Sri Lanka has inherited two major traditions of higher education, one going back to the institutions developed by the Buddhist Sangha, both in India and Sri Lanka, and the other derived from the British traditions of the religious and secular Universities. The former tradition has survived to this day in Sri Lanka through the Pirivenas or the Institutes of Buddhist education. Two premier Pirivenas at the turn of the twentieth century were the Vidyodaya Pirivena, at Maligakanda, Colombo, and the Vidyalankara Pirivena in Kelaniya, also not far from Colombo. The British tradition was introduced towards the end of the nineteenth century (1870), first with a Medical School, and later a Law College (1874), both in Colombo. Still later some schools were permitted to prepare students for the external examinations of the Calcutta and London Universities. The setting up of the University College in Colombo in 1921, with affiliation to the London University heralded the next step in the development of higher education to be later followed by the setting up of the University of Ceylon in Colombo in 1942.
University education in Sri Lanka was exclusively in English, with obvious limitations on those educated in Sinhala and Tamil. However with the introduction of the national languages as the media of instruction in all schools, leading up to the university entrance level, a single university for the whole country, and teaching only in English, became completely untenable .The government when confronted with this challenge, was constrained to seek ways and means of expanding the access to education at tertiary level.
In 1956, following a change of government, and in conformity with its general policy of promoting national languages and culture, it was decided to establish two new universities, by bestowing university status to the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas. Accordingly as provided for in the Vidyodaya University and Vidyalankara University Act No 45 of 1958, the two universities were duly established at Maligakanda and Kelaniya respectively. Ven. Welivitiye Soratha Maha Thero who was the Principal of the Vidyodaya Pirivena at the time was appointed the first Vice-Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, and the university itself was ceremonially opened on 16th February 1959.
Sir Oliver Goonatilleke the Governor-General and ex-officio Chancellor of the University thus expressed the aims and objectives of the new university, when he ceremonially inaugurated the university two days later:
“This is a historic occasion. Today witnesses the renaissance of Pirivena education on a broader front. It is my good fortune that I am privileged to be here today to inaugurate the Vidyodaya University and to extend my best wishes to the Vice Chancellor and the staff. The granting of university status to the two principal Pirivenas of the Island is one of the most far-reaching achievements of the Government in the realm of education. Minister Dahanayaka will be remembered in the annals of this Island as the man who gave Oriental learning and its traditional seats the encouragement and support they needed to become an integral part of the educational set up of modern Lanka. The Buddhist priesthood, who had in the past contributed so much to the cause of oriental learning and culture, will now get the opportunity of widening their sphere of influence.
Universities in the world set very high standards of learning and by their detached attitude to the dissemination of knowledge for its own sake and by their approach to research, establish traditions which ensure the advancement of knowledge. Each university, however, has to modify its approach to the problems of knowledge according to the requirements of the people. The economic, scientific and cultural problems of a nation should receive the active attention of a university. I have no doubt that the Venerable Theras and other members of the staff of this university, having a first hand knowledge of the needs and problems of this country, will address their mind to the fundamental questions of maintaining the internationally recognized standards of university education, and contribute towards the solution of the nation’s problems. The Vidyodaya University should fulfill our hopes in this direction because, as the oldest of modern Pirivenas, it has preserved a very high standard of scholarship during the last eighty-six years.
Venerable the Vice-Chancellor, Deans, Professors and members of the staff, the rich Buddhist traditions you have inherited, the eighty six years of experience in running this seat of oriental learning and your deep knowledge of the subjects you have specialized in, are your special advantages. I beg you, spare no pains to make this institution a university of which we all can rightly be proud. I wish you every success in your endeavours. I have great pleasure in inaugurating the Vidyodaya University of Ceylon.”
