Reforming Sri Lankan Universities-Lessons from Upsampada Revival

Posted on July 13, 2007  /  2 Comments

Universities, from Nalanda in present-day Bihar to those in Bologna and Harvard, emerged from religious contexts. It is therefore appropriate to look to religious context for guidance on how to reform the university system. The solution to our problems lies in the bringing of upasampada from Thailand (Siam) in the 18th century and from Burma (Ramanna and Amarapura) in the 19th century.

The problem

Sri Lanka’s universities no longer qualify to be called universities. Some say the cause is students; others say it is political interference. But a university is no different from any organization: if it has problems, they derive from the quality of the staff, the people who produce the teaching, research and public service that constitute the output of a university.

If there is political interference, it is because academic staff have gone behind politicians and not stood up to them. If the students are out of control, it is because the staff have not maintained discipline.

The staff select their successors. Poor-quality staff will select more poor-quality staff. The cycle will not end without a drastic solution.

The solution

Lord Buddha set out strict rules for ordination of monks. Five monks in good standing are needed to ordain a monk. In the time of the Kandyan kings, it was not possible to find five such monks. The Ven. Velivita Siri Saranankara thero emerged in this setting. He did not take the easy route of defining away the problem and making do with five Ganninanses. He persuaded King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe to seek the assistance of the King of Thailand to send learned monks to establish the upasampada in Sri Lanka.

All the Ganinnanses had to go through studies and necessary steps in order to be obtained, irrespective of age and seniority. There may have been the usual objections to foreign influence, but the leadership of the Sangharaja overrode those petty objections.

This is what is needed to put the Sri Lankan universities right. There is another example, the cleaning up of the East German universities after unification, but I think the authentic Sri Lankan precedent carries more force. Without true intellectuals at the helm, none of the other needed reforms will bear fruit.

Jayatilaka, D.B. (1934; 2003). Saranankara, the last Sangha-raja of Ceylon . Boralesgamuwa: Visidunu.


  1. I do agree with you.. but not totally!! 😉

    Raed my review on Sri Lankan universities…

  2. I did, Mayooresan. But are we talking about the same thing? You want private universities. I expressed no opinion on that. My question was how do we reform the presently existing so-called universities? I did not provide a comprehensive answer, but just a component, perhaps the most controversial one.

    An alternative is to let the present universities atrophy and let the new private universities take their place. The problem with that approach is that the old ones will not go quietly; lots of young lives will be damaged by the bad education they impart; and the private universities that do come in, will focus on professional subjects like business, IT, medicine; they will not go into the core curriculum of language, humanities, etc. that we have to admit a country needs (even if not in the quantities they are now produced in, and at much higher levels of quality).

    I am interested in thoughts about how to reform the existing universities.

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