Social Science and Humanities Education in the Universities in Sri Lanka and its Discontents: Some Reflections – Kumudu Kusum Kumara

Social Science and Humanities Education in the Universities in Sri Lanka and its Discontents: Some Reflections[1],[2]


(This paper originally appeared in the journal Dialogue, issue on Crisis in Education, Focus on a Sri Lankan Experience, published by the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, Colombo, New Series Vol. XXXIX 2012)



Universities in Sri Lanka in general and Faculties of Social Sciences and Humanities in them generally known as Arts Faculties  in particular have been criticised over nearly a half century for a deterioration  in quality and a lowering of standards in terms of their teaching and research output (see, සංස්කෘති, 1965; de Silva and Peiris, 1995; Bandaranayake[3]; උස්වත්තෙ ආරච්චි[4], 2009).  This paper focuses on criticisms levelled against Arts faculties which have been the most severe and recurrent. The key charges levelled in the public criticism have been: academics in these faculties do not search for new knowledge; their intellectual contribution is low; locked within the ‘ivory tower’ mentality, they are not in tune with society and do not respond to public political issues.[5] Ajith Samaranayake (2003), a leading journalist summed up some of these criticisms shared by the public in the following manner: ‘the pathetic situation in academia today where graduates ……know little beyond their lecture notes which themselves are out of date since they were the notes given by their lecturers when they were undergraduates. ….The universities are facing steady intellectual and cultural erosion and are no longer the centres of opinion.’  [6]

Combined with the above argument of the lack of quality, Arts faculties have come under criticism for producing “unemployable graduates.” The Minister of Higher Education has publicly accused university teachers of turning the crème da le crème of the educated youth in the country into a group of the wretched who are unemployable (Wickramagamage, 2011).  The basis for such a criticism has its origin in the perceived mismatch between education and employment, an idea which initially surfaced following the 1971 youth insurrection for which Arts faculties of the universities were the recruiting grounds for the leading cadres.  The charge of unemployability of Arts graduates has been renewed with vigour since the liberalisation of the economy in the post-1977 period. Since the early ‘90s the World Bank has intervened in the higher education sector of the country with a loan scheme under which projects have been launched repeatedly with the purported objective of improving the quality and relevance of higher education. The relevance is understood here as relevance for social demand which in this context means the demand mostly of the corporate sector for graduates with a training that would suit the employment needs of that sector, the latter being viewed as the “Engine of Growth”.

Contemporary discourse: three broad positions

In the contemporary discourse on the status of university education in the country, the public, the politicians and international lending agencies such as the World Bank maintain that the academic standards of the University have been run down. Following the trade union action taken by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations of Sri Lanka in 2011 and 2012, three broad positions have emerged in the public discussion with regard to explaining the reasons for the low intellectual output of the universities, particularly of the Arts faculties.

The first is that it is the deterioration of academic freedom and autonomy of the universities due to politicisation that has been responsible for the lowering of the quality of their intellectual output. Accordingly, the apathy of university academics has allowed academic freedom and autonomy to be undermined by politicians and politically motivated administrators (Goonesekere, 2011a; Dhanapala, 2011). What is perceived to be servility in the University community is referred to as a “putrid example” of the “disease of sycophancy”.  Symptomatic of this sycophancy is taken to be ‘holding on to positions that are not their rightful due, stooging the benefactors, acquiescing and covering up their misdeeds or inadequacies, and basically betraying the sanctity of the office they hold’ (Goonesekere , 2011a, citing Caliban).

The second position, which appears to seek to counter the first, posits that it is the lack of commitment to their vocation on the part of university academics themselves rather than the loss of intellectual freedom that has contributed to the lowering of standards in the Arts faculties. [7] There are several key points made within this broad argument. It is said that being immersed in infighting for limited positions within the university for self gain make  university academics neglect their duty and responsibility towards the university and students. Moreover, university academics have willingly become political stooges for self gain whereas some keep aloof.  The failure of the semester system has also contributed to this degeneration of quality. University teachers are incompetent, lacking in knowledge of English and thereby are unablemto update their knowledge and to teach students the latest developments in knowledge. They do not have a passion for intellectual work and shirk their responsibility to engage in teaching and research. The Majority are said to lack integrity; they are a lazy, mean, unprincipled, dishonest and arrogant lot; their calibre does not reflect the worth of academic positions they hold. Thus the general focus of this broad position is on what is taken to be a ‘collective character’ of the present generation of academics in the Arts faculties compared to the previous generations.

The third position articulated by Camena Gunaratne and Harini Amarasuriya (2011) can be taken as an attempt to explain what is perceived above as a  collective character of the university academics in terms of the culture that prevails among them, the ‘pernicious’  ‘feudal’ culture that stifles their intellectual output. Accordingly, there is a link between lack of academic freedom and autonomy and the culture that prevails in the university that is exacerbated by politicisation of the university and administration of higher education.  This culture generates networks of relationships based on dependence and patronage in teacher student relationships and relations between colleagues which suppress skills, creativity, independence and autonomy.

This paper considers that the politicisation of universities in Sri Lanka and what is believed to be the apathy shown by university academics towards such politicisation has to be examined in historical perspective. As it has already been noted, the politicisation of Sri Lankan universities has been incremental (Goonesekera, 2011b) and a product of social and political changes occurring in society. What is taken by critics to be the collective character of the present generation of university academics in the Arts faculties suggest that they suffer from a moral deficiency which amounts to ignoring their human agency. Alternatively, what is considered as apathy towards politicisation could be the outcome of conscious decisions emerging out of responding to the existing situations either by taking sides in the disputes, by remaining silent or by keeping aloof, rejecting both sides. Morality or what is perceived to be lack of it rather than being a psychological makeup of academics as a community is a product of collective life and hence the explanation that it is the ‘feudal’ culture that prevails in the universities that is responsible for low intellectual output needs closer examination. The term ‘feudal’ suggests residual premodern features that would wither away as modernity advances.  Alternatively the culture that prevails within Arts faculties in the Sri Lankan universities can be considered as the outcome of processes initiated by human action at present in the given specific social and political circumstances.

This  paper seeks to understand the reasons for the low intellectual output found in the Arts faculties as seen from the perspective of the social actors involved – that is university academics and students. What is missing in the contemporary discourse on the teaching in the arts faculties in Sri Lankan universities is what constitutes our understanding of education which is a common thread that underlies the discussion in this paper. Lowering of intellectual output in the Arts faculties of Sri Lankan universities are linked to the fact that university education in Sri Lanka was initially modelled on the liberal arts education found in the global North which was meant to serve both the intellectual and utilitarian purposes of education, that is, knowledge production and preparing the young for employment. It is the victory of anti-colonial political forces in the post independence era which released social forces that demanded teaching in universities in the swabhasha and increased opportunities for university education which led to the gradual and increasing domination of university education by its utilitarian purpose to the neglect of its intellectual objectives. 

The organisation of ideas in this paper runs as follows. The process of politicisation of Sri Lankan universities and its impact on the quality of university education, autonomy and academic freedom has a historical dimension.  Government policy decisions in the post independence era to provide university education in the swabhasha or the vernacularand to increase the intake of students to universities had its impact on the quality and standards of university education.  The impact of swabhasha education and the increased intake of students is a historical fact which however, does not suggest that swabhasha education must necessarily result in lowering intellectual output. While subjects such as languages, literature and the arts can be taught in the swabhasha, for advanced intellectual work even in such subjects one has to be aware of the latest development in thinking on the subject that is carried out, for which the use of an international language is a must in the absence of sufficient translations of related work. In the case of Sri Lanka, the stress on English is due to the fact that it is one of the most widely used international languages to which Sri Lanka had access via its colonial encounter.

The heightened politicisation of the university administration in more recent times may have had a chilling effect on those who desire to exercise academic freedom. However, over the last half a century or so university education both globally (see, Oakeshott, 1989) and locally has moved away from its intellectual objectives and more towards its utilitarian purposes. Whether the increased politicisation of the university administration in recent times alone is responsible for the intellectual apathy found among Lankan university academics or whether it also has something to do with the world view of the present generation of academics who are the products of  swabhasha education , and their own political initiatives, needs consideration.

The culture that has prevailed among the Sri Lankan university academics has had its impact on the quality of their intellectual output.  A traditional guru-gola (teacher –pupil) culture revived in a modern setting contributes to maintain hierarchical institutional structures based on status and seniority. In the hands of a monolingual generation of academics, such a culture contributes to lowering of intellectual standards.

There is a strong public criticism of Sri Lankan university academics centring on the lower intellectual contribution of the present generation of academics compared to the previous two generations, low output of research, and turning a blind eye to ragging and student violence that needs to be taken into account. A comparison of generations of academics needs to bear in mind that while Sri Lankan society and politics have produced the university we have today, it was originally  conceived within the model of liberal arts education and was maintained for over about four decades with what is described as a robust intellectual environment.

If the intellectual output of Arts faculties has deteriorated over the course of time, any understanding of such a state of affairs needs to take into account the nature of Arts students as well. As seen from the perspective of university teachers, the issue is raised whether students have received sufficient training in secondary education, preparing them for an academic life in the university, while university teachers’ responses to students remain basically within an academic model of education.

The idea of making education socially relevant affects the quality of education imparted. The idea of the objective of education as serving social relevance has come to be interpreted as turning education into professional or vocational training or indoctrination in political ideologies. When the sole criteria of education is taken to be the ability of graduates to find employment what it says is that education has to be relevant for the utilitarian needs of the market. The claim that despite their book knowledge students lack the ability to apply their knowledge to a given situation needs to be examined. Practices that prevail among the university student community and the type of skills universities may instil in the university students may take the form more of a de-skilling process vis a vis the potential of graduates to be employed.  

New pedagogies propose to develop ‘reflection-oriented education’ under mass education as a response to the emerging conflict of interest between academically oriented teachers and students who are trained for academic education. They take the position that in the age  of mass education average students should be trained in  simple basic skills to reflect and to judge, modelled after the principles of liberal arts education. Such a model of ‘student centred learning’ challenges the idea of education as elite formation. Whether Sri Lanka can afford to follow a model of social change based on elite recruitment needs to be considered.

The fate of the future of liberal arts education has to be examined taking into account relationship between democracy, mass education and the demands of modern technological society.  A key idea that needs to be kept in view in all discussions on providing a sound education is the centrality of the authority of the teacher.  

1.  Politicisation of Universities and its Impact on Autonomy and Academic Freedom

The politicisation of Sri Lankan universities can be discussed under policy changes affecting the quality of university education and autonomy, and politicisation of the university and its impact on academic freedom.

