The Story of WUS Ceylon/Sri Lanka: 1950s to 1980s

This story or history of WUS SL is written at a time when there is a need to rejuvenate and reconstruct WUS in Sri Lanka. At present there are potential organizations and activities at Peradeniya, Moratuwa and Matara. 

by Dr. Laksiri Fernando* 

The story of the World University Service Sri Lanka (WUS-SL) is interwoven with the history and the fate of the universities in Sri Lanka (Ceylon before 1972). While a University College attached to the University of London was in existence since 1920, a fully ledged University of Ceylon was inaugurated only in 1942, Sir Ivor Jennings as the Vice Chancellor. 

Collaboration: The University of Moratuwa and World University Service (WUS)

The University of Ceylon, and both students and professors, had a difficult time during the Second World War. Soon after the war, given the difficulties particularly the students continued to face, initiatives were made to associate first with the International Student Relief (ISR), and then the World University Service proper after 1950. 

The main credit for these initiatives goes to Fr Celestine Fernando, who was doing chaplaincy work at the University of Ceylon (in Colombo). Three prominent academics/administrators who supported these initiatives were Prof P. J. Eliezer (Mathematics), Dr Harold P. A. Wijetunge  (University Medical Officer), and Professor Lakshman Perera (History) who succeeded as chairpersons of the National WUS Committees one after the other. Various types of services  and counselling to student groups, and individual students were the emphases of the initial work. 

Let us celebrate these four pioneers. Rev Celestine Fernando was a radical thinker. Prof C. J. Eliezer was a critical thinker. Dr Harold Wijetunge and Prof Lakshman Perera were always concerned with the welfare and essential needs of the students. All these qualities are WUS qualities for the years to come.

(Fr Celestine Fernando, Prof  C. J. Eliezer, Dr Harold Wijetunge, Prof Lakshman Perera) 

International Inspirations 

WUS General Assembly held in Grenoble, France, in 1952 was inspirational for WUS-SL. Then WUSI Chairman, Dr Gerhart Riegner, expounded five principles that WUS-SL as well as many other WUS committees took their inspirations from (‘50 Year: WUS in Action,’ p.37). As he said: 

“The Most Important is a belief in the world, a belief that the world could not be separated, but that all were linked together in a common fate.” 

“Secondly, there is the credo of the dignity of man and confidence in his creative and constructive capacities. A belief that we have constructive contributions to make to shaping of the world and that the destiny we face is partly in our own hands.” 

“Thirdly, the belief in the equality of races and nations. The equality, the diversity and the richness of different cultures, peoples, races and nations makes the richness of civilization. In this is the belief in the equality of the claim everyone to share in intellectual and economic resources.” 

“Fourthly, the belief in the independence of academic research and the principle of academic freedom, freedom of study and independent scientific research.” 

“Finally, the belief in the existence of a world community between members of the university. That members of this community have common responsibilities towards people and the world at large, facing at the same time common problems of the university and the position of university professors and students in mutual service to the community as a whole.” 

The above principles are still the guidelines for those who intend to resurrect and reconstruct WUS-SL today. These are humanitarian principles that should be followed with political independence and neutrality. 

From 1950s to 1960s

When the University of Ceylon’s main location was moved from Colombo to Peradeniya, gradually after 1952, the initial academics who worked for the organization became somewhat separated. While C. J. Eliezer remained in Colombo, Lakshman Perera moved to Peradeniya. Work at Colombo continued, but new initiatives had to be taken at Peradeniya. WUS academics and students at Peradeniya closely worked with the Student Service Division of the University. 

(University of Colombo) 

University of Ceylon from the beginning was formed on the lines of ‘academic freedom and autonomy’ although these principles became eroded in the 1970s and 1980s. The first Vice-Chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings, was a pioneer and a promoter of these principles. He even encouraged interuniversity contacts internationally. He often told the students,  

“You have a difficult task because your contacts with other universities will necessarily be rare. You must learn more by experience than by example. Most members of the staff fortunately know something of other universities. I am sure that they will always be glad to help you.” (‘Social Affairs Journal,’ Fall 2017, p.32).  

