New Engineering Faculty for JaffnA:
Reverse the brain drain
Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole
Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole was recently appointed as the
Coordinator for the University of Jaffna’s Engineering Faculty by the
University Grants Commission. Prof. Hoole who had to leave the country
due to the threats he received from the LTTE is now back in Jaffna with
the intention of establishing an Engineering Faculty for the University
of Jaffna. Professor Hoole shares his views with the Sunday Observer in
establishing an Engineering Faculty in Jaffna.
Excerpts of the Interview:
Q: How do you see the plans for the proposed Engineering Faculty for
the University of Jaffna?
Answer: Yes, the University Grants Commission has appointed me as the
Coordinator for the University of Jaffna’s Engineering Faculty. My terms
of reference are to negotiate with the Government of India for funding
and to recommend a site. But I sound a note of caution.
In the mid-1980s, the late Prof. A. Thurairajah came to Jaffna with
his vision for an engineering faculty. In 1987 India spoke of an
IIT-like institution for Jaffna. But the breakdown of the 1987 ceasefire
put an end to it.
Then an opportunity arose following the 2002 ceasefire. The
government was willing to start the Engineering Faculty in Jaffna. But
the UGC was reluctant to build in an area where they could not inspect
the site. The University of Jaffna was insistent on creating an
Engineering Faculty on par with International standards.
However, the problems which surfaced after the breakdown of the 2002
ceasefire made the plans for an Engineering Faculty to be shelved.
Q: Well, but now with your new appointment as the Coordinator for the
proposed Engineering Faculty in Jaffna could you detail on the progress
made with regard to the whole process?
A: It is mixed. On the funding front, the Minister of Higher
Education S.B. Dissanayake is fully backing the formation of an
Engineering Faculty in Jaffna. Following negotiations with the
Government of India, the Prime Minister of India has expressed his
Government’s willingness to come out with a world-class Engineering
Faculty in Jaffna.
But the Indian Envoy Lal Kantha, is firm that they are not a funding
agency and cannot give more than Indian Rs. 10 Crores (about SL Rs. 250
mn). It is important to note that when the Hapugala Engineering Faculty
near Galle was constructed around 1999, the government spent Rs. 900
million on buildings alone.
The construction costs have doubled since then on a square-foot
basis. My estimate is that we need about Rs. 2000 million for buildings
if we build in the city of Jaffna and another Rs. 1000 mn for equipment.
I am despondent but have some hope since the announcement by Minister of
Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, that President Mahinda Rajapaksa
negotiating for funds Let us hope for the best.
Q: Where do you intend to chose the site for the Faculty?
A: Well, I see a problem here. I have done a feasibility study which
comes out strongly in favour of Jaffna. Experts in Engineering studies
such as Prof. Lakshman Ratnayake (former UGC Vice Chairman and
Dean/Moratuwa) and Prof. K.K.Y.W. Perera (former Dean and VC at
Moratuwa) have severely warned me against Kilinochchi saying that an
Engineering Faculty needs a population and industry to make it succeed.
But there are political expectations on developing Kilinochchi. When
we are struggling for financial assistance, putting up the proposed
Engineering Faculty in Jaffna will serve in many ways with regard to the
construction of hostels and duplication of staff in Mathematics and the
Sciences, as well as on facilities like sports grounds, medical clinics,
The students from Jaffna will have an enriched curriculum with plenty
of electives in the Arts and Humanities, Fine Arts, Law, Management,
etc. At Peradeniya (where I taught) at least when we engineers put up a
play, students from other faculties came to watch and engineers were at
the leading edge of cultural productions and innovations.
At Moratuwa (where I studied) we could not get an audience so we had
to stage our rare productions in Colombo. With no healthy relationships
with women (engineering faculties barely having 12-15% women), the
Moratuwa hostel was dominated mainly by male students.
Q: So how about the land (100 acres) allocated by the government in
A: I do not need 100 acres for an engineering faculty, unless it is
to employ political hangers-on as gardeners. Just look around.
Look at Moratuwa - it has overtaken Peradeniya as the reputed
engineering school since its humble beginnings as a university in 1970
on a little plot of land compared to Peradeniya’s acres and acres.
London keeps putting up federated colleges.
I have taught at elite undergraduate and research universities. We
did quite well on small sites, building upwards.
Q: Why do you feel so strongly about this?
A: The real challenge is getting the right people to make the new
faculty succeed. I have every hope of getting a few dedicated Ph.D
holders to work for us if we site the faculty in Jaffna. Look! If you
are a typical recruit, you will be under 35 years in age with a young
Do you see yourself setting up house in Kilinochchi? Speaking for
myself, I will not go and live in Kilinochchi when my son needs a good
school. I cannot expect others to do so. So what will happen is that
most potential recruits will not join the faculty in Kilinochchi and the
few who do will commute from Jaffna, which means that what happens in
our peripheral universities will take place here too - people settling
their families in a nearby big city like Jaffna, coming on Monday late
and leaving on Friday early (if they do not take a midweek break). In a
real incident, a senior lecturer at a remote institution still in
service comes two days a week to work.
When the Department Head pulled him up, he produced a letter of
resignation. And the Head was reduced to begging him to withdraw his
resignation saying “Let me have you at least for 2 days a week. If you
go I will have no one!”.
The people of Kilinochchi will be hurt, that I do not plan on
Kilinochchi as the site for the Faculty, however I sincerely apologise
for this since they have come to expect it from LTTE days. This is the
But we cannot jeopardize a national institution for the sake of
Some argue that the late Engineering genius Prof. Thurairajah wanted
His vision was for a time when civil engineering was in boom and
modelling required large laboratories where we built and measured as in
Peradeniya’s huge fluids lab. Today civil is down and modelling is
through the computer. We do not see huge labs as in the past.
As scientists, we change decisions and correct courses when presented
with new information or when the circumstances change. If not Science
would still be arguing for some of Newton’s now discredited theories.
Q: The lecturers in remote universities have no complaints like that
and UGC reports speak well of our regional universities.What do you say
A: That is to be expected isn’t it? Can they afford to say otherwise?
Just compare staff credentials and exam papers from the same department
at a big-city university, with those from a regional university. As
expected the UGC and the regional staff will say the degrees are of the
I do not want Jaffna’s engineering to be put in that situation of
making self-serving defence. Rajarata University recently received a UGC
exemption from tight academic staff recruitment standards to hire 3-year
degree holders because they cannot find 4-year honours degree holders
(but note that officially their degree product will still be held by the
UGC to be of the same standard!). That will be a positive thing for
Otherwise, it would be the biggest act of treachery to even be
associated with the founding of such a faculty with poor staff.
Q: Apart from the location and other facilities for the proposed
Engineering Faculty for the North, how do you expect the intended
Engineering Faculty to perform?
A: We have three engineering faculties in the island.Foremost among
them is the Faculty at the University of Peradeniya.The other two are in
Moratuwa and in Galle. Therefore when we think about a new Engineering
Faculty we should focus more towards creating it on par with
International standards. We should have greater reliance with regard to
electronics and Computer studies.
All out-dated methods presently existing in the Engineering faculties
should be side-lined and we should look into modern technologies.
I have also made suggestions that the admissions to various divisions
such as to civil,mechanical,electronics etc should be made directly from
the Advanced Level onwards instead of separating students sometime after
their initial lessons in the Faculty.
Several engineering experts from the expatriate community have
expressed their willingness to come and serve at the Jaffna Engineering
Faculty once it’s established.
We must ensure that the ‘brain drain’ will reverse and flowback into