Bold pioneer of free education

Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara

Dr. Cristopher William Wijekoon Kannangara (October 13, 1884 – September 23, 1969) was a Sri Lankan lawyer and a popular politician. Being a not so very distant relation of Sri Lanka’s old ruling Imperial Royals, he worked with other princely families and Ceylon’s traditional nobility, other important members of the self-rule movement, as well as the British courts in the end to attain the goal of self-rule.

Rising up the ranks of Sri Lanka’s movement for independence in the early part of the 20th century, he moved on to play a pivotal role defending leaders of the independence movement in court and achieving vital legal victories contributing vastly to the cause of independence as a lawyer and orator, soon achieving the Presidency of the Ceylon National Congress. Later, he became the first Minister of Education in the State Council of Ceylon, and was instrumental in introducing extensive reforms to the country’s education system that opened up education to children from all levels of society.

Born in the Southern coastal town of Hikkaduwa, his academic progress enabled him to win a Foundation Scholarship to Richmond College, Galle, a prestigious secondary school at the time. After leaving school, he worked as a teacher in Mathematics at Wesley College, Colombo and Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa.

He excelled as a lawyer in the Southern Province which made the public of the area to nominate him to contest at the Legislative Council election representing the Southern Province at which he made an easy win. This was the beginning of his political career. Later, he entered the National Movement for Independence. Kannangara was first elected to the Ceylon Legislative Council in 1923 and then to the State Council. He also served as the President of the Ceylon National Congress.

As Minister of Education in the State Council, Kannangara introduced extensive reforms to the education system of Sri Lanka throughout the 1940s. They benefitted thousands of underprivileged students in rural parts of the country by making education free for all students. He also began a Central Colleges scheme, which established high quality secondary schools in rural areas of the country. Kannangara’s significant achievements in areas of education have led him to being commonly referred to as the Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka.

The Executive Committee of Education exercised its powers to create new regulations paving the way for the establishment of a new system of education in Sri Lanka. The new system was expected to ensure that education was provided with equal opportunities for all children in the country, irrespective of social class, economic condition, religion and ethnic origin. Whilst the education in vernacular schools had been free prior to the reforms due to government grants to cover the cost of teaching and local philanthropists providing the buildings, equipment and the books, it was not standardised.

Among the recommendations made by the Executive Committee of Education for providing ‘lasting value to the nation’ given in the report, which was published in 1943, were that “education should be free from the Kindergarten to the University. The mother tongue should be used as the medium of instruction in primary Schools. English should be taught in all schools from standard III and a curriculum for the child which would develop its head, heart and hands should be introduced. In other words, the education of the emotions is as necessary as the education of intellect and practical ability for the well-being of the child.”

As Minister of Education, Kannangara was placed in charge of implementing the recommendations. Among the reforms introduced, which came into operation on October 1, 1945, were to make education free for all students, to ensure that every student was provided with instruction in the religion of his or her parents, to prevent teachers from been exploited by managers of schools by having their wages paid directly by the government, and to make adequate provisions for adult education in the country.

Kannangara established a series of Central Schools (Madhya Maha Vidyala) modelled on Royal College, Colombo, in locations outside major cities. These took high quality secondary education to the rural outstations of the country. His objective was to create a central school in every electorate in the country, and as such, while in 1941 there were three central schools in the country, by 1945 the number had increased to 35, and to 50 by 1950. The first Central College was established in Akuramboda, Matale. In 1943 Kannangara also launched an annual scholarship programme, which provided the opportunity for the 20 best performers of the scholarship exam to get free board and lodging in Central School hostels.

During his 16-year period as Minister of Education, he also upgraded ancient pirivenas (educational establishments for Buddhist monks), and established the University of Ceylon, the first University in Sri Lanka.