WUS-SL activities during 1950s, however cannot be exaggerated. The involvement of academics was modest and they also were working with other organizations like YMCA, WSCF and YMBA. This was a somber period, even for WUSI, preparing for a takeoff in 1960s. 

A breakthrough for WUS activities came in early 1960s. WUSI was taking interest in promoting student health and welfare in Ceylon, what they were doing in other countries since early 1950s. Although there were two campuses (Peradeniya and Colombo) for the University of Ceylon, WUS committee initially operated as one. After Prof Eliezer left the country in 1959, Dr Harold Wijetunge, Chief Medical  Officer at Peradeniya (a former academic), took over as the WUS Chairperson. He was accompanied by both academics and students. This was a brighter period. 

Among the academics involved in WUS activities were Dr Tommy Wickramanayake (from the newly established Medical Faculty), Dr Ranjith Ruberu (Education) and Dr George Thambiapillay (Geography). Among the students were Hema Dassanayake, Simon Weerasuriya, Neville Perera, Neville Edirisinghe, Sarojini Knight, Parakramasinghe and Lalitha Herath. Initially, a famous student activist Neville Perera acted as the main student representative. Hema Dassanayake took over more formally as the Secretary later.   

WUS Peradeniya Activities 

These were the circumstances within which the WUSI ‘Asian Student Health Conference’ was held in 1961 at Peradeniya, as reported in the “50 Years: WUS in Action” in 1970 (p.37). Among many participants from Asian countries, some of the resource persons and participants from Europe included Donald Still and Brian Davy (WUS-UK) and Hubertus Lehnert (WUS-Germany). S. Chidambaranathan represented WUS International Secretariat. Their inputs were quite useful for WUS-SL’s activity development. The tables in page 36 of the above ‘WUS in Action’ report details of funds received for University Health Services in Sri Lanka (for Peradeniya and Colombo) among other countries after this conference. Sri Lanka’s (this time Ceylon) association with the WUSI was a gift to the country and to the university system.  

WUS Peradeniya played a pivotal role in promoting WUS activities in Sri Lanka. A major symbol both students and staff appreciated at Peradeniya was the WUS Cafeterias. Below is the story related by Hema Dissanayake, that time WUS Secretary, Peradeniya.  

“The WUS committee proposed to establish a student managed and run café at a short distance from the Arts Faculty and the Library as a solution to the “tea issue” raised at the WUS General Assembly.  The committee (consisting of students and faculty) got rid of the unsatisfactory service run by the contractor. It was housed at a building previously used as an estate outfit. The Committee reorganized the setup to establish a WUS Cafeteria. Except for a few kitchen staff employed by the Committee, the rest were done by students on a voluntary basis at their spare times on a well-maintained work roster. Students took charge for preparing menus, purchase of raw materials such as meats and vegies and all other stuff, serving food, cleaning, washing and collection of cash at sales point.  The faculty assisted through guidance and transport (as they only had vehicles) of raw goods and materials. Within the same year additional services such as a hair dressing salon, laundry and a stationery store were established.” 

(WUS Cafeteria and WUS Centre (Peradeniya)   

WUS Going Nationally

Towards the end of 1960s WUS-SL had opportunities to spread nationally. One inspiration was the WUS General Assembly held in Leysin, Switzerland, in 1968 where the organization promoted national committees to go beyond university confines addressing social issues, social action and community involvement, while keeping political neutrality. One issue emphasized was continuing education. 

Second was the visit of WUSI General Secretary, Chidambaranathan in 1969. By this time, there had been several changes also within the university system in the country. The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) was established in 1966, a prominent academic, Prof G. P. Malalasekara, who was supportive of WUS, as the Chairperson. Chidambaranathan met Malalasekara. 

