Sri Lanka: University of Peradeniya — “Utopia” never lost

Universities all over the world are changing rapidly in their approach towards teaching, research and service functions. Peradeniya should also make necessary changes in keeping with global trends and national needs to remain as a center of excellence.

by Professor R.P. Gunawardane

( January 25, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) University of Peradeniya, formerly University of Ceylon, Peradeniya completed its Golden Jubilee last year. I read with great interest a series of articles published in newspapers regarding the Golden Jubilee and particularly about the present status and achievements of the University of Peradeniya. My particular attention is drawn to an article with the title “Utopia lost – The University at Peradeniya”.

“Utopia” never lost at Peradeniya

Utopia, by definition is an imaginary ideal or perfect state. If such a state existed in the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya at that time in the fifties, it remains today in a different form evolved over the next five decades. The University of Peradeniya remains one of the most beautiful campuses in the world even today. Academically it has expanded from one-faculty university in the fifties to a highly complex university with nine different faculties covering almost all the disciplines; three postgraduate institutes at national level, three teaching hospitals for medicine, dental and veterinary science and many other academic and research centers and units. It has expanded tremendously in science and technology fields based on national needs. Like any other prestigious international institution, it has gone through ups and downs at different times during this evolution process as our country went through difficult periods. But the University of Peradeniya remained resilient and never lost its luster.

Peradeniya University has many unique features in addition to its picturesque setting. Out of all the universities in Sri Lanka, Peradeniya has the largest number of students residing in the campus. Out of the nine faculties, three faculties are unique to Peradeniya. The Faculties of Veterinary Medicine, Dental Science and Allied Health Sciences are the only such faculties in the Sri Lankan university system. Similarly, the Departments of Geology, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Anaesthesiology are the only such departments in the University system at least until 2010. Furthermore, the Science Education Unit and the Nuclear Medicine Unit are two other unique entities at Peradeniya. The postgraduate Institute of Agriculture, the first PG institute created in the university system and the Postgraduate Institute of Science are national institutions attached to the University of Peradeniya. The main Library in the University of Peradeniya with faculty libraries in most faculties is the biggest such library in the university system.

In the fifties Peradeniya was dominated by the dons of the Faculty of Arts. Some of them were national figures excelled in various fields such as drama, economics, sociology, linguistics, etc. In the 1950’s we have seen a cultural reawakening with the production of Maname, Sinhabahu and other cultural features initiated by Peradeniya dons. However, in the late sixties, and beyond, university development took place with strong emphasis on science- based disciplines leading to scientific reawakening in the country. During this period many academics from disciplines such as science, medicine, agriculture, engineering and education came to prominence in the university and also at the national level. This trend was prominent particularly in the decades 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond. Although some specific names can be mentioned, I am reluctant to do so because I may inadvertently miss some important names.

I entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in 1965 and graduated in 1969. Since my graduation I served the Faculty of Science from 1969 for about four decades until my resignation in 2007. I have witnessed the various stages of development of the university during this period, although I spent a few years away from the university on overseas leave and also undertook a fourth year assignment in the government service during the same period.

Golden Era-2

1950s were considered as the Golden Era of the Peradeniya University. In fact, this description is true in respect of the Arts and Humanities disciplines. It is therefore more appropriate to consider this as the Golden Era-1 of the University of Peradeniya. The situation gradually changed in the 70s because of the development of science based disciplines in the university. Era of science, technology and innovation at Peradeniya began in the 70s and continued in the 80s, 90s and beyond. Young academics at the University of Peradeniya were preparing to face the challenges of the 21st century by using their talents and making use of advances in science and technology. There was a rapid advancement of scientific disciplines which includes natural sciences, medical, engineering and agricultural sciences in the university with the expansion of teaching, research and outreach activities in these disciplines during this period. Furthermore, there were enough faculty members who were national figures active in scientific research at the time. Some of them were serving government institutions as advisors or directors of governing boards. Thus, this era can be considered as the Golden Era-2 of the University of Peradeniya.

During this period a large number of young graduates with Ph.D.s and some with advanced clinical training and qualifications mostly from the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia returned to Sri Lanka and joined the faculties of Science, Engineering, Medicine, Agriculture, Veterinary Medicine and Dental Science. Many faculty members in scientific disciplines engaged in research relevant to the needs of the country with research grants from local and foreign/international sources. Some of them while maintaining their research links with foreign universities, developed their own research groups at Peradeniya with grants from local and international sources. Despite some drawbacks the number of international research publications and the patents originating at the university remained at a consistently high level. Some of this work was done in collaboration with scientists from foreign countries such as the UK, the USA, Sweden and Germany. Because of these achievements Peradeniya was considered as a center of excellence in scientific disciplines.

The science-based faculties at Peradeniya recognized the importance of extension and outreach activities and embarked on an extensive programme to provide various services to the nation utilizing the expertise and the facilities available in the university. Some typical examples are science camps in the underprivileged areas and teacher training sessions in science subjects conducted by the Science Education Unit, patient care services provided by Nuclear Medicine Unit, dental health care services offered by the Dental Faculty and veterinary clinical services provided by the Veterinary Hospital in the campus.

Performance of students after graduation is an important factor in judging the quality of training in a university. We have witnessed the quality of graduates in the Golden Era-1 with pride. They have performed extremely well and held very important positions at home and abroad. Although not much publicised, similar situations prevail in the case of students graduated in subsequent years. While those who remained in Sri Lanka excelled in their positions, those who migrated to other countries such as the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are doing extremely well. Since I am a resident in the USA for the last decade I am personally aware of the achievements of our graduates in the USA. Our graduate students are doing extremely well in sciences receiving awards, scholarships and grants as reported by their professors in the USA. Those with postgraduate qualifications are holding high positions in reputed universities, pharmaceutical research and industry, major hospitals, IT institutions and prestigious research institutions in the USA. This confirms the excellent quality of teaching prevailed in science-based faculties during the Golden Era-2.

Way Forward

The University of Ceylon, Peradeniya was the first university in the country and was not expected to be a ‘perfect’ university in the fifties although it had some novel features. Similarly, the University of Peradeniya today is not perfect although it has many unique features and a great potential to achieve excellence. In fact, Peradeniya has enormous potential, diverse resources and many opportunities for improvement and advancement of academic disciplines and research in line with global trends.

Universities all over the world are changing rapidly in their approach towards teaching, research and service functions. Peradeniya should also make necessary changes in keeping with global trends and national needs to remain as a center of excellence. A multidisciplinary approach coupled with team work and strengthening of international links is essential in the development of new courses and research programmes in the future. It is up to the present administration and the faculty members to take up this challenge at the faculty, senate and council levels and develop an action plan to achieve these objectives.

(The writer is an Emeritus Professor and former Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Peradeniya) 


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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