History of Education in Sri Lanka

Education in Sri Lanka has a history of over 2300 years. It is believed that the Sanskrit language was brought to the island from North India as a result of the establishment of the Buddhism in the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa from the Buddhist monks sent by Emperor Asoka of India. Since then an education system evolved based around the Buddhist temples and pirivenas (monastic colleges), the latter primarily intended for clergy (even to this day) and higher education. Evidence of this system is found on the Mahawamsa and Dipavamsa, the Chronicle of Lanka that deals with the history of the island from the arrival of Prince Vijaya and his followers in the 6th century BC.
With the outset of the colonial expansion on the island, first in the coastal provinces and then interior, Christian missionary societies become active in education. The Anglican Church's monopoly of Government Schools and in education ended following the Colebrooke Commission set up by the British administration.

Primary and secondary schools
A standard system of government schools were begun by the British based on the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission in 1836. This is regarded as the beginning of the government's schooling system in the island. It started with the establishment of the Royal College in Colombo (formerly the Colombo Academy) and lead to the formation of several single sex schools constructed during the colonial period, by the British. Some of these schools were affiliated to the Anglican Church. These included S. Thomas' College in Mount Lavinia and Trinity College in Kandy. The education in vernacular schools was largely free due to government grants to cover the cost of teaching and local philanthropists providing the buildings, equipment and the books. Colebrooke decreed that all government schools be discontinued. The order did not apply to denominational Missionary schools and they continued to function unceasingly.

In 1938 the education system in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was made formally free following the granting of universal franchise in 1931. The Minister of Education, late Hon. Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara, and the Executive Committee of Education which included members such as H. W. Amarasuriya took the initiative in establishing free education. Under this initiative the government established Madhya Maha Vidyalayas (MMV, Central Colleges) that were scattered around the island to provide education to all. The medium was either Sinhala or Tamil.

In 1942 a special committee was appointed to observe the education system and, among the suggestions that followed, the following play an important role:
i. Make available to all children a good education free of charge, so that education ceases to be a commodity purchasable only by the urban affluent.
ii. Make national languages the media of instruction in place of English so that opportunities for higher education, lucrative employment open only to small number of the urban affluent, would become available to others as well.
iii. Rationalize the school system so that educational provision is adequate, efficient and economical.
iv. Ensure that every child is provided with instruction in the religion of his/her parents.
v. Protect teachers from exploitation by managers of schools.
vi. Make adequate provision for adult education.

After independence, the number of schools and the literacy rate substantially increased. According to the Ministry of Statistics, today there are approximately 10,012 public schools serving close to 4,037,157 students, all around the island.

During the colonial times, late national heroes like Anagarika Dharmapala with foreigners like Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky of the Buddhist Theosophical Society installed Buddhist schools to foster Sinhala students with an English education rich in Buddhist values and to bring Buddhism to life, at a time when it was slowly fading away. Most of these schools were established in the capitals of the major provinces of Sri Lanka. The first of these were Ananda College, Colombo (formerly English Buddhist School); Dharmaraja College, Kandy (formerly Kandy Buddhist High School); Mahinda College, Galle (formerly Galle Buddhist Theosophical Society School); Musaeus College, Colombo and Maliyadeva College, Kurunegala (formerly Kurunegala Buddhist Institution) which were followed decades later by Visakha Balika Maha Vidyalaya (formerly Buddhist Girls College), Colombo, Nalanda College, Colombo and Mahamaya Vidyalaya, Kandy.

Sri Lanka also has many Catholic schools such as St. Joseph's College, St Bridget's Convent, St Peter's College, St. Anthony's College, Kandy and the Joseph Vaz College named after the Sri Lankan saint Joseph Vaz. The earliest schools such as Richmond College, Galle, Jaffna Central College, Wesley College, Colombo, Kingswood College, Kandy(formerly Boys' High School,Kandy); Girls' High School, Kandy and Methodist College, Colombo were started by the Methodist Church. Zahira College, Colombo is considered to be the oldest Muslim school initiated in the country by Late T.B.Jayah.

Many schools were built in the post-colonial era. However, the established schools who had their origins in the colonial era dominate social life in Sri Lanka mainly due networks of old boys and old girls. Several superficial changers to the school system took place in the post-independence era. These include the change of the primary medium of education to the national languages, nationalization of private schools and the introduction of national/provisional school system.

Higher education in Sri Lanka has been based on the several prominent pirivenas during the local kingdoms. The origins of the modern university system in Sri Lanka dates back to 1921 when a University College, the Ceylon University College was established at the former premises of Royal College Colombo affiliated to the University of London. However, the beginning of modern higher education in Ceylon was in 1870 when the Ceylon Medical School was established followed by Colombo Law College (1875), School of Agriculture (1884) and the Government Technical College (1893).

The University of Ceylon was established on 1 July 1942 by the Ceylon University Ordinance No. 20 of 1942 which was to be unitary, residential and autonomous. The university was in Colombo. Several years later a second campus was built in Peradeniya. The University of Ceylon became the University of Sri Lanka follow in the University of Ceylon Act No. 1 of 1972 resulting in a more centralized administration and more direct government control. This gave way for creation of separate universities after the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978. Even though new universities of independent identities were created, the government maintained its direct control and centralized administration though the University Grants Commission. Late Hon. Lalith Athulathmudali as Minister of Education developed an initiative to develop the higher education of the country in the 1980s, the Mahapola Fund, established by him provided scholarship and much-needed founding to higher education institution to this day. Until amendments to the University Act were made in 1999 only state universities were allowed to grant undergraduate degrees; this has since changed.