The ‘free education’ policy adopted in Sri Lanka since 1944 has led to the expansion of educational opportunities and thus to an increase of numbers qualifying to enter universities.  With education becoming a matter of public demand since gaining independence, governments since 1956 have sought to intervene in controlling university education in varying degrees. It began with the victory of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP)   government headed by the S.W.R.D.  Bandaranaike led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1956 which came to power on an anti- imperialist, nationalist and pro-people platform.  There were two key policy changes that affected the quality of university education due to political changes of 1956.  They were the introduction of swbhasha or vernacular education at the university level and the increased intake into universities. It is the Needham commission that made the case for an increased intake of students to the arts and humanities streams of the university and for a change over in the medium of instruction from English to swabhasha (Peiris, 1995a: 113-4).

To cater to rising demand for higher education in swabhasha, the government set up two new universities converting two existing Pirivena s (traditional Buddhist education institutes set up mainly to train the sangha in Buddhism and humanities) , Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara in 1958 to teach arts, humanities and social sciences. In 1960 the University of Ceylon relented to increasing pressure and opened its doors to students learning in the vernacular and to increase the intake of students (de Silva, 1995b: 22). [8]

Providing university education in the swabhasha undoubtedly helped large numbers of youth educated in Sinhala and or Tamil allowing them to obtain credentials to compete in seeking white collar employment and thus social mobility. However, it is said to have affected the quality of university education. The overall effect of these policy changes is believed to have led to the lowering of standards due to many reasons as outlined in this paper.

The exponential growth of the negative impact of the introduction of monolingual education and the increased intake caught up with the universities as early as 1960s (see, සංස්කෘති, 1965) and continued in the ‘70s and consequently, in the Arts and Sciences, academic standards have declined (de Silva, 1995c: 28). Due to the sudden increase of the intake, universities had to work with under-resourced facilities and even without basic literature to teach in the swabhasha. Most of the academic staff responded negatively to the idea of teaching in indigenous languages, leading to a brain drain and many senior academics leaving the university and the country. While Tamils were the first to react feeling their opportunities were restricted by the new language requirements, the Sinhalese followed suit, feeling that it would lead to lowering of academic standards. Those who remained tried to educate the young and there was an attempt to fill the gaps in knowledge by translating basic texts into swabhasha (ibid: 33). It has also been pointed out that those who stayed back have produced some of the best graduates in law, social sciences and humanities (Goonesekera, 2011b). 

However, efforts to sustain standards in the face of under-resourced facilities were undermined due to constraints produced in the process of implementing the policy of teaching in the swabhasha. Students in one language medium would not benefit from competent teachers teaching in the other language medium.[9] Translations of text books into Sinhala and Tamil were of poor quality and they soon became old fashioned and inadequate. Lacking competence in English, most students in the Arts and Social sciences were pathetically and totally dependent on notes taken down at lectures (de Silva, 1995c: 28). The  sudden influx of large numbers of students made increases in the staff cadres necessary. Teachers who were both academically qualified and competent in swabhasha were not available to fill the gap at short notice (ibid. 26). This led to lax procedures in staff recruitment resulting in inadequate attention paid to the academic competence and talents of those selected as the products of monolingual university education were recruited as lecturers. Being monolingual clearly undermined the ability of the academics to update their knowledge with latest developments in the relevant fields (Peiris 1995a: 114-116) and they had to depend on lecture notes which they got from their teachers.  The deterioration of the quality of the staff over the post -1960 period was enhanced by other factors (see, Peiris, ibid.)

The impact of politics and policy changes on university autonomy

The idea of autonomy of universities in the Sri Lankan context is derived from what is perceived to be the golden period of the University of Ceylon. (For a detailed discussion on the impact of politicisation on the autonomy of Sri Lankan universities see, Uyangoda   in this volume). The University College established in 1921 which was the predecessor of the University of Ceylon was not an autonomous institution.  It was controlled by the Executive Committee on Education under the State Council.  However, when the University of Ceylon was set up in 1942  it was accepted as an autonomous institute by the government due to the role played by its first Vice Chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings  (de Silva, 1995b: 13- 14).

De Silva observed that the new university leadership appointed by the government in 1956 “adapted itself uncritically to purely political demands” and “the academic and intellectual legacy of this period was rapidly exhausted” (1995a: 3).  Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara universities were from the beginning under the effective control of the Ministry officials (de Silva, 1995c:  25-39).

Direct formal control of the universities by the state begins with the United National Party (UNP) regimes. The UNP government which assumed power in 1965 enacted the Higher Education Act No. 20 of 1966, under which the Minister of Education was granted power to exercise control over the universities.  Minister of Education, I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla who had moved to the UNP from the SLFP took the task upon himself to introduce the the Higher Education Act (de Silva, ibid: 34). Minister Iriyagolla appointed outsiders to the academic community such as civil servants S.J. Walpita and M.J. Perera to rule universities as a means of strengthening government control over them. Irrespective of whether these outsiders were able to win the support of the academic community, the latter were ‘anxious to have one of their own’ as the Vice Chancellor   (ibid). University academics as a community resisted the state’s initiative to suppress autonomy of universities in the era of Minister Iriyagolla. Academics and students targeted the Minister during the parliamentary election campaign of 1970, and it contributed to the defeat of the minister Iriyagolla in the elections and served the SLFP led alliance to come to power. Due to the impact of the campaign carried out by the academics and students, the new SLFP government that came to power was in favour of granting autonomy back to universities. However, after the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led 1971 insurrection where universities were found to be hotbeds of JVP activism, the SLFP government backtracked on its declared policy of granting autonomy and instead ‘resolved on a policy of vigorous control over the universities’ (de Silva, 1995 c: 34 – 35).  Following the Jayaratne Commission Report commissioned by the new SLFP government (Peiris, 1995a: 116) “the University of Ceylon Act No. 1 of 1972 consolidated the government control over the universities” (de Silva, 1995c: 35).

Politicisation of university academics

The beginnings of internal politicisation in Sri Lankan Universities were found in the approach of academics that went after political patronage beginning in the latter half of the‘60s and ‘70s, which gathered momentum as time advanced. Academics serving in the university accepting political positions in the government, and academics being appointed as university administrators on the basis of their political affiliation, also heightened after the 1970s.  From the 1970s, the academic community in the universities has been generally divided between the pro-SLFP led United Front and pro-UNP groups, and depending on the government in power academics politically affiliated to and favoured by the regime dominated the university politics. The tendency to impose regime control on universities has been dominant when the SLFP led United Front (UF) governments were in power.

The Marxist elements in the government took the lead in implementing the new government policy, and universities were turned into campuses.  Arts faculties were restructured and changes were made with a view to restrict the scope of their teaching programs despite protests from the academics in the Arts faculties.  The brain drain from Sri Lankan universities was accelerated (de Silva, 1995c: 35-38). With these changes, there was a high incidence of politicisation of university appointments, and victimisation of persons known or presumed to be unsympathetic to the governing coalition. Academics politically loyal to the UF regime accepted key administrative positions in the university. Thus political loyalty and political patronage got entrenched in the administration of universities. Academics themselves became the tools of control of the university autonomy. Commitment to university autonomy was traded for appointments. When the UNP returned to power in 1977, the government enacted the University Act No. 16 of 1978 and restored a measure of autonomy to universities, whereas the amendments of 1985 to the Act brought by the UNP government itself sought to increase government control of university.

In the context of the above history of politicisation of Sri Lankan universities there are several key reasons that can be identified for academics serving the university accepting political positions. Some of such academics are guided by their ideological and political reasons among which could be the belief in their role in leading social change which takes a modernist perspective. Others increasingly identified with political parties to gain positions partly due to restricted opportunities available for personal advancement in a highly competitive environment, dominated by the inability of many academics to excel in their fields due to the negative impact of monolingualism. In the course of time increasingly many academics sought the path of getting positions for personal gain via political affiliation due to reasons which we will be discussing below.

Politicisation of the university administration and its impact on academic freedom

The suggestion cannot be denied that the intensified politicisation of the university administration in more recent times may have had a chilling effect on the exercise of academic freedom that is necessary for free intellectual debates which brings out the best in universities (Samararatne, 2010). While one cannot disagree with the idea that academic freedom is essential for the pursuit of truth, which I suggest would include the idea of questioning the “notion of truth” itself, this lament itself is an indication that the world has witnessed a sea change in the original idea of the university. 

Globally, the gradual encroachment of the space of the university  where originally liberal Arts education prevailed, initially by the requirements of professional, and then vocational training and the call for making education relevant to the demands of society, has undermined the role of the university as the place set apart for the pursuit of knowledge as a non-instrumental activity. By now, education is reported to be the second largest industry in the world, catering to the market demands of students who aspire to become employees with specific skills required by employers mainly of the corporate sector. When education is tied to employment and economic growth alone, it is bound to undermine the role of the university in the pursuit of truth.  In the case of Sri Lanka, the question that needs to be addressed is whether the intellectual apathy found among the academia is necessarily due to the increased politicisation of the university administration alone.  There are other factors such as factional politics and the political affiliations of academics that would have taken the academics away from the path of independent intellectual pursuits.

Factional politics

Sri Lankan universities were beset by internal factional politics very early on since their coming into being. Internal politics based on ethnicity, caste, religion and personalities have played a key role in facilitating the entry and entrenchment of external political pressure into the university system.  Under the second Vice Chancellor of Peradeniya University, Nicholas Attygala (1955-1966), staff politics based on factions formed around his personality (known as the Attygala divide) which is not an uncommon factor in other Sri Lankan universities established since then[10]. Those who were committed to teaching in the Sinhala language and Buddhists who felt threatened by the dominance of Christian groups joined the pro-Attygala side of the divide. Attygala had a style of administration based on an authoritarian personality and yielded to political pressure at the expense of the interests of the university. Under his regime promotions to posts on merit were hampered by favouritism based on his attitude to a candidate.  ‘Bickering and intrigue between the two factions were certainly of a scale comparable to donnish machinations at Cambridge fictionalised in C.P. Snow’s Masters’ (de Silva, 1995c: 33 -34).

Political affiliations of academics

The lack of intellectual debates in universities probably has more to do with academics losing interest in academic work except as a means of advancing their careers and personal lives initially due to the impact of monolingualism catching up rather than due to loss of academic freedom.  Later, the focus on self-interest and the consumerist attitude spread among the new generation of academics even if they were not monolingual, also would have contributed to this end.

