A Documentary Film on the Construction of Peradeniya University

SEE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5eRKGoTtHE&feature=related with the title THE MAKING OF PERADENIYA UNIVERSITY ………………as a contemporary don reflects on the passing out of another batch of graduates at its Convocation.

“Musings on the Pera Convocation” by  Amarakeerthi Liyanage in The Island, 14 March 2012

For those of us in the Sri Lankan academia happiness is  something rather fragile, but we enormously cherish whatever little happiness  that life offers us. As university academics the happiest moment of our life is  to see our students graduate. This year, we at Peradeniya are even happier that  they are graduating in time.

  Geology undergrads from Peradeniya on a field trip, March 2011 — Pic by Michael Roberts

These are troubled times for national universities. We do not  know how much the fund cut the government contemplates for the next year will  amount to. Even to get whatever little it gives, one has to write an endless  number of proposals, letters, reminders and the like. For those of us in the  faculties of arts the challenge is far greater because we have to prove annually  that what we are doing is worth doing. Those great Enlightenment thinkers in  Europe, we thought, answered all the skeptic questions asked of the validity and  utility of arts and human sciences. We thought for example, Immanuel Kant  convinced the world that the utility of arts is a utility of a different kind.  Nevertheless, we still find ourselves facing those questions all over again.  Still, we are happy, however fragile that happiness may be, because another  batch of students is graduating from Peradeniya.

A protracted trade union struggle by university teachers was  suspended a few months ago in the hope that the government would honour its  promises. Many months on, the promises are still to be kept. Concerned about the  future of students, the university teachers are still trying to negotiate with  the government. Students, too, remain unhappy due to many different reasons  while the proposed private university bill has been the main cause of unrest  among the students.

Students are hardly perfect; they have not been able to stop the  inhumane tradition called ‘ragging,’ though Sanjaya Bandara, the Convener of  Inter-university Student Federation reportedly said that “ragging is something  far too outdated”. They want to fight for revolutionary changes to have greater  democracy while holding on to so called ‘traditions’ that are totally  authoritarian. It is learnt that certain political parties do use ragging as a  tool of indoctrination. A political movement that employs ragging as a means to  achieve certain ends cannot be trusted however lofty its goals may be. The  ragging, however, seems to be a much more deep-seated phenomenon than it is  often represented in the popular media. Where pro-government student unions are  in power, there is ragging!

State and state media exaggerate ragging in order to use it as  an excuse for interfering in university affairs. After spending so many millions  on so-called leadership programmes, the government has not been able to curtail  ragging or any other acts of violence by students, who, too, do not show much of  maturity in dealing with the State encroachment on university autonomy.  Incidents of violence are reported from almost all universities. The response of  the State to student activities has been overly violent. When students engage in  protest march at Peradeniya, for example, the state turns Galaha Junction into a  battlefront. To observe all of these is disheartening for some of us.

Despite all this, we are proud that another batch of students is  graduating from University of Peradeniya. We at the Faculty of Arts have many reasons to smile in spite of  difficulties, and in fact, we are able to smile. The Faculty of Arts, which is  often called the pride of the university, experiences more difficulties than  others. Thee result from inadequate resources and funding. While student intake  has gone up annually over the years the allocation of funding either remains the  same or has dwindled. The Faculty of Arts, however, with the support of the Vice  Chancellor and the rest of the university, was able to score some noteworthy  achievements in the recent past.

In December 2011, the faculty organized the first  ever-international conference in the Humanities and Social Sciences attended by  national and international scholars. A host of internally known scholars,  intellectuals and dignitaries such as Prof. Savithri Gunasekare and Dr. Jayantha  Dhanapala supported us by giving keynote addresses and participating in plenary  sessions. The conference was a forum where all of us were reminded of the  significance of the intellectual freedom and autonomy of the university. We  could raise a new awareness that the role of university was to promote critical  thinking. The conference beautifully supplemented a re-discovery that we made  during our trade union actions. It is true! We re-discovered that university  education was for freedom and emancipation from dogmas and all forms of  oppression. At least some of us, did make that re-discovery. Our international  conference only strengthened that renewed understanding. During the conference,  some graduating students, too, became even more aware of what they could do to  make their society better place for everyone.

The opening of a new postgraduate centre at the Faculty of Arts  is another achievement of ours. It is by a beautiful creek that runs across the  campus. A significant percentage of the cost was borne by the Faculty itself. As  Dr. O. G. Dyarathna Banda, Chairperson of the higher degrees committee mentioned  at the inauguration, money had come from the savings the faculty made during  years of postgraduate teaching. Although we are still years away from starting a  fulltime graduate education system, something like many international  universities have, this centre has surely brought us a step closer to that goal.  We do hope that the creme de la creme of graduating class will return to  us as postgraduate students.

The Faculty of Arts could play an active role in the 50th  Anniversary Celebrations of Prof. Ediriveera Sarachchandra’s play Sinhabahu––one  of the landmarks of South Asian theatre and the contributions Peradeniya dons  made to the modern Sri Lankan art. At the celebrations, we did not blindly  worship a work of art but re-evaluate it critically by contextualizing it anew,  rethinking its theme, felicitating its creator, and even lamenting that we could  not continue with some of the traditions established by great men like  Sarachchandra. But, many of us are at work to regain the tradition of critical  inquiry at the Faculty of Arts, for which University of Peradeniya is well  known.

There are talks of non-state universities of international  standards. It is great if we have institutions of quality higher education that  we could call ‘real universities’ for the brightest sons and daughters of the  nation. However, an institution that trains mere mercenaries for a field that is  likely to be ephemerally in vogue cannot to be called a university in the real  sense of the word. The Faculty of Arts at Peradeniya, in spite of its  limitations, currently offers an impressive range of courses and degree  programme in seventeen departments thus becoming the largest Faculty of Arts in  the country. And we teach those at an unbelievably low cost compared to many  universities in the world. For sixty years we have tried not to lose our grip on  the universal ideals of a true university.

Therefore, on March first 2012, we are happy that those  graduates have had an education only a true university can provide them. They  are university graduates – of course Peradeniya ones. To be happy on that day  would be one of small way of safeguarding our national university system. In  that sense, our happiness, it is true is fragile, but it is still political.

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