Debating the Concept of University in Sri Lankan Space: Uyangoda’s Initiative-by Siri Gamage

Debating the Concept of University in Sri Lankan Space: Uyangoda’s Initiative-by Siri Gamage


recent article published on Groundviews by Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda titled  “Re-inventing the idea of University: Some Reflections and Proposals”  deserves wider attention. Given the fact that the university education sector has not been the subject of critical reviews instituted by the government or universities themselves and there are wide ranging criticisms of the way universities are managed as well as about the university academic culture, the critical assessment of Sri Lanka’s universities and their directions is a timely contribution.


   courtesy of Sri Lanka Guardian

Contextualising the establishment and decline of universities in Sri Lanka producing graduates with mediocre attributes and skills as well as the move away from liberal humanist foundations to a neoliberal economic management model and ideology are key features of the article. The ideas and assessments included in the article cannot be discarded as another academic piece of writing for the consumption of those in the academic world only. Points made should draw the attention of wider public, policy makers and those in the government.

Professor Uyangoda starts with the assertion that the educated Ceylonese colonial elites who received their education in Ceylon and later from British universities were cosmopolitan colonial subjects. They were the founding fathers of university who derived impetus from liberal humanism for a secular university suitable for the local conditions in the early twentieth century. Professor Liyanage Amarakeerthi who wrote a book about the university also derived inspiration from the same vision.  Both agree on the idea that we need to reinvent the university in Sri Lanka and the inspiration for this can be derived from the progressive aspects of the thinking by founding fathers.

The second important point he makes is that, “After it was first set up in 1921 as a University College of the London University and then in 1942 as a fully-fledged university, this public institution in Sri Lanka has achieved mixed results”. In his view, university played a major role in the upliftment of underprivileged classes in the society for many decades e.g. students, academics and employees. Notwithstanding the decay experienced since independence, the university system has functioned as a transformative agency or space with some capacity fulfilling its social mission.  It has been an important public institution for social emancipation for the “underprivileged, marginalized and structurally excluded social classes”.

In order to reinforce his argument, he cites the public service and university staff composition. “If we look at the changes in the social origins of the Sri Lanka’s massive public service bureaucracy as well as the university academic staff occurred since the 1960s, we can immediately see how the free education and vernacularizing of the university education have enabled the brightest of the under privileged social classes to achieve social emancipation by non-violent means.”

These are powerful words except that his article does not include a critical assessment of the social emancipation he talks about. For example, whether it involved the uplifting of social classes in a wider sense or individuals who were able to be socially mobile in a narrow sense and whether any material upliftment of the under privileged was associated with a corresponding ideology or consciousness that served the interests of many in such classes or the few who were able to climb the status ladder.

Professor Uyangoda explains that the neoliberal policies adopted since the late 70s threatened the original form of university and its role as envisaged by the founding fathers. i.e., to provide liberal humanistic education to students including underprivileged classes. The ideological package on the utility of university education that came with the neoliberal reforms cast “serious doubts about the economic rationality of education in the social sciences and humanities”. The policy makers and university managers saw them as unjust and illegitimate.

According to Professor Uyangoda the new policy initiatives and reforms applicable to universities “were conceived by a tripartite coalition of the World Bank, the government, and the higher educational bureaucracy in the university system as well as the Ministry of Higher Education. They were guided by reform imperatives necessitated by the shifts in the world economy caused by two change waves, (a) market-led economic globalization, and (b) world-wide neo-liberalization”.

He elaborates how the neoliberal policies have been threatening the very existence of the university founded on liberal humanistic values and facilitating the upward mobility and social emancipation of underprivileged citizens and communities in the following manner: “The social emancipatory and democratizing potential of the university education through its reach to the economically poor and the non-elite social classes has come to a deadlock. This deadlock is ideologically sustained by the argument that the social change function of the university education needs to be abandoned because it is an economic burden to the so-called tax payer…. Therefore, as this argument goes, relieving the state, the market, and the tax payer of that unprofitable economic burden should be a policy priority”.

Although I consider this article as a significant intellectual contribution, while agreeing with the idea of university as a transformative space and agency where corresponding consciousness ought to be nurtured, and an ethic for governing such transformation with a social justice focus is necessary, I have several more concerns and questions about the ideas presented.

Firstly, why he regards the liberal-humanistic paradigm as the desired source of inspiration for developing a pluralistic ethic governing university organisation and culture by excluding for example postcolonial and decolonial critique of the colonial-modernist education process in the former colonies of the global south.

