Jayantha Wannisinghe – an appreciation

- island.lk

When I published earlier this year a book about my former students who had later become colleagues in subsequent educational innovations, I little thought that in few months one of them would die, in his early fifties, at the height of his career.

Jayantha Wannisinghe was one of the first students I registered at the Belihuloya Affiliated College way back in 1992. He was the first to be recruited to a university position after his degree, which he obtained from the Sabaragamuwa University, which had been set up through the combination of three AUCs that had specialized in the English Diploma course.

The AUCs were the brainchild of Prof Arjuna Aluvihare, the then Chairman of the University Grants Commission. They were set up to encourage job oriented tertiary level courses at a time when the established universities still dwelt in the ivory tower, they thought the only model of university education, clinging to outdated British notions that the British had long overcome. With regard to English, Arjuna wanted to allow students without Advanced Level English to get first Diplomas and then degrees in English, the only way of producing more and better English teachers for the country, given that the products of the traditional universities were steeped in literature that would make no sense in our schools.

The traditional universities had scorned this, so for Colombo by recruiting Jayantha to have acknowledged the transformation we had achieved was most satisfying. Jayantha, having done well in the Diploma course, then joined Sabaragamuwa University to do his degree, spending two years more on the Major Minor combination that its first Vice Chancellor Prof Somasundara had introduced. He was already in place when I joined the University as Professor of Languages, and worked hard to get a very good degree. Within a year recruited by Colombo University, he taught at its Sri Palee Campus, Horana, where he worked well with its Rector, Tilak Hettiarachchy, who later became Vice Chancellor of the University

I was delighted but also surprised when Colombo selected him, for one of the senior members of the English Department had been one of the most critical of the Affiliated University College English programme.

I asked her how Jayantha had been chosen, for I knew that a former lecturer at Sabaragamuwa who had a doctorate from Norway had also applied, but was told quite simply that he had been the best candidate. This seemed to me high praise, for the course as well as for him.

Jayantha was the son of a farmer in Amparai, and his commitment to English was astonishing, given the deprivation he had suffered in this regard at school. But he was determined, as indeed I found when he was in the forefront of opposition to the practice I had instituted of making students pay for textbooks. But when I explained that they were charged simply the cost, Rs 10 in those days, so that I could arrange reprints without asking again for aid—it was through Canadian support that I had initially printed the attractive books we were able to supply to students—he thought for a moment and then agreed that what I argued was acceptable. Given his natural leadership qualities, I had no difficulties after that with the principle I laid down.

Soon enough he was not just a student but also a good friend, and his wife reminded me when I went to condole of how he had been amongst the good students I had invited to tea, on Oxbridge lines which I had been told would not work at Peradeniya when I joined that university. Indeed, they did not work at Sabaragamuwa for the student union objected in time, and when I was opening up this social event to less able students, they forbade them from attending.

Jayantha in time confided his financial difficulties in me and, though I could not help him direct while he was a student, I was able to do so after his degree. I realized he would be at a loose end with no financial support at all when the course ended, and so I asked him then whether he would care to look after the bookshop at the British Council which had been handed over to the English Association when the establishment there decided that it was not the business of the Council to take bread from the mouths of British publishers, as one character memorably put it to me. Why they used this argument when all we were doing was providing material to encourage reading in English to those who could not afford foreign publications was beyond me. But the decision was a great boon to the English Association, and also provided temporary employment to several youngsters who needed support.

Before Jayantha, all those who had worked for the English Association at the bookshop had hailed from Colombo. So, I was particularly happy to have him work there. Since he needed accommodation, I put him up at my house, which was round the corner from the Council, and where he provided company for my father who was still suffering from the loss of my mother. Those were days in which I was away from Colombo a great deal, at the university and also in looking after the GELT course, and with other work too at various places. So, it was good for my father to have someone with him during meals, and Jayantha would tell me that he learnt much from him.

But, of course, this was no career for him, so it made sense for him to apply for academic positions. I was not sanguine about this, but then Colombo selected him for a lecturer position at its Sri Palee Campus and after that he went from strength to strength. Having got the job, he got married, to his girlfriend from AUC days, and so fond was my father of him that he provided his car for the occasion. I had forgotten this until his distraught widow mentioned it.

Over the years he got his doctorate, from a university in Hong Kong. He fell prey there to changes of supervisors so that he had to deal with different demands for changes, and I was happy to help when he turned to me for advice, and I think what I said enabled him to make the thesis more coherent, and get the degree. And with this under his belt, he could contribute to the Master’s Degree in English and Education which had been resumed at Sabaragamuwa University after a lapse of several years since I had got it going. It was immensely satisfying to have as colleagues taking modules on that course, apart from Sabaragamuwa staff, former students at both Colombo and Kelaniya.

Jayantha was able himself to innovate at Sri Palee to take his students forward. He made English compulsory for all students in their first year, and it is available for credit in the next two years. And as importantly, he also started a new degree programme in English Language Pedagogy and Practice. Most satisfyingly, he understood the need for soft skills, and introduced on this course modules in Guidance and Counselling and in Entrepreneurship and New Venture Creation.

He never forgot his past, and how well he had done in comparison with what would have been his most optimistic expectations while he was at school. Like any good educationist he strove to give even more opportunities to the students committed to his care. Though it is said that no one is irreplaceable, I fear that the Sri Palee Campus will not be able to do as much for its students in the future as was accomplished by him.

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

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