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Speech as delivered by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha as Chief Guest

At the Launch of Reflections in Loneliness

By Chandana Ruwan Jayanetti

I am both pleased and proud to be here as Chief Guest at the launch of Chandana Ruwan Jayanetti’s ‘Reflections in Loneliness’, a collection of poems and prose. I am pleased because the book is a fine example of creativity. It covers a range of emotions through poetry, while the prose recreates a lost world which reminds us how swiftly the fabric of society is changing.

My pride however is perhaps the greater feeling on this occasion, for Chandana is one of the first pupils in a new programe I started, which will remain perhaps my most enduring contribution to this country. He was also one of the best, and amply justified the faith we had in our rural youngsters, when we offered them an opportunity that had been zealously guarded before by the privileged.

I refer to the opening up of tertiary level qualifications in English, which commenced at the Affiliated University Colleges in 1992. I had long been complaining of the fact that English continued to be the preserve of an elite, but those in charge of educational policy thought this was only proper. However President Premadasa appointed a visionary University Grants Commission Chairman in the form of Arjuna Aluwihare, and he embarked on a brilliant initiative to expand opportunities in this sector. Having met him by chance at a social event at the British Council at which I was then working, I was drawn into his orbit, and ended up leaving the Council to take charge of all his new English initiatives.

These included the AUC programme, both the Special English Course and the General English Course for all students; it included English at Sri Jayewardenepura, which Prof Aluwihare described as the cutting edge of the University system, because of its readiness to take up new initiatives; and it included the pre-University General English Language Training programme, which I coordinated along with another visionary, Oranee Jansz.

But none of our efforts would have succeeded had it not been for the material given to us, the bright young boys and girls of Sri Lanka, many of whom are deprived of tertiary level education because of the unwholesome restrictions we have imposed on talent in this country. Tragically, the present government has forgotten completely its pledge to increase opportunities. I drafted, with the support of some of our best academics, a new Act and also produced  Cabinet papers that would have introduced learning opportunities in the periods our youngsters now waste. But sadly no one seems interested in such initiatives, and I see no signs of fresh ideas emerging if they feel that my plans are too ambitious.

For we have now completely forgotten the ideals with which C W W Kannangara transformed education in this country. The twin pillars on which he built were equity, which meant expanding opportunities for those who would otherwise have been deprived; and excellence, which meant ensuring that the skills and capacities of the best were developed appropriately. It was for this reason that he set up Central Schools all over the island, and ensured that capable children not only got into these schools, but received education on a par with that provided in the existing elite schools.

Given that we tried to do something similar on a much smaller scale with the English programme we introduced at university level – and also through the English medum programme in government schools I started under another great visionary, Tara de Mel – I would like to say here a few words about how the life and work of Chandana Jayanetti exemplify the principles that Kannangara promoted.

As I said before, we created in 1992 an opportunity for youngsters from rural schools to study English at tertiary level. One of our purposes was to develop a cadre of capable teachers willing to go back into the school system. This was essential for we had found that the products of English degrees at the traditional universities were not keen to go back to language teaching at school level. This was understandable. In the first place their curriculum concentrated on material they could not make use of in the school system. The consequences of that were graphically illustrated to me today by your Director General, when he described attempts to teach Shakespeare by the English Language Teaching Unit at Sri Jayewardenepura, when as a new entrant from a school where there had been little English teaching, he needed basic communication skills.

So there was a mismatch between what was taught at the universities and what was needed in the country. And there was a second problem in that, because of their own good command of the language, graduates of these universities had access to much more lucrative jobs, and did not want to go back to teaching. With supply so limited, very few students being admitted in those days for English degrees – we had only five in the first year at Peradeniya when I started teaching there – the universities were certainly not a helpful source of English teachers.

It was our purpose therefore to produce many more graduates in English, skilled in a curriculum that would enable them to become good teachers of English in rural areas – and in those days you must remember that, as far as English was concerned, even provincial centres such as Galle and Matara and Kurunagala lagged behind. That, I am pleased to say, has now changed, mainly I think because when English medium was restarted, it was these towns in particular that raced ahead. We saw the results of this in the beautiful recitations today of Chandana’s poetry by the young girls of Sanghamitta College, the fact that schools in these towns now have programmes to rival those in the previous elite centres, Colombo and Kandy and Jaffna, where private schools had continued to provide better opportunities for English learning that the state allowed.

Our curriculum way back in 1992, designed at Sri Jayewardenepura which I was persuaded to join, was tailor made for students without much previous expertise in English. We used material that was familiar to students, and even when we introduced English literature, we started with what students would find familiar. In addition, we published books for the courses, and got assistance to produce these at low cost so that students could have their own copies. I was accused of making money on these books, but I am happy to say that the students, who were getting books at Rs 10 or so, recognized that we needed to ensure that reprints were possible, and we only charged the cost of production. Typically, it was the elite who did not like the programme who were more aggressive in their accusations.