Secondly, why he considers the continuation of the university education model that helped students from disadvantaged backgrounds to obtain a university education and join the academic or professional ranks such as being civil servants may produce a different result compared to the conformist ethic, attitudes and behaviour that by and large characterises university’s teaching and learning culture.

Thirdly, how he expects the universities and their respective staff and student communities “to re-establish their links with the society and the citizens, and thereby make the university an organic social institution” through adopting or reusing the liberal-humanistic paradigm rather than a post-colonial-decolonial paradigm.

Fourthly, if liberal-humanist pluralism of the old paradigm adopted in the establishment and promotion of University in Ceylon has been replaced by a neoliberal university since the 1990s, what hope can be placed on reapplying it even with an added social justice focus into the future? In other words, can it generate the necessary consciousness and ethic or a transformative university as he recommends?  Alternatively, are there more suitable paradigms that can be applied for the same purpose?

As Professor Uyangoda calls for a framework of liberating and transformative ethics, a social space and public culture what are the principles of liberating normative ethics that can activate collective life of solidarity in the university? They are freedom, liberty, equality in the individual, social, ethnic, cultural and gender domains, justice, non-violence and freedom from prejudice.

One question arising here is to ask liberating from what? Is it the neoliberal economic interpretation of university education or narrow nationalistic interpretations that go against liberal humanistic ones or something else? We should not forget the fact that the university student, employee and academic community are also highly stratified communities. For a long time, the common thread binding these communities in the University of Ceylon (later Peradeniya) was the mythical nature or romanticism associated with the residential university environment and the mysticism associated with the university education. These qualities evaporated in time to come as the inequalities in the university system and the wider world emerged along with the political and economic reforms and changes. Therefore, talking about a common ethic or public culture for the university can be chasing an unrealistic dream. What could work is to search for a platform for the underprivileged classes who are unable to be upwardly mobile and get stuck in a system that favours some and excludes many.

Professor Uyangoda is making several useful arguments and explanations about the way the modern university evolved in the Sri Lankan context as part of broader politico-economic and social changes.  However, his arguments and articulations also raise substantial questions that we need to address from a postcolonial and decolonial perspective as well as purely from a historical, sociological and factual basis.

He does not offer any practical strategies or ways to achieve such transformation or social space either. Providing a vision for the future of university is one thing but coming up with a set of strategies is another. In my view the latter is equally important as the former. Freedom, liberty, equality are desirable ideals but if we look at the recent history in the country, academic staff and students have been struggling to achieve these not only for themselves but also for the whole country by protesting and advancing a critical discourse aimed at the failings of country’s governance. A similar critical discourse is required about university governance and management as well as the disciplines that are held in high esteem but may not address the needs of contemporary society or even the needs of underprivileged.

Upward mobility is limited to a few 

I have a problem in defining the process of education whereby underprivileged classes were able to enter various professions and be upwardly mobile as social emancipation. In my view it is a limited and narrow interpretation of what happened during the last few decades corresponding to the underprivileged classes and their life chances/opportunities. Surely some of them have been able to move from their underprivileged circumstances to be in a materially well to do position due to the work and other opportunities that came later. Whether such advancement can be designated as social emancipation is highly questionable. My own view is that the middle class standing and its ideology seem to have been a self-serving and highly individualistic one rather than one leading to social emancipation, if we interpret the latter as a broader process where it leads to the emancipation of a whole segment of society. Many more graduates from the underprivileged classes did not get the opportunities as envisaged and in fact had to take up arms against the government even to seek equal opportunities in the employment sphere from both Sinhalese and Tamil society.

We should ask whether upward mobility of the underprivileged has served the under privileged classes in general or it served those who had been upwardly mobile only? Are there other ideals or goals that we need to achieve through university education? By limiting our focus to liberal humanism and disciplines as we inherited from the colonial times and being reproduced under post independent conditions, are we really serving the least advantaged and their interests? Or are we serving the interests of the globalising system by producing professionals required and the State system that keeps a lid on emancipatory forces in the country by continuing with university without an emancipatory ideological space suitable for present conditions?

Since the inception of University of Ceylon and its transformation to be University of Peradeniya and later the establishment of other universities in Colombo suburbs plus provinces, universities have produced graduates in various specialised fields and in general degree programs. This process helped those from underprivileged social classes to join the ranks of the urban middle class as they found employment in the government services and the private sector, some as professionals such as engineers, doctors, senior administrators, scientists. Others found employment in lower-level government services in cities or in rural areas as clerks, teachers and development officers. This allowed some of them from rural areas to relocate to urban areas with better facilities, live in better housing, educate children in better schools and network with other professionals and even politicians – opportunities that they would not have been able to access without the university education. A large number accessed employment opportunities available in the global economy for skilled workers and settled in other countries with their families as permanent or temporary migrants. In the process they and their children transformed their identity, language and culture as well as the way of living to become citizens of other economically and socially developed countries.

