Free Education Or Free Of Education?


He came all the way from London; to be precise, The London School of Economics, to help regularize the university education in Ceylon. He established a fully-fledged University at Peradeniya, served as the Vice chancellor and went back to UK to be the Vice Chancellor of The University of Cambridge, U.K.

This great man Sir Ivor Jennings first visited Peradeniya along with Architect / planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie and while at the site, said, “No University in The World Would Have Such a Setting”.

True to these words, the collaboration gave birth to one of the most beautiful universities in the world, University of Peradeniya overlooking the Hantane hills, across the clear waters of Mahaweli.  It was not only about the selection of the beautiful site for the Architecture of the University, Sir Ivor Jennings, unquestionably the founder of University education in Sri Lanka set the groundwork to provide a holistic knowledge and wisdom for all undergraduates irrespective of the subjects they learn.  Sports and common recreation facilities fostered close relationships among the students of various faculties. Discipline and etiquettes practiced in halls of residences brought up well-mannered individuals – to be in par with any learned person anywhere in the world. All these led to graduates of high standards produced from the University and some of them became leading personalities in their areas of specialty locally and overseas.


With the proper functioning of the Engineering faculty with required laboratories and library facilities the formal engineering education in Sri Lanka was established. The academic staff grew in numbers and in quality with teachers with higher degrees mainly from UK. Those teachers dedicated their lifetime for coaching and research although with limited resources available at the time. Some of them who joined the staff during the early years of the Faculty of Engineering continued till early nineties. Students who entered the faculty in the early eighties (Ours being Class of E 82) were fortunate enough to learn from them.


Earlier, within the course of study which was around four years, the entire batch studied together for two whole years before specializing and branching out to various fields. Due to this, and because of the limited staff, perhaps we were one of the last few classes of students who got an opportunity to learn from many of those senior lectures at least one subject during our four years.


Apart from the academic knowledge gained, students of those days willnot forget the Austin Mini of Prof Jayathilake’s, the VolksWagon Beetle of Prof jayasekara’s and the shining Morris Minor of Prof Mahalingam’s.


The sparkling white shirt and trouser of Prof H B de Silva and Prof Mahalingam’s neatly pressed cotton light coloured attire and his straight walk from the garage to his lab along the very long faculty corridor with his suit case, are fond memories we have of our mentors. When I last visited Prof. Mahalingam a couple of years before his demise at his residence in Kandy, he asked me to wait in the verandah for a few minutes. A neatly dressed pleasant figure complete with shoes, appeared and called me inside for a memorable evening of informal chat. Prof. Mahalingam continues to impart valuable lessons, I thought then.


Our teachers taught us fundamentals of engineering and inspired us to think out of the box when approaching engineering applications and in our day-to-day life in general.


We were given resident facilities at Hilda Obeysekara Hall, ironically one of the furthest residential halls to the Engineering faculty. However, crossing the Akbar Bridge in groups every morning and evening along with ample chatter and laughter ensured the long walk, to be a ‘fun walk’. Although the resident hall was far away from the faculty, no one complained as there were girls’ residents in the vicinity, and remarks from the Hilda balcony was never to be missed. It is learnt, that now Hilda Obeysekara Hall is a hostel for girls.


The famous ‘wala’, open-air theatre for drama was just next to Hilda hall. Back then, having only year-end examinations, students had enough free time to watch dramas at the wala. The centre stage was seen very well from the last two wings of Hilda hall. Some watched the play from their balconies-a rare opportunity to watch a live drama from home. But then, if for any reason when the play was seen as not up to mark by the Hilda inmates, the poor performers were likely to get a dose of flying water and screams all the way from the Hilda balconies. At times the play had to be halted or cancelled. All such bitter-sweet experiences of stage dramas at wala may have kept our batch’s creative quarter alive for us to organize “Hanthana Prakampana” an evening of combined stage plays at BMICH. A few years back, the class of E 82 organized a show of “Marambari” at Nelum Pokuna- Colombo 07.


HANTHANA PARAKAMMAPANA is a different experience of a miscellany of music and drama which originated from or related to Peradeniya. The show will have portions of Sinhala and Tamil dramas, a few stage performances and songs. This event coincides with the 75th Anniversary of University of Peradeniya and 35th Anniversary of the class of E 82.


Our class had two hundred and twenty-five students from all parts of Sri Lanka. There were many from North and the East and we all had a good understanding of each other’s communities. Many of them have migrated and less than one fourth live here. A majority of students did Civil Engineering. Electrical and Electronic had only thirty-three and a similar number for Mechanical while eight did Chemical. The annual survey camp was held at Mahaillukpallama for a one-week period. Professor H.B. de Silva even at his old age was the overall in charge. It was a required part of the course for civil students and a must-go event for electrical and mechanical lot who go there voluntarily to have fun. VORTEX- an exciting event, is also organized by Civil students, yet others take part as if it is theirs.


The elegantly designed famous AT (Art Theatre) of the University was airing very limited shows. The theatre was overcrowded at many occasions when the students got together and organized to show popular movies. Hence, university students often went to Kandy for cinemas.