Further, Kannangara took steps to abolish the two-tier school system where English was taught to privileged students and the vernacular language was taught to the rural masses. While he laid emphasis on teaching swabasha (native languages) in schools, he also advised that students should learn English to compete in the modern world. Kannangara was a strong supporter for the establishment of the University of Ceylon and the University Bill passed by the State Council on March 1, 1942. In the first convocation of the University of Ceylon, Kannangara was conferred a LLD (Honoris Causa), in recognition of his services to education.

Kannangara however faced significant opposition to his move to establish free education in the country, especially from socially and economically privileged groups who have enjoyed the significant advantages offered to them by the British. The Bill to establish free education was passed in the State Council in July 1945.

According to reliable sources in the health sector, in another five years Sri Lanka will have 50,000 MBBS doctors for which the number of nurses should be 250,000. But now there are only 50,000 nurses in the country. This shortage will never be addressed. Only around 2,500 Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) are in the country at present which is not adequate. The final year examinations of Rajarata, Ragama and Karapitiya Medical Faculties are delayed by seven months than all other medical faculties in the country.

Usually the final year examination should be held in November of each year, but the three specific medical faculties hold them in May of the next year. This delay allows foreign MBBS medical degree holders to obtain all good positions in the health sector because they complete their MBBS degrees much earlier (sometimes four years earlier) than state medical students. This four-year gap takes place because a student from an international school starts his or her higher studies at the age of 17.

For example, since the recent past unfair and unacceptable practices are happening in Sri Lanka. It is like this. Let us say two friends study in the same Advanced Level Science class in the same school. The poor student gets selected to the Medical faculty with three ‘As’ and studies medicine. The rich student gets three ‘Fs’ (fail) and enters a foreign medical faculty through racketeers. The rich students with foreign MBBS degrees return to Sri Lanka a few years before the poor student passes out from the local medical faculty, and gets appointed to a key decision-making position. The poor student is waiting in the state medical faculty as a medical student while the rich student makes decisions for him. There is no need to say what will happen thereafter. This is happening in Sri Lanka during the past decade or more.

It is only one question that we have to ask. Whether a foreign MBBS degree holder with three ‘Fs’ at the local Advanced Level (Science stream) Examination and now in a top decision-making position will make any decision on behalf of poor medical students with three ‘As’ passes. No. They will take care of themselves and their friends’ children who are now in foreign medical faculties. Then they will look after their own children who will pass out from foreign medical faculties. Therefore the only way out is handing over this entire decision-making process to the UGC. Then no racketeer will snatch the money of rich parents whose children are not qualified enough to enter into a state medical faculty, but qualify to enter a foreign medical faculty. Only a handful of rich students with three ‘Fs’ and no basic qualification to become a MBBS doctor in Sri Lanka will get ‘affected’.

If this burning issue continues, the ERPM examination held by the Sri Lanka Medical Council will not be able to prevent unqualified MBBS doctors from entering into the service. It will put the lives of Sri Lankan people in danger. There will be no way of preventing SAITM type fraudulent companies entering into private medical education. (Source:Wikipedia).


A danger to free medical education

At present, the most dangerous challenge has emerged against the existence of free medical education in Sri Lanka. The free medical education of Sri Lanka has been openly challenged by a group of persons who earn millions of rupees by sending unqualified rich Sri Lankan students to foreign universities. This system has been facilitated by individuals from all walks of life such as academics, professionals, businessmen, top officials, administrators, and so on.

Unfortunately, most of them are in top decision-making positions when it comes to making decisions on medical education in Sri Lanka and giving appointments to Sri Lankan doctors. They have grabbed the positions of these key decision-makers in the past five years during the Yahapalana regime. Their unqualified children are in foreign universities waiting to become MBBS doctors in Sri Lanka. The only way out is establishing a special unit and handing over the entire system of sending Sri Lankan students to foreign medical faculties to the University Grants Commission (UGC). Only then the racketeers will not be able to destroy free medical education in Sri Lanka and the decades-old friendship existing between Sri Lanka and certain friendly foreign countries.


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