The paradigm, which Professor Uyangoda calls liberal-humanist, was not able to cater to hundreds and thousands of university graduates’ aspirations after the higher education was massified in the 70s and after.  The government response was to create more universities that taught same subjects. Diversification was limited mainly to bricks and mortar, not to the way either knowledge was sought or imparted. If the underprivileged and semi privileged graduates who joined the ranks of professionals adopted a middle class consciousness that separated them from the rest of society including the ones they emerged  from in the first place and functioned with a self-serving and individualistic mentality promoted by the neoliberal, globalised economic system, there is very little hope that a progressive social consciousness can emerge from them other than limited philanthropic activities to support temples, schools, hospitals and less advantaged in the urban and rural areas whether living locally or abroad. Thus, the question is whether promoting liberal-humanistic paradigm can help in the creation of a suitable social consciousness for today for social transformation (economic, political, cultural) even though it helps some graduates from underprivileged backgrounds to become members of the middle class?


Middle class consciousness, non-involvement in politics

The middle class consciousness of graduates who were able to climb the social ladder (we call it social mobility in sociology) was shaped by the modernist education they received in the university on one hand and the non-involvement in politics on the other hand (though a very few participated in party politics and secured better employment opportunities while sharing power as middle managers in government institutions including universities, being secretaries of ministries or obtaining director positions). Non-involvement in politics, national or provincial, was due to several reasons. Firstly, the modernist education suggested that as social scientists we ought to study the social reality (economic, political, cultural) as detached researchers/social scientists. This came from the colonialist mindset of social scientists, anthropologists, humanities scholars from the west who were not familiar with the local custom, idiom, values, language and culture and employed research assistants to translate what they saw and heard in the field.

Secondly, as undergraduates and graduates they developed the idea that politics is a dirty game and it is better to be gentlemen and women and lead a life without unnecessary troubles from politically involved and motivated sections of society, basically political class or families. Political persecution of opponents and the use of law enforcement system against them by those in power is a common feature of Sri Lanka’s political culture. It is criticised when politicians are in the opposition but they tend to maintain it when they come to power. The idealised role of gentleman and woman has its origins in the University of Ceylon in its early days when the university trained a limited number of public servants for the civil service and scientists, professionals for various specialised fields. They were afforded privileges by the British colonial government including better residential facilities that allowed the perpetuation of western oriented lifestyle, mastery in western disciplines, and even opportunities for study abroad.

Radicalised student community

In the later decades, especially since the 60s a large number did not get such employment opportunities and they had to struggle in life without a regular income. Many of them had to come to the road protests demanding the politicians to provide employment. Such protest activities and affiliations with political parties with a progressive and one would say somewhat radical orientation created a different consciousness among the unemployed graduates. Knowing the gloomy future set for them by the system, even students joined such protests while learning in universities. This is a common sight in contemporary times.

The consciousness and ideology of such radicalised students and graduates is thus rooted in their own predicament as well as the underprivileged circumstances of their parents and families with rural or peri urban backgrounds. Their consciousness and action are not bounded by the liberal-humanistic education they received via university education in terms of various disciplinary knowledge. They are nurtured by the anti-establishment political ideology and education not fit for the time or place available nationally. Such students and graduates comprising a large segment of the university undergraduates and graduates with an anti-hegemonic consciousness occupy an underclass in Sri Lankan society who tend to put their lives at risk to confront the security forces in Colombo streets when they are joining other affected workers and professionals who are organised into various trade unions, professional associations such as nurses, teachers, workers in banks, ports and so on. Professor Uyangoda has not considered the predicament of this class of graduates in his articulation of the university and university education by choice or error.

My view is that a university that facilitates social mobility for a fraction of the underprivileged and able to join the gravy train either in the government sector or non-government sector is not a university. It has to serve a much broader role if it is to be liberatory. One has to start by reforming the disciplines, management and governance as well as more fundamental reforms in course structures.  Inspiration for such emancipatory work can come from decolonial and postcolonial thought and practices from the global south.

