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Reforming Higher Education



By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

I have emerged from retirement twice in the last couple of months, on both occasions to speak at events organised by my former students at Sabaragamuwa University. On both occasions this happened soon after pronouncements about the need for reforms in education, by the Prime Minister first and now the President.

But nothing happens. Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power for nine years and failed to introduce the new Education and Higher Education Acts he pledged. Gotabaya has now been in power for 15 months and, admittedly, has had to deal with the Covid crisis. But there have been so signs of action in crucial areas, just general pronouncements about the prevailing mess.

In such a context, I feel some pride in the enormous amount I did in the one month I served as State Minister of Education. Nothing came of this since I resigned so soon, but after six years, during which nothing has moved, I thought I should set these down for the record. I hasten to note that this is not in the expectation that anyone in authority will take things forward because building on the past is anathema to politicians. But researchers in the future will find all this useful, when at some stage a study of what went wrong with education in Sri Lanka is written, on the lines of Jayasuriya’s seminal work about developments in the past.

I was appointed State Minister of Higher Education at the beginning of 2015. This was after Maithripala Sirisena became President, and I was a bit upset because he had pledged in his manifesto that leaders of parties supporting him would be in the Cabinet.

I told Maithripala I was disappointed that he had not kept his word to which, typically, he said that decisions had been made not by him but by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga and I should speak to them. I told him I would do nothing of the sort, for I had supported him and not them, but I would accept the position since I thought I could work under him. At that stage there was no Cabinet Minister so I would have to report only to him.

But then Chandrika called me to tell me to dismiss the Chaiman of the UGC. When I refused, she said I should wait to see who was appointed on top of me. Soon enough Kabir Hashim was made Cabinet Minister of Higher Education.

I had no high opinion of his intellect or his capabilities and I called him to object. But he assured me that he knew nothing of the subject and would in any case be busy with the forthcoming election so would leave all decisions in my hands. I was foolish enough to believe him but within a couple of weeks he ordered the UGC Chairman to resign, claiming he had acted on Maithripala Sirisena’s instructions.

Maithripala denied this but I realised work would be impossible so I resigned and, though Maithripala said he would not accept my resignation, I said I would not withdraw unless I was made a Cabinet Minister. Kabir claimed he was happy about this, but Ranil and Chandrika were not, being more interested in their own agendas than the country. Ranil claimed in Parliament that I had not resigned, and when I expostulated he grinned and said triumphantly that my resignation had not been accepted. Obviously, he did not understand the Constitution but, with the bond scam having exploded, I decided enough was enough and crossed the floor of the house.

But before I resigned, I had initiated a number of programmes which no Minister of Higher Education would have dreamed of. I visited a university once a week to talk to students and staff of a particular faculty, and even inspected halls of residence, which astonished students. I also got my staff to engage in a similar visit to another university every week, for I felt we needed to know what was happening everywhere as soon as possible. And in addition, I had a meeting every week in the Ministry with yet another group of students.

In addition to developing close contacts with students, I also began work on a new Universities Act Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted to introduce one when he was President but it was then forgotten though a decent enough draft had been prepared. Indeed, I had told Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014 that, unless he fulfilled his commitments, in particular with regard to new Education and Higher Education Acts, instead of having an early Presidential election, I could not support him.

I set up a Committee of two former Vice-Chancellors and a former College Director and, together with the Professor of Law at Colombo University, the thoughtful and thorough Sharya Scharagnuivel, we produced what I thought was a very good draft which covered all tertiary education. We had not finished when I vacated office but we worked from my home and I sent Kabir the draft and also passed it on to a successor when one was appointed after the Cabinet was expanded. But neither of them took any notice of this. As Malinda Seneviratne once put it, and confirmed this later in a television discussion, I had been the only Minister working in the first few months of Maithripala Sirisena’s government. The rest were only working towards the election that was imminent.

I also produced two Cabinet papers, which were ignored, including one to start a more comprehensive version of the GELT course. I had long been worried about the way the time of young people was wasted after they did their Ordinary Level examination in December. Advanced Levels did not begin till May at the earliest, and youngsters had nothing to do, which meant parents started to send them for tuition or they themselves got used to even worse practices.

I proposed then that in every division there should be afternoon classes in English and Mathematics. One reason given for substandard performances in these subjects was the paucity of teachers, but I had no doubt that there were enough good teachers to conduct make up classes in these subjects in at least one school in each Division. Something of the sort had happened during the GELT course and I knew well what was possible.

Such classes would be free of charge. And, though they would not be compulsory, the fact that they were available would have allowed the UGC to demand at least a pass in English at the Ordinary Level as a prerequisite for university entrance. The excuse for not doing this was that many schools had no teachers but – apart from the fact that this was true with regard to mathematics too, but that was compulsory – nothing had been done to provide remedial teaching for the students who suffered.

The other Cabinet paper was to establish a University Press. Interestingly, the idea has now come up again, but at one university as my own original Sabaragamuwa University Press was. That is good in itself but why the UGC cannot move to something with greater potential impact I cannot understand. But of course, those Cabinet papers too, though sent to Kabir and his successor, were also ignored.

