Although Ceylon came under British sway 43 years before India (the island had been fully captured in 1815 while India had held on till 1858), a Western-style university education system was introduced in Ceylon 64 years after it was established in India.

This was a political and cultural anomaly in as much as Ceylon was more Westernized than India due to an unbroken European influence it had been under since the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505.

After the suppression of the Uva rebellion in 1848, Ceylon was also politically peaceful, an ideal condition for setting up modern institutions. In contrast, in the first half of the 19 th. Century, India was wracked by internecine warfare that also saw a widespread anti-British armed uprising in 1857, a cataclysmic event that resulted in India’s coming fully under the Crown in November 1858.

But ironically, it was in the midst of the chaos of 1857, that the British rulers in the Presidencies (or Provinces) of Madras, Bombay and Bengal established full-fledged degree-awarding universities. But even though the first two graduates of Madras University were Ceylonese – C.W.Thamotharampillai and Vyramuttu Visuvanathapillai from Jaffna, Ceylon had to wait till the second decade of the 20 th.Century to get a University College with the power to award degrees.

And this was not an idea of the British rulers but a group of distinguished Ceylonese led by Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a Colombo-born Jaffna Tamil lawyer, administrator, Member of the Legislative Council, and political leader. A Cambridge post-graduate, Arunachalam began his project to set up a university in the 1890s. Due to his tireless efforts, a “Ceylon University Association” was formed in 1906. However, it was not until June 1911 that the project took a concrete form when Governor Sir Henry McCullum (1907–1913) set up a committee to look into the matter. The committee recommended the establishment of a “University College” (not quite a University but an institution that would prepare students for examinations held by an English University). There were already some private institutions in Ceylon doing this work but their standards varied.

McCullum decided to set up a “University College” offering courses in Arts, Science, Premedical sciences like biology, and teaching. Since not many students would be from Colombo itself, McCullum decided to set up hostels, with the government leasing buildings to private institutions run by communities like Christians, Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus.

The committee’s proposals were sent to the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Board of Education in England. Their doubts were cleared by McCullum’s successor Sir Robert Chalmers (1913-1915), who went on to draft a constitution for the University College. He proposed a  “College Council” composed of distinguished persons and heads of government departments dealing with areas in which the college offered courses.

As sanctioned by the Secretary of State in London, the University College was to give “diplomas” in the initial stages and degrees later on with the approval of the higher education authorities in the UK. The ambition of the Ceylonese promoters of the project was to get Oxford University to issue the degrees. Oxford replied that it would prefer to wait and see the progress of the college. However, it offered to play an advisory role and evaluate candidates for staff positions.

Initially, the University College functioned out of Royal College, which was by then, a well-established school training pupils for secondary-level London examinations. In 1920, the University College acquired “Regina Walawua” a heritage site on Reid Avenue that was a family home of Arthur de Soysa, grandson of philanthropist Sir Charles Henry Soysa. It later came to be known as “College House”. According to President Ranil Wickremesinghe, it was in the iconic College House that Sir Ivor Jennings (1903-1965), who was Principal of the University College in the 1940s, wrote Ceylon’s first post-independence constitution.

The entry of R. Marrs, an MA from Oxford as Principal in 1921, was a landmark. He was the first academic to be Principal of the College having replaced the Director of Education. A strong College Council was created as planned by Governor Chalmers earlier on. It was headed by none other than Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam.

In 1921, the University College had 115 students. In the same year, three students were sent for the BSc exam which all of them passed, with two getting a First Division. Four out of five students who sat for the London BA, passed.  Between 1922 and 1923, hostels came up due to the efforts of community leaders like Ponnambalam Arunachalam, D.B.Jayatilaka (politician, diplomat and educationist) and S.Kularatne (educationist and politician).

In February 2024, the Ceylon Legislative Council voted to give Rs.3,000,000 for the establishment of a full-fledged University in Colombo. But Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam did not live to see the day, having passed away on January 10, 2024. The prospectus of the University College for the year 1936-37, described Arunachalam as the “principle promoter of the university project.” Among the public, he  was the “Father of Ceylon University.”

By 1935, the University College had 540 students, including 58 women, up from 166 in 1921. 1932 saw another landmark, the establishment of a women’s hostel on Queen’s Road next to the university.

As per the prospectus of the University College for 1936-37, the Governing Council was packed with who’s who in Ceylon. Among its members were leading lights like D.B.Jayatilaka, C.W.W.Kannangara, Silva, M.T.Akbar, K.Balasingham, ACG Wijeyakoon, Fr.M.J.Le Goc OMI, Dr.S.C.Paul, N.Selvadurai MBE, S.Kularatne, Rev. P.T.Cash, C.A. Willie, A.Mahadeva and Prof.P.A.Pakeman.

The Academic Council comprised legends like C.Sundaralingam MA (Oxford),  A.Kandiah DSc (London), and G.P.Malasekara DSc. (London).

Among the Professors were E.F.C Ludowyk (English), C.Sunthralingam (Maths), Modern History B.B.Das Gupta PhD (Calcutta), G.P.Malalasekara PhD (London) (Sanskrit, Pali and Sinhalese). Botany was taught by P.C.Sarbadikari D.Sc (London).B.R.Shenoy (a London School of Economics product who 1966 presented a report on the Ceylon economy in 1966 to D.S.Senanayake) was a lecturer in Economics.

Honors Courses were offered. Students who didn’t measure up to the Honors level could be sent down to Pass courses. To pass, a student had to get a “C” in every subject he took. But if he failed in one but got  an “A” or “B” in other subjects, he could be promoted.

80% attendance in lectures was compulsory. No student could leave Colombo when the University was functioning. A proper medical certificate from a registered medical practitioner would have to be submitted to justify the absence. Violation of College rules or misbehaviour could lead to suspension or even expulsion. Any lecturer could suspend  a student pending a final decision by the Principal.

All students had to pay fees. The admission fee was Rs.20 per year. The full course fee was Rs.50. Science students had to pay Rs.10 extra. They also had to pay a refundable laboratory deposit of Rs.30 to cover any breakages.

In addition, students had to pay exam fees, and the rate was Rs.108 for the London Intermediate and London BA; and Rs.113 for the London BSc. Fees could be paid either at the Kachcheris or at two Indian banks with offices in Colombo, namely, the Mercantile Bank of India and the Chartered Bank of India.

The University College in 1920, 30s and 40s was an unabashedly elitist institution. It was supervised and supported by very distinguished and public-spirited men and the staff had foreign Masters or doctoral degrees. And they were recruited internationally. A strict disciplinary system ensured a studious atmosphere.

But at least till the end of the 1930s, the University College was lacking in representation of Muslims and women both in the Council and in the faculty.


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