Mr. Chancellor, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, members of the Faculty, graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
In our own cultural heritage we have the words of the Buddha "Speak only if you can improve upon the silence" and, in the West in the 2nd century B.C., the Roman philosopher Terence wrote "Nothing has yet been said that's not been said before"!
These nuggets of ancient, wise and daunting advice are as applicable to verbose politicians as to international civil servants steeped in the jargon of UN documents. But I speak here as an alumnus of Peradeniya and a Sri Lankan. The first of my few words must express my heartfelt gratitude to the University of Peradeniya for honouring me with this award. It is all the more treasured because it comes from academia and from civil society. I receive it with deep humility and am overwhelmed with nostalgic memories of four memorable and intellectually enriching years spent in what is surely one of the world's most beautiful campuses.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In the U.S.A., where I now live and work, the climax of a University student's career - this academic rite of passage - is called a "Commencement" ceremony signalling the beginnings of a sojourn in life where it is the journey and not the arrival that matters: where the savouring of the experience of living, in accordance with the values your University training has moulded in you, is more important than the achievements you may attain. I am, myself, close to the end of my life's odyssey and I would like, therefore, to use this occasion to pay homage to my Peradeniya gurus who prepared me - in and outside the lecture rooms - for the commencement of my journey through life. To their successors I express my profound admiration for their dedication to our nation-building efforts through education and the robust assertion of academic independence and freedom despite enormously difficult conditions.
I am neither a trained educationist nor an omniscient politician to abuse the privilege of this platform by presuming to speak on the challenges of tertiary education in Sri Lanka today. It seems to me however that in the sharp mood swings Of us Sri Lankans between self - adulation and self-denigration, a constant selfdefensive refrain is that we are a "small country". The fact is that in terms of territorial size there are 69 countries smaller than Sri Lanka in the United Nations. Population wise there are 136 countries smaller than we are. That in itself should enable us to see ourselves in a more objective and less self-deprecating perspective in today's inexorably globalizing world with increasing connectivity from the depths of the ocean to outer space and cyberspace.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The 13 national Universities in our country, according to 1999 statistics, enrol only 15% of the students who satisfied the minimum requirements for University admission. That means that 85% of qualified aspirants for higher education must, out of frustration, either offer external degree courses, seek admission to other professional training institutes, get a job or swell the ranks of the unemployed. That is an indictment upon the entire nation - despite our proud record of free education and consistently high literacy rates. It is a result of mis-allocation of scarce resources in a developing country although Sri Lanka ranks 84th in the UNDP's Human Development Index. Statistics from this year's South Asian Human Development Report reveal that while the developing country average for public expenditure on education was 3.6% of GNP, in Sri Lanka it was 3.4% compared to 3.8% in 1960. In Maldives it was as high as 6.4% (some of that money no doubt earned by Sri Lankan teachers there). In tertiary education World Bank figures show that in 1995 Nepal and India, of our South Asian neighbours, spent more per student as a percentage of GNP per capita than we do. Sri Lanka in fact ranks below both the South Asian and global average.
H.G. Wells wrote that "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe". We are lagging behind in that race. Knowledge based economies will be at the cutting edge of the globalized world economy and investment in our Universities, as training centres of human resources and crucibles for research and development, will be the key to our success in the 21" century.
Connectivity to the world has never been a serious problem for Sri Lanka as an island nation hospitable to external influences. Ironically though, connectivity within our country remains elusive and difficult. Quite apart from constructive linkages among the different ethnic and religious groups, harmonious relations among economic and social categories are also demonstrably necessary. If the English language - as the most conveniently available international medium - is looked upon less as a divisive sword and more as a gateway of equitable opportunity we would be making a healthy start. The "digital divide" is as much a national problem as it is a global one. We would do well to bridge our linguistic divide by talking to each other in computer languages through community computer centres spreading the benefits of information technology equitably among our people.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Greater emphasis on the highest standards of professionalism is another need across the spectrum.
As a graduate from Peradeniya while I had the basic qualifications, I was untrained for the profession of diplomacy. That training came later both in Sri Lanka and abroad.
- It is professionalism that gives us all our integrity and our independence irrespective of which
party is in power influencing public discourse without being captives of it.
- It is professionalism that empowers us to make our contribution to the economic and cultural
life of our Country.
- It is professionalism that has won plaudits for our expatriate Sri Lankans abroad and has
made them valued citizens in their adopted countries, while their colleagues have languished in Sri Lanka as unsung and underpaid heroes or victims of politically inspired discrimination.
- It is not the patronage of the powerful that won Duncan White and Susanthika Jayasinghe
their Olympic medals. It was hard work and professionalism.
Finally, upgrading your professional skills enhances your marketability in today's globalised world. Like education, professional training is a continuous process as we keep our minds open to new ideas, new technologies and new challenges which render old concepts and orthodoxies inadequate. While veneration of received wisdom has its place, especially in our Asian culture, we must also be able to use the Socratic method which lies at the heart of the European Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution and the development of contemporary Western civilization.
Linkages between the private sector of our country and the Universities are another vital need. Too often mutual mis-perceptions of each other, through stereo-typical images of the exploitative capitalist or bloated mudalali on the one hand, and the hirsute and rebellious undergrad on the other, prevent any constructive dialogue. Part-time or vacation employment opportunities for undergrads in the private sector, or even an optional year off university courses for practical work in industry for Engineering students for example, would greatly enhance the employability of our graduates quite apart from helping the task of national cohesion, breaking down the ivory tower isolation of Universities.
Let us not forget that, except for the giants of history, most of us leave behind footprints in the sands of time which are soon obliterated by the winds of change and the waves of time. Collectively though, what we leave behind in institutions remains greater than all our individual contributions put together. Thus it is with the University of Peradeniya. Long may it flourish in the service of our nation and its sons and daughters! Let us also, as alumni give back gratefully and generously to Peradeniya and Sri Lanka mindful of that
plaintive cry of the mother in our famous folk song - "Manalade Puthe Kiri Dunne Maw Numbata"