All this alone was I think twice as much as any other Minister of Higher Education did in a year. But I had excellent staff, quite unlike the rubbish and relations (and the rubbish relations) my predecessors had, as the regular administrative staff at the Ministry told me. Indeed, when I resigned they tried to hang on to some of them, and my coordinating Secretary, the entirely reliable Chaminda Bandara, who had been in government service previously was transferred to that Ministry where he worked indefatigably for several years.

I revitalised the website, and insisted that we also work in Tamil, for which I got some excellent staff from Jeevan Thiagarajah. It was astonishing that the Ministry had not bothered about Tamil thus far, but I suppose no one cared.

Not only did I have regular posts about the changes we were making but I tried to evoke ideas from others, for having noted the stress in the President’s manifesto on the ‘extension of opportunities and appropriate education for jobs’ I asked for ‘observations on how best we can pursue these aims’. I also wrote to Vice-Chancellors asking them to let me know of ‘five significant achievements during your time in office, and five ideas for future development.’

One other area I tried to work in was to use the Provincial Council system to promote opportunities for students at provincial level. I wrote to the Chief Ministers to remind them about a constitutional provision that had been totally forgotten for nearly three decades – ‘according to the Constitution, Higher Education is a concurrent subject, and Provinces may establish and maintain new Universities and degree awarding institutions. This has not been done in the past, but it is essential if we are to move towards suitable higher education for all, as pledged in the manifesto. In particular I believe we must also have regional tertiary education institutes that would help us improve standards in secondary schools with regard to Mathematics and Science and English and the Technical Skills needed in the modern world. ‘

This would have been a seminal change. Meanwhile, I also tried to get individual universities to engage in socially relevant work with regard to their own geographical areas, which would have been very useful to the more neglected areas of the country.

When I had started on curriculum reform at Sabaragamuwa I had not been in favour of what was termed a dissertation, an essay supposedly based on research which every student had to produce in their final year. I thought these would be superficial, but since they now seemed part of the system at all universities I accepted the concept but insisted on a viva so we could make sure students had understood the subject and were not merely reproducing material culled from others.

But I still thought there was insufficient value in the exercise, so what I now suggested to the Vice-Chancellors was that they ensure that all such dissertations were based on a local problem, for instance difficulties as to water supply for geographers, local employment opportunities for economists, English teaching for English students. And then, I suggested, students and staff could sit together and formulate a development plan for the Division they had all worked on.

I had been worried in the preceding years by the lack of coherence I found with regard to Development Planning in the Districts in the North and East where I had held Reconciliation meetings in every administrative Division. I had found that there was hardly any consultation of the supposed recipients of development projects, with politicians allowed a free hand, more often than not to make money for themselves or select dependants.

I had no illusions that plans produced by universities would be given priority, nor indeed that they would necessarily solve problems. But the fact that such had been prepared, and that academics were willing to get involved with local communities, and perhaps help to develop a dialogue between the people and decision makers, would go some way towards institutionalizing consultation mechanisms.

But that idea too fell by the wayside after I ceased to hold office. So we have continuous bleating from those in power about the need to improve the relevance and quality of university education, but there have been no imaginative ideas to promote this, let alone the energy and initiative to ensure necessary changes. And of course, no one will dream of taking a leaf out of my book since the independent thinking that can alone take a country forward is anathema to those who cannot themselves think outside the box as far as educational and administrative changes are concerned.

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Ampitiya That I Knew



Ampitiya is a village just two miles from Kandy. The road to Talatuoya, Marassana, Galaha and turning left from Talatuoya to Tennekumbura and Hanguranketha and beyond goes through Ampitiya.My family moved there in 1949 when our paternal grandfather bequeathed the ancestral home to our father to be effective after our grandfather’s demise. Until then the eldest sister of our father’s family with her family and the two bachelor brothers lived in the house. After living in various places our father was transferred to on duty, we had come to our final abode there.

The house was situated about 100 yards before the second mile post. There were paddy fields both in front of the house and behind it with a mountain further away. These were salubrious surroundings to live in. There was no hustle and bustle as in a town and the only noise would have been the occasional tooting of horns and the call of vendors selling various household needs.

The Ampitiya village extended from near the entrance to the Seminary and the school situated a short climb away along Rajapihilla Mawatha (now Deveni Rajasinghe Mawatha) on the road from Kandy ending at the gate to the Seminary, and running up to the Diurum Bodiya temple.

Ampitiya was well known thanks to the Seminary of our Lady of Lanka located there. Newly ordained Catholic priests took theology classes here. The Seminary with its majestic building commanded a fine view of the Dumbara valley. The student priests lived in the hostel called Montefano St. Sylvester’s Monastery situated just above the sloping rice fields coming down to the Kandy-Talatuoya Road. There was a volleyball court within the Montefano premises and we used to see the young priests enjoying themselves playing a game in the evenings as the court was quite visible from our house.

