SRI LANKA: Strike threat over private medical school

Doctors in Sri Lanka have threatened strike action in an escalating row over government recognition of the country's first private medical college near Colombo, established as a branch of a Russian university. The action could have repercussions for other private colleges planning to set up in the country, as talks are ongoing with institutions in China and India.

The row was sparked off when the Higher Education Ministry last week issued a notification granting degree-awarding status to Malabe Private Medical College (officially known as the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine), situated in Malabe close to the capital.

This allowed it to become the first private university in the country to confer undergraduate MBBS medical degrees, even though it does not have its own teaching hospital.

Malabe students are not allowed to undergo clinical training in government hospitals and must receive this training in private hospitals.

The medical education regulatory body, the Sri Lanka Medical Council, does not recognise the private college as previously only local universities could confer MBBS degrees.

The college, established in 2009, currently has more than 200 students who typically spend four years of the course in the college and a year in Russia. They pay about US$65,000 to complete the medical degree conferred by Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy.

"This medical college has not been registered as a university or as a degree-awarding institute," said Dr Upul Gunasekara, Assistant Secretary of the Government Medical Officers' Association (GMOA), referring to non-recognition by the Medical Council.

Earlier in the week the GMOA called for a countrywide strike in hospitals on 7 September. But it later called the action off, saying it was awaiting the outcome of talks with the government after Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena on Tuesday agreed to appoint a five-member committee to investigate the issue.

Some GMOA members have said the strike has merely been postponed for a week.

Gunasekara questioned whether the college had "proper legal documentation", and claimed that it did "not maintain standards of medical colleges. It is a business more than a college that produces future doctors."

However, the ministry said a team of officials had inspected "all aspects" of the college, and it had received positive reports prior to the granting of degree-awarding status.

"The UGC accreditation council, medical experts and university chancellors had evaluated the standards of this institution and a comprehensive committee has been set up to check on the quality of the institution's services, staff, facilities and other factors," said Minister of Higher Education SB Dissanayake.

"Several reports were issued on this matter and there were no signs of any shortcomings, despite these protests."

Although the Medical Council has not recognised the college, 40 children of doctors are studying there, the ministry claimed. It insisted that the institution would continue to function, and that several such institutions would be established in future.

China's Tianjin Medical University is already in talks with the ministry to set up a Chinese International Medical University in the outskirts of the capital, in collaboration with a private Sri Lankan institute. The private Manipal Medical College based in Bangalore, India, has also indicated an interest in setting up in Sri Lanka.

"When more colleges are coming up, the cost will come down more," Dissanayake said.

The Inter University Students Federation has also condemned the government decision, saying it was a violation of free education in the country.

IUSF Convener Sanjeewa said students had already held protests near Ruhuna University, which has a large medical faculty. "We are planning to hold more protests at all universities regarding this issue," Bandara told University World News.

Related links

SRI LANKA: Ten new foreign universities on the cards
SRI LANKA: Private universities bill sparks protests
SRI LANKA: Squabbling while higher education burns
SRI LANKA: Delayed foreign universities bill imminent