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Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Emeritus Professor of Languages
Prepared for the session on ‘Language and Literature’
Of the Sabaragamuwa University Symposium on
Harnessing Knowledge through Research to address emerging Global Issues
January 11th 2012

I am grateful to Sabaragamuwa University for having invited me back to chair this session and speak to you. I am delighted that amongst the speakers today are two former students of this university, one of whom is now a Senior Lecturer. He deserves special congratulations for this, since he succeeded finally in overcoming all the difficulties that confront academics in this country who need to obtain further degrees in the field of English so as to continue in service. Fortunately the situation is somewhat better now, and the Rapporteur today, yet another former student of mine, though from Sri Jayewardenepura, has a doctorate under the scheme implemented by the National Centre for Advanced Study of the Humanities, which we finally managed to set up when I was Acting Dean here.

That institution is a egregious example of what I wish to address in this presentation. I should note however that your invitation came at a bad time, when I was in even greater despair than usual about education in this country, and about English Education in particular. I had been with yet another couple of students of this University, who were telling me all about how several Ordinary Level question papers were for sale through tutories before the examination. I was told in graphic detail about the subject for still life drawing that appeared in the Art Paper, with the details – including the number of leaves in the croton in the vase – all known beforehand.

I am perhaps simplistic in blaming primarily the tuition industry for this, since it takes two to tango, but I had just before that been confronted with forceful complaints at Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings in the East, about how tuition was ruining the young. Obviously I could not accede to the request that I suggest to the President that tuition be banned, since government must bear at least some of the responsibility for permitting the privileging of the tuition culture. Teachers and parents cannot be blamed for believing that tuition is an essential part of education, given the nexus that exists between the formal education system and tutories –  of which the most obvious evidence now is the relentless leaking of public examination papers by tuition masters.

But this urge to have recourse to outside elements is an essential part of our approach to education, as I realized in thinking about the other horror story that was brought to my notice. This related to a training programme for lecturers in English at Technical Colleges, which had been conducted by the British Council at a substantial cost. I was told over 6 million rupees had been expended, though the participants were expected to pay for their board and lodging, in comparatively squalid conditions.

I have regularly been told by decision makers who agree that standards of English have to be improved that they will ask the British Council for assistance. Unfortunately they believe that the British Council is an aid organization, as was the case until the eighties, when it provided seminal assistance with regard to English and other training needs.

Unfortunately no one in authority now seems to understand that the Council is no longer run on the old lines, being also required to function on commercial principles. In the old days the idea was to develop Sri Lankan counterparts so that we could be self sustaining in time, now the aim is to continue to be needed, so that it can go on from contract to contract. Aid is thus a tool of business, with grants – and even more often loans – being instruments of winning business deals, which later have to be renewed without such support.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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