SG112I was pleasantly entertained by Prof Savithri Goonesekere’s references to myself and Dayan Jayatilleke in her long critique of recent developments with regard to Higher Education. The thrust of the article is to attack the reforms proposed by the Minister, S B Dissanayake, whose photograph features twice in the article. Apart from Minister Mervyn Silva, the only two individuals referred to disparagingly by name are Dayan and myself.

I was reminded on reading this of the attack on Minister Dissanayake in the recent US review of Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Apart from Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Douglas Devananda, two individuals the Americans in general would love to hate, S B was the only Minister mentioned by name. As I wrote at the time, there seemed no obvious reason to hate S B, so that the reason for the attack, prepared I believe by the less civilized elements in the U S Embassy, was probably the flirtation they were carrying on with the JVP. The JVP were doubtless as cynical in their reasons for accepting the advances made, though perhaps that little side-show has been suspended by other developments in the JVP now.

Saner elements in the West, as I have had proven again and again in conversation, have a much higher opinion of S B, and believe as I do that his efforts to reform the University system must be supported. They may not of course agree with all his initiatives, but by and large they recognize that he is an effective Minister with very progressive ideas, and that unless his reforms are expedited, education and thus society in Sri Lanka will not move forward as demanded by the current world situation.

Just as those who prepared the US Report on Human Rights realized that denigration of S B was a way of attacking reform, so too it would seem that Prof Goonesekere, with some intellectual confusion regrettable in one of her renown, thinks attacking Dayan and me would be useful in pursuing her ends. The gratuitous reference to Mervyn Silva, the only member of the government mentioned by name in this article, is typical of propaganda techniques unworthy of a distinguished academic.

Whilst I am sure Dayan can look after himself, and I trust he will do so in his usual incisive prose, I must point out that Prof Goonesekere is really rather childish in suggesting that what I wrote might be ‘a subtle endorsement to (sic) the creation of a para military force within universities and among youth groups’. I hope entirely innocently, she confuses two things, with no regard for either facts or chronology. First she cites a document of the Friday Forum to criticize the recent ‘much publicized leadership programme for new students’. It is a pity she did not consult, instead of the antediluvian alliance, the students of her old school who participated in the programme, or its Principal, who have made clear how successful that programme was.

Then she claimes that there is ‘a proposal for the Ministry of Defence to integrate a “cadet programme” into English teacher training for schools that come under the Ministry of Education. Since her evidence for this, as is apparent from the rest of the article, is something I wrote, it is a pity that she has not read carefully. What I mentioned was that ‘the Education Ministry seems to have put a stop to the heartening initiative of the Secretary of Defence to commission Tamil officers into the Cadet Corps through a programme of training teachers of English’. The poor woman obviously failed to register that there had been a programme previously, that it was for commissioning Tamil officers into the Cadet Corps, and that those officers were to be deployed as English teacher. For those who are not aware of this, it relates to a scheme whereby, even at the height of the conflict, the Ministry of Defence affirmed its commitment to a multi-ethnic army by recruiting Tamils into the Cadet Officer Corps. Why Prof Goonesekere confused this with a cadet programme in English teacher training for schools is incomprehensible, unless prejudice has trumped her undoubted intelligence.

She goes further lower down in her article, in attacking as possibly subtle paramilitarization, my suggestion of catch up education arranged by the military. She claims there is no explanation ‘as to why the military should undertake this work’ but I had pointed out that the idea arose from the successful pre-university course, that combined a range of skills in addition to learning. The para is worth citing in full –

‘In a practical way, such training could offer basic qualifications involving languages plus vocational and aesthetic training, with a package that would allow those who were interested to obtain the six passes at Ordinary Level that would qualify them to join various branches of government service. A more streamlined approach to catch up education can easily be devised, which would also ensure the psycho-social attention, including through cultural activities and sports, that many in the region may require. ‘

While there are doubtless other ways in which such programmes could be offered, I don’t suppose Prof Goonesekere has thought either of the problem, or of any alternatives. This is typical of an approach that criticizes efforts at reform, having singularly failed to promote any when exercising authority herself. Instead she seems determined to denigrate those who do promote much needed reforms, which she herself used to agree were needed, even though she had neither the capacity nor the determination to promote them. Her snide comments about her successor as Vice-Chancellor in Colombo, a lady who had taken the University forward in a number of ways, are characteristic of someone whose elevation to the position of Vice-Chancellor, and her dashing of the hopes of those who saw her a a breath of fresh air, exemplified Parkinson’s Law about people rising to their level of incompetence. She was of course, I have been told, a splendid Professor of Law at the Open University.

Prof Goonesekere’s confusion is apparent in her misdating of efforts at reform, and when she talks of Dr Tara de Mel and Prof R P Jayewardene being senior bureaucrats in the Ministry of Higher Education when Richard Pathirana was Minister. Richard Pathirana ceased to be a Minister in 2000. Tara headed a task force during Minister Pathirana’s time, then became Secretary of Education in 2000, and only took on Higher Education as well when the Ministries were combined again in late 2001. Prof Jayawardene was Secretary of the joint Ministry earlier, but took on Higher Education alone when the Ministries were split in 2000. The IRQUE Project was conceived in Tara’s time, but only became operational after the UNP government took over, which led to its distortion as Prof Goonesekere’s indicates.

This may just be carelessness. More worrying is Prof Goonesekere’s lack of intellectual rigour in her critique of Dayan and me as having taught in State universities and suggesting that we have forgotten the horrors of the late eighties. We have not done so and, unlike Prof Goonesekere who continued to hold office in the university system at the time, we made our opposition clear at the time. I believe Prof Goonesekere shared my view of the enormities of what the Jayewardene government was up to, but whereas I resigned from my university position and campaigned actively against the 1983 referendum, Prof Goonesekere stuck to her exalted position within the system. I make no criticism of this, for she had a young family to look after, and I have always accepted that my own resignation was not a great sacrifice since I could survive quite happily be teaching English.

But the holier than thou attitude she now adopts, scattering her grapeshot at unnamed University officers, is really rather sad for a distinguished old lady who once told me, when I asked her to take a greater interest in the Board of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies on which she served together with Dr Jayatilleke and myself, that her grandchildren were of greater importance. She should stick to her preferred last, instead of doing down one of the most effective and imaginative Ministers we have.

Sunday Island 6 November 2011