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Sunday, 10 April 2011

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Jaffna University gets first woman VC

Professor Vasanthi Arasaratnam assumed duties as the eighth Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna. She also becomes the first woman Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University.


Prof. Vasanthi Arasaratnam

VC Vasanthi Arasaratnam also served as the first woman Dean of the Medical Faculty of Jaffna.

Excerpts of her interview:

Q. You are the first woman Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna. What have you to say about your new designation?

A. I am happy to be the first woman Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna and I consider it an honour for the women of Jaffna who always show a keen interest in either educating themselves or remaining a power in educating their children.Unlike in the past,the literacy rate of women in the Jaffna peninsula is very high.For instance the Mayoress of Jaffna Yogeswari Patkunaraja and the Government Agent of Jaffna Imelda Sukumar are women.

I also held the position as the first woman Dean of the Medical Faculty of Jaffna from 2000 to 2003.

Even at the University of Jaffna female students entering various faculties are on the rise.Apart from the academic side,the women from Jaffna are also holding very responsible designations in various Government and private sector institutions.

So in this backdrop I am happy to assume my duties as the first woman Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna, the institution which was open in 1974 by another prestigious woman the late Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike who had the rare privilege of being the first woman Prime Minister in the world.

Q: When Jaffna experienced a turbulent period, you were one of the academics who was determined to remain in Jaffna to ensure the smooth functioning of the University. How do you describe the dark period you had to face?

A: It was a difficult time.The peninsula was in the doldrums.All essential institutions which had offered goods and services to the northerners had been badly hampered.University of Jaffna was also one of them.The Medical and Science Faculties hardly had resources.However I take this opportunity to appreciate the determination and commitment of the academic staff as well as the students of the University in ensuring the uninterrupted functioning of this hallowed institution.

During my tenure as Dean of the Jaffna Medical Faculty, power failures,shortages in laboratory items and teaching hospital facilities were depleted and these remained as major obstacles preventing the smooth functioning of the University.

To obtain electricity we had to depend on generators and most of the time due to the short supply of fuel, functions of certain areas of the faculty had to be slowed down.We had to send our students out of Jaffna for hospital studies.

In the meantime,I remember with great respect and gratitude the services rendered by the late Forensic expert Professor. Chandrasiri Niriella to the Medical Faculty of Jaffna during the peak of the turbulent days in the North. He visited the Jaffna Medical Faculty and helped the Faculty in a big way. He lectured to the students and also functioned as examiner. Several other academics also came from the South to Jaffna at that time and offered their services without any hesitation to our students.

However, despite all the difficulties our students did their part efficiently and several of them are currently doing extremely well as medical practitioners in various parts of the country.

Q: You were the Dean of the Medical Faculty of Jaffna from 2000 to 2003, what is the present state of the Faculty?

A: Since the civil strife came to an end in 2009, there is a considerable improvement in the functions of the faculty. We are able to obtain the requirements what we need. The intake of students has also improved. The Jaffna Medical Faculty has even Sinhala students as well as students from various parts of the country.

At present the Faculty is on an upward move with academic staff from outside Jaffna and abroad showing their interest in cooperating with the faculty. Though the Medical Faculty remained stable with limited resources during the turbulent period, now we have to catch up with other Medical faculties in the country in improving our academic activities.

Laboratory facilities, computer arrangements and the library requirements have to be significantly improved.

Q: Following the disturbances in the North, several academics who served in the Jaffna University left the peninsula seeking greener pastures abroad. What's your view on this brain drain?

A: It was a pity to lose the services of prominent academics in the University of Jaffna. When the University of Jaffna first started as a campus in 1974, several academics serving in other universities in the country came to Jaffna and did their part with greater enthusiasm. But later on many of them could not face the gravity of the situation and they opted to leave peninsula as well as the country. However, some of them continued to support the university from abroad by providing it with computers, books, financial assistance etc.

At present we even have the products of the University of Jaffna in the academic staff. We should ensure their smooth services by supporting them in every aspect of their career. For instance some of the senior medical practitioners at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital are the products of the Jaffna Medical Faculty. Therefore we have to build up a new trend in utilising the maximum of existing intellectuals and bringing out the best out of them.

Q: What are your priorities as the new Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University?

A: First of all I would like to concentrate more towards improving infrastructure facilities of the university. The infrastructure of the Jaffna university has been neglected due to the turbulent conditions in the past three decades. Now with the favourable atmosphere we have to explore ways and means of stabilising infrastructure facilities of the university.

Measures will also be taken to provide more facilities for the academic staff. The University of Jaffna now has several faculties. Therefore the shortcomings in those faculties should also be addressed.

During the turbulent times, the laboratories of various faculties had suffered immensely with the loss of equipment and material. Plans are being worked out to put up new buildings to meet future demands. We expect more funding for this purpose.

Q: Plans have been initiated to create a new Engineering Faculty for the University of Jaffna. What's your view about this?

A: Plans to create an Engineering Faculty for the University of Jaffna were first initiated when the renowned late Engineering Professor T. Thurairaja was the Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna in the mid nineties. Later Prof. V. Navaratnaraja from Malaysia was keen on making the Engineering faculty a reality. However, the plan had to be shelved due to unfavourable conditions that prevailed in the North.

But now a five member committee has been set up to look into it. The committee comprises Professors Ratnajeevan Hoole, Kumar Vadivel and K. Kandaswamy. The committee is working on a comprehensive proposal on the Jaffna Engineering Faculty.

Q: How do you expect the Tamil expatriate community to make their contribution towards the University of Jaffna?

A: Well the expatriate community could do a tremendous job in enhancing the academic activities of the Jaffna University. Earlier the situation was different. Tamil expatriates found it difficult to interact closely with Jaffna. I have plans to strengthen the alumni of the Jaffna University. Therefore those who have passed out from the University of Jaffna could correspond with the alumni and do whatever they could for the University.

There is a considerable portion of Tamil expatriates who have graduated from the University of Jaffna. Several of them are doing extremely well in their chosen careers. So they could come out in a big way in the development of the Jaffna University.

Q: Being an academic what is your view on the state of the education in present day Jaffna?

A: I would say the deaths and destruction have in no way hampered education in Jaffna. Despite the adverse conditions, education at school level or at University level remained stable.There would have been shortcomings in infrastructure facilities,but there was no drop in the enthusiasm of education. With the limited resources available during the turbulent days, students from Jaffna came out with good results in their examinations at national level.

But the drawback now is the teaching of English. There was a time the Jaffna peninsula had scholars in English.But the dark period in Jaffna had cut off the interaction of the Jaffna people with the outside world, creating a lull in English education.More concentration should be paid towards reviving the standard of English education in Jaffna at grass-roots level. I believe the expatriate community could assist in a considerable manner with regard to the revival of English education.

Q: You served at the University of Jaffna from 1984. You would have come across very difficult conditions in the peninsula. Since the difficult days came to an end in 2009, what's your observation on post-conflict development activities?

A: Well it looks encouraging. More healthy interaction in various fields could be seen between the North and South. What I would insist is there should not be delays in addressing the immediate problems of the people affected by the conflict. The people who have engaged in the peace building process should look beyond petty differences.

The Jaffna Peninsula has suffered immensely due to the conflict in the past three decades. Therefore future plans in rebuilding the North and developing its resources should be carried out in a well coordinated manner.

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