In the past, academic freedom in Sri Lankan universities has come under attack from political regimes of both the Left and Right lineage. Arguably, until the ‘70s Sri Lankan universities had a healthy atmosphere of public debate and discussion.  Regular elections to, and the conduct of, student unions were a training ground for the students on how to engage in political activities with rivals democratically. Political leaders at the national level from the prime ministers such as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake to left leaders such as Dr. N.M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. De Silva were familiar figures in universities irrespective of which government was in power, where students engaged in free discussions with them. On such occasions students learned the art of public debate from the masters and also learned how to engage the rival opinions in public life in a civilised manner.[11]

As noted above, academics guided by their ideological leanings have collaborated in bringing political interferences into our universities from the 1970s.  In the back drop of the 1971 insurrection, the politicisation of the university administration in Sri Lanka took a decisive turn under the 1970-77 regime, spurred on by the belief that the hot beds of political activism that the universities had become needed to be controlled. As referred to earlier, a prominent academic at Colombo University, a LSSP leader, Professor Osmund Jayaratne, led a process whereby all the universities then existing in the country were amalgamated into a single university and made them campuses of one university.  In the place of Vice Chancellors, Presidents were appointed to the campuses, all of them being political appointees.  The University Court, an independent organ which was the highest academic and administrative body for decision making, was abolished and in its place the National Council for Higher Education, the predecessor of the University Grants Commission, was established and brought under the direct political influence of the government in power, a practice which has continued to this day (see Uyangoda in this volume, and de Silva and Peiris, 1995).

In discussing the repression of academic freedom, the treatment meted out to the academia and university students under the post ’77 regime stands out,  the chilling effect of which coincided with the arrival on the scene of a new generation of academics being the product of monolingual education, a majority of whom chose careerism over the pursuit of truth with only a little persuasion from the burgeoning  ‘research industry’ at that time as Professor Ralph Peiris (I assume ) called it in the early eighties writing a series of articles to The Island newspaper under the pen name Rapier. The 1977 regime headed by President J. R. Jayewardene unleashed its goons on university students in campuses all around Colombo, Gangodawila, Kelaniya, and Moratuwa among others, who were protesting against the White Paper on the privatisation of education. A period of terror followed. [12]

Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra the doyen of the Sri Lankan academia came under the physical attack of UNP thugs at a public meeting held at the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress Hall in the city of Colombo when he launched his book Dharmishta Samajaya, the first serious academic critique of the consumerist ethos spawned under the liberalised economy. In the attack led by Piyasena S. Jayaweera leader of the Jathika Seva Sangamaya, the trade union of the UNP, Prof. Sarachchandra and the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha thero and others who attended the launching ceremony were mercilessly assaulted (see Urugodawatta).  This incident no doubt had a chilling effect on the academia at that time. Anyone who wanted to be critical of the ideas upheld by the regime would have thought more than twice before expressing them, not to mention acting on them.

But crucially, what drove the academia away from the world of debate and discussion into what Rapier called the ‘research industry’ and the world of personal advancement, I wish to suggest, was a change in the world view of the new generation of academics who were the products of swabhasha education. They came from a social background where higher education was linked to social mobility and the academia was a place for secure employment that would bring higher social status and material benefits. By the ‘80s these children of the 1956 generation had already arrived on the scene and with them careerism among the university academics which easily lends itself to submission to political influence. As members of the previous generations of academics were aging and fading out, with the arrival of this new generation of academics guided by careerism combined with a consumerist attitude, Sri Lankan University academics gradually relinquished academic freedom together with their credibility in terms of intellectual capacity and scholarship and in being public intellectuals. Those who became careerist did so partly because they were not capable of rising to the level of the previous two generations of academics. University academics have increasingly become consumer oriented in the market of teaching, research and consultancies, lacking sufficient time to devote to class room activities and students consultations resulting in lowering of standards all around in teaching, assessment and management. When education is being taken over by ‘consumer oriented corporate networks’ a phenomenon which is occurring globally (for example, UK and USA, see Lynch, Hursh), naturally the idea of academic freedom gets pushed back.

Apart from state intervention in controlling the university academic environment and the impact of internal politicisation of university on academic freedom, the culture that prevails within Arts faculties in the Sri Lankan universities needs to be understood in trying to assess its role in the low intellectual output found in the Arts faculties.

2. Culture among the university academics

The prevalent culture of the Sri Lankan university rather than being taken as a remnant of the past could be better understood as a product of contemporary socio-political factors that reproduce some of the premodern characteristics for the benefit of the modern with a negative twist to it. Institutional structures in the Sri Lankan universities are based and maintained on status and seniority, sustained socially and ideologically, through informal networking and group formations, and informal negative sanctions as a form of control.  Sri Lankan universities inherited their prevalent culture partly from the British culture of education and is partly formed by the traditional culture based on the position of the guru or the teacher which has been observed very early on in Sri Lankan university life (Peiris, 1995b: 199-200) and on which earlier generations of academics depended for the reproduction of their institutional traditions.

Guru – gola relationship

G.H. Peiris (1995b: 200) has referred to a ‘seamy side’ in the life of university academics which Professor of English Ludowyk described early on in the following manner: ‘In an eastern country the don is likely to receive the traditional respect given to the guru. Indeed the don at the University of Ceylon seems to have inherited the best of the two worlds of contemporary officialdom and old custom. …once in on an upper second class, we were in for keeps” , the last point referring to the fact that generally once recruited these lecturers were assured tenure up to retirement. While staff-student relations at the time were based on entirely ‘personal impressions,’ there were a group of exceptional teachers whose list was headed by Sarachchandra with his fame for Maname and Sinhabahu, who commanded widespread respect. ‘But’, Peiris observed, that ‘what these personages had among the students were fans rather than friends’ (Peiris, 1995b:  199-200). Having students as fans rather than academic friends is a practice that is found to have continued among university academics in Sri Lanka to this day.

The gurus are supposed to have golas or the disciples the relationship between them forming the centre of academic life in the university. Later with the entry of the monolingual generation of teachers and students the guru culture continued however with increasingly diminishing intellectual content as politicisation and careerism and later consumerism took over the life of the university academia as being discussed in these pages. In the deteriorated guru – gola relationship teachers adopt students or golayas individually and ideologically. Sri Lankan university academics prefer to recruit their own students to the staff, and students who are thus hired generally tend to become acolytes of teachers, serving them even as personal assistants, a point that would be further discussed later in this paper.

Ideological camps

Ideological camps are a part of the academia traditionally in the universities around the world where academics generally seek to perpetuate their own ideological lines. While this leads to competition between affiliates of different ideological camps, it is professionalism in relating to each other belonging to different ideological camps that would prevent ideological differences leading to factional politics and disputes becoming destructive for the institution. In the context of Arts faculties in Sri Lankan universities, in general, a democratic culture and a robust sense of professionalism that promotes the ability to see ideological positions as enriching one another and allowing space democratically for each other, is deficient among the academia.  

A hierarchy of seniority

Careerists among Sri Lankan university academics are predominantly oriented to self-advancement through obtaining senior positions which may not necessarily coincide with achieving academic excellence in teaching or research (see reference to Weerasinghe     below). It is because the culture is such that the positions are given prestige and social status irrespective of whether the performance of the person accords with the academic worth of the title the person holds. The process of making appointments to senior positions on the basis of merit is marred by issues of favouritism, political patronage – internal politics and now increasingly party political affiliations. Authorities tend to favour, in appointing to senior positions, those who are politically on their side irrespective of whether the person is the most qualified. Like in government departments, promotions and thereby authority is assigned by seniority which can be surpassed by merit only in the form of reaching a promotion to a higher grade the pinnacle of which is  professorship which once achieved overrides other categories except senior professorship by merit or the post of Chair by appointment.  Career advancement through the line of seniority is taken to be the just means of organising the institutional life in the academia in the absence of a professorship earned through “merit” and this would require making sure that everyone gets his or her due opportunity for this advancement. The line of seniority lies in obtaining the positions Head (seniority), Associate Professor, Professor, Senior Professor, Emeritus Professor (all on merit), and now increasingly positions for post-retirement employment and benefits which are generally found outside the academia. 

The dream of university academics in general is to acquire increasingly higher positions in the hierarchy and seek to change the institution coming under the position ranging from a Department in the university to the University Grants Commission according to one’s own ideas, with the clout the position has thus acquired.  Hence, the competition is on to acquire these related posts. The development of an academic department or a Faculty is seen as a matter of management understood as achieving pre-determined objectives irrespective of whether a consensus can be built through collective dialogue and effort around such objectives. Hence, such work is considered the outcome of work of a few led by one individual, the Head who knows how to organise things with maximum efficiency and therefore merely an issue of management rather than the outcome of a collective effort. Many a Head of Department and  a Dean though they get their authority from the collective agreement of the members of the department or the faculty, once appointed or elected tend to act like managers of a government department, or worse, a corporate sector. This is perhaps partly a response to factionalism found in the Sri Lankan universities which override professionalism.  To make sure that everyone follows this line the organisation of the academia has to be hierarchical to keep juniors in place. While internationally, universities are found to be hierarchical (and patriarchal) (Lynch, 2006:13), what we need to examine are the specific factors found in Sri Lankan universities to sustain the hierarchy in the manner it exists.

Recruiting one’s own students strengthens hierarchy

Recruiting one’s own students in the same academic department to junior positions in the staff which is the predominant method of staffing, strengthens the hierarchical character of the relations within the staff, where the teacher-student relationship is sustained even at the staff level ensuring maintaining the system, for which the seniors have to wield authority. There is competition among different ideological and social groups or individuals to recruit their own favourites to junior positions. Lacking in open procedure that would allow a department to arrive at a consensus and subject to pressure brought on by politicians and administrators , such appointments yield to intense lobbying, more secretive than public ones.

Those senior academics that did not have the benefit of being exposed to a broad liberal Arts education whether monolingual or not, tend to turn inwards and would not like their position being undermined by juniors.  The sense of inadequacy generated by monolingualism  would have contributed partly to develop a culture of what is termed ‘servility’ among the academics via the process of recruiting one’s own students who would not challenge the authority of seniors whether in terms of intellectual views one holds or in taking decisions on administrative matters.  Junior lecturers fear the consequences of stepping out of line in terms of views or positions that would go against those held by seniors who hold positions of importance as their reactions can make their life difficult. They may lose opportunities to advance themselves via positions obtained within university which will earn them marks for promotions. 

