History of the Department of Social Studies: Toward a Locally and Globally Relevant Mission of Tertiary Education
The Political Leadership for Open University Mission through University Act No.16 of 1978
The Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) was established by the Government of the First Executive President of Sri Lanka, Junius Richard Jayewardene (JRJ) on a promise made in the UNP Manifesto of 1977 titled “Towards a Free and Just Society”. This promise was given to a country that struggled with democratic development concepts like equality and equity since political independence from the British.
Pioneering Personalities for OUSL Mission
In establishing a new university, under the University Act No.16 of 1978, the team that advised the new government on higher education included Professor Stanley Kalpage, an adviser to the UNP leader JRJ, and the Minister of Higher Education Nissanka Wijeratne. They probably felt burdened by the pathetic post- independence educational system contributing to a confrontational relationship between the Government and Sri Lankan youth. The period of office prior to Jayawardene witnessed the killing of an undergraduate student leader named Weerasuriya and also the first major youth insurrection in 1971 with the United Left Front Government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
Social Studies (SSD) as a Functional Entity within OUSL
The Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) which is now in the 42nd year of existence pioneered the Social Sciences mission in a functional sense from the year 1990 although officially there had been a Department of Social Studies in the Board of Studies for Humanities and Social Sciences from the inception of the Open University of Sri Lanka under the leadership of Professor Don Ariyapala Kotalawele. He was a Historian specializing on Dutch Rule in Sri Lanka and was also the President of the Vidyalankara Campus and the Ruhuna Campus of the University of Ceylon previously.
The functional programmes however, came into existence during a historically volatile, transitional period in the country at large, settling down after the second JVP inspired insurrection quelled by the Premadasa Presidency in 1989. During this period, OUSL was also in transition from Boards of Study established in the early 1980s, to promising new faculties. The new Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences constituted the Departments of Language Studies, Legal Studies, Management Studies and Social Studies. Our task was formidable and we of the Department of Social Studies were mindful of the need for a ‘’new ethos’’, a distinct culture, for a dynamic future in multidisciplinary social sciences. Internationally too this was the trend with major initiatives taken by the University of Harvard in the United States of America and the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in the Netherlands.
Towards an Unconventional Alternative to Tertiary Education in Sri Lanka
In terms of equity principles, the task before us was also to evolve a new alternative qualification to the conventional GCE Ordinary and Advanced Level Examunations which were a burden to economically battered people who opted out of conventional secondary education in search of livelihoods. The “Foundation Programme” captured the imagination of a heterogeneous community of people with the programme offered in all three languages. English education was made mandatory through “English for Social Sciences, conceptualized and administered by Professor Kamal de Abrew with Associate Professor Chithra Wickremasooriya, until the former left the OUSL in 1987.
Access to English Medium Education By Choice
A major breakthrough in our futuristic mission was the introduction of a vibrant English medium undergraduate education for the people of all districts through the network of our regional and study centers. Educating the common people in Engish was a noble expectation of Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara, a reformist former Minister of Education in post- independent Ceylon. We were in fact mindful that Dr. Kannangara himself had to face untold hardships in pursuing with progressive reforms for the ordinary people of the land with heavy resistance from feudal and neo-feudal elements who thought that English was not meant for the ordinary people, but only for those in Colombo and in a few other urban centers where the elites lived.
Ideological Inspiration from Egalitarianism
The first Head of Social Studies, Professor DA Kotalawele, a Historian who specialized on Dutch Rule, influenced us ideologically. He advocated respect for egalitarianism as the corner stone of the department even before the launch of study programmes. Egalitarianism is a school of thought in political philosophy that builds on the concept of social equality. Egalitarian doctrines are generally characterized by the idea that all humans are equal in “fundamental worth” or moral status.
Professor Kotalawele stated that this will remain a challenge for people like us in a country that in fact undermined Dr. CWW Kannangara, father of universal free education who was even denied the education ministry in 1952 by feudalists who campaigned against him, while masquerading as liberals. They were probably resentful that ordinary people were brought into a level playing field with the privileged few.
Value Centered Study Programmes in Social Sciences
The Bachelor of Arts Degree Programme in Social Sciences and the Masters Degree Programme in Development and Policy Studies are two distinct Study programmes we have evolved through the Department of Social Studies. What is extraordinary about them, as in the case of the Foundation Studies Programme is that both have a clear focus in creating in our people a broad social scientific imagination on issues of contemporary relevance.
We train people to have a Holistic picture relating to the social system as they embark on their studies. Other distinct qualities we propagate can be listed as follows: (1) The SSD provides access to undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Social Sciences by anyone with aptitude for our disciplines irrespective of their prior training. It is the general practice that universities permit entry to specialized study programmes, only if the candidates have the relevant background at G.C.E Advanced Level. However, our open entry policy breaks such barriers to learning. (2) The two programmes at undergraduate and at postgraduate level are very much value centered. The courses we offer are in line with democratic values and we could say that we intentionally promote equality, equity, human dignity, peaceful co-existence, accountability, social responsibility, fundamental freedoms with respect for obligations towards the community at large, rule of law, power sharing, decentralization etc. through what we offer.
The mission of Social Studies is becoming more and more formidable as we embark on a process of positive and progressive transformation of Sri Lankan society although we gained political independence from the British Imperialists nearly 75 years ago
Excerpts from an Essay on “SSD Values” Authored by
Dr. Mahim Mendis
Department of Social Studies