After a second arts faculty was established in Colombo in 1963, WUS Colombo committee was reestablished, Prof Lakshman Perera, taking the lead role. Among other academics in the Committee were Prof P. P. G. L. Siriwardena, Dr P. B. Sannasgala and Dr Lorna Devaraja. Among some of the initial students were Maxwell Perera and Laksiri Fernando. The formative efforts of WUS Colombo were to look after student facilities, canteens, common rooms and washrooms as these facilities were rudimentary. 

By 1966, there was a WUS National Committee. First full time Secretary was Hema Dassanayake and the office of WUS-SL was located at the premises of the NCHE. As Hema recollects, “The idea of WUS was taken to the two remaining universities in Sri Lanka at that time – Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara where WUS committees were soon established. WUS Committees were also reestablished at Thurstan Road where Arts and Science faculties were located, and at Kynsey Road where the Faculty of Medicine was located. Services like those at Peradeniya were provided at these campuses and universities, although these were on a smaller scale.” 

After Hema Dassanayake, Simon Weerasuriya took over as the Executive Secretary of the National Committee in 1967. He has given the following precise information about the structure and persons who were working at the national level.  

“At the time  I took up  the post of Executive Secretary, Dr Harold Wijetunge had been succeeded by Prof D. A. Ranasinghe as Chairman of the WUS National Committee. Prof Charles Dahanayake was General Secretary and Prof Lakshman Perera was Treasurer. Among members of the Executive Committee were Ven.  Havenpola Ratanasara (Vidyalankara), Prof L. G. Hewage (Vidyodaya), Dr Lester Jayawardena (Colombo-Medical) and Dr P. B. Sannasgala (Colombo). 

At that time the Chairpersons of WUS Local Committees were Prof P. P. G. L. Siriwardena (Colombo), Dr M. A. Fernando (Peradeniya-Medical), Prof A  Liyanagamage (Vidyalankara) and Dr. L. Waidyasekara (Vidyodaya). In 1969, Dr Premadasa Udagama became Chairman of WUS-Peradeniya with Dr V Kanapathipillai as Secretary. At Vidyalankara, Prof Liyanagamage was succeeded by Prof M. M. J. Marasinghe. Prof Ranasinghe resigned in 1970 and was succeeded as Chairman of the National Committee by Prof Lakshman Perera. Prof Nandadasa Kodagoda took over as Treasurer.” 

Addressing Student Facilities (Women) 

There was a clear expansion of student intakes to the universities since mid-1960 and majority of them were women. Taking University of Peradeniya as a model, WUS tried its best to promote and assist student facilities and welfare in other universities. When the second campus of University of Ceylon was opened in Colombo in 1963, WUS initiated a Bookshop with stationary at Thurstan Road. A student canteen also opened at Vidyalankara University.  

By this time, an additional service provided by WUS was the provision of student residences – one at De Saram Place for Women students, and the second on Havelock Road in Colombo. This was the period WUS concentrated mostly on student welfare – the provision of services for needy students as it did in most of Asian countries. Sri Lanka was no exception.

As Weerasuriya recalled “The first hostel for women students at Vidyodaya (Margret Robert hostel) was a WUS project executed in 1969. The building was funded by a foundation in the UK through WUS in memory of its founder through its local branch headed by Justice Vincent Thamotharam. At the request of the Vice Chancellor, Prof D. E. Hettiarachchi, WUS undertook to manage the hostel. The university provided part of the funds for furniture and equipment while WUS raised part of it from the business community.” This is an example of fundraising that WUS-SL could follow even today.  

As part of its activities, WUS also received gifts from certain WUS national committees in Europe and North America in the form of medicines, laboratory equipment and books and distributed them to the university health centres (Peradeniya/Vidyodaya), science laboratories (Vidyalankara) and libraries (Vidyodaya).