The competent among seniors want to have more time and resources in their hands to engage in their own research which they consider a priority.  For the seniors this is how academics conduct themselves; this is the way of maintaining the good life they believe in. A university teaching job has been a comfortable job with high social status when society used to value knowledge which however has changed by now.  Keeping the juniors in a ‘servile’ position helps the seniors to free themselves from the drudgery of labour in lecturing, marking answer scripts, assignments etc., to devote their time to do research which would earn them points for promotions or to engage in consultancies and sit on boards etc. which would earn them money, social status and recognition, and opportunities for foreign trips etc., all of which in their view are legitimate endeavours of being a senior academic. Juniors have to do the project work for seniors, assist them even in their personal work, do research for them, and translate articles, etc., like during the so-called training periods in corporate sector firms. Not all such work is paid for by the seniors. In advanced capitalist countries in the global North graduate students are hired to do such work for teaching and research, paid either by the university (teaching) or research (grants). In Sri Lankan universities there are no such schemes and juniors are hired to do a job and serve the seniors individually unlike graduate students abroad paid by research grants.  

Promotions are through a scheme for which academics require collecting points and that is what academics do since day one in joining the service, for which one needs to secure various positions within the academic department, the faculty and university and outside the university. Even though there is no formal agreement, seniority is taken to be the criteria for allowing these opportunities to juniors. Seniors make every effort to ensure that their golayas get opportunities to collect these marks. What is lacking is a robust professionalism, and clear-cut rules based on discussions and consensus, in making these positions available. 

It is partly the class and social background that makes academics compete for posts at the expense of their duty towards the university community or the public and consider  teaching as a career for self advancement – through occupying positions, collecting marks to become a professor and so on rather than a vocation for which one is committed with a passion. Coming from lower social classes, if academics are compelled to build their own lives from scratch as it were, and if the university teaching job is their means of social mobility they have the need to earn money in addition to the salary to build their lives and their families, and academic positions become a means to improve one’s lot materially and socially, given that they have families to support, children to be brought up and educated. 

It is partly the significance university academics attach to seeking career advancement through competition for posts that is responsible for the apathy observed among the academia on public issues. Some of them may take careerism to be a form of excellence. Others may consider academic freedom within the limits of their own academic fields and hence will keep silent on matters of public interest appearing in public only on safe issues related to their own disciplines. Some of them will make public responses only in extreme situations while others focus their energies on internal factional politics mostly behind the scene. Some are competent academics but remain careerists, thinking mainly of their personal advancement – acquiring positions, establishing one’s authority – as the target of academic life and do not get involved in controversial public issues. Also, some are weak as academics and in their exposure to the world due to limitations imposed by monolingualism and therefore are unable to stand on their own as independent academics. 

The post of professor in the Sri Lankan university set up has come into disrepute as illustrated by the commentary of senior university academic Ruvan Weerasinghe (2009)  [13] who argued that the promotion scheme for professorship in Sri Lankan universities operative at the time he was writing, was so ‘minutely specified, that it could be targeted by any academic without any interest in research or teaching.’ Weerasinghe argues that the post of professor has its value of a qualification to be flaunted in public for all purposes, and the title is often used as a symbol of elitism, ‘a social status marker which is used to exhibit arrogance and snobbishness,’ rather than one ‘signifying a dedication to a life spent in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.’ The quality of those who are holding the post of professor had gone down significantly.  ‘The quest to give yourself in service, and that of collecting points to become a professor are not always aligned – often one is done at the expense of the other.’ If the idea of being a professor is understood in its traditional meaning as spending  one’s life ‘in the pursuit of knowledge creation and dissemination the way the masters of scientific research did in the past,’  then many in the academia today would not qualify to become professors. Given the possibility of,  and the scrambling for,  becoming a professor at the time Weerasinghe wrote the above, it can be argued that what Sri Lankan academia had done was to revise the yardstick of measuring a professorship to suit their own needs, thus demeaning the post of professor stripping it of its substance. However, since then, the promotion scheme for the post of the Professor  in state sector universities in Sri Lanka has been revised, making the criteria more stringent.

Following up on the above discussion on the culture among the university academics,  in the next section of the paper some of the key areas of university academic life coming under public criticism are addressed with a view to develop a response to such criticism as seen from the perspective of academics. The key issues thus addressed are, the lower intellectual contribution of the present generation of academics compared to the previous two generations, low output of research and turning a blind  eye to ragging and student violence.

3.  Public criticisms of University academics

Three Generations of Academics

It is Sri Lankan society and politics that produced the university we have today compared to the original “small good university” which Ivor Jennings setup in Sri Lanka following the Oxbridge model and provided a liberal Arts education,  even though it may not have met the expectations of  someone like Ananda Coomaraswamy for a ‘genuinely’ Sri Lankan university  (see, කුමාරස්වාමි, 1965).

The University College established by the British in 1921 developed into a Liberal Arts college. At its core were the Humanities and Social Sciences  (De Silva, 1995a :7; Peiris 1995a: 110 ). Colonial tertiary level education combined the utilitarian purpose of employment needs with nationalist intellectual aspirations. Behind setting up of the University was the emerging nationalist demand for a fully pledged national university which would ‘inculcate independence of thought [and] revitalise indigenous culture’ catering at the same time to the economic needs of the country (Peiris, 1995a: 110).

The University of Ceylon was established in 1942 and its transfer from Colombo to the new site at Peradeniya commenced in the early fifties.  Thereafter for nearly ten years Peradeniya university remained almost exclusively the domain of the liberal Arts and Humanities (Peiris, 1995a: 111) within the Faculty of Arts and Oriental Studies.  K.M. de Silva noted that “[B]y 1955 the University of Ceylon seemed poised for development into one of the major universities of the commonwealth (de Silva, 1995b: 22).  G.H. Peiris (1995a: 113) observed that ‘[F]or a brief and exhilarating spell during the fifties, the university seemed almost in full bloom, productive and lustrous, and offering an acceptable blend between the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘utilitarian’ functions of higher education. Throughout the fifties the university of Peradeniya did place considerable emphasis on the maintenance of  high academic standards.  In the Arts disciplines the university laid stress in student initiative ( Peiris, ibid: 112).  The Faculty of Arts and Oriental Studies acquired widespread recognition in its contribution to the fine Arts, drama, cinema, and literature but also to historical, language and Buddhist studies. ‘Terms such as Peradeniya school came into vogue among the literati according the university a place in the literary mainstreams in the country and made a significant contribution to the enrichment of Arts and cultural life’ (Peiris, ibid: 113).

The socio economic and political context which gives rise to the present generation of academics is much different to that of  the previous two generations.  Ajith Samaranayake, a  bi-lingual journalist, a product of liberal Arts general education and arguably the most sophisticated and theoretically informed  Sri Lankan journalist of the ‘70s generation has made some pertinent observations in this regard.  In the country, the ‘50s and early ‘60s were a period of leisurely politics and the genteel cultural taste (Samaranayake, 2003b) . The previous two generations of academics had a different history. They benefitted not only from an English medium education but more importantly from the broad culture of liberal Arts education. More specifically they had the advantage of being exposed to an education in the classics and literature Western or Eastern. Samaranayake observed that ‘[T]he first generation was an intelligentsia raised almost exclusively by the high culture of Leavisean literary criticism, humanities and products of a wider liberal classical culture of which the Jennigsian Peradeniya was the archetypal model’ and ‘[T]he breadth and intellectual calibre of the Ludowyk Leavis Scrutiny New Criticism intellectual training and Literary critical sensibility’ which was associated with it were not available for the third generation of Sri Lankan academics that came up in ‘80s and ‘90s ( Samaranayake, 2003b ) .

The first two generations of  Sri Lankan University academics were influenced either directly or indirectly (if not, tempered) by political struggles of their own times. The first generation of the ‘40s and ’50s  in the anti-colonial struggles; and the second generation, in the political movement that brought about the victories of the anti-imperialist, nationalist, left of centre Bandaranaike government of 1956 and the victory  of the SLFP – Left alliance government of 1970 which was also seen as a victory of forces against imperialism. Such political and ideological influences must have opened their minds to a sense of idealism, social commitment and a responsibility and thereby making them committed to their vocations as part of a project for nation building. In the post-77 period the possibility of benefitting from such idealism  was diluted by the emergence of the market economy and the rise of individualism and marred by recurring political violence in the South and a protracted war in the North and the East of the country.

The monolingual generation of  the ’80s and ‘90s did not have the benefit of the broad intellectual sympathies of the two predecessor generations influenced by anti-imperialist and nation building projects. The former were also  influenced by significant political events of their times however with  a negative bent. The cumulative effect of the events in the 1987 -90  period of terror which saw large scale killing of youth in the South has produced a different type of young generation whose attitude to life has become cynical and cautious in their approach to collective life.  Intensified ethnic conflict in the post-1983 period which brought out an extended war in the North and the East of the country and the associated destruction on a massive scale of both property and life and hence severe disruption of social and political stability have affected the mindset of this generation. Coming from the lower social strata, this generation of university academics lacks the social background to inculcate in them a sense of preserving institutional values over theconsumerist ethos within which they were brought up. They may be apathetic to what is going around them as a means of risk avoidance given that economic and social climbing is crucial for them.

Low output of research

The focus of theSri Lankan university system in general and Arts education in particular have been oriented to undergraduate teaching with very little attention paid to developing  graduate studies. In general Sri Lankan universities have not considered themselves as research universities where there are full time graduate students to whom the faculty can present their research in teaching seminars, and where graduate students are trained.  Funding opportunities for research provided by grants from the state affiliated or corporate sector agencies are highly limited and very competitive. Existing graduate studies programmes in the social sciences and humanities generally falls far below in terms of proper supervision and application of rigorous standards that are internationally comparable in graduate studies, resulting in poor quality.  Current low quality of  post graduates studies are partly due to the lack of English knowledge on the part of students.  They are also generally employed full time, many of them working in highly time demanding jobs. Their  family responsibilities, and transport issues that prevent them from staying until late after work to engage in studying,  and a lack of a post graduate culture in the university are some issues that contribute to the poor quality of graduate study programmes. Students are apathetic even at the post graduate level, lack interest in academic studies and scholarship.  Mushrooming post graduate courses in every imaginable field have turned out to be an occasion for a ritual practice of credentialising  graduates where students whether in the private institutes or public sector universities pay fees and expect to earn the credentials.  One lecturer supervises a large number of students, which leads to poor quality and standards of research thus produced.  Many students find that they can obtain high marks without much of an effort and post graduate teaching is a good source of supplementary income for university academics.