The University commenced its academic activities with the five faculties: Buddhist Studies, Philosophy, Languages, Arts, and Ayurveda and Science. There were twenty-two Departments of Study. Some of the students of the Vidyodaya Pirivena who were considered eligible were among the first students to be admitted to the university. Similarly adult candidates with the requisite minimum entry requirements were also selected for admission. However, admission was restricted to males and the initial student population was composed predominately of bhikkus (Buddhist Monks). The same bias was evident with the initial academic staff, drawn from the same Pirivena, or those who had been its outstanding alumni. However the more secular subjects on offer required the services of visiting lay staff.
It did not take long for the university authorities to realize that the infrastructure facilities at Maligakanda and other nearby premises were awfully inadequate to meet the needs of a modern university (in the making). Looking ahead towards the future, a team was sent across to India to study the organization and infrastructure of some of the better known universities there, and following the recommendations of this team, official approval was obtained to go ahead with the project of relocating the university, with the necessary physical infra-structure.
The new location selected was at Gangodawila, 15 KM from the center of Colombo, and within walking distance of the High Level Road, the main trunk road from Colombo to Ratnapura and beyond. Part of these premises belonged to the nearby Sunethradevi Pirivena, associated with King Parakramabahu VI (1412 – 1467). More recently some adjacent lands have been acquired to cope with the accelerated expansion and development of the university. The shift of the university to the new site was effected on 22 November 1961.
The enactment of the Higher Education Act No 20 of 1966 brought far reaching changes to the university scene in Sri Lanka, and in particular to the two new universities. As a result, admission to both those universities was opened to female students as well. The post of Vice-Chancellor would no longer be restricted to the Sangha, and all academic and administrative appointees had to satisfy criteria determined by the newly created National Council of Higher Education. This modernization process also resulted in the restructuring of some of the Faculties and Departments of Study, as well as of programmes of study. A remarkable upsurge and revitalization at the university characterized the period that followed these changes, till the outbreak of the 1971 insurgency.
Following the insurgency of 1971 the university premises were taken over by the Army, and converted into a detention camp for suspected insurgents. During this temporary occupation (1971-1972) the university functioned from several locations in Colombo, maintaining the basic academic and administrative services. Following on the heels of this traumatic experience came the University of Ceylon Act No.1 of 1972, reducing all universities into campuses of a single University of Sri Lanka. Vidyodaya University became Vidyodaya Campus headed by a Campus President, appointed by the Minister of Education. Equally drastic were the changes effected on Faculty and Department structures, as well as academic programmes. As a result the growth of the new universities in particular was considerably disrupted. However a number of new campuses were established, expanding the opportunities for higher education, and with a greater bias for technical education and job orientation.
The next cycle of change in the management of higher education . came about in 1978, following a change of government in 1977. The legislative instrument for the purpose was the Universities Act No 16 of 1978. This restored the independent university status to the Campuses while assigning some of the coordinating functions to a new University Grants Commission. Vidyodaya campus was designated University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Other innovations were the setting up of a Ministry of Higher Education, and a separate Council for each University.
The post- 1978 period has witnessed considerable expansion in Higher Education, and the University of Sri Jayewardenepura has had its fair share of growth and consolidation. As a result the number of Faculties now stands at five, with a Faculty of Medical Sciences, and a Faculty of Graduate Studies being added to the long standing Faculty of Arts, Faculty of Applied Science, and Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce. In addition the university has spawned a highly successful Postgraduate Institute of Management, conveniently located in Colombo. The Faculty of Medical Sciences has achieved a phenomenal growth in a very short time with fifteen Departments of Study and other adjuncts. The programmatic growth in the other Faculties has also been considerable, with forays into Journalism, Social Statistics, Criminology, Forestry, Food Science, Polymer Science, Statistics, Marketing, Human Resource Management, Estate Management and Valuation, and numerous external undergraduate and postgraduate programs in Arts, Commerce and Management. Consolidation is also borne out by the well-designed and spacious library, increased intake of students, and an array of Student and Community Services.
University of Sri Jayewardenepura: Towards Meeting National Aspirations by Prof M.M.Karunanayake, Joint Golden Jubilee Issue of Vidyodaya 2009