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.

I have come across this phenomenon in other areas, as with the many unscheduled proposals brought to me when I was Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. These usually came from Sri Lankan counterparts, some of whom were recommended by influential individuals, and the criterion I used to judge such proposals – did the country need them, and were they the most economical way of achieving the desired objectives? – astonished those who dealt with me, given that one was simply expected to agree, in return for which some sort of personal benefit would also be granted.

I hasten to add that those benefits were not necessarily financial, they could include trips abroad – with the healthy allowances that such entail – or, in the case of Ministers with constituencies, special projects for those constituencies.

I should note that, in the days when I worked for the British Council, when it was an aid organization, it did employ such practices as when trips were arranged for officials whose agreement was needed for projects, but the connection in those days between the means employed and the stated goal was clearer. Now, in a ruthlessly commercial world, it seems that anything goes provided business is done.

So the training, I gather, was not of the highest professional standards, and some of the techniques laid down may not be entirely suitable for our students. In addition, the textbook that was used did not seem entirely suitable, since it is based entirely on British situations. I was reminded then of something similar that happened, when the very effective syllabus Sabaragamuwa University had prepared for the Sri Lanka Military Academy was nearly subverted by a British Council project run by a earnest lady who had no qualms about trying to base the entire course on British books describing very British situations. Though some books had been donated, it was made clear that later, after all eggs had been placed in that basket, they would have to be purchased.

She had taken no notice at all of the course that was already being conducted, and I think was irritated at having to deal with someone who knew much more than she did about both the subject and the context in which she was supposed to be operating. We managed then, if not to stop the exercise in continuing dependency that she was engaged in, to at least salvage some of the original work and the more home grown systems we had been using.

But rarely do we find counterparts who can deal with the British, and indeed other aid givers, on their own terms. This is a great pity, because when they work with people who know what national priorities are, they tend to fall in line, because after all their commercialism is not ruthless, it is based on a desire to help as well. But when they are confronted with total ignorance or subservience, of course they do what comes naturally, which is dominate in terms of their own predilections.

I was reminded, listening to the description of what had gone on at the Technical Colleges Course, of what I was told by the Deputy Head of OCHA, just before he left. We had had quite a good relationship for the most part, though initially the aid community was of the view that I was very fierce – a myth the nastier elements in the Ministry of External Affairs still propagate. But they soon realized that I was happy to work with those who were positive about this country, as many of them were. And before he left the OCHA man told me that he thought many of those who came here had got it wrong. He said that most of them had experience largely of Africa, where in many places the writ of government did not run, and so they had to make all the decisions. The situation was quite different here, he acknowledged, and once they understood that, they could work more productively.

The trouble however is that in some areas the situation is as bad as what he had seen elsewhere. In the field of English certainly we have deterioriated from the days when, in fact with creative British assistance, we were on the verge of developing training capacity that would have fulfilled all our needs. But given what has happened in the last two decades, I can understand the comment of an Australian diplomat, who left in 2001, who said that he had never seen a county degenerate as swiftly as we had done in the three years he had been here. Again he used a comparison with Africa, but as we know many African countries have developed in leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades and their decision makers are certainly as sophisticated as ours were twenty years ago.

I was graphically reminded of all this because, a couple of weeks before your invitation arrived,  I had been the keynote speaker at the launch of a book by Parvathi Nagasunderam, whom I had recruited to Jayewardenepura when I left the British Council to run their English programmes. She went on to become Head of the English Department there when it was set up, and was a seminal influence in the education and development of several generations of undergraduates.

She had done as much in several incarnations earlier, first as a teacher, then as a teacher trainer at the Pasdunrata College of Education, and then, just before she came to Jayewardenepura, as a trainer trainer at the Higher Institute of English Education. Both these last had been conceived and largely set in motion by the British Council during its days of seminal influence in this country, under the most productive Representative it had, Rex Baker. Unfortunately, his successor, who thought he represented the new commercially successful British Council, destroyed all the relationships Rex had built up, which contributed to the destruction of the institutions the Council had helped nurture.

