Enough is enough:  Stop torturing the university students!
Posted on February 11th, 2017

By  Rohana R. Wasala

Thousands of university students (medical students and their counterparts from other faculties) have been demonstrating over many months against the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine at Malabe; they have been cursed by the public for the disruptions and inconveniences caused by their conduct; tear-gassed, water-cannoned, and baton-charged by the police, with nothing gained. The SAITM students have had their more sedate demonstrations; but their mental torture must be greater. They have followed very exacting courses of study at considerable financial cost to their parents, worked hard, and passed difficult examinations, and suddenly they are faced with an uncertain future for no fault of theirs. Government doctors are also up in arms against the private medical college. I don’t for a moment suspect the bona fides of all these groups. I have the highest regard for them all, though I may respectfully disagree with the points of view that the anti-SAITM activists adopt, while sharing their passion for the causes they claim to espouse. But I unequivocally condemn the politicians who have created an issue where there shouldn’t be one, and who are causing mayhem to promote their own selfish interests. The SAITM problem has been so unnecessarily politicized.

In my opinion, the news that former president Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa has jumped on the anti-SAITM bandwagon was something that few responsible Sri Lankans expected to hear. But he is not likely to support any call for the abolition of the SAITM or the outlawing of all forms of private education. Which of the two following contradictory alternatives could be more important for him, do you think? (1)  putting a spanner in the works of a well functioning institution built at the cost of many millions of rupees of the country’s own money (not foreign funds from questionable sources with ulterior motives concerning our country) on the pretext that it marks the beginning of the end of free education in Sri Lanka or (2) forging a powerful united opposition to help all patriots in the parliament at present irrespective of party loyalties to defeat attempts, if any, to introduce potentially harmful legislation that could threaten the future of the whole country (as so many constitutional authorities argue), among other pernicious impositions such as ECTA? My own answer should be clear to my intelligent readers; but they are not invited or expected to buy my opinions offhand.

Actually, Mr Rajapaksa can be expected to extend his unequivocal support for the continuation and enhancement of the private medical college because the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine at Malabe was inaugurated in 2008 under the auspices of Mr Rajapaksa himself as president. It was done as something compatible with the rapid development program that he initiated even before the end of the separatist war. The institute was granted degree awarding status by the University Grants Commission in 2013 during the second term of his presidency. Mr Rajapaksa’s minister of Higher Education at the time was the present Samurdi minister Mr S.B. Dissanayake who, Dr Neville Fernando, the founder chairman of the SAITM said recently, was a ‘tower of strength’ to him (to Dr Fernando).

Mr Rajapaksa’s objections to the institution are apparently due to his acceptance of the argument that the Sri Lanka Medical Council has refused to register its MBBS graduates as they are products of a medical college that the Council has concluded, after investigations, to be lacking in the normal facilities required for turning out physicians with the necessary knowledge and clinical training that will enable them to treat our local patients guaranteeing their safety. Now, it should be obvious to anyone with some little common sense that this is not an insurmountable problem. It can be easily fixed, perhaps with the assistance of the state. The low quality argument against the SAITM medical faculty is not strong enough for the government to order its immediate closing down. Mr Rajapaksa cannot be thought to be unaware of this simple truth. It is also good to remember that, as usual with him, he won’t assume a position that he cannot later defend.

At a news conference on February 7, asked about Mr Rajapaksa’s latest stance regarding the SAITM, Dr Fernando remembered his earlier supportive attitude. The former president had even asked Dr Fernando to grant scholarships to some needy students who had got good results at the AL, but who failed to find places in the state universities. Dr Fernando had given scholarships to thirty such students incurring a loss of revenue to the college of 5,000,000 rupees. When he said during this interview: Some politicians are opportunists”, I don’t think he meant it to be a negative reflection on Mr Rajapaksa. (http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2017/02/07/some-politicians-are-opportunists-dr-neville/) Politics is about politicking, after all. What is important is a sense of humanity, of humaneness, which MR doesn’t lack unlike many of his rivals.

The threat to free education argument, in the opinion of most, is not tenable. In Sri Lanka today, fee levying education alongside free education is already normal. Private medical education should not be considered a threat to free education. On the contrary, it will get private capital to share the cost of education with the state, and also save foreign exchange by preventing parents from sending their children abroad for medical education, and earn foreign exchange for the country by attracting foreign students. Many of these parents are not necessarily of the moneyed class either. The state universities will be able to take in more students to their medical faculties, when some successful AL students (whose parents can afford it) opt to study in a private medical college. There is a false belief among our people that only those who get selected to study medicine in a state university are qualified enough or brainy enough to do so. The truth is that unnecessarily stringent selection criteria have to be imposed in order to restrict intake because of the limitedness of resources in our university system (due to Sri Lanka’s general poverty). On the basis of the district quota system (which is a useful strategy introduced to help studious students from disadvantaged rural districts throughout the country), students who score less than the highest marks levels are admitted, thereby denying an equivalent number of students from urban areas who have performed better at the ALs an opportunity to gain admission to a state university free of charge. The latter are also a part of the country’s youth who are of inestimable worth to us.

