The first casualty of the enmity of the Head of the Languages Department was our English programme. The papers I had prepared about introducing a Special Degree in English and setting up a separate Department failed to go through the Senate and thus never reached the UGC. I found the new UGC too less than sympathetic about all this, whereas Prof Aluwihare had been keen that I join USJP and take on the AUCs precisely because he had hoped for a revolution in the teaching of English at tertiary level in the country as a whole.
I heard him once describe USJP as the flagship of the university system to a visiting World Bank delegation and, though I was surprised at the time, I could see how under Prof Hettiarachchi as Vice-Chancellor it had been a truly dynamic place. Certainly the innovations then taking place in its Management Faculty, with a superb professionally oriented course in Accountancy having been started under another visionary, Mr Wickremaratne, justified the description in an area which was just making the breakthrough to employment oriented education.
Prof Wilson as Dean was also keen to move forward. I was a bit surprised when he appointed to the committee to put forward proposals for English another Economics Professor, an older man called Sirisena Thilakaratna. But I found him immensely helpful, able to understand and build on the concepts I had worked on. When I thanked Wilson for his choice, he explained that Thilakaratna was his old guru. Later he became Chairman of the UGC, with Dorakumbura I gathered having been the other name suggested.
That would have been a disaster, for Dorakumbura proved deeply conservative. Under him and the regime he had set in place, USJP ceased to move forward. I had some sympathy for Dorakumbura because I believe the challenge to him being appointed Vice-Chancellor, based on prejudice against him being a Librarian and not an Academic, had soured him as far as many of his academic colleagues were concerned. He had therefore fallen back on the support of the less able amongst them. The result however was that many of the innovations I would have liked to push had to be abandoned.
Part of the problem lay in the fact that, in my letter of application, I had asked for a contract position rather than to be appointed to the staff. In the interview it had been explained by Hettiarachchi that there was no difference in terms of the freedoms I would enjoy, so I had agreed to be appointed to the permanent staff. But the letter when it came specified that I was being put on contract as requested. I did not challenge this and, though Dorakumbura initially suggested that this be changed, he seemed in time to lose interest in retaining me. As a result I was not really seen as part of the Faculty, and could not press for reforms as an insider.
More seriously, the practice in the Universities was that those on contract had to ask to have their contracts renewed. I refused to do this, on the grounds that the onus should lie on the university to renew a contract or not. At the end of my first year, the university did write renewing my contract, but a year later the situation had changed. My students attempted to convince the authorities to write to me, but they refused, and told them that I should apply. I did not want to seek renewal, since I felt that my usefulness was diminishing. Though I would have accepted the offer of an extension, I thought that my requesting it would put me in an impossible position if conditions were made thereafter about what outside work I could do. And so, towards the end of 1994, my employment at USJP came to an end.
But though I left USJP towards the end of 1994, the GELT kept me busy, and I also continued as Consultant for the English Diploma course for a couple of the AUCs. Supervision of General English had only been required for a year, because after Prof Balasuriya’s death the UGC as a whole seemed to lose interest in the AUCs. Paru took over English at USJP and supervision of three of the AUCs where it ran the Diploma course. We continued to liaise closely, and I maintained some links through the Australian project I had started, centred on Buttala, to bring school children of different communities together for weekend English camps.
Siron Rajaratnam of course insisted that I continue at Trincomalee, and Somasundara made it clear that he was his own master and continued to keep me on at Belihuloya. I had by then managed to get a Peace Corps Volunteer to work there, an idealistic young man called Mike de Sisti who had married one of the English teachers he had helped train at the District English Language Improvement Centres. These DELICs had been a brainchild of the old Curriculum Development Centre before it was absorbed by the NIE, and had provided a crash course to those who did well but not well enough in English Teacher Recruitment Exams. Their combination of language improvement and teaching skills made their products better English teachers for the rural areas than those who had been recruited without DELIC training, and these were amongst the massive clientele we had for the external USJP degree when it was started.