Ragging and student violence

If Sri Lankan university academics turned a blind  eye to ragging and student violence as they are accused of, the reasons for that could be complex. Ragging and student violence in Sri Lankan  universities have been linked to student politics  to which the teachers’ politics also has been linked at certain times and varying levels.  Students and teachers in the universities shared an interest in politics from the early days of university, when the traditional left parties such as the Communist Party and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party dominated the university political scene. There was a healthy atmosphere of political activism mainly among students. Teachers adhered to ‘Queensbury rules’ of staff politics that kept staff politics away from students. However, these rules were discarded soon even before the end of the first decade since the University of Ceylon was shifted to Peradeniya. In the 1958 tar brush campaign against Tamils at Peradeniya, university teachers influenced students. Students were manipulated more openly in politics during 1970-77 period where both the manipulated and those who manipulated them received rewards, in terms of political patronage and protection (Peiris, 1995b: 185-236) . 

In the history of Sri Lankan universities ragging has been traditionally interpreted as a measure to level out the influence of class element among students in terms of economic and social background and habits, the school one attended, and whether one was rural or urban. At the beginning at Peradeniya university the difference was identified as one between the “culta” s (the cultured) and the “hara” s (the rustics) and the culta s claimed superiority over the hara s in terms of “culture.”  Consequently the  hara s ragged the culta s presumably to even out the class and social differences. The idea of using ragging as a means of levelling out which would have been acquired from the Oxbridge model got heightened  in the universities established later to teach in the swabhasha  which were dominated by students from rural areas and lower socio economic backgrounds. 

In the context of student politics, ragging would have been used as a means of “getting to know” the freshers and thereby recruiting them to political groups. It is with the entry of the JVP into student politics in the late ‘60s that ragging and student violence takes the pernicious form that the Sri Lankan universities have experienced since then. In 1970s Sri Lankan universities turned out to be strongholds of the JVP, signalling the end of an era dominated by mainstream left politics. The JVP led Samajavadi Shishya Peramuna (SSP) dominated university student politics since 1970s  and violence associated with their radical politics has affected the universities negatively.  The JVP led SSP used ragging as a means of recruiting cadres to its student movement and then to the party.  In the post ‘77 period with the UNP coming to power in national politics the UNP led Samavadi Shishya Peramuna sought to challenge the JVP domination by using state power. In the 1980-81 period at Peradeniya University there were violent election clashes between Samavadi and Samajavadi student groups, which were re-enacted in other universities as well where the JVP had a stronghold.  Later in the 1989-91 period the Minister of Higher Education in the UNP regime Shaul Hameed followed a policy of what has been termed ‘craven appeasement’ of the JVP led SSP which unleashed violence (de Silva, 1995e:  65-68).  

At Peradeniya University teachers have opposed ragging  and the violent JVP student politics  and in the 1980s have supported anti ragging and anti violence moves taken by the university administrations  (de Silva, 1995d:  40-41, 48, de Silva, 1995e: 54- 73). Such opposition to ragging and violent JVP student politics  has not been uncommon among the  academics in other Sri Lankan universities. 

University academics who are themselves products of Sri Lankan universities tend to be affected by their involvement in ragging during their student days as either perpetrators or victims and therefore tend to hold views on ragging influenced by their own experience.  One such view that prevails among some academics is that ragging creates a mindset that is conducive to collective action of students and university academics that are recruited from among the ranks of such students. However, university academics as a collective cannot be said to condone ragging especially in its harsher forms or student violence. 

In their efforts to counter ragging and violence carried out by JVP led student groups in the university, the governments in power have created pro-government and pro-administration student groups who continue to engage in ragging and violence. At present, it is reported that that attempts by university academics to stop ragging and student violence are hampered by the pro-government student groups who get the backing of the political regime in power and university administrators. 

While there is a lot of public criticism of university academics, students also have come under criticism from the side of academics as to their outlook and behaviour affecting the quality of education. In the following section of this paper some such criticisms raised by teachers are outlined for discussion with teachers’ response to arts students lacking in academic training.

4.  Arts Students Lacking an Academic Training and the Response of Teachers

Teachers in the Arts faculties of Sri Lankan universities find that the average arts student is apathetic[14] and that the poor quality and lack of interest in education among the average Arts student affects the quality of Arts education: these students lack interest in participating in lectures and discussion classes except as an obligation to get the marks; they are not willing to spend the necessary hours for studying; they cannot read in English; they complain about the volume of  readings assigned to them; they are not interested in academic education but merely want to obtain the degree certificate and expect to get the highest grade with the minimum amount of work on their part. The general standard among the university students studying in Sinhala medium in the Arts faculties have come down in terms of their basic grammar, spelling,  proper use of words, academic style of writing sans journalistic rhetoric etc. even in the use of their mother tongue whether it is Sinhala or Tamil.   

Student attitudes frustrate teachers. Teachers find that they have to make an extra effort to get students motivated or interested in academic work; they cannot be taught easily and they are unresponsive to academic work. The reason, arguably, is their lack of academic training. Regular interaction between students and teachers outside the class room has been considerably reduced mainly due to peer pressure among the students against attempts to rise above the group. In the student parlance having close interaction with teachers is called ‘muttiya allanawa’ which means being a stooge.

The present generation of Arts students  studying in the swabhasha medium is a product of mass education,  a tuition culture and a belief that education is only or mainly for employment. The tuition culture catering to rote-learning for public examinations, of which the present generation of students are a product, prepare them to score high in the competitive examinations by memorising and regurgitating answers pre-formulated by tuition masters. They in general do not have the social background nor the training to benefit from an academic model and hence are not geared for serious academic learning. They face a doubly hard task of improving themselves if they are to do study in the English medium for which they have no competence. In the university when they are required to read material in English or even academic work in Sinhala and make sense of intellectual ideas for themselves, they find themselves in a situation for which they are totally unprepared and hence frustrated.

Consumer orientation

The spreading of consumerism in society which the students bring to the class room is making a significant contribution to the decline in educational standards. A British academic observed that globally, over the last decade, universities have been increasingly transformed into powerful consumer-oriented corporate networks, whose public interest values born out of the Enlightenment have been seriously challenged across the world (Rutherford cited in Lynch, 2006:1) . It has been observed that in countries in the developed capitalist world university students bring a consumerist ethos to the classroom  (Edmundson, 1997 ) and that university culture has become a consumerist culture (McHugh, 1992). Professor Peter McHugh (ibid. ) who believes that universities must challenge students with the original promise of education, that is, guiding them to transcend themselves, resigned from York University in Toronto in protest against the administration taking the side of consumer-students against teachers.  While the university is a product of society we have arrived at a society which does not value what was originally thought to be the  object of the university, whether it is to ‘learn to confront oneself’, ‘to value something outside oneself’ (Edmundson, 1997)  or as to guide the students to ask questions such as  “What are we? and How should we live?” (McHugh, 1992).

In Sri Lankan universities students operating within free education model also act as consumers in demanding by implication of their action that they should be given the degree certificate without having to attend the classes and with minimum work. An exam oriented Sri Lankan student produced by a tuition culture with a shallow knowledge base in subject matter and a poor civic consciousness treats education as a commodity bringing a consumerist ethos to the class room. Many post graduate students in the university who pay tuition fees also increasingly behave like consumers and are less interested in academic studies and scholarship. They attempt to get through the examinations without properly attending lectures and participating in seminars etc, without spending sufficient time and effort to produce good written work.

Roy Turner, a university teacher from Canada once asked the question “How can one educate the uneducable?” [15]He  noted that it is not as if the students whom he was complaining about had no habituation or ethos. I want to suggest that those who cannot be educated are the ones who are not taught to respond to what is being taught, the unresponsive ones, whose mind is not trained to say something to a text which means that they cannot let the text speak to them. Such people, I want to suggest are products of a consumerist attitude whose prior training in the tuition culture  and the idea of purchasing the degree certificate would not involve engaging the texts thus taking a risk in terms of putting oneself out and therefore open oneself up for challenge by views of others. However, not all academics agree with the above view of Arts students. For example, an academic from the Faculty of Arts, Peradeniya University observed that the faculty has “been blessed with students who, if shown the way, are ready to challenge, criticise, admire, reflect and finally change for the good ” (Karunanayake, 2011) .

If Arts students who have been trained in a tuition culture have been acting as consumers in the market mainly interested in obtaining credentials with a view to secure employment, university academics have continued with a model of education that treats itself as the instrument of production of knowledge thus giving rise to a conflict of interest between the academics and students. While the public criticism is on the lecturer as note-giver, the average arts student continues to demand the lecture note from teachers. It is to examine some aspects of this conflict and its implications that we turn to in the next section of the paper.

The response of teachers: the “note-giver” and the “difficult teacher”

The proverbial note provider as the lecturer who has come to much public attention, and its opposite, the “difficult teacher” who demands the highest performance from his students, both are variations, at two ends, of taking education as production of knowledge, whereas the majority would fall somewhere in between. The middle ground would be what is now called ‘student centred learning’ which itself is a simplification of the academic model. 

The “difficult teacher” would follow the academic model of teaching and would want to focus on the few good students who are capable of responding to academic demands and requires students to read in English and engage in intellectually demanding hard work. This academic model of teaching aims at imparting the latest knowledge in the field and requires students who are already prepared for the task, with the necessary social background. Generally, such academically oriented students are very small in number not only among the average Arts student but even among the average postgraduate student in the Arts stream, or even elsewhere.

The proverbial note-giver, according to the legend, is the lecturer who slowly reads out the well prepared lecture note in Sinhala or Tamil (or even in English), and expects the students to faithfully reproduce it in the examination. Such a minimalist attitude in teaching caters to the student merely interested in obtaining credentials with the minimum effort, simply giving them some information of subject matter so that they can pass the examinations and get a certificate.  It focuses on the student at the lower end who needs only ‘the skills of stenography’ to study, as one educator commented.  This could be due to the inability of the lecturers being monolingual to add new knowledge through the latest developments in the field, or even the apathy of a lecturer proficient also in English. The target of  the criticism of the “note-giving lecturer” is the idea of a written lecture note on the subject which is believed to have been passed down from generation to generation  and delivered to students  generating a vicious cycle of producing increasing mediocrity among the intellectuals. 

Despite the prevailing popular perception one wonders whether many lecturers today will continue to reproduce lecture notes handed down from previous generations of lecturers, given that periodically curriculum reviews are undertaken and lecturers are required to update their knowledge of subject matter. However, it should be added that the use of lecture note as a method of teaching in itself may not show lack of knowledge on the part of the lecturer.  It has been seen that even a ‘handed-down’ lecture note can motivate students to engage in intellectual debate, curiosity and development in the hands of a lecturer who has been shown the skill for undertaking such a form of teaching. 