Liberal humanist and neoliberal paradigms vs decolonial perspective

The liberal-humanist paradigm and the neo liberal economic and managerial paradigm are not two separate paradigms. One has emerged from the other or at least they are closely linked. We have to examine such close connections for a better understanding. I believe that the university education itself has to be transformed if it is to transform the mindset, attitudes and behaviour of undergraduates and graduates not by imitating the liberal-humanist paradigm as such but another paradigm that speaks to the underprivileged conditions of existence of many. Such a paradigm is available in the field of decolonial thinking and action nurtured by a range of scholars from Latin America, Africa, Asia, Caribbean and elsewhere in the global south. Continuation of higher education in the western idiom (liberal-humanistic) either in universities in Lanka or in Britain, wider Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand where a decolonial way of thinking, teaching and research is not nurtured is not going to help those struggling, underprivileged graduates on the streets seeking a better future. The system, including the university system, has failed to do so in the past and will fail to do so in the future unless we change course in a significant way.

Liberal humanistic disciplinary teaching and learning

Liberal humanistic teaching in the university at least in the social sciences and humanities was heavily based on Western European and later American disciplinary knowledge that included Western epistemological paradigms of thought and practice. They provided a lot of information about what happened in history, European and American civilisations, struggles of the under privileged and enlightenment movements, socio-economic and political changes, industrialisation and emergences of science and technology plus the social sciences and creative work, emergence of democratic system of governance, norms and values, concepts of equality before the law, human rights and freedoms. At the same time, emergence of capitalism was seen as a fundamental change leading to the economic, social and cultural prosperity along with the modernist, liberal humanistic education. In later decades, other critical ideas including Marxist and Neo Marxist interpretations of society and government based on capitalist ethic entered university discourses mainly via social sciences.

Nonetheless, the academic dependency on Western knowledge, epistemology and methodology continued along with the attitude that the university educated graduates were a special class of people with a unique capacity to identify issues and problems in society due to their wide reading and education, critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. They were supposed to hold unique skills in planning, conceptualisation, development, administration and understanding the complexities in the post-colonial context. However, this image deteriorated along with the decay in the universities and the departure of many Western trained academics in the 70s and the erosion of university culture due to the politicisation and lack of seriousness in the academic pursuit of knowledge in the disciplines and potential solutions to national problems. A change in the academics themselves from searching for excellence to be mere managers of departments and faculties or teaching in a hierarchical way considering students as listeners rather than active learners whose views and ideas also mattered set in place. Even with the changes in political ideologies that entered the minds of underprivileged students, university authorities continued with the old paradigm of providing disciplinary knowledge in social sciences that originated in Western Europe and/or North America as the acceptable idiom of scholarly and scientific pursuit.Staff training procedures that had been established earlier continued and university staff got promotions if they secured qualifications from Western universities although later on a few secured qualifications locally or from Asian universities.

The match or relevance between the knowledge, epistemology, methodology and perspectives absorbed from Western universities and published research and the needs of local socio economic and political context was never questioned critically as a continuing exercise. Imitation of western paradigms of thought and research and inclusion of collected research data from the country into the paradigmatic frameworks or models imported from the West was considered the standard practice acceptable to Western supervisors. Application of research data to Eastern paradigms and frameworks of thought was not considered part of the acceptable academic exercise. This is how the distance between the university and local society emerged in the first place. Organic links that should have nurtured between the University pursuit of knowledge and the society where students came from disappeared. In such a context, to argue that the source of inspiration for re-inventing the university should come from a tradition that the forefathers of university in Ceylon promoted by way of secularism and liberal humanism is to deny the dependency relationship created by adopting such colonial paradigms of thought and action in the university and knowledge construction and dissemination process.

Initially in the 50s and early 60s, such education was limited to a select few students from well to do families from urban areas plus some who were lucky enough to get a scholarship such as J. Tilakasiri who became professor of Sanskrit at Peradeniya. Graduates were able to enter the government civil service and other professions as planners, scientists or doctors. Others joined the private sector establishments. What allowed the students from underprivileged backgrounds to move upward in the late 60s, 70s and after was the patriotism, national and cultural leadership in the country some of whom came from similarly underprivileged backgrounds. The concept of free education promoted by Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara in the State Council and the bilingual central schools established in the provinces became the catalyst in transforming the university established by the colonial elites from a privileged institution to be one that provided mass education coinciding with the entry of underprivileged students from lower socio-economic backgrounds with little knowledge of English. The decision to provide teaching in the vernacular since the 70s accelerated this process. In time to come, political leaders saw the expansion of universities as a popular policy and even went in so far as to establish more universities in distant rural areas. It was a practice that exhibited supplying more of the same i.e., British or Cambridge model of university that was the basis of Peradeniya. In time to come with the introduction of faculties like management, American model also entered the scene.

It was not a matter of liberal humanism per se that was at play in the conduct of university affairs. What prevailed underneath liberal humanism was the idea of modernity and modernist education i.e., the idea of progress and liberty as achievements of the west, therefore superior to those existing in traditional societies of the periphery. This concept continues to dominate the thinking of university academics and others associated with the university policy making and management without much critical examination.  Its footprint can be observed in the article by Uyangoda and his faith in the liberal humanistic paradigm as the saviour of university also.

