University of Moratuwa: Canadian Connections Past and Present

 

The plaque that Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker placed during his visit in 1958 at the opening of the Institute of Practical Technology which preceded the University of Moratuwa

There are 13 Moratuwa faculty members who studied in Canada, including former Vice Chancellor Malik Ranasinghe. They come from the Library, Architecture, Civil Engineering, Transport, Electronics and Electrical Engineering Departments. The first Sri Lankan Commonwealth scholar to go to Canada was emeritus Professor K.K.Y.W. Perera, founding Dean of Engineering who held senior government positions and remains academically engaged. The Moratuwa university faculty studied across Canada, attending universities in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.

It is hard to imagine that in 1950, the country’s first Faculty of Engineering was established with only 12 academics given the long list of highly qualified faculty members today at Moratuwa. The start of the relationship between Canadian universities and Moratuwa began with the Colombo Plan. Before there was a University of Moratuwa, Canada funded the Institute of Practical Technology at Katubedda (IPTK).

At an April 2012 Junior Technical Officer (JTO) Alumni Jubilee anniversary, over a hundred alumni members, many from abroad, came to the James George Hall named for the Canadian High Commissioner who worked with Dr. D.L. Sumanadasa to establish the IPTK. Professor Dayantha Wijesekera was among the first batch of students of the JTO course and remembers being present as a schoolboy in 1958 when the IPTK plaque was unveiled by Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. He then became a senior official (including Vice Chancellor of Moratuwa and Open University) leading the promotion of technical and vocational training in Sri Lanka. He and another University of Moratuwa academic, Willie Mendis, toured Canadian universities at different times.

The university’s reputation benefited from the globally recognized leadership of Arthur C. Clarke, Chancellor from 1979 to 2002. Sri Lanka, like Canada, built much of its academic engineering prowess after the Second World War and both countries benefited from external expertise to do so.

Canada assisted the University of Moratuwa and its precursors with funding through the Colombo Plan, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the International Development Research Centre and the Canadian International Development Agency as well as through individual university linkages, such as the University of Calgary. Exchanges go both ways. One hundred and seventy Commonwealth scholars from Sri Lanka have studied in Canada over the decades. In 2011 a University of Manitoba Professor and head of “Architects without borders” arranged for a sabbatical at the University of Moratuwa with more than a dozen young Canadian architecture students participating for a shorter period. Part of their study program was to bring funds raised in Canada to build a community project in Monaragala.

One person who made a great deal of difference in developing the academic relationship between the two countries is Chan Wirasinghe, founding Dean Emeritus of the Schulich School of Engineering. He grew up in Colombo and worked for the Highways Department. He worked hard to set up joint research projects and assist Moratuwa students to do graduate work in Calgary. He believes that this way he has “been able to do more for Sri Lanka by being in Canada”.

Professor Wirasinghe has been back to Sri Lanka every year since he took the Calgary position in 1976 and he has mentored many Sri Lankans in Canada, saying that Calgary is probably the university with the longest, strongest ties to Moratuwa.

Initially he worked on transport studies but in recent years, after the tsunami, he pulled together various leading academics in Canada, USA, Cuba, Germany to form “I cubed R squared” (www.iirrr.ucalgary.ca) which joins Moratuwa and Peradeniya, as well as other universities to international disaster mitigation efforts.

Laughing at his Calgary boosterism, Professor Wirasinghe says he does not mind Canada’s weather. He says he has a clean, safe place for his children, good schools and health care, and a “fantastic academic climate” with a city having the most number of Canadian head offices outside of Toronto. He was not initially as sanguine about a place that was described to him as having “cattle driven to market every day” and weather of 20 degrees in May (until he realized Canada used the centigrade scale!).

Former Vice Chancellor Ranasinghe, on the other hand, says he is no fan of Canadian weather! He won a Commonwealth scholarship in 1985 to pursue his construction management interest. He confesses that he chose the University of British Columbia, rather than Concordia or McGill, mostly for climate reasons, preferring the moderate rain of Vancouver to the snow in Montreal.

Other faculty members studied in Canada with funding from diverse sources. Canada’s International Development Research Centre and the University of Calgary in the mid 1980s supported Professor Amal Kumarage, the former Head of the Transport and Logistics Management Department at Moratuwa. At one time Professor Kumarage also headed up the National Transport Commission that works on improving the national transport development picture. As he says, “the seed planted at the university yielded so many benefits for national transport understanding. Today, the university, private sector and government all work together to deepen that understanding”. Professor Saman Bandara, Head of the Division of Transport Engineering at Moratuwa, is another Calgary alumnus.

Professor Ranasinghe advises Sri Lankan students studying in Canada or elsewhere to expect cultural shock on arrival abroad but they also need to prepare for cultural shock on arrival back home. It is essential, in his view, that people come back home for at least two years before making a final decision as to their country of residence. Then they can make an informed decision and have no illusions about the “old country” they left. On returning, they need to prepare well with a job in hand, join a professional association, and reconnect with friends and family.

There is now a Sri Lankan Canadian alumni association (contact ranga@ent.mrt.ac.lk) so activities will bring some of those who studied in Canada together in Colombo.

former Vice Chancellor Malik Ranasinghe launches the Sri Lanka Alumni Association at Canada House in 2011

From the JTO plaque presentation program April 2012

 

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