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Monday, August 1, 2011

Expanding Horizons – English Education and Politics in the Nineties – II The new Englishes at Sri Jayawardenepura

The Island 01/08/2011

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

The English course at USJP was not the main reason I had joined the place, though ultimately what I achieved there also I think had a long-lasting impact. I started an External Degree which had three components, all in English medium, and this has now become I believe the most popular External Degree course in the whole university system. Whereas what might be termed the senior universities had prided themselves on their esoteric English courses, focused mainly on English Literature, with a dash of even more esoteric Linguistics, my course also had a language component. This encouraged English teachers, and aspiring ones around the country, who knew that what they and school students needed most was language improvement, to follow this degree course in droves.

Initially the third component of the degree had been Western Classics, in part because I thought a knowledge of classical literature as well as history would assist students to a better understanding of English literature too. The argument was based on custom too, in that Western Classics was also on offer in the Kelaniya internal and external degrees. It was seen as a comfortable option both by Colombo students who had studied the subject at Advanced Level, and by teachers who were able to do the subject in English, given that this was not possible with many other subjects.

In time however I realized that this was not really useful and, when I was at the Ministry of Education in 2001 to restart English medium in schools, I asked USJP, where Paru Nagasunderam was by then Head of the recently established Department of English, to introduce English Language Teaching as a subject for the external degree. She obliged at once, which has made that degree, comprised of English Language, English Literature and English Language Teaching, immensely popular. The only drawback is that there are so many papers to mark that results are often delayed. Needless to say, none of the other universities responded then to my request to introduced ELT into their courses, though perhaps the situation is better now in this regard.

I had also introduced English Language as an option into the internal degree programme, and most of the students in that first year opted for both Literature and Language. There were a number of Buddhist monks amongst them, and they proved deeply committed. I wondered that so many bright young men had opted for the monkhood but there was a close causal connection: for bright boys in peasant communities, entering a temple was often the only way in which they could continue with their education, since there were so many pressures otherwise to drop out and enter the world of work early.

Not quite understanding the system, I had assumed that we had to teach twice as many periods for each paper as was in fact the case. Since we also taught each paper twice, since that was the only way to accommodate students doing a whole range of combinations, Paru and I and the two young ladies we had taken onto the staff worked excessive hours in that first year, but the enthusiasm and rapid improvement of our students made the whole business fully worthwhile.

My own teaching load, about twelve hours a week, had to be crammed into just a couple of days, because I was also busy with the AUCs, which had after all been my main reason for joining USJP. There were three of these doing English to start with, at Anuradhapura and Belihuloya and Rahangala near Bandarawela, but two more started in the following year, at Buttala and at Trincomalee. The first three and Buttala came under USJP, but the Trincomalee AUC was under the Eastern University.

When the AUCs were set up, great care had been taken to appoint their Directors, and I was very impressed with the quality of those I met. Dorakumbura had started Anuradhapura, and Belihuloya had an Economics Lecturer from USJP called Somasundara who seemed much quieter, but was extremely efficient. Rahangala had an outsider as its Head, a local monk who was dynamic as well as capable, and clearly a much admired character in the area. When Buttala started, it had Prof Bamunuarachchi from USJP, while Trincomalee had a Drector of Education called Siron Rajaratnam, who turned out to be the brightest and most devoted of the whole lot.

Getting lecturers was a problem from the start. We were almost in despair after the first set of interviews, for we found only one competent person for each of the first three AUCs. Janaki Moonsinghe at Anuradhapura turned out the mainstay of the programme there, but there were problems in the other two places with the persons we selected. Gamini Fonseka, whom David Woolger had recommended as a colleague of his at the Pasdunrata College of Education, went off almost immediately to Norway, so we had to start Rahangala with no proper permanent staff. And at Belihuloya, Panini Edirisinghe fell foul of Somasundara, and was unceremoniously sacked on the day the AUC officially opened.

His dismissal was patently unfair, based on fraudulent documents that included a host of pre-dated letters warning him formally, but on that very day Somasundara’s wife fell ill, terminally as it turned out, and the matter could not be pursued. I also had some sympathy for Somasundara, for the animosity was based in part on Panini’s barely disguised contempt for someone for whom English was not a first language. Like many of those from a privileged background, very conscious of having schooled at S. Thomas’, Panini thought there was something wrong with those who did not speak English correctly, and he had conveyed as much to colleagues at other universities. I was horrified, for instance, when a lecturer at Colombo, which was in any case not in favour of the AUC attempt to give English qualifications to those without Advanced Level English, expressed surprise at the effrontery of an institution planning to teach English when its Director did not know English.

This was utterly unfair on Somasundara, who could actually express himself very competently, even if it was clear this was not a familiar tongue. But it was that type of attitude in the old universities that made me defensive about him, and not take seriously Panini’s other point, that much money had been wasted, perhaps not entirely honestly, in the equipping of the University College. The library for instance had been packed with multiple copies of readers for children, which was certainly inappropriate –and that was a practice that continued over the years, culminating in the buying of fascicles at about Rs 10,000 each, on subjects that were not of the slightest interest to anyone.

But the discovery of all this, and the corruption that is endemic in the university system, given the ease with which accountability is avoided, lay in the future. In 1992, embarking on my work officially now with the AUCs, delighted with a programme that would at last make English more widely available at the level that could best ensure a cascade effect, I was nothing but enthusiastic about the new Affiliated University Colleges.