Theoretical explanation

If we follow a neo-Marxist interpretation of social change or transformation and believe in different forces of production and exchange (capitalist mode of production), what we see in terms of the two segments – one privileged and the other still under privileged – is the clash of classes underneath the democratically gained power of the ruling class (diverse as it is). One segment is able to participate in the governance system as bureaucrats, middle managers (some as so-called intellectuals) and the other as disempowered, unemployed, under privileged, protesting individuals. The former use the tools of knowledge acquired in the university for their sustenance and in Uyangoda’s terminology to contribute to the social and economic development. The other partially use the tools acquired in the university combined with their political ideology nurtured by parties like the JVP and FSP to mount campaigns of opposition and a critique of the existing system/arrangement. The net result of the competition between these two segments or social forces will produce an outcome in favour of the existing system or against it. In the post independent history of Sri Lanka, we have seen several key instances when the competition turned violent and produced social upheaval. The Aragalaya itself was a product of the simmering tensions in society between competing political and social forces.

Way forward

My view is that the progressive academic staff and students as well as policy and decision makers need to derive inspiration and lessons from the post-colonial-decolonial thought applicable to global south in developing an anti-hegemonic university drawing from the indigenous traditions of thought and practice applicable to critical thinking on the subject-not limited to nationalistic, ethnic and other narrow considerations.

We also have to do away with segregation of university teaching and learning as well as research bounded by artificially constructed disciplinary boundaries and walls and allow students to seek knowledge from multiple disciplines and sources, local and foreign. We need to stop the current practice of treating fellow citizens by the academic profession as research subjects only. Instead, they ought to take an interest in the problems the citizens face and devising solutions as part of the job.

We need to consider university teaching as a vocation rather than a management role tied in with the university hierarchy for certain privileges such as promotions, overseas trave and leave. We all have a one or two excellent and committed teachers in our lives who went beyond the call of the profession to actually cultivate the minds when we were in schools and universities. It is they who made a difference compared to those who considered teaching as a job and follow the book or curricula to the letter. Through their teaching approaches and methods, they opened our eyes and ears to a historical and contemporary topic, inculcated a way of thinking and reflection, comparative method, and to be able to independent thinkers. What is lacking in universities today are such teachers with a broad vision of teaching. For example, when I was in the school, I had a teacher (did not go to university) who was able to go through a literary work and explain the intentions of the author, who he or she addressed it to, what subtle ways he/she employed to address the power, overt and hidden messages communicated.

Developing a framework or approach to critical thinking grounded in the society and its social contradictions where one is able to distinguish fact from the fiction is the need of the hour when we talk about university and its redirection.


Transformation is necessary in all areas of society. Only an emancipated citizenry representing the highly oppressed segments can generate the necessary consciousness from their experiential knowledge combined with identification of distortions introduced through education and higher education followed by an action plan with clearly defined goals and strategies can be the vanguard of an anti-hegemonic project of liberation informed by the work of decolonial scholars. Continuing with intellectual paradigm such as liberal humanistic or pluralistic that accommodate diversity in theory alone to produce more and more functionaries for the existing system devoid of a liberation ideology and consciousness will not be the answer. Middle classism is a self-serving ideology that taught university undergraduates to think about themselves as a special class of people different from the society that they came from and live a detached life as researchers, administrators, scientists and social scientists. Instead of detachment what we need today is involvement with society, social groups and segments that are struggling to make a living and provide a better future for children as well as to reform the system in their favour. Voices of the weak need to be organised for an emancipatory project by incorporating the lessons learned from global south and articulated by eminent decolonial and postcolonial scholars. This is the missing link in the university even after 70 years of country gained independence from Britain.

From a decolonial and postcolonial perspective we have to raise the question as to whether the social sciences and humanities disciplines which have their points of departure and paradigmatic foundations from Western contexts, epistemologies and methodology – not necessarily Sri Lankan contextual relations – are in fact liberating disciplines? Whether they keep turning emerging generations of Sri Lankans including from underprivileged classes to be someone who becomes aliens in their own society merely because they are able to climb the status and material progress ladder to belong to urban middle class as detached individuals? A progressive vision for the university today needs to inculcate a consciousness and an ethic in the university community to be empathetic to the struggles of the disadvantaged with practical actions, not only ideological empathy.


Read Part 1 here: …. & THEN pursue Part Two

…. AND NOTE the comments in both Groundviews presentations

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