Education is often seen to be a young person’s thing, and for the most part, the logic behind this is sound. Young people must pursue education in order to learn how to most effectively about the industries they hope to join and the careers they hope to build. But life is all about learning, and education always has a part to play, and this is where the Sri Lanka Foundation (SLF), Sri Lanka’s foremost and pioneering adult education centre, comes in.
Established in 1974 consequent to an agreement between the SLF and Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, for nearly 50 years, the SLF has worked closely with international institutions, governmental and non-governmental organisations, and local community development organisations to reach its primary objective of being a national centre for non-formal education and leadership training.
The SLF is a centre of leadership, education, and training, and through its education arm, the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI), it offers a wide range of academic programmes in dynamic fields, namely, social and institutional development, psychology and counselling, business and enterprise development, language and information and communication technology ICT, digital film, and tourism and hospitality management.
In January 2020, the SLF marked a new chapter with the appointment of its female chairperson, Senior Attorney-at-Law Champika Dilhara Amarasekara. Under her guidance, the SLFI has taken steps to reshape its educational programmes to match the needs of modern society whilst conserving national attributes, values of democracy, human rights, good governance, and efforts of peace and reconciliation.
Across a career spanning more than three decades, Amarasekara has held a number of posts within the private and public sectors. She was the youngest female student to enrol in the Law College in 1980. A lawyer and businesswoman by profession, Amarasekera is also the proprietress of Cinnamon Processing Centre in Matara, and was the first woman in Sri Lanka to receive the SGC certification for cinnamon processing, going on to win an award of recognition for business excellence at the 2015 Industrial Excellence Awards organised by Sri Lanka Chamber of Small and Medium Industries (SLCSMI) to recognise business excellence of small and medium-scale entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka.
In the public sector, Amarasekara has held several positions including being a one-time board member of Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Ltd. (CPSTL), and being a member of the Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance.
Brunch sat down with Amarasekara to learn more about what the SLFI does and how it’s gearing to meet 2022 and beyond.
Becoming a self-sustaining institute
In her two years leading the SLF, Amarasekara has strived to convert the SLFI to a full-fledged academy of excellence and one that can function self-sufficiently without support from the Sri Lankan Treasury. “The SLFI is gearing to become Sri Lanka’s pioneering adult institute,” Amarasekara explained, adding: “We have already gained a name for our counselling programmes, psychology programmes, age care programmes, and sports medicine programmes. We also have many other courses – certificate course, diploma, and higher national diploma programmes, and even master and PhD programmes – in a vast variety of subjects, from social sciences and engineering to media and communication, to courses in subjects like astrology and chess.”
Amarasekara noted that courses are run in both English and Sinhala mediums, and they have successfully brokered an integration with one of Malaysia’s premier private institutions of higher education, Lincoln University College, through which the SLFI has been able to expand its offering to include postgraduate courses, with their first PhD batch commencing studies in 2020.
The next step for Amarasekara is guiding the SLFI towards becoming a state-owned university that is capable of awarding its own degrees and programmes, something she is currently working toward, already having received cabinet approval to take this step and moving on to the next stages of taking legal steps to be recognised as a state-owned university.
“What we want is for the SLFI to become an independent degree-awarding university on our own – not as a national university, but as a state-owned university,” Amarasekara shared, noting that the SLF will not solely be a university, but the SLFI, which is the SLF’s education arm, would be recognised and function as a state-owned private university, where students can apply to pursue education regardless of how they have placed in their national exams. “The SLF does many things beyond academics; we host seminars, workshops, and events focused on leadership and development, and we also hire out our premises for events.”
The SLF counts 11 event spaces that can handle events of various sizes, and also boasts a state-of-the-art catering kitchen with a staff of 25 to be able to cater to both large-scale and small-scale events.
Adapting to the pandemic as an adult-focused education provider
Having assumed her role in January 2020, Amarasekara has had the not-so-enviable task of guiding the SLF and SLFI through the rigours of the pandemic. She has, however, managed to guide the SLF through these troubled times, with minimal interruption to the SLFI’s courses, and even working towards making the SLFI a profitable institution that can stand independently without being a burden on the Sri Lankan Treasury, hoping to fully achieve this by the end of 2022.
The SLFI was able to successfully take its courses online through a learning management system and distance learning programme that was awarded to them by Microsoft. The SLF was also given the chance to introduce this distanced learning management system to many other educational institutes around the island.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “There were certain courses that got a bit dragged, and our certificate awarding ceremonies were also delayed,” Amarasekara shared, noting that all delays were bridged, and the SLFI has now been able to resume holding certificate awarding ceremonies – holding one convocation in December last year, another planned for March this year, and another for August.
“The biggest challenge of the pandemic was that we couldn’t hold our events and couldn’t properly do our teaching, but we somehow overcame these hurdles,” Amarasekara said, adding: “Events have resumed, and are increasing a lot, especially externally. Whatever events people couldn’t hold before, they are now rushing to do. We’re hoping there’ll be no more lockdowns or shutdowns and are very optimistic about the future.”
Blending personal vision with corporate vision
Looking back at Amarasekara’s experience across her different posts, we asked what it is about the SLF that inspires her most.
“The SLF and the SLFI work to build opportunities for people who have had to abruptly stop their education and give them leverage to pursue opportunities and complete their education. Regardless of their age, they can come to the SLFI and start or continue their studies,” Amarasekara said, adding: “And that’s what’s so exciting about leading the SLFI as well. I get to meet so many from all walks of life, from doctors to engineers, to academics, to so many more, and this excites me because I love to relate with and talk to people.” Giving us an example of the many topics she gets to engage with people on, Amarasekara shared the SLFI is currently running a course related to drug abuse and prevention, and she gets to interact with the doctor who runs the course and learn so much about a topic that would otherwise be difficult for her to engage with.
“The importance of institutions like the SLFI is that they can help those who have not been able to pursue the education they initially wanted, Even in my case, I got through Law College, and I wanted very much to pursue psychology,” Amarasekara explained, adding: “But with the involvement of raising three kids as well as my career, I didn’t want to do it and sit for an exam I couldn’t properly study for. My intention for the future is to do a Master’s in Psychology, and through the SLFI, there is leverage for me to do something like that. There are very few places that could offer such an opportunity. My sincere request to all the stakeholders of the SLF is to join hands with us in the endeavour to serve the people for their continuous progress through education and training.”
For more information on the SLFI and the courses they offer, please visit their website www.slf.lk/ or visit the SLF at 100, Sri Lanka Padanama Mawatha, Independence Square, Colombo 7.