In the early eighties, a clever entrepreneur built a Cinema hall, “Thusitha” close to the university. It was at a walking distance to Akbar hall and you could meet engineering undergraduates of any batch and also instructors at Thusitha. Tamil films were often shown, and it became common place to see Tamil medium students, especially girls from the arts faculty. All these non-academic happenings brought a close-knit friendship among students.


Peradeniya has a campus temple, a kovil, church and a mosque, all located on the scenic foot hills of the Hanthana mountain. Hindu kovil overflowed with students on festival days of all faiths, some who came to enjoy the delicious food served in the morning. On Fridays, the first lesson of the afternoon session was Drawings. We at the engineering faculty, hop to the Akbar Canteen for a quick lunch and ran across the Akbar bridge to the picturesque campus mosque, climbing the last 100 steps, for midday prayers and ran back to the Drawing office on time. This ‘rush’ hour was as fun as it was spiritual never failing to bring back a content smile to my face now.  I hear from my son now that they go Peradeniya junction mosque by bus, on Fridays for the mid-day group prayers.


Looking back, our school education system has been changed drastically since the early seventies. It was reported this year that an 11-year-old child committed suicide for not being able to get enough marks in the Grade five scholarship exam. Sixteen-year old youngsters commit suicide when the ordinary level results are released. The situation is similar with release of the advanced level results. We hear too of undergraduate suicides. Many of these are from government schools or universities and all these institutions do not charge fees.


On a different note, Sri Lanka claims to have free education and health. Transport and fertilizer are heavily subsidized. Electricity and water are subsidized for a section of the population. Sri Lankans enjoy many holidays compared to other nations. People expect concessions from government during drought and floods. Protests have become part and parcel of life for school children, undergraduates, doctors, government officers, rural villagers and religious leaders. Various newspapers and television channels report the same news in different and distorted ways. Road accidents kill six to seven persons daily. Suicide has become one of the major causes of death. There are specialized television and radio channels for every major religion. Politicians have become the cleverest lots who have mastered the survival while in power and in opposition.


Whether it is free education or paid education, where a small population can afford, fifty percent of students fail in even ordinary level mathematics after having studied for eleven years. Ironically mass poojas are arranged by politicians for students before major examinations to trap potential votes. Advanced Level studies are mainly through tuition classes, while schools fail to deliver, and extra classes start soon after the ordinary level exam, even before results are released; all for the rat-race and the competition for university entrance. In general, students are taught to cram and practice similar questions over and over again. Majority of government schools have empty advanced level class rooms despite the rule of eighty percent attendance to sit for the exam.


The tuition culture has come to stay in our education system, and often parents spend exuberant amounts for a ‘good class’. Unfortunately, it has extended university levels where students who expect to get in to universities attend tuition classes even prior to their university life begins. This is for high scores in the first semester exams so that they are able select their preferred area or fields, a sad and a bitter reality. This situation is testimony to show there is no free education in the country as claimed, rather the whole system is free of education; an education system based on exam targets and not necessarily a learning experience of wholistic knowledge- the major ingredient to make a balanced and a complete human being.


The education system has shut the freethinking abilities of a capable Sri Lankan younger generation. Newer generation teacher community is a product of the same system, thus making the situation worse. The teachers of especially the primary classes should be the most trained in their field, kind and free of strings who can identify individual talents of students and their behavior at a budding age. Unfortunately, the least trained, least educated teachers handle them at the beginning of the kids’ formal education. Many teachers impart competition among the students from grade one onwards; how best you can beat others. The playful, smiling and dreaming child stops all such after two months in the grade one class. School does not become a fun place for them anymore, quite contrary to the hopes and longing the little kids had before they came to the ‘big school’. The race starts from primary and runs until university. The much-needed innovation, visualizing capacity, creative abilities are comparatively less seen in Sri Lankan students and graduates today, probably due to these distorted values in the education system. Teachers and parents instill and push the youngsters to educate themselves to find a job in the future rather than teaching them the worth of learning for knowledge. Our statistics on education show that we have not been able to produce a recognized innovator, a new theory for the benefit of the world after having had so called free education throughout a student’s life. Occasions where a recent Sri Lankan has contributed for new inventions and theories, remain as part of a team in an overseas university.


Our tertiary education system needs to address these issues immediately in order to rid the burden on rest of the population who fund for our free education. Young engineers in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and even some in the developed countries are also budding entrepreneurs who are eager to start something on their own. Such opportunities are blocked here and out of box thinking is marred by economic policies of a welfare society, free education, non-industrialization and slow actual economic growth.


Hanthana Prakamapana is an attempt to keep aside our busy schedules and complex technologies for a couple of hours. It is to recap our beautiful memories of student life that had enough time to dream and enjoy while limiting racing only on the track. The coveted stage drama segment- Wikurthi by Somalatha Subasinghe will remind us to this stark reality.


Young students today are highly talented and have access to knowledge in a fraction of a second. They should be let to learn all of sciences, thus to see again the likes of a professional captaining a national sports team; in 1956 the all Ceylon football captain was an engineering undergraduate.


This attempt is to remind us of a happy university life together and convey the message to the younger generation that it is not only the academic aspect that matters in a university; true to its root- university is a universal city full of opportunities and an amalgamation of a cross section of the society, which should ideally mould one to face the real life ahead.