But since I have always believed that books are essential for learning – and this was long before the days of the internet – I carried on. We were able, in the ten years or so that I ran book development programmes for the Ministry and the English Association, to release over 100,000 low cost books into the market. Unfortunately the Cabinet Paper I produced earlier this year to develop a Universities Press lies forgotten now in the Ministry. So too my efforts to encourage book development and production came to naught when I was adviser on English to the Ministry of Education. Unfortunately there is a mafia which makes a lot of money through the monopoly on book production for schools that it enjoys, and the idea of having publishers compete to produced low cost readers for students is not something we can take forward here.

Obviously the students who came into the AUCs were of different capacities, given the uncertainties about their future. But there were plenty of good ones, in all sic places we had the English Diploma Course, Belihuloya and Rahangala and Buttala and Addalaichenai and Trincomalee and Anuradhapura and Vavuniya. I would visit these regularly, and it was a joy to see how students developed in confidence as well as in skills.

Students like Chandana soon established themselves as leaders in the field. In order to encourage them, I had a workshop for the six best students from each of three AUCs, to introduce teaching skills, 9 girls and 9 boys altogether. I had learned at Oxford that bringing bright students together developed synergies, which led to results improving all round – a technique that Oranee Jansz also used in initiating drama based project learning in the GELT programme.  I should add that Chandana’s equally able wife Lilani was one of the students there, and it is good to see her after a long time, as well as two other excellent students from Rahangala. I would like to think that the marriage between these two superb minds was set in motion at that workshop, but I suspect they were both romantic enough without all that.

Unfortunately the Sri Lankan mindset does not encourage excellence and the other students were upset. Populist academics then had workshops for all, which provide farcical – whereas we know that setting high standards and then encouraging team work through able leaders is a much better way of ensuring good results. Sadly the same principle of equalizing downward came to the fore when governments changed and no one knew what to do with the AUCs – and given our failure to develop systems, those in charge would not consult the earlier authorities and thought they had to reinvent the wheel.

So instead of developing AUCs into new style universities, they turned them into second rate versions of the older universities. We had to wait for a wholly new visionary, in the form of Chandra Embuldeniya, to start a new style of degree course at Uva Wellassa. Whether that will last I cannot be sure, it is certainly significant that it has not been replicated, despite its comparatively good employment record..

Meanwhile Sri Lanka completely ignored developments in the rest of the world. The United Kingdom, where university education had been the preserve of an elite for decades, had turned polytechnics into universities a couple of decades back, and now produces many more graduates than previously. But this country still sticks to an outmoded British system, and restrict degrees. The proposals we put forward years ago through the National Education Commission to provide degrees for Vocational courses have been ignored, with the so-called University of Vocational and Technical Education having produced very few graduates in the last few years.

And though things started to improve there under a new Vice Chancellor, tertiary education is hopelessly divided up so that progress is difficult. And in the absence of clear ideas about how to proceed, the students have a horrible deal. Thus, when I visited the Advanced Technical Education Institution at Labuduwa, where Chandana now teaches, I found no members of staff except him – the others had gone to a wedding and not bothered to take leave. And students were without teachers, with the government having broken promises regarding recognition of courses.

No efforts have been made, as various new initiatives are started to develop technical education, to ensure a supply of good teachers. The suggestions we made in Parliament about introducing training components in all degree courses have been ignored. Planning for the future is something we do not bother about in this country, and we specialize in breaking up responsibilities, so that nothing can move swiftly.

I find this all very depressing, and often I feel there is no point in trying to effect reforms. But then I come across my students who strive under difficult circumstances to fulfil their social obligations, and I take heart. As I mentioned, it was deeply satisfying to see Chandana alone at the Technical College on the day I visited, and to recognize how well he got on with the students, and understood their problems. Similarly I had a student of enormous sensitivity at the Pasdunrata College of Education, which was created in the late eighties as a flagship English Teacher Training Institute. It had however collapsed when there was a change of government and the new Minister rejected all the initiatives of his predecessor (even though they came from the same party).

The deep commitment of my students for their own students is something I find immensely heartening. I have seen this in school teachers in Jaffna and in Tissamaharama, in Kalmunai and in Weeraketiya. Then there are those who are developing new programmes at universities at Sabaragamuwa and Uwa Wellassa and Horana and Oluvil, and also those at technical colleges.

And sometimes one comes across the articulation of the philosophy underlying this commitment. Chandana Jayanetti’s book is remarkable for the unity of concept in the poems and prose. His vision of the world combines careful attention to detail with deep sympathy for individuals. And there is always a constant privileging of the vulnerable.

So when he talks of a dead soldier, he also deals with the agony of the mother. There is a lovely account of an inspiring teacher who first introduced him to poetry. And my own favourite is a touching account of a Vesak Lantern burning up to the agony of its creator, the poet’s younger brother.

Let me conclude then by thanking Chandana for this opportunity to participate in this launch; by congratulating him and his imaginative illustrator and the printer (who many years ago produced some of the materials we published through the Sabaragamuwa University Press); and to Lilani, his wife, who was also one of the excellent students who was at that long ago workshop when I felt that the initiative Arjuna Aluvihare had started was fully justified. Today, having read this book, and having seen so many former students from the University College here, who are doing so well as teachers or otherwise with their command of English, I feel a tremendous sense of fulfillment