When the University of Moratuwa was established in 1978, soon a WUS Committee was formed. Prof. Lakdasa Fernando was one of the active Chairpersons. There were several other academics and many students involved. Saman Helgamuge (now a professor, University of Melbourne, Australia) was one of the illustrious student members. Along the lines of promoting nonformal education, WUS Moratuwa soon initiated a Technical Training center nearby for the surrounding communities. Among other projects ‘WUS Stationary Shop’ is still in operation at the Moratuwa University (  

(WUS Stationary Shop, Moratuwa) 

Achievements and Failures  

This story or history of WUS SL is written at a time when there is a need to rejuvenate and reconstruct WUS in Sri Lanka. At present there are potential organizations and activities at Peradeniya, Moratuwa and Matara. What might be important is to form a national committee with a possible full timer/s and to expand the activities. In that case the above history is a definitive guide. 

It should be noted that although the University of Moratuwa was named in 1978, the Ceylon College of Technology (CCT) was in existence since 1960 as a higher education institute. However no WUS committee was formed. Likewise, University of Jaffna was established in 1974, but no WUS committee was formed except some contacts. These were some of the weaknesses.   

In 1970 WUS-SL was supposed to host the WUSI General Assembly in Colombo. However it was moved to Chennai due to some uncertain political circumstances and organizational problems. That was a setback. The WUS-SL delegation to Chennai assembly was led by Prof M. M. J. Marasinghe among few others. However, WUS-SL hosted the WUSI General Assembly in 1978 in Colombo. That was a great achievement. That time the Chairman of the National Committee was Dr G. Wijayawardhana (Chief University Medical Officer-Colombo) and Prof V. K. Samaranayake was the Treasurer. Simon Weerasuriya was working at the WUS Secretariat in Geneva helping these developments. When Dr Wijawawardhana left for PNG sometime in 1979, Samaranayake took over as Chairman WUS-SL. 

In 1970s one of the main achievements of the university system was its workers education programs. There were extensive educational opportunities opened up at the University of Colombo, the University of Peradeniya, and the University of Kelaniya for trade unionists and active workers. The origins goes back to WUSI General Secretary Chidambaranathan’s visit to Sri Lanka in 1969. This was an initiative by the NCHE and WUS-SL. A Committee was appointed with several Vice Chancellors, and Simon Weerasuriya as the Secretary. Prof V. K. Samaranayake also was involved. And following is what Samaranayake said in his “Five Decades of Education at Reid Avenue: Some Personal Reflections” (Microsoft Word – UCR1-V[1].K. samaranayake_2.doc ( 

(Report of the Conference on
‘Non-Formal Education

“With the formation of a new government in 1970, several progressive university academics began a programme to provide university education to trade union members who for various reasons, mostly economic, had no opportunities for higher education. The Government recognised this effort and a programme of Workers’ Education that began in the early seventies, in an ad-hoc manner at Colombo and Peradeniya was given the status of an Institute of Workers’ Education (IWE) in 1975 with the publication of a Gazette notification. As a member of World University Service (WUS) Sri Lanka, I was associated with this activity. Prof. Osmund Jayaratne who headed the organisation before it became an Institute was to be the Founder Director. As ill health prevented him from doing so, I was requested to be the first Acting Director of IWE. In this capacity, it fell on me to establish the IWE and organise its administration and academic programmes including the rules and regulations for the award of diplomas and degrees in Labour Education.” 

George Mendis and Dr Lorna Devaraja were two illustrious Directors during 1980s. There was an extensive library useful for the purpose at the IWE. Books, vehicles and equipment for the use of the IWE were obtained through WUSI funding. In 2006, IWE was renamed as Institute of Human Resource Advancement (IHRA) without much connection with WUS-SL. 

WUS Sri Lanka also hosted a regional Conference on “Non-Formal Education” in 1975. Its Report and proceedings were published in Colombo, immediately after in early 1976. These are some activities on which further research should be conducted to draw lessons for the future.  

WUS Contribution to Society

WUS contribution to university, and WUS contribution to student welfare, were WUS contributions to society. However there were more specific contributions as already mentioned, through ‘workers education’ (Colombo, Peradeniya, Kelaniya) and ‘technical education’ to young aspirants (Moratuwa).  

