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
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
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.