Mike did a great job at Belihuloya, and indeed proved such an asset to the Americans that he stayed on for many years afterwards to help with their aid programmes. I had contact with him again many years later when I headed the Peace Secretariat, and found him very positive about initiatives for the ex-combatants. But unfortunately we took time to set systems in place for them, and he was gone before the programme of rehabilitation commenced.
Apart from this formal academic work, I had a number of projects to run, for a whole range of donors. The Australians had, in addition to the weekend camps, funded the distribution to several rural schools of lively primary readers, along with cupboards to store them, and we got Ena de Silva to produce extremely colourful cupboards in the form of carts that could be trundled around. I remember taking them down in a lorry we hired in Matale, where her Carpentry Workshop was, with the lorry breaking down more than once. I finally abandoned it and hitched a lift to Buttala, with little sympathy for the lorry driver who thought the road from Mahiyangana to Buttala extremely dangerous and that I was abandoning him to terrorists. He did come in several hours later to the AUC Campus, from which I distributed the carts in time in a Codipilly van .
A more long-lasting project was the one funded by the European Union to teach English to youngsters in the Mahaweli area. This involved permanent staff, including two Pasdunrata products who had not been given permanent positions by the AUCs. In addition we had two virtual first language speakers who spent extended weekends there, and were a great inspiration to the youngsters of all ages who thronged to the classes. One was Dinali Fernando, whom I had known for ages as the daughter of Vijita, an excellent but much under-rated writer of short stories in English as well as a superb translator. I had used some of her stories, together with those of three other writers, in a Selection I had prepared as a text for the AUCs, and it proved excellent teaching material, allowing for better understanding of the language as well as the different situations of continuing social significance that were described.
Dinali was an excellent teacher, though totally disorganized, which was why she failed to get tenure at either Kelaniya or USJP, to which we had enticed her when I moved there. She was also game for adventure, and was a sympathetic mentor to the youngsters at Girandurukotte. Equally devoted was Rapthi de Silva, whom I had first known when, as an Advanced Level student at Ladies, she had come to Richard and me for tuition in the period after we had been dismissed from S. Thomas’. The relatively small group we taught all went on to distinguished careers. They included a future Warden of S. Thomas’, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s wife who was a lecturer at Kelaniya when he married her, a future lecturer at the Law Faculty, and Jeevan Thiagarajah who headed the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies and was a rock of support when government had to look after thousands of the displaced after the war ended in 2009.
Rapthi had been the cleverest and the prettiest way back in 1983, and I sketched something of her in a short story I wrote at the time, pairing her off with Jeevan. Unfortunately she went off to university in America and he married someone quite unsuitable.
Now she was back, after a decade, still unmarried, and she threw herself enthusiastically into the work at the Mahaweli Centre, quite happy to stay in accommodation that was not the most salubrious. I shared it on occasion, though I usually made it back to the new Mahiyangana Resthouse, laid out on the bank of the Mahaweli. We were looked after very well there by a host of helpful waiters, though I was horrified once to find one of them missing. We were told that he had gone to the river to bathe and been swept away when water had been released suddenly from the reservoir upstream. They had found the body, almost unrecognizable, many miles downriver a few days later.
Another Project that was most instructive was for the World University Service of Canada which asked me to help with the English component of their Vocational Training. That involved producing more materials, preceded by visits to a range of centres to assess needs. I worked on this with a splendidly eccentric lady called Anberiya Haniffa who later left social service to help run the Fashion Bug, which was her family business.
That Project enabled me to understand better the vast range of vocational training in the country, and the total lack of organization or coordination in what seemed to be several systems. I became a strong proponent then of rationalization, and of setting up a system of incremental qualifications, whereby trainees could acquire further skills too if they were able. The realization by WUSC that better English enhanced job prospects indicated that other soft skills too might be useful. When I was on the National Education Commission some years later, I suggested programmes to enable the brightest to go on to degrees that would include management skills and accounting as well as their vocational training. This had been resisted for a long time, given the assumption, based on British ideas that the British have long abandoned, that a degree must be purely academic. It took my appointment over 20 years later to the post of Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education system to introduce the massive reforms needed to enhance the potential of all professionals, in the widest sense of the term.
Ceylon Today 3 Sept 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=4982