What is driving the present “crisis” in education is the demand that education should be socially relevant. In Sri Lanka, the perceived crisis originates in the post-liberalisation period with the push for structural adjustments in the economy and World Bank interventions in the field of education. The crisis is understood as two fold. On one hand there is the notion of a mismatch between education and employment which has been recognised since 1970s. On the other there is the idea that while a large number of youth qualify to enter university only a very small percentage of them get the opportunity given that the state sector universities have limited capacity. It is to solve this aspect of the crisis that opening up the field of education for competition in the market place is advocated. The following section of the paper addresses some issues related to the idea of making education socially relevant.

5. Making education socially relevant

Liberal arts education considers education having an intrinsic value whereas turning education into professional or vocational training or indoctrination in political ideologies considers education as serving social relevance. Bringing in “social relevance” to judge the value of  auniversity, making the sole criteria of education of it being relevant for graduates to find employment are ways of making education relevant for the needs of the market. Trying to match education only with employment is the sure way to produce a nation of employees rather than good citizens. While citizens may need to be employees, producing mere employees who are ignorant of the value of engaging in active citizenship would make a nation poor in its spirit.

World Bank educational reforms in Sri Lanka take off from the observation that educational standards have drastically come down. The blame is placed on what is taken to be excessive academic orientation of teaching. It is urged to shift the focus to making education relevant for the growth of the economy and servicing the “knowledge economy” by training the undergraduates in skills that are expected to equip them to be employed in the global knowledge economy. Ironically, arguably universities have become irrelevant not because they do not teach employable skills to undergraduates but because of the logic of capitalism which has turned education into only a marketable commodity and a highly profitable industry. 

Ideological indoctrination

Ideological indoctrination practiced by teachers in the class room is also understood as one way of making education relevant for contemporary times. In the hands of such teachers ideological indoctrination of students has been substituted for giving students the material and guidance in exploring for themselves,  so that they can become independent in their thinking. It is an extension of politicisation of the university culture that university teachers choose to indoctrinate students in the class room in political ideologies the teachers believe in rather than making such ideologies part of the study of a subject in which any given  ideology is only one interpretation and thereby needs academic study and critical scrutiny in comparison to other ideologies.

A similar situation is obtained both in undergraduate or graduate studies when the teacher treats the student as an apprentice, a disciple working under her, rather than helping students to advance from where they are and become independent in thinking and work. Some university academics get the students to do research in areas that are of interest to them rather than guiding the student to explore one’s own research interests in a manner that the student develops her topic in a direction where she is benefitted in the form of engaging in self exploration via research and from the supervisor’s expertise in philosophy and methodology of research and not merely in the subject matter of research. On the part of some teachers, making education socially relevant is taken to mean relaxing the standards for the sake of giving the degree; such teachers are reluctant to demand certain minimum basic standards from students.

Practicability of what is taught

One issue that has been raised with regard to the social relevance of education is that in academically oriented education the book knowledge imparted to students may not have utility in the life of the work place outside the academia, as if in the academic education students do not learn anything of value to their lives other than the book knowledge.  The argument goes that many of them will fit into jobs which would not test their academic knowledge so much or conversely that there is a mismatch between the education the young receive and the employment available in the market for them. The value of academic education has come into serious questioning on the notion of the mismatch, an issue that will be discussed below.  However, arguably in Arts education what matters is not so much the subject matter but equally if not more importantly how it is taught. This is borne out  by the exemplary professional performance by those belonging to the early generations of university education in the country with their degrees in Liberal Arts and humanities even in so-called  ‘dead languages’ such as Pali and Sanskrit etc., in that they could rise to the highest levels of whatever career they chose.   The mismatch argument ignores that proper training in Liberal Arts and Humanities are known to be able to provide the students with intellectual skills in critical thinking, analytical abilities, logical and complex reasoning, ability to conceptualise and the ability to apply knowledge to new situations (see, Nussbaum, 2010) . If the Arts students are not equipped with these skills, the responsibility does not lie with Arts education per se but in how it is done and the conditions under which it is carried out.

Unemployability of graduates

Undergraduate education  in Sri Lankan universities has increasingly moved from the idea of producing people with positive attitudes to life to that of making students employable. It is popularly believed that what our students need are technical skills such as IT and English etc. and other soft skills relevant to finding  employment in the market. However, the unemployability of graduates does not appear to be a phenomenon limited to Arts students.  It is acknowledge by policy makers to be spreading among science graduates as well.  Science graduates are recruited for management positions in all sectors outside their subject specialisations and they are entering into what have traditionally been considered employment areas for Arts graduates. That the non-graduates take the jobs in the corporate sector when graduates are languishing without jobs is more than a class bias on the part of the employers and perhaps has to do with the skills and attitudes which the employers are looking for in potential employees which has to do with more than mere IT, English or social skills. In this context the claim that, despite their book knowledge of the subjects they have learnt, students lack the ability to apply their knowledge to a given situation has to be examined.

On the one hand there are practices that prevail among the student community and on the other the type of skills universities may unknowingly  imparted to students in the manner academic programmes are run and the day to day affairs are conducted in the university in and out of the class room.

The ability to apply knowledge at higher levels needs the capacity to be innovative and be creative in thinking. The tuition culture, as discussed earlier, stifles creativity and innovativeness of students.  Voluntary initiatives of students in the university is suppressed in the peer culture labelled as an attempt to rise above the rest which is considered politically a negative factor and strongly discouraged. If students obtain easy marks and large numbers of them obtain class levels in passing the degree sometimes without even attending the classes properly or at all,  they will learn that what is required in achieving higher grades is not so much one’s own competence and performance but knowing how to manipulate the circumstances, including assessment questions, to one’s advantage. If the students obtain high levels of marks despite low standards in grammar, writing skills and poor referencing they will learn that obtaining higher  marks in “academic “ writing does not require overall high standards in producing written assignments. If students are not given sufficient writing assignments to show that they have the ability to apply what they have learned in developing independent thinking and if their writing is not evaluated properly and feedback comments given back to them in time, they will not learn to apply knowledge they gain from academic learning.

If the university students are able to engage in various extracurricular activities during the academic calendar cutting into class time, they will learn that universities do not  give due importance to class room education and hence would not participate actively in it. If students are able to engage in using the force of the mob in university affairs, backed by political power to act undemocratically with impunity,  they will learn that they can prevail over rules of the university and laws of the land.  If there is no demand for accountability on  the action of students in terms of absence from class flouting the required levels of class attendance, undemocratic political acts, violence on fellow students in the form of ragging and other forms of violence and on academic and non academic staff, they will learn they could get away by violating rules as long as authorities pay only lip service to applying the rules and the political authorities turn a blind eye.

Students themselves have come to accept the notion popularised by the authorities that the university academic learning has no practical value.  Students would be blaming society for their incompetency to read in English as they did not get the opportunity to lay a foundation to learn English at home or in school. Students are unable to sustain an interest in academic education due to their lack of prior academic training and are not helped by lecturers lacking the methodologies to generate and sustain such an interest. Students may not want to spend too much time on studies [16] given that they prefer to follow various courses outside the university which are supposed to have a market value which the Arts degree does not possess. Thus they may give priority over the Arts degree to courses in fields such as human resources management, accountancy, psychology and counselling which they believe are necessary to find employment, the veracity of which is not necessarily established by empirical evidence.  

That there is a move away from the model of academic education towards making education more relevant to the demands of society, which is to say the demands of the market, has brought about a conflict of interest between students who are mostly the products of mass society and those teachers who see their role as one of promoting academic learning and preparing the young to become good citizens. The conflict has left both students and teachers frustrated and passing the responsibility on to the other for what they perceive as the failure in the system while increasingly more and more teachers have begun to respond by switching onto ‘employment-oriented teaching’ and to lessen the workload of students and simply give them easy marks to cater to their needs. It is said that ‘student centred learning’ would, to a large extent, provide the answer to the above conflict of interests generated between students and academics in the backdrop of mass education.  

6. Student Centred Learning vs. Education as Elite Formation

New pedagogies [17] that aim at developing student centred learning propose to develop ‘reflection-oriented education’ under mass education which is  believed to anyway equip the undergraduates to fit into any employment of their choice.  It is argued within this perspective that the best that can be done in the age  of mass education is to aim at giving the mass individual the basic skills to reflect and to judge and therefore to attend skilfully to any task at hand. Such training should equip them to eventually take the improvement of these skills into their own hands, acting as an autonomous or independent learner. Skills such as interpretation, analysis, synthesis, formulation of one’s own ideas  which previously students were encouraged to develop in the process of academic education, have to be imparted to the present generation of mass students in small doses to suit their capacity, through the introduction of small changes in their practices and thereby in the way they think about themselves, their subjects and the world. The real issue in mass education is how to take the students at the lower and the middle level to higher levels by challenging and supporting them through appropriate  methods of teaching. Students  who are already at the higher level, the academically oriented student with the appropriate social background will do well with only a little bit of help from teachers.  Therefore rather than focussing on the very few at the top like the “difficult teacher” discussed above would wont to do which is the model of elite recruitment via academic education, the teacher in this instance is expected to focus more on those at the lower levels. The energies of the teachers could be more fruitfully focussed on this large majority, who otherwise will be without even the basic skills to reflect and judge without which one may not be able to  contribute fruitfully to  the collective life as a citizen, including in employment. This model of education clashes with the traditional model that considers education as part of the process of elite formation.

Education as elite formation?

It needs to be considered whether Sri Lanka can afford to follow a model of social change based on elite recruitment, a meritocracy, a la Plato or Pareto, or the Singapore model. In the age of democracy a society can think only of the elite to the neglect of the quality of large masses at the risk of entire society’s peril. Modern societies adopted a model of mass undergraduate education and elite graduate education which is also increasingly assuming the form of a mass education worldwide.

Today, while university education may produce a few who would qualify to be called the elite to be recruited to take the lead in society at all levels hoping that they would contribute to make society a better place, a society cannot afford to neglect training the large mass of the population to act as citizens.  

It is argued from the perspective of student centred learning, that in the Sri Lankan context, educators need to think of the mass of students who do not have the social background,  the habits that are necessary for academic education which in the old days were provided by admitting the best children of the middle and lower classes to the Central Schools whereas the children of the elite anyway had access to private schools. If people are given the basic training to reflect on what they do there is a possibility that they will reflect and act together, in keeping the society together in the face of all the change that occurs in the world, by changing themselves and thereby changing society in the process. Hence, the task today in the undergraduate studies is to give the large mass of undergraduates – not so much the IT skills and English which they will learn anyway if they have the desire to learn if opportunities are provided, but the skills to engage in reflection  and the skills that would equip them also with an attitude, values and practices of basic civility towards each other.