In early 1980s, WUS also undertook what we call in Sri Lanka Shramadana (voluntary work camps). Under the requests from WUS National Chairperson, V. K. Samaranayake, Laksiri Fernando (Political Science) reorganized WUS Peradeniya/Dumbara. He was assisted by Kamal D. Abrew (English), N. D. Samarawickrama (Economics)  and B. Fonseka (Library) among others. As the new Campus at Dumbara had enormous problems, the main efforts of WUS Peradeniya were focused on those issues.  

As WUS could address some of the student welfare issues, in turn it was possible to mobilize students for some social work outside the campus. In 1983, WUS organized a series of voluntary work camps one of which to build a playground for a nearby public school. It was during this time that WUSI General Secretary Klavs Wulff visited WUS Sri Lanka, and particularly Dumbara Campus. 

(A WUS Work Camp (1983) 

WUS-SL Contribution to WUS International 

While WUSI and several European and North American WUS committees had contributed a lot to Sri Lanka, WUS-SL also had been able to contribute to WUSI in different ways. Although there had not been a proper WUS scholarship program for Sri Lanka, there were many opportunities for academics and students to participate in WUS conferences and workshops. Simon Weerasuriya recalls the opportunity that a student leader Neville Perera had in participating at a Youth Conference in Japan under WUSI sponsorship in early 1960s. 

More profound were the opportunities for postgraduate studies. Among the academics, “one such beneficiary was Dr V. Kanapathipillai of the Department of History at Peradeniya who did post-graduate work in the Federal Republic of Germany on a scholarship offered by WUS-Germany. He became an active member of WUS somewhere in 1968.” Likewise in early 1980s Saman Helgamuge (now Professor at University of Melbourne) won a scholarship from WUS Germany to complete his PhD. He also contributed considerably to WUS Germany and WUSI thereafter. 

During the Chairmanship of WUS-SL during 1979-1985 and even before, V. K. Samaranayake had major opportunities to contribute to WUSI work. As he has noted in his memoirs, “In 1974, I was elected as the Committee Member representing Asia in the International Executive Committee for the period 1974 to 1976 and subsequently as the International Treasurer from 1976 to 1978. Sri Lanka hosted a regional Conference on Non-Formal Education (Non-Formal Education 1975) and the International Assembly in 1978. I once again served in the International Executive Committee from 1982 to 1984.” In late 1970s, Dr L. M. V. Tillekeratne (Science/Colombo) also had served as the International Treasure of WUSI.  

After Samaranayake, WUS-SL leadership was taken up by Dr (Ms.) Hema Goonatilake. Her contributions to Sri Lanka and to WUSI also were immense which would be related in the the future. It was also during this period that  WUS-SL undertook to administer Namibian English Teacher Training Program at Peradeniya on behalf of WUSI. In 1985, under Hema Goonatilake’s initiative, Fr Celestine Fernando was invited for a WUS gathering and he was awarded a WUS Souvenir. Laksiri Fernando also participated at the event representing WUS Secretariat, Geneva. See pictures below. 

(Fr Celestine Fernando speaking ’50 Years: WUS in Action‘ in hand)

More specific international contributions came from three other persons. First, Hema Dassanayake joined the WUS International Secretariat in Geneva in 1969 as Assistant Secretary for Asia/Pacific. Second, Simon Weerasuriya joined the International Secretariat in 1977, after Dassanayake, in the same capacity and served until 1983. Third, Laksiri Fernando joined WUS International Secretariat, after Weerasuriya, as Associate Secretary for Asia/Pacific in 1984 and served until 1991 (name of the position now changed). All three contributed to WUSI programs in other areas as well. 


*It is based on considerable inputs from Simon Weerasuriya and Hema Dassanayake certain sections of this story is written. It will continue beyond 1980s with similar contributions from others later. The author regrets any inaccuracy or oversight of any contribution to WUS-SL by anyone mentioned or not-mentioned in this narrative. 

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