But that was essentially the fault of the Sri Lankan institutions who actively encouraged this process of self-destruction. The catastrophe arose from what was perhaps the silliest thing President Premadasa did. In his efforts to distance himself from President Jayewardene, he removed Ranil Wickremesinghe from the Education portfolio, which he had handled better than he did anything else in his life, before or after. The President instead gave it to someone he thought would respond to grassroots needs. As a result we had mayhem. The Director of English, M A de Silva, who had expressed some dissent, was got rid of, and the superb first President of the Pasdunrata College, Charlie Gamage, followed suit. The Department of English Education was downgraded, and its imaginative and efficient head, Lakshmi Cumaranatunga, was got rid of.

The superb range of courses she had introduced, supported by a trio of dedicated British consultants, with training in curriculum development, in evaluation, in the use of new technologies, were all forgotten. The concentration on English at Pasdunrata gave way to conformity with the increasingly meaningless requirements the NIE laid down, so that general subjects were recycled and less attention paid to English. As the students told me when I was asked to report on the situation as Adviser on English to the Ministry, they had learnt the reproductive system over and over in school and now they had to learn about it again, when what they needed was practice in English, improvement of speaking skills and encouragement to read and write in the language.

The result is that we have not developed counterparts who can direct assistance in a productive manner. The Educational Management Course the British Council had set up was completely forgotten, and has now been replaced by ad hoc arrangements, which were the subject of an almost tearful plea to me last month from NIE personnel to try to do something to salvage at least some professionalism. I have reported this to the only other person still in service who has some historical memory of what had been attempted in educational reform, but he is far too busy to devote attention to what I assume seem unimportant matters with so many other problems in the country.

To return to the complaint that made me again reflect on all this, there seems to be no one in the Technical College system who can provide conceptual inputs into the development of a new curriculum for English and a training programme to go with it. At intervals I have been asked to advise, both for General English and for the dedicated English courses. With regard to the first, I prepared a new curriculum, which was forgotten when the World University Service of Canada, which was providing a tremendous amount of aid, changed the personnel involved. I had almost forgotten about this until the last head of WUSC told me she had found copies of the book I had prepared and was using it. I was touched, and she kindly gave me a copy, which brought back fond memories – but she has gone now, and I believe WUSC assistance is winding down, and the wheel will once more be reinvented.

With regard to the dedicated English courses, I was astonished to find that students who had joined to improve their knowledge of the language were expected to read Anna Karenina. I believe I managed to make some dents in the mindset that had set up such a system and allowed it to continue for years, but dispensations kept changing and I don’t think changes were coherent or as radical as was needed.

This absurdity is relevant, because part of our problem is the excessively academic orientation of those who exercise authority in the field of English studies. This goes back to the elitist view of University education which we inherited from the British, and which we clung to long after the British had adapted to the twentieth century. Thus, while outsiders thought University English Departments were helping to produce teachers of English for the nation, they were doing nothing of the sort. Instead they were producing experts in English Literature with knowledge of the whole gamut of English Literature. As the Head of English in Colombo proudly told me, when I wondered why the curriculum had not been changed, her students could go on to do advanced degrees at Cambridge.

So when those Departments got funding to expand their staff on the grounds that they would provide special courses for teachers, they offered them degrees that compared – in content if not in critical skills – with what was on offer in England. And when it dawned on those in charge that English teachers were needed, since English Language Teaching was a profession, and not something that universities should deal in, they introduced linguistics instead. Indeed, when some years back, when I was at the Ministry, I tried to suggest that at least some modules English Language Teaching should be offered by the Universities, they all sniffed and looked askance, except thankfully Ms Nagasunderam at Sri Jayewardenepura. ELT is now part of the USJP external degree, which has long been the most popular external degree in Sri Lanka.

I should add that there are exceptions to the rarefied world in which English academics in Sri Lanka live. During the nineties we finally managed to convince the Ministry to make General English compulsory at Advanced Level, though this was only in the strange Sri Lankan sense of the word compulsory, which means you do not have to pass it. Unfortunately, with the NIE and the Universities meant to collaborate on the syllabus and the textbook, nothing moved, until the then Vice-Chairman of the Task Force who was in charge of the subject hit on the happy idea of telling the others that he would ask me to write the textbook on my own if it were not ready soon. That spurred them to action, though he had to call me in to deal with the animosities that were apparent. Unfortunately, though those involved all had much talent, they could not appreciate the input of what they saw as the other side. Fortunately the NIE leadership had been students of mine at Peradeniya, and did not see me as a threat, while the University academics involved could not sniff at me since I had in fact been to Oxford, and this – though not Cambridge – could not be looked down on.

