Sunday, February 1, 2015

Russia’s unprecedented gift of higher education to Sri Lanka

People’s Friendship University of Russia (PFUR) - the biggest foreign contributor to higher education of Sri Lanka - celebrates its 55th Anniversary from 5-7 February. The University was opened, in February 1960, by Premier Nikita Khrushchev, when many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America were getting liberated from colonialism.
These newly independent countries, having suffered under- foreign rule and exploitation for centuries, embarked on the arduous struggle to win economic independence, develop their national economies, raise their cultural levels and identities, and achieve social progress.
Therefore, the strategy behind opening the Friendship University was to provide higher education in medicine, engineering and other sciences that was vital to develop these nations.
Sri Lanka was no exception. Though we received independence in 1948, after 450 years of colonial rule, University Education was limited to a few from leading colleges in the Country. Study abroad mostly in England was the prerogative of the wealthy few. Russia moved into fill that gap. In the 1960’s, every year, PFUR gave about 25 scholarships to Lankan students. But graduates from socialist countries were treated indifferently because our Government failed to recognize those degrees.
Around 1970, while teaching at Vidyalankara University and later working at the United Nations, I strived to convince Education -Ministry authorities on the need to recognize these degrees. After years of agitation, degrees were formally recognized but marginalization continued.
In 1980, I pointed out in "Soviet Degrees" (Daily News), "Perhaps due either to political reasons - or woeful ignorance of the Soviet educational system - Sri Lanka has failed so far to give the Soviet degree its rightful place in the educational system".
Graduates from socialist countries are grateful to Lankan media for recognizing this anomaly and supporting the cause by publishing my lengthy feature articles entitled "Lumumba University and its contribution to Sri Lanka" (1983), "Recognition of Soviet Degrees" (1984), etc., which highlighted the high quality of education in socialist countries, and therefore the need to recognize those degrees.
Full credit, however, goes to these graduates who (regardless of limitations) excelled in their workplaces and persevered to prove that the higher education and professional training they received in those countries are not second to any other.
Today, the Friendship University is managed by its Rector, Prof Vladimir Filippov (1973 alumni of PFUR) who was Russia’s Minister of Education from 1998 to 2004. In 1960, PFUR had 539 students from 59 countries. Today, it has 29 thousand graduate and post graduate students from 145 countries. According to Filippov, "more than 80 thousand graduates, and more than 5,500 PhD holders of the University work in 170 countries worldwide". Among them are Presidents, Prime Ministers, and high level professionals - committed to the development of their communities.
According to Rector Filippov, "Over the last 50 years, 800 Sri Lankans have graduated from the Friendship University but right now, only 20 Lankan students are studying in this university". This drastic decline of Lankans at PFUR could be attributed to several factors.
First is the economic Factor. From 1960-1990, PFUR offered fully paid scholarships to thousands of students from Asia, Africa and Latin America - scholarships that included tuition, hostel accommodation, a stipend, plus passage to and from Moscow which was a bonanza for poor students from those countries. That is a costly burden on any university in the world.
Secondly, around 1990, PFUR was reorganised with emphasis on paid education. That transformed the University into major academic and research center with better facilities and more staff. PFUR is on a 125 acre site with 27 buildings, with students on fee payment and on scholarship basis. It offers many Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D degrees in 76 disciplines.
Thirdly, most students today are from western countries (capitalizing perhaps on low tuition), and about 6,000 are international students from 145 countries. Thus, economic factors may have forced PFUR to reduce the number of fully paid scholarships to Lankan students.
Even though education all over the world is expensive, a four-year Bachelors Degree at PFUR costs about $4,000.00 a year which is still a high quality higher education at a comparatively affordable price. Details of PFUR can be found in its website
Sri Lankan students (with GCEA Level) who would like to study at PFUR should apply directly to the University. PFUR authorities assured me that they arc willing to offer full or partial scholarships to qualified and needy students from Sri Lanka.
If education is the ultimate gift one can give a child, then, PFUR has given that gift of education to more than 80,000 children from developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America - who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to receive a higher education - especially in a foreign country.
Somar Wijayadasa, a former Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations, is a Moscow educated international lawyer, who worked in the United Nations System - IAEA, FAO, UNESCO and UNAIDS - for 25 years.