time attached to the Faculty of Medicine, Colombo.

The major move took place in 1952 when the staff and students of the Faculties of Arts and Oriental Studies together with the Main Library and the University Administration were transferred to Peradeniya. The completion of this major move on 6 October 1952 marked the formal establishment of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya.

This important event of the university becoming fully operative at Peradeniya was celebrated in subdued tone by the Vice-Chancellor planting a tree opposite the entrance to the Lodge, because the government was keen to postpone the ceremonial opening arranged for 1952, owing to the death of King George VI, until Queen Elizabeth II could participate in the opening ceremony in 1954.

The postponed opening ceremony was held on 20th April 1954 with the participation of Queen Elizabeth II. The Duke of Edinburgh while declaring open the university said "You have remarked Mr. Chancellor, that it is not easy to open a university, because once established it is always open. However, like the shopkeepers of London during the bombing, I can declare this place to be "more open than usual"... It is evident that the university moved to Peradeniya on 6th October 1952, nearly one and a half years before the ceremonial opening, due to the initiative of Dr. Ivor Jennings, the Vice-Chancellor. The University of Ceylon continued to function as University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, while those sections of the university operating in Colombo continued as the Colombo campus of the university until 1967, when they were split into two separate and independent universities.

Thereafter, University in Peradeniya continued to function as the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya while the Colombo campus obtained the new identity University of Ceylon, Colombo.

The first experiment of university education commenced in Colombo in 1942 and continued in Peradeniya from 1952 proved to be an enormous success.

The demand for higher education increased very rapidly in the succeeding years. Vidyodaya and Vidyalanakra Universities were established in 1958, but this did not satisfy the increase demand for university education. As a result in 1962, out of over 1000 students admitted to the Faculty of Arts, University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, 692 were admitted as external students, since they could not be provided residential and library facilities.

Following the serious student unrest in the Peradeniya in 1965, the government announced its plans for a reorganization of the university system.

The proposals were outlined in the Higher Education Act. No. 20 of 1966, the aim of which was to introduce a certain measure of state control and to curb academic self-government. Several structural changes were made to achieve this end. The University Courts were abolished and the Councils were replaced by Boards of Regents. A National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) was set up in Colombo to supervise and regulate the universities. Under the new Act the Vice-Chancellors would be selected rather than elected.

Peradeniya Campus

When a new government took office in 1970 winds of change were felt in the academic groves. Details of the new order were spelt out in the University Act No. 1 of 1972 by which the four universities - Peradeniya, Colombo, Vidyodaya and Vidyalanakara - and the Ceylon College of Technology, Katubedda, Moratuwa became five constituent campuses of a single university structure - the University of Sri Lanka - having a central administration in Colombo.

The Heads of campuses were designated as Campus Presidents and the Minister of Education appointed the Vice-Chancellor of the single University of Sri Lanka. In this system of centralized control, the NCHE was abolished, the Boards of Regents were swept away and the Senates of the Campuses were given diminished roles as advisory bodies. This radical change brought out a further change in the identity of the University of Ceylon Peradeniya as University of Sri Lanka Peradeniya Campus.

These changes have had far-reaching consequences. A great many changes were also formed by a process of "rationalization" that affected institutions as well as individuals. The academic regrouping involved the closure (or transfer) of certain departments, merger of faculties, and the transfer of personnel to new "centres of excellence". It is unfortunate that all these drastic measures could not find lasting solutions to the continuing problems in higher education, until the change of government in 1977.

When a new government came into power in Sri Lanka in 1977, an obvious and unavoidable task in their hands was to draw up new legislation to replace the University Act No. 1 of 1972, which could not be implemented in full for over 5 years.

The university campuses during this period were governed under transitional provisions of the 1972 Act, bringing hardships and adversities to the university campuses, their students and employees.It was in this adverse climate that Prof. Kalpage a member of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Ceylon, Peradeniya was appointed, Chairman designate of the proposed University Grants Commission in November 1977, and entrusted the most unenviable and challenging task of drawing up a suitable bill to provide a healthy framework for the higher education structure of Sri Lanka.

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