In fact the book they produced was most impressive, and though it was unwieldy given that the predilections of all had to be accommodated, a later streamlined edition proved extremely popular. Sadly it has not occurred to those in charge of English at the Technical Colleges to take a look at this book and adapt it for their needs, or indeed to ask any of those who had been involved in that exercise for their advice on how to proceed.

Nor will they dream of looking at the texts we used for the General English Training Course which I was privileged to coordinate islandwide for seven years, together with Oranee Jansz of USJP. The textbooks we produced were taken on by Cambridge University Press in India, and were even prescribed at universities there, but that is India, and our authorities required something better, or at least more expensive, with genuine British characters for our Technical College students to emulate.

I should add that the Supplementary Reader we commissioned, a book called Historical Buildings by Goolbai Gunasekara, is now on my blog, and is read by hundreds of students around the world every day, with over 100,000 having looked at her account of the Taj Mahal. But it will never occur to any Sri Lankan in a position to prescribe books for students to refer to this, since Goolbai is Sri Lankan, so her work would not be up to the required standard.

So we will continue to reinvent the wheel, at vast expense, though doubtless those who freely spend state resources on all these novelties will also benefit from the exercise. I was indeed told that those responsible for an earlier workshop that was supposed to develop management capacity have now been interdicted. But I suspect, even if this is true, that nothing will come of it, and we will go on as before, with no effort to build on what has been done previously.

Typical of our continuing amateur attitude to learning is what has happened with the National Centre for Advanced Study of the Humanities, which I mentioned earlier. We set it up with high hopes of advanced degrees being offered, because we knew that lecturers in Arts Faculties found it difficult to gain higher degrees, since these are erratic in Sri Lanka, and scholarships are not given readily for their subjects. We also around the same time set up a Postgraduate Institute of English, since Peradeniya had by then killed its Master’s Degree in English, and all that was available was a course in Kelaniya which was not regarded as sufficiently weighty for promotions.

I should add that the Peradeniya Professor warned us that entrusting the Institute to the Open University would be a disaster, and I fear he was proved correct, because the MA they offered took ages to complete. It also seemed to me that the approach was unnecessarily rigid, which is doubtless why hardly anyone has qualified, a decade or so after the institute was started, though I am happy that one of our staff here is amongst the brilliant or the lucky ones to have done so.

With regard to the National Centre, I was horrified to discover when it presented its report to the Committee on Public Enterprises that it had done hardly anything except provide funds for university staff to obtain higher degrees from institutions abroad. There is nothing wrong with this, given that there is no alternative method for lecturers in the humanities to obtain postgraduate qualifications, but we had envisaged the Centre offering degrees itself, by bringing together staff from different universities who would offer modular courses plus supervise young academics to help them develop wider understanding of cross-cutting issues whilst also obtaining the required qualifications.

But I suppose that was too much to expect. Both institutions, set up with such high hopes nearly a decade ago, have not promoted the attitudinal changes we had hoped for. We will therefore continue to be parasitic on other countries, and continue also to bemoan the decline in standards which we have done little to arrest.

But I should not end on a pessimistic note. It was heartening to see so many of her students gathering at Parvathi Nagasunderam’s book launch in appreciation of what she had done for them. Lakshmi Cumaranatunga was also there, and Professor Wilson, the Dean of Arts at Jayewardenepura who had been so supportive when we tried radical innovations. Despite the opposition of the then Head of Department, and the caution of the Vice-Chancellor, we succeeded in the end because of his support. And his daughter, who began her teaching career here, is now on the staff there, and though she did not get a Master’s Degree from Peradeniya given the chaos that prevails there, she is now qualified and on her way, I hope soon, to a doctorate.

Here we have much to be proud of, the new Senior Lecturers in English, the new Head of Department who is perhaps the best exponent of the bilingualism this country is committed to promoting, and our students who, despite the harsh critiques from the established universities of our programme when we started it, now teach in many other universities. I hope they will set examples of active coordination and ensure the continuity that will ensure the progress in English Education nationwide that this country so desperately needs.

(The paper was not delivered at the session since Parliament met that day, but a version appeared in the Sunday Observer on January 13th –