University of Colombo

 
       The history of Higher Education in Sri Lanka is closely linked with that of the University of Colombo which traces its beginnings to the establishment of the Ceylon Medical School over 115 years ago in June 1870. In 1880 the School was raised to the status of College permitting it to award the Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery (LMS) and in 1889 the College was recognised by the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom when holders of its license became eligible to practice in Great Britain.

Although Ceylon enjoyed a well developed system of primary and secondary education at the end of the 19th century there were hardly any opportunities available locally for the study of the Arts and Sciences beyond the secondary school level. The Colombo Academy, later known as Royal College, was the most prestigious secondary school at that time. It was first affiliated to the University of Calcutta but later prepared students for the external examinations of the University of London.

Agitation for the provision of higher education in the island and for the establishment of a University began by the mid 19th century. This agitation gathered momentum by the beginning of the 20th century and the Ceylon University Association, formed in 1906 by a group of western educated elite, urged the establishment of a national University. Owing to the persistent demands of the Association the government decided in 1913 to set up a University College.

However, indecision regarding the nature and status of the institution to be set up, its location, and eventually the intervention of the First World War hindered further progress and it was only in 1920 that the government purchased a private building called the "Regina Walawwa" which came to be known as "College House" for the purpose of setting up the University College. The College was formally declared open in January 1921 in the building that was originally designed for the Royal College located on Thurstan Road opposite College House. Since then "College House" has remained the nerve centre of the University system in Colombo serving it in different capacities. It presently houses the offices of the Vice-Chancellor, the Registrar, and the various Conference and the Committee rooms.

From its inception, the University College was regarded as only a preliminary step, a half-way house, the ultimate goal being the establishment of a fully fledged degree granting University. The pressure exerted on the government for a national University resulted in the appointment by the Colonial Government of a Commission on July 4 1928, with Sir Walter Robert Buchanan Riddel, Baronet, the then Chairman of the University Grants Committee of Great Britain, as its Chairman "to enquire into and report upon the details of or incidental to a scheme for the establishment of a unitary residential University in Kandy....." In January 1929 this Commission presented a report covering all aspects of the problem together with a draft constitution for the proposed new University. (Sessional Paper IV of 1929)

However the lukewarm attitude of the government, the fierce and protracted controversy over the location of the new university which came to be known as the "Battle of the Sites" -between Colombo and Kandy - impending legislative reforms, the great depression and the malaria epidemic delayed the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission. More than a decade later the University of Ceylon was established on 1st July 1942 by the Ceylon University Ordinance No.20 of 1942. The University was to be located in Peradeniya and was to be unitary, residential and autonomous. With the establishment of the University, the two Colleges, the Ceylon Medical College and the Ceylon University College, lost their separate identities and were absorbed into the new Institution. The first Principal of the University College Mr. Robert Marrs was succeeded in 1940 by Dr. (later Sir) Ivor Jennings, who was also the Vice-Chancellor designate of the new University. His main task was the establishment of the University in Peradeniya.

Pending the construction of buildings at the new site, the University functioned in the premises of the University College in Colombo. As buildings were completed, Faculties and Departments were gradually shifted to Peradeniya. The first to be moved was the Faculty of Agriculture and Veterinary Science in 1949 followed by the Department of Law in 1950. The Faculties of Arts and Oriental Studies were transferred in 1952 and part of the Faculty of Science moved in 1960.

By this time, however, the demand for University education had increased considerably. Free education introduced in 1945 and the use of the national languages as the media of instruction in secondary schools from about 1950 coupled with the expansion of avenues of education, particularly in the provinces, accelerated the demand for higher education from a category of students who had been hitherto denied this facility.

Consequently, the shift to Peradeniya was halted midstream. Instead of shifting the Faculty of Science to Peradeniya, a new Faculty was established there in 1961 and a new Medical School in 1962 while the original Faculties remained in Colombo. By 1963 a second Faculty of Arts was established in Colombo making use of the abandoned "Race Course premises" to accommodate the large number of Arts students who had qualified for University admission that year but could not be accommodated at Peradeniya. The Department of Law was then brought back to Colombo in 1965. In that year the Colombo section of the University accommodated nearly five thousand students following courses in Arts, Law, Science and Medicine.

There were now two campuses of equal size of the University of Ceylon, one at Peradeniya and the other in Colombo, separated by a distance of nearly 125 km and administered from one central office in Peradeniya. It was soon felt that management of both campuses from a single centre was impracticable, inconvenient and expensive and the need to separate the Colombo section to an independent University became imperative.

The idea of establishing a new University in Colombo was not altogether a novel one necessitated by this sudden influx of students. Sir Ivor Jennings, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ceylon, had anticipated this eventuality and had recommended the construction of a new building in Colombo for its library (then housed in a private building "Villa Venetia" situated behind College House) in spite of the decision to shift the entire University to Peradeniya as he felt the new library "would serve a future University there". The Universities Commission headed by Mr. D.C.R. Gunawardena (Sessional Paper XVI of 1963) had also recommended in its report submitted in July 1963, the separation of Colombo and Peradeniya into two independent Campuses "which will soon develop into independent Universities". The National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) established under the Higher Education Act No. 20 of 1966, which repealed the Ordinance No. 20 of 1942 too had directed its attention to the need to establish a separate and independent University in Colombo.