We, as schoolboys of the neighbourhood, used to get together during many weekends and play cricket on the roadway to the Montefano which was just past the second milepost as there was no vehicular traffic then on that road.

Ampitiya had a school started by the Catholic Church and known as Berrewaerts College which later became the Ampitiya Maha Vidyalaya. At the time our family became residents of Ampitiya this was the only school. Later the Catholic Church established a girls’ school named Carmel Hill Convent. This school enabled most girls who had to go all the way to Kandy or Talatuoya by bus to walk to school.

People who follow sports, especially athletics, would have heard the names of Linus Dias, Sellappuliyage Lucien Benedict Rosa (best known in Sri Lanka as SLB Rosa) and Ranatunga Karunananda, all Ampitiya products who participated in the Olympics as long distance runners competing in the 10,000 metres event. Linus Dias captained the Sri Lankan contingent in the Rome Olympics in 1960.Though they were not able to emulate Duncan White they took part.

Karunananda became a hero in Sri Lanka as well as in Japan when at the Tokyo Olympics of October 1964 he completed the 10,000 metre course running the last four laps all alone. The crowd cheered him all the way to the finish appreciating his courage in not abandoning the already completed race. Later he said he was living up to the Olympic motto which said the main thing is to take part and not to win.

Rosa captained the Sri Lankan team in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He switched to long distance running while still a student thanks to the Principal of Ampitiya Maha Vidyalaya, Mr. Tissa Weerasinghe (a hall mate of mine one year senior to me at Peradeniya) who had noted his stamina and asked him to switch to long distance events. I must mention that Tissa was responsible for bringing this school to a high standard from where it was when he took over.

Coincidentally, during our Ampitiya days, all the houses from Uduwela junction for about half a mile towards Talatuoya were occupied by our relatives! They included the Warakaulles, Koswattes, Pussegodas, Sangakkaras, Godamunnes, Thalgodapitiyas and Wijekoons. Now most of these houses are occupied by others.

Ampitiya area had two Buddhist temples. One was the Dalukgolla Rajamaha Viharaya on the Ratemulla Road and the other, Ampitiya Diurum Bodiya, near the third mile post. From the latter temple a famous Buddhist monk, Ven. Ampitye Rahula Thero later joined the Vajirarama temple in Colombo and was highly recognized by Buddhists just like Ven. Narada and Ven.Piyadassi Theros.

The Uduwela temple had a water spout emerging out of a granite rock where the temple priests and neighbours used to bathe and wash their clothes. This spout never ran dry.

At present the landscape of Ampitiya has changed hugely. Most of the sloping paddy fields have been filled and dwelling houses have come up. The majestic view, except for faraway mountains, is no longer present. A five-star hotel has been built just beyond the second mile post and the area has lost its previous tranquility. A person of my vintage who once lived there visiting Ampitiya now wouldn’t be able to recognize the place given the changes.



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Expert advice on tax regime



The Government’s new tax regime has led to protests not only by high income earning professionals but also by Trade Unions.In my view the problem is not with the rate of taxation which is 6% – 36%, but with the tax exemption threshold. Due to hyper-inflation and the high cost of electricity, water, essential food items etc, the Exemption Threshold of 1.2 million per year is far too low.

If the Exemption Threshold is increased to at least 1.8 million per year, the Trade Unions are likely to accept this. It will also lessen the burden of taxation on high income professionals. And it should not impact on the IMF agreement.

The time has now come for a compromise between the Government and the protesters.

(The writer is a retired Commissioner General of Inland Revenue)

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This refers to the superlatively interesting and provocative piece on the above subject by Dr Upul Wijewardene{UW) appearing in The Island of 21/3/23 wherein, as he states, he had been a victim himself at the hands of a well-known Professor of Medicine turned health administrator. He makes it a point to castigate the leaders of the Buddhist clergy for their deviation from the sublime doctrine of this religion.

My first thought on this subject is that it is a cultural problem of exploitation by the privileged of the less fortunate fellow beings. The cultural aspect has its origin in the religion of the majority in India, Hinduism. There is no such discrimination in Islam.

The first recorded case was that of a Sinhala member of the Dutch army fighting against the Portuguese (or the army of the Kandiyan kingdom) being prevented by the members of the higher ranks from wearing sandals due to his low status in the caste hierarchy. The Dutch commander permitted the Sinhala solder to wear sandals as recorded by Paul Pieris in “Ceylon the Portuguese era”

There is also the instance of a monk getting up to meet the King when it was not the customary way of greeting the King by monks.

In an article by Dr Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian published in a local journal, it is said that members of the majority caste (approximately 40% of the Sinhala population) were not permitting lower ranking public officials serving the British government wear vestments studded with brass buttons. The second tier of the hierarchy who had become rich through means other than agriculture like sale of alcohol in the early British times took their revenge by lighting crackers in front of houses of their caste rivals when a British Duke was marching along in a procession in Colombo.

It is not uncommon for members of minority castes numerically low in numbers to help their own kind due to the discriminatory practices of the higher tiers of the hierarchy.

Dr Leo Fernando
Talahena, Negombo

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