The SAITM issue is no ordinary issue; nor is Mr Rajapaksa an ordinary politician. Dr Neville Fernando is also of comparable status. He is of a rare type in this country: he is a genuine technocrat in the field of medical education. Besides, he is a patriot and a philanthropist. He is exerting himself in his sunset years not to add to the wealth that he already has, nor to seek political power, nor to seek personal indulgence, but to serve this country by helping educate the young of our motherland. All three (SAITM, its founder, and MR) are, in my opinion, sources of hope for millions, though some may think otherwise. (Incidentally, as a journalist, I am not pursuing personal agenda. I don’t know any of the persons mentioned in this article including MR personally. I entirely depend on the media for information about them. My advocacy of MR’s leadership is not because I want to tout him as an example of the perfect ruler, but because I believe, like many, that there is no other politician with the proven abilities and commitment that he has demonstrated. For better or for worse, SAITM is now a fait accompli; and, on the other hand, Mr Rajapaksa is the only political leader of national standing that we have who is still most acceptable to all the communities alike, whatever his detractors say. The country is being confronted probably with one of its worst crises since 1948. We cannot do without his leadership at this critical juncture. Honestly, there is still no one among our current leaders to take his place.

There cannot be any contradiction between the way he will deal with the important SAITM issue and the way he will deal with the infinitely more important national emergency of having to save the country from NGO urged constitutional changes (as can be inferred from media reports, e.g. The Island/February 11, 2017). The problem with the SAITM is that it has been deliberately politicized by vested interests. Though the SAITM question has just been resolved through the courts, the political demons that have taken possession of it are yet to be exorcised.

8 Responses to “Enough is enough:  Stop torturing the university students!”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Love the last sentence of Rohana which says it all.

    The SAITM issue has been settled by the Court of Appeal.

    All this nonsense about this is because it was initiated by a Sinhalese. If SAITM was owned by a Tamil or a Muslim, none of this would happen. It is time more of private medical colleges are set up.

    There are private law, accountancy, business studies, agricultural, engineering, IT, etc. universities are functioning in Sri Lanka. What is so special about private medical colleges!

    Tamil students from Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mulaitivu and Nuwara Eliya can get into medical college with just 3 simple passes whereas one needs at least 2 credit passes to get into SAITM MBBS. Jaffna medical faculty has 1 professor and Batticaloa has none (due to discrimination against Sinhala and Muslim professors by Tamil students) but SAITM has 14. The quality argument is rubbish.

  2. Ananda-USA Says:

    Dilrook,

    I hope what you said about Tamil students from outstations getting into medical college with just 3 ordinary passes is NOT TRUE. If it were true, we have then really f**ked things up! That would as bad as having low standards of instruction once they get in!

    We really need to exercise some common sense in balancing all other considerations of equity, such as regional representation, against intrinsic academic ability and merit, otherwise we will create a system populated by very poor doctors! If failure rates are high as a result of admitting poor students, then they will lower the standards to make the institutional statistics look good!

    That brings us to the answer to your question: what is so special about medical colleges compared to other professional schools?

    What is special is that they will be treating OUR bodies and minds, and we like the very best doctors we can have treating us, and not some quacks without the brains ‘practicing’ their sub-standard arts and crafts on us.

    BTW, you know that most doctors never really ‘know” what the heck they are doing, like for example engineers (!), don’t you? That is why doctors are always ‘practicing’ … on us! Terrifying …this black art! LOL!

    Our need to TRUST the doctors who tend to us TRANSCENDS the TRUST we demand from every other profession. PERIOD!

  3. Charles Says:

    May be I am wrong but my stand is that education and specially medical collages should not be commercialised.If we do we will not get the best medical practitioners. Sri Lanka has a very high standard medical practitioners. They are not second to any best medical practitioners in the world. But by opening private Medical colleges where questionably quqlified candidates may be admitted the st

  4. Charles Says:

    May be I am wrong but my stand is that education and specially medical collages should not be commercialised.If we do we will not get the best medical practitioners. Sri Lanka has a very high standard medical practitioners. They are not second to any best medical practitioners in the world. But by opening private Medical colleges questionably qualified candidates may be admitted which will bring down the quality of medical practice in Sri Lanka. When it is a question of money any richman’s or a rich politician’s child least qualified may be admitted !!! Why not open more Government Medical Colleges instead. France despite shortage of doctors have not allowed private Medical colleges, though there exists one Catholic institution many hundred years old.