The NCHE on the recommendation of a Committee of its members appointed to report on the establishment of a University in Colombo, recommended to the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs, in February 1966, that the Colombo section of the University of Ceylon be elevated to the status of a separate University. The Council also invited Professor Frank Thistlethwaite, Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, to advise on the "Creation of the Colombo Campus as a separate University". His recommendations were mainly on the "structure of disciplines and of the curricula". He recommended a deviation from the existing classical arrangement of disciplines "with broad Faculties and narrow departments", and a regrouping of the cognate subjects together.

In the new University the conventional Faculty of Arts was to be divided into two Faculties, of Social Sciences and of Humanities, each being assigned a grouping of academically related subjects. The existing Faculty of science was to be re-named the Faculty of Natural Sciences, comprising two sub-Faculties, Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences. Professor Thistlethwaite recommended in addition the creation of two professional Faculties - Law and Architecture. Accordingly the Department of Law was raised to the status of a Faculty and a new Department of Architecture was commenced, but transferred later to Katubedda Campus - now the University of Moratuwa. He also recommended the re-designing of the present pattern of first degree courses avoiding the distinction between the Special and the General degrees. The academic re-organization of the new University was largely based on these recommendations made by Professor Thistlethwaite to the NCHE (Sessional Paper XXVI of 1967).

The first official announcement of the creation of a separate University in Colombo was made in Parliament in the Throne Speech of 1967. The necessary legislation for this purpose had been prepared by the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs under section 34 of the Higher Education Act No. 20 of 1966 on the recommendation of the National Council of Higher Education. The new University which came into existence on 1st October 1967 with the Colombo Campus as its nucleus had initially a student population of nearly 5000 reading for degrees in Arts, Law, the Sciences and Medicine and a teaching staff of nearly 300.

The University of Ceylon Act No. 1 of 1972, which replaced the Higher Education Act of 1966 altered the complexion of the hitherto familiar University structure. The four independent autonomous universities (University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, University of Ceylon, Colombo, Vidyodaya University of Ceylon and Vidyalankara University of Ceylon) which had been set up by then and the Ceylon College of Technology at Katubedda became Campuses of a single University styled the University of Sri Lanka. Its headquarters designated "Senate House" was located in Colombo. This arrangement did not last very long. With the promulgation of the Universities Act. No 16 of 1978, University status was again restored to the Campuses and the Colombo Campus of the University of Sri Lanka was renamed the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, the name and style by which it is known today.

The Colombo section of the University of Ceylon which was originally intended to be shifted to Peradeniya, witnessed hardly any physical development and continued to function practically on the same land and in buildings and laboratories it inherited from the old University College. However, with the establishment of the University of Colombo in 1967 steps were taken to remedy these deficiencies and the University embarked for the first time on a capital development programme. Unfortunately due to lack of funds and other constraints these plans could not be adequately implemented during the period 1967 - 1978.

The authorities of the new University set up in 1979 gave high priority to the implementation of the building programme. With the land allotted to the University from the old "Race Course" premises it had now about 50 acres of prime land in the best residential part of Colombo, on either side of Thurstan Road and Reid Avenue and in Kynsey Road where the Medical Faculty was located, in an area referred to as the "educational triangle".



The University in 1979 prepared blueprints for the development of its land on a zonal basis. Six zones were identified - Arts, Education, Law, Science, Medicine and Administration - and a massive building programme was initiated at an estimated cost of over 200 million rupees. Once more owing to lack of funds, construction work begun in 1980 could not be carried out according to schedule and the estimates had to be constantly revised to cope with the rapid escalation of the cost of material and of construction.

Nevertheless, despite these constraints, substantial progress has been made in the building programme and by 1985, the New Biology building, stage 1 of the Education Complex, the Chemistry building and a Modern Student Centre with recreational and canteen facilities were completed. During the next few years the second stage of the building programme was undertaken and the Physics, Chemistry (stage II), Computer and Statistics, Law, Arts (stage I) buildings and the new Administration Block have been completed.

Side by side with the development of the physical infra-structure the University has undertaken an expansion of its academic programmes. In addition to reorganising the traditional undergraduate and graduate courses the University has embarked on an ambitious Extension Programme maximizing on its advantageous position as the metropolitan University in Sri Lanka. In order to develop further this aspect of its academic activities a Faculty of Graduate Studies is being established. The University has over 35 Departments of Study in its seven Faculties - Arts, Graduate Studies, Law, Education, Management & Finance, Medicine and Science - which undertake besides their regular courses of studies which are constantly being reviewed and updated, several extension and other programmes catering to the developmental needs of the country. The University has also entered into several link programmes with foreign universities.

The academic structure of the University of Colombo proposed in the Thistlethwait report has been modified, but in planning and developing its curricula the University of Colombo continues to follow his wise exhortation that "Colombo should capitalise its position as the University in the heart of the country's metropolis. It should draw strength from and contribute to the characteristic activities of the capital city; government, and administration, diplomacy and international relations, law, finance, trade, commerce and communications. It should specialise in the education of recruits for these occupations; and it should draw upon specialists from these occupations for expert part-time teaching ....." and to maintain its position as the "metropolitan University, modern and international in outlook and character". Colombo endeavours to meet this challenge.