While important as they are, the prime objective of education cannot be giving students the social skills such as good manners or social etiquette either. What is essential to impart is the skill of being reflective which will arouse the initiative, confidence, and imagination in students enabling them to learn the social skills and technical skills they need while higher level academic learning can be imparted to the best few at the post-graduate level. The argument goes that, to do this we need to gradually show the path to hand over the responsibility of learning to students themselves as much as possible, developing them into independent reflective learners.  It is in response to this crisis in university teaching in the age of mass education that the educators have begun to look at education from the perspective of the student than the teacher. New pedagogies focus  on the fact that in order to learn students need to draw their  existing knowledge out in terms of understanding  learning as interaction between what students already know and what they are expected to learn anew. The idea is that such interaction happens best in discussions among peers, when facilitated by able teachers. It is in the recognition of this fact that the university conducts discussion classes for undergraduates which is supposed to be a  place for discussion among peers.

If the need of the hour is to impart to the students the skills for reflection and judging, then the strategy would be to focus more on the process of learning through the academic content rather than only on the academic contents of ‘what’ the students should be taught.  This requires formally  adopting teaching tools appropriate to meet such a task which are introduced in these new pedagogies elements of which good teachers generally use in varying degrees however informally in their teaching. [18]

What is at stake in the debate over student centred learning versus education as elite formation is the future of liberal arts education given that there is an increasing tendency to interpret student centred learning as  learning free of the authority of the teacher. In the following final section of this paper we turn to examine the fate of liberal arts education in the context of  the relationship between democracy, mass education and the fate of liberal arts in modern technological society.

7. The fate of liberal arts education in modern technological society

Democracy’s promise: Liberal Arts education for all

The age of mass education has come due to democratization. Traditionally the formal training to reflect was a privilege academically imparted to the young of the elite by exposing them to the classical thinking in the course of a liberal arts and humanities education.  If traditionally an academically oriented few students were taught in the university, today the overwhelming majority of students in the university are not academically oriented from their back ground habits or school education. It is not they who are to be blamed, as their social background and habits are related more to everyday immediate tasks required to meet daily needs such that they have not had the necessary time to think and reflect beyond those tasks. It is therefore this aspect that mass education may need to address, by adopting teaching methods to give the necessary opportunity and time the students once lacked in everyday life, but now provided through their subjects in class, for them to see the value and the skills-base that facilitated reflection can develop in them. It is then that education will be able to develop in them their higher thinking skills, seemingly lacking today.

While with democracy education had to be opened up for the masses, the promise of democracy, in relation to education as a non-instrumental activity, is to offer a good liberal arts education to everyone. Irrespective of the social background, as long as they have got an ethos, a sense of the good, children and young people are capable of benefiting from such an education. Initially this was the objective of modern education under democracies. Originally in the capitalist countries in the Northern hemisphere under democracy a good general education system evolved providing a good education to all at a generally equal standard however with some variation within and between countries. A method of elitist education in pre-modern times, and later being made available to all in society under the expanding social rights,  liberal arts education was conducted through teaching the arts, sciences and humanities. Later joined by social sciences and then by professional studies  (see, Oakeshott, 1989) it gradually lost its liberal character becoming more a mode of transmission of subject knowledge, which nevertheless did not threaten the existence of liberal arts education in places where it was taught.

It is with the demand for having relevance or practical value for all of education that the very existence of liberal arts education was threatened by all education being subjected to the dictates of the market. The changes we see happening in the realm of education today are due to education coming under the regime of what Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1998) calls ‘animal laborans’ or the labouring animal and its economic needs finally taking over the realm of education as well.  

With the opening up of education for the masses, in countries like Sri Lanka liberal arts education  imparted through the teaching of subjects, increasingly took the form of a mere academic education on subject matter, the reflective component of which diminished increasingly. The demand on resources, mainly teachers competent to impart a liberal education, seems to be the major factor affecting this change.  Replicating a good Liberal Arts education programme to benefit all those who desire and deserve to have a good education within a nation requires the type of funding that only the state will have. Therefore, there is a practical problem of finding the political will and resources to provide such an education to all those who desire.  It is capitalism that would not allow the expansion of sound liberal arts education to the masses to continue and instead it has turned education into a capitalist industry and hence the tendency to replace education with credentialising.  

The argument that the present generation of students representing the masses are not equipped to benefit from liberal arts teaching is based on the premise that they have not got the required social background. Cannot a good liberal arts education be imparted to young  people who have not got the social background and therefore in whom  the desire and the passion for education are not aroused?  Even though it could be costly to give the large mass of students a liberal arts education   there does not seem to be a basis to argue that they are incapable of benefitting from such an education. In fact in the advanced capitalist countries in the Northern Hemisphere in modern times efforts have been made to provide such an education to the masses. Earl Shorris’ experiment in New York which now has become an internationally recognised programme shows that even school dropouts if persuaded  to put their heart and mind to it could successfully follow a good liberal arts education  (Shorris, 1997).  

Despite such efforts in those countries that inequalities in terms of what such an education enables people persists in society prompting laments from critics like Pierre Bourdieu (1984)  is a political issue and not the fault of the promise of  liberal arts education for all under democracy. When Bourdieu says that our tastes are determined by the social status which we are born into, he seems to be suggesting that democracy has failed in its promise to give everyone the opportunity to rise above one’s birth status and to acquire higher tastes such as taste for a sound education.  It seems that the moderns have interpreted the promise of democracy merely in terms of standards of material living.

Student centred learning  and the authority of the teacher: Taking Responsibility for the World

It is in response to the consequences of the expansion of mass education that the educationists have come up with pedagogies focussing on  the value of student centred learning. They  focus on introducing  to the students basic skills to reflect as a compensative measure in the absence of an opportunity of a fully pledged  liberal arts education.  

 In our efforts to address the issue of student centred learning being substituted for liberal arts education we can benefit from Roger Berkowitz’s ideas (2011,  2012a, 2012b). He has discussed how in relation to what he calls the ‘flipped classroom’ (2012b) a version of student centred learning seems to be taken to its extreme with the move to limit the teacher to merelydelivering the lecture and substituting for her authority students spending more and more of their time online and thus being able to control and determine their way of learning.

I would like to suggest that if student centred learning be taken to mean that the students should be in charge replacing the authority of the teacher it would undermine the guiding authority of the teacher which is essential for a liberal arts education. In discussing the moves to use new electronic technology to provide mass education Berkowitz observes that technology threatens to strengthen ‘the already present cultural tendency to free students from being under the guidance of qualified teachers’ taking the authority of the teacher out of the picture (2012b). The authority of the teacher is essential in the life of the student in that the ‘teacher does not merely pass the knowledge but in doing so in the manner he does it he takes responsibility for the world. ‘ Commenting  on the status of the existing university undergraduate education in the United States,  which is taken to be unsatisfactory in terms of high tuition fees and very little personal attention the students get, Berkowitz observes that it still is based on a notion of  a teacher being an authority vis a vis the student. Berkowitz finds the new initiatives to substitute university professors with PhDs with less qualified facilitators, staff who would pay more individual attention to the students and also help bring down the cost of tuition will accompany a profound loss of ‘what might be called educational space and, more importantly, educational authority’ resulting in a loss of the essence of education (ibid). 

Education even when it is student centred cannot forgo its task of being ‘the agent of transmission of knowledge production at several levels.’ A university is considered ‘a space for the transmission of knowledge from scholars and scientists to young citizens. This is the knowledge that the young need to gain in order to become specialists in their disciplines whether it is arts, science or humanities or enter the world of work as an employee but more importantly the knowledge they need to gain to become reflective citizens’ (Berkowitz, ibid).

In this context if student centred learning is moving in the direction of replacing the authority of community of professors with facilitators or peers, the field of education will lose its central element, that is the authority of the knowledgeable teacher who takes responsibility for the world by being a teacher, rather than a mere conveyer of knowledge to students.   Berkowitz argues that to take responsibility for the world means to teach students what the world is like and demand that ‘they first learn about the world as it is before they begin to fashion the world as they want it to be.’ It is not the role of the teacher to tell the students what to do about the world, for that is the right of the student himself. All what is requires of the teacher is to prepare students for such a decision, by leading them into an existing world and offering them examples of those who, through freedom and constraint, have throughout history worked to renew and re-inspire our common world” (Berkowitz, 2012a).

Berkowitz reminds us of Hannah Arendt’s (1954) observation that,

“[E]ducation is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable (196).“

Following Arendt, Berkowitz tells us that education is premised on the fact that the young people who arrive in the world must be introduced to the world. ‘In this process of education the key element is the authority of the parent, teacher or professor (2012b).’

For Arendt, “[T]he teacher’s qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world.  Vis-à-vis the child, it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child:  This is our world. “(1954:189).

The teacher plays a conservative role here in that she conserves ‘both the world as it is—insofar as he teaches the child what is rather than what should be or what will be—and the child in her newness—by refusing to tell the child what will be or should be, and thus allowing the child the experience of freedom to rebel against the world when and if the time is right’ (Berkowitz, 2012b).  

Arendt’s point is that education requires that a child be confronted with the world as it is not how the student wants it to be. “It requires authority, and it requires that the student learn to conform to the world…. that the student not be in control and that students be led by an external, adult, and respected authority.” Hence, for Arendt, authority of teachers is central for a successful education. The flipped classroom poses the grave danger of perpetuating ‘the dominant trend of progressive education that has infiltrated teaching at all levels since Piaget and Dewey. It is the claim that students can and ought to be in charge of their own education.’ Radical changes that are made in education aiming at handing over students more control over their education literally removes them from the sphere of the authority figure of the professor (Berkowitz, 2012b).

Berkowitz has discussed how in the US students in liberal arts majors outperformed those studying business, communications, and other practical majors. While it is apparent that non-elite students can benefit from liberal arts education, those who managed to learn a lot often came from better off social backgrounds.  Universities in the US are failing by the non-elite students by restricting them in obtaining credentials for employability.  This is to say that education is again reverting back to a position where it favours the children from well to do social backgrounds (Berkowitz, 2011).

If democracy in the US has failed in providing a good higher education to those from the lower class families, in Sri Lanka too education is failing its students from lower economic and social background by making a good liberal arts education the preserve of the higher classes. Just like in the US, in Sri Lanka education increasingly offers children from non-elite social backgrounds basically credentials. In Sri Lanka initially under free education the expansion of education to all was developed with the objective of providing a good liberal arts education to the best qualified irrespective of their economic or social backgrounds which simultaneously equip the young with the skills and attitude that will help them find suitable employment. However, in positively responding to the political demand for equal education opportunities for all, intellectual quality of education was pushed aside to pave way for the instrumental aspect of education which is credentialising for employability. 