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Agree with Charles.

    Some suggestions :

    There should be NO proliferation of private Higher Education Institutes. If proper standards are set through the Law of the Land, Lanka can avoid a number of negative issues.

    How is the GoSL going to set LIMITS ? By Law, allow only One private H’Ed unit per Province, whatever the subjects taught ?

    At any rate, those qualifying in the private H’Ed units ought to get a different type of Certificate to the ones issued by govt institutions for Higher Education ?

    There seem no proper limits to anything in Sri Lanka !!

  6. Christie Says:

    Free education in the island nation? May be half a century or more ago. Montessori, Tuition classes, International Schools, are they all free?

    About the quality of doctors qualifications and patients. Remember the Burmese doctors, then the Ayurveda doctors.

    You can only test the quality after the product is finally out in the market place. Our patients are not stupid and they know who is a good and a bad doctor.

  7. Dilrook Says:

    @Charles

    In short, the matter has been settled by the Court of Appeal. Given Lanka’s constitution and other laws, the verdict is correct. We can express personal opinions about it but no one can prevent private medical colleges. If anyone does, he/she is violating the law and is a criminal offence to do so.

    The medical profession is already commercialised. It is inevitable the medical education follows it.

    Building more government medical colleges is a good theoretical suggestion but it is not practical today. Each medical graduate costs more than 5 million to produce and most of them leave the country within a few years of graduation. Taxpayers are losing that money more and more if more of them are produced. Since 2012 debt repayment and interest on debt has been higher than state revenue! So there is no money for expansion of these enormously.

    I disagree all or most of Sri Lanka’s produce are world class medical professionals. Of course there are exceptions. If you really want to know about it, patients in government hospitals are the best sources. I’m afraid they have little good to say about local doctors apart from a very few exceptions.

    In addition, education is a right of every individual. Those who can afford cannot be prevented from getting it. When free education was introduced it was never intended to be free education only. All private schools were allowed. The same applies to tertiary education. Sri Lanka needs many private medical colleges.

    France allows privately funded medical education. Most countries including all South Asian countries allow private medical education. Sri Lanka is very backward thanks to JVP student unions and a murderous SLMC ready to hold patients’ lives to ransom.

    @Ananda

    Sadly it is true. One needs to just pass A/L to get into medical college from those districts. SAITM’s entry requirement is much higher. Horror stories of doctors abusing patients, doing the wrong surgery, wrong diagnosis, etc. is very common in Sri Lanka. Doctors professional tort liability is not very well defined in Sri Lanka. Otherwise hundreds of doctors cannot practice.

  8. Ananda-USA Says:

    Charles,

    Regarding Govt-only vs Govt plus Private medical colleges, the problem in having Govt-only colleges are two-fold:

    1. the lack of money to establish and operate them from the Govt, and
    2. the lack of innovation in the absence of competition.

    If the Govt had the money and the will, it would have opened and staffed the medical colleges of sufficient size and in sufficient numbers to meet the demand. They have not done so.

    There is also the question of whether tax-money should be used to train doctors who within a few years flee abroad!

    Why not share the burden with private businesses who can train them and employ them too at sufficiently high salaries to retain them?

    All that we have to ensure is that the medical certification system (with a full time staff and site-inspectors) is under Govt control and maintains and enforces high standards.

    In the USA, for example, with the exception of the colleges and hospitals maintained by the Armed Forces and the Veterans Administration, none are operated by the Federal Government.

    The majority of medical colleges are run by private universities, and a minority by State universities. The latter, like the University of Califotnia medical colleges, have a high degree of autonomy from the State governments.

    However, as in the case of the Sri Lankan SLMC, the American Medical Association (AMA) has been accused of throttling the supply of medical doctors to maintain high salaries of doctors who are members if the Association.

    This has led to a large number of foreign doctors emigrating to and practicing in the USA. It is difficult for them to do so, because even highly experienced foreign doctors have to pass the ECFMG examination and then undergo a period of internship in an American hospital.

    I looked into this at the time of the last JVP rebellion when one of my sisters who was the DMO in charge of a major hospital in the Western Province was being threatened and wanted to emigrate to the USA and asked for my help. Fortunately, within 3 months the situation in Sri Lanka stabilised and she gave up the idea. Good for Sri Lanka be aye all 3 of her then underage sons are now medical doctors, married to medical doctors, and serving the people of Sri Lanka.

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