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Dr. Premadasa Udagama:

Lanka's legendary educational reformist

Dr. Premadasa Udagama passed away on March 19, 2015 and his funeral is tomorrow at 11.30 a.m. at Borella Cemetery. Dr. Premadasa Udagama, a legendary personality in the field of Sri Lanka education, only second to the A.W.W. Kannangara, is perhaps the most committed educator to serve the children of the poor and reduce social disparity that prevailed in education.

I was fortunate to become one of his students in 1966 and associate him all throughout for long years as one of his closest.

During the time of the 1970 reforms, I was a closely interacted with him on many critical issues and he always appreciated my comments.

He studied at St. Anthony's College, Kandy and entered the University of Ceylon and graduated with a Special Degree in Geography.

He was first a Lecturer in Geography and subsequently joined as a Lecturer in Education and did his PhD at the State University of Washington at Seattle, USA. He started his carrier as a school teacher. Then joined the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya as a Lecturer. He held the Secretary of Education and the Director General position of the Ministry of Education from 1970 to 1977.

He became the Director General of the National Institute of Education (NIE) from 1994-1997 and the Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya from 2007-2010. Dr. Udagama also served as a University teacher in Myanmar and Fiji Islands for some years.

He was a senior university Don at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya at the time he was hand-picked by the 1970 newly elected government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike to accept the post of Secretary and Director General of the Ministry of Education.

He served form 1970-1977 as Secretary of Education and spearheaded the 1972 Educational Reforms in his capacity as Secretary to the Ministry of Education.

A pro-poor visionary

Dr. Udagama hails from a people-oriented family at Manikhinna, Kundasale. His only brother, the late U.P. Jinadasa, was a long time Member of Parliament representing the Kundasala electorate. Dr. Udagama is admired and valued by the common people because he was a pro-poor thinker. Not everyone can be a pro-poor thinker. Born at Manikhinna, and having had his basic education at Manikhinna, he developed his own understanding of the social milieu of the poor and developed genuine pro-poor vision to enable the children of the poor to come out of their situation.

Though he joined St. Anthony's College, Katugastota he lived in his village home and associated the village children.

He developed his pro-poor vision by witnessing the life of the poor. He understood discrimination, exploitation and the social class struggle and believed in education, and educating the poor is the best way for them to break away from the cycle of oppression and depression. Even at the age of 94 his was concerns about the poor, particularly the rural poor is in the center of his thoughts and advocacy. He will give you examples after examples to prove his point. He believed that educations is the most powerful agent for change and bring in equity in society.

A committed reformist

Dr. Udagama stands out more as a reformist. The single most important contribution he made was the educational reforms of 1972 that he initiated and implemented as Secretary to the Ministry of Education. He functioned more as a reformist than an administrator. It was the Additional Secretary, Mr. Paskaralingam who shouldered the administrative responsibility and Dr. Udagama put all his energy for educational reforms. His pro-poor thinking was strongly supported by Al Haj Badudin Mahamud, who was the Minister of Education, and the Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Dr. Udagama always spoke of them with high gratitude and respect. All his work was possible because he had very strong support from the Minister, Prime Minister and her government.

He exercised the vision of the time, 'progressive education'. One must not forget the 1970 government had high commitment to socialist policies. He introduced pro-poor reforms of a socialist government. One significant reform was the introduction of the integrated curriculum in place of the compartmentalised subject curriculum. Another major positive reform was the introduction of Science, Maths and English as compulsory subjects for all students. Prior to that the rural student studied arithmetic and children of the elite studied Maths and Science. Although English was not compulsory for GCE O/L, 1972 reforms made it compulsory to teach English in all schools in all grades above Grade 3.

One other major global record was the allocation of 3.5 of GDP to education this made Sri Lanka the first developing country in the world to allocate such a high rate of GDP to education. Today, Sri Lanka enjoys high socioeconomic indicators in education and health and that is largely due to these early interventions and popularization of education during the 1970-77 government where Udagama led educational reforms.

Thousands and thousands of teachers were recruited and deployed to rural schools. There was hardly any weekend that there was no workshop or training session for the teachers. The primary curriculum reforms were admired by all. I remember a team of scholars from Malaysia who visited Sri Lanka in 1976, where the Ministry of Education invited me to participate in that mission as a young new Ph.D. At that time, they could not believe that Sri Lanka was such an active 'beehive in education'. Prof. Marimuthu who led the Malaysian team happened to be one of my academic friends for sometime and he often appreciated the work done in Sri Lanka during the 1970-77 'the Udagama Era' Our Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) attached to the Ministry of Education was one of the best in the South and South Eastern Asian region and everyone appreciated it so much. Dr. Udagama's direct support to CDC was much appreciated by his colleagues and subordinates.

Of course there was opposition to reforms. It is very natural, no matter who does it and what it is; there will be a section of people to oppose reforms. In Dr. Udagama's situation naturally the opposition came from the social elite because the reforms were so focused on the poor. The pre-vocational subjects that were introduced were opposed by those who believed in white collar education.

The writer is the Rector of the Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy (SIBA) and the former Director General of NIE.

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