It is necessary to recognise the need to preserve a space for education free from the negative influence of tying education to the provision of employment alone and by extension to economic growth and now increasingly to online technology which are globally increasingly accepted as the objectives of education in the present era. To  retain the essence of liberal learning in today’s circumstances it would be required to bring  a critical perspective to bear on what is happening in the realm of education and working towards creating outside the system of mass education,  spaces to replant the seeds of liberal arts education for however small numbers of students.


සංස්කෘති, 2009, විශ්ව විද්‍යාල විශේෂ අංකය,  12 කලාපය, 4 සඟරාව, කොළඹ, සංස්කෘති ප්‍රකාශන සංගමය, 1965.  නැවත මුද්‍රණය 2009.

කුමාරස්වාමි, ආනන්ද. “ලංකාවේ අධ්‍යාපනය.” සංස්කෘති. 37-51.

උස්වත්තෙ ආරච්චි. “අනාගතයට නෙත් යොමුවක්” සංස්කෘති.  iv.

Arendt, Hannah, “The Crisis in Education.” ​Between Past and Present. New York: Viking Press. 1954. 173-196.

1998, The Human Condition. Second Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Berkowitz, Roger, 2011, Thinking about College, 10the November 2011,

2012a, The Love of the World 22nd October 2012.

2012 b, The Flipped Classroom, 5th October 2012.

John Biggs, 1999. Teaching for Quality learning at University, What the student do, Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education/ Open University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre,  1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste,  Routledge.

De Silva, K.M. and G. H. Peiris. (ed.) 1995, The University System of Sri Lanka, Vision and Reality. Kandy: International Centre of Ethnic Studies. 

De Silva, K.M.  1995a “The early Years and the University College”, in De Silva, K.M. and G. H. Peiris. (ed.) 3-11.

De Silva, K.M.  1995b “The Creation of the University of Ceylon” in De Silva, K.M. and G. H. Peiris. (ed.) 12- 24.

De Silva, K.M. “1995c The University of Ceylon: 1955-78”.  in De Silva, K.M. and G. H. Peiris. (ed.)  25-39.

De Silva, K.M.  1995d, “The University of Peradeniya 1978-87: A Decade of Mixed Fortunes” in De Silva, K.M…  De Silva, K.M. and G. H. Peiris. (ed.)

De Silva, K.M. 1995e, “The University of Peradeniya 1987-94: From Deep Crisis to Modest Recovery”.  De Silva, K.M. and G. H. Peiris. (ed.) 54-73.

Dhanapala, Jayantha, 2011, An open letter to all university heads: A remedy as dangerous as the malady, The Island. November 16, 2011. 

Edmundson, Mark. 1997, “On the uses of a liberal education: 1. as lite entertainment for bored college students.” Harpers, Sept. 39-50.

Finkielkraut, Alain, The Defeat of the Mind, Columbia University Press.

Fonseka, Carlo. 2011, University malady, military remedy! The Island. November 30, 2011.

Hursh, David, 2005, Neo-liberalism, Markets and Accountability: transforming education and undermining  democracy in the United States and England Policy Futures in Education, Volume 3, Number 1.

Goonesekere, Savitri, 2011a, The UGC and the Universities Today, The Island. May 21, 2011

2011b, Creating “Knowledge hubs” and Destroying University Autonomy,  The Island. October 29, 2011,

Guneratne,  Camena, and Harini Amarasuriya, 2011, An Academic Spring  in Sri Lanka?

The island. July 27, 2011.

Karunanayake, Danesh, 2011,  Is there a crisis in higher education?, The Island, June 30, 2011.

Liyanage, Sumanasiri, 2011, Academic Freedom and Quality of Education: Looking for a scapegoat, The Island. December 4, 2011. 

Lynch, Kathleen.  2006, Neo-liberalism and Marketisation:  the implications for higher education, European Educational Research Journal, Volume 5, Number 1.

McHugh, Peter, 1992, A Resignation, Dianoia, Vol.2, No. 2 pp. 106-111. Spring 1992.

Oakeshott, Michael. 1989, Voice of Liberal Learning,Yale University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha.  2010,  Not for Profit Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton University Press.

Peiris, G.H.   1995a, “Faculties of Arts and Oriental Studies at Peradeniya.” In De Silva, K.M. and G. H. Peiris (ed.) 110-129.

Peiris, G.H. 1995b, “The Campus Community at Peradeniya: Travails of a Residential University.” In De Silva, K.M. and G. H. Peiris. (ed.) 186-236. 

Perera, Kusal. 2011, Living In A Solid Waste Dump Called “Lanka.” The Sunday Leader, May 22, 2011.    

Samarajiva, Rohan, 2008, Choices: Degree or education? Sri Lanka’s paper degrees and learning culture, May 08, 2008

Samaranayake, Ajith, 2003a, The passing of a generation, Sunday observer, June 8, 2003. 

2003b, A first and last intelligentsia, Sunday observer, May 11, 2003

2003c, The gods that failed, Sunday observer, May 18, 2003.

2003d,A culture under siege, Sunday observer, June 22, 2003.

Samararatne, 2010, Dinesha Academics without freedom: How will history judge them?” The Sunday Times, October 3, 2010.

Seneviratne, Malinda, 2011, Notes on the TU action by university teachers, The Island. May 21, 2011

Shorris, Ear, 1997, On the uses of a liberal education: 2. As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor.” Harper’s, 50-60, Sept. 1997.  

Urugodawatta, Savimon. 2009, JRJ: Farsighted statesman?” The Island, May 9, 2009.

Weerasinghe, Ruvan 2009, Why I’m not (and won’t be) a Professor

Wickramagamage, Carmen, 2011, Minister SB and His Kaalakanni: A Case of the Runaway Tongue? The Island. April 27, 2011

Wijenayake, Lal. 2010, Then and now at Peradeniya. The Island. August 20, 201

End Notes

[1] Discussion in the present article is limited basically to state sector universities in the Southern parts of the country and the writer is unable to comment on the situation in the universities in the North and East which had come under the impact of a thirty year war which ended in 2009. 

[2] The author wishes to thank Professor Asanga Tilakaratne, Dr. Suki Ekaratne, and Dr. Mohamad Mahees whose comments on a draft of this paper helped the author to improve it in several important ways. However, it needs to be emphasized that the responsibility for the contents in the present paper lies solely with the author. 

[3] Professor Senaka Bandaranayake’s assessment (referred to by Samaranayake, 2003) of the intellectual contribution of three generations of university academics in Sri Lanka he has identified – the generations of ‘40s and ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and ‘80s and ‘90s –  however is not limited to that of the Arts faculties. 

[4] Usvatte arachchi noted that university academics in faculties other than medicine and science in Sri Lanka do not engage in research once they complete their PhD studies  (උස්වත්තෙ ආරච්චි, 2009: iv).

[5] Universities in advanced capitalist countries in the global North also have come under scrutiny as to whether they have been honouring their Public Interest inheritance which is understood as serving the public good: “They have traded on their Enlightenment inheritance that they are the guardians and creators of knowledge produced for the greater good of humanity in its entirety. They are seen and claim to be seen as the watchdogs for the free interchange of ideas in a democratic society; they claim to work to protect freedom of thought, including the freedom to dissent from prevailing orthodoxies. They are quintessentially defined as public interest institutions and their research is granted status and credibility on the basis of its disinterestedness” (Lynch, 2006:1).

[6] It is worth noting that even in the United States close to 50 percent of university students does not make progress in obtaining critical thinking skills (Berkowitz, 2011).

[7] For a representative sample of writings that broadly take this position see (Fonseka, 2011; Liyanage, 2011; Perera, 2011; Seneviratne, 2011). 

[8] Later, beginning under President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s regime that was established in 1994,  an increasing number of universities were established covering almost all the provinces of the country to accommodate demands for increasing intake irrespective of whether necessary infrastructure or academic facilities could be provided to sustain a reasonably good level of education.

[9] Later, setting up universities on linguistic basis has made the situation worse by ethnic segregation of students thus restricting their outlook and cultural scope.

[10] Even though academic research is scarce on issues such as internal politics of  Sri Lankan universities, there is a handful of novels and short story books written on this subject which touch on issues related to factionalism,  casteism, and divisions around personalities among university academics.   

[11] Sometimes, there were incidents that marred this democratic atmosphere however, to rebound sooner or later. See, Lal Wijenayake’s account (2010 ) on the incident where  he was involved as a university student. In that incident the Leader of the Opposition in the parliament, Dudley Senanayake was subjected to harassment by students on a visit to university to address the students at a public meeting . Lal Wijenayake was among the students who were suspended over this incident and when they went to Parliament to tender their apologies to him, Dudley Senanayake had entertained them to tea at the canteen, accepted their apology and requested the Vice Chancellor to lift the suspension. Politicians and university administrators were of a different social background then and were not vindictive and revengeful.

[12] Ranil Wickramasinghe was the Minister of Education and the Member of Parliament for Biyagama. A gang of UNP thugs from Kelaniya and Biyagama electorates attacked university students on Kelaniya campus. In the ensuing melee the late Minister Cyril Mathew’s chief body guard Christopher who led the attack was severely injured and later died. President J. R. Jayewardene attended the funeral of Christopher. Even though in the period immediately following the incident, students were fraught with fear following death threats from thugs, that did not end the opposition to the white paper. Finally, as a result of the long drawn out student protest led by the JVP, the government withdrew the White Paper.

[13] In a newsletter published by a Christian group of university students and graduates FOUCS  the following note appeared in its 2009, Christmas issue : “These past few weeks there has been a scramble among staff in the Universities in Sri Lanka to apply for Professor (owing to the process apparently being made more difficult from 2010)!” Then it referred to an article written by Dr. Ruvan Weerasinghe (former Director of the University of Colombo School of Computing) “Why I’m not (and won’t be) a Professor “.

[14] Views of teachers on students presented in this section are those gathered over time by the author in his interactions as a university teacher with other university teachers from universities across Sri Lanka. The author  however, does not claim any validity for these views for generalising across the board.

[15] From a private conversation. 

[16]  That Sri Lankan university students may not be alone in their reluctance to spend time on studying is borne by that American university students spend only 13 hours a week studying.  “Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies—and thirteen hours a week studying.” (Berkowitz, 2011).

[17] For example, see Biggs (1999).

[18] See, Biggs (1999). 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s