Row over private medical college continues after parliamentary debate

Doctors, lecturers, students, trade unions and other groups in Sri Lanka have called on the government to close down the country’s first private medical university and to stop the establishment of other private medical institutions – a move that could have implications for international providers planning to set up branch campuses.

The call came in the wake of a debate in Sri Lanka’s parliament last weekend on the South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine, commonly known as Malabe Private Medical College.

The medical college is a branch of a Russian university and is located in Malabe, close to the country's largest city, Colombo. The college will confer Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy degrees.

The parliamentary debate followed the conclusions of a five-member committee appointed by the health minister last September, after doctors protested against the college.

The committee’s report, presented by Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 22 March, found that the medical college was not approved by the Medical Council or the Health Ministry and was functioning without a teaching hospital.

The legal procedures relating to student admissions and the establishment of the medical college were also questionable, the report said.

Sri Lanka’s Medical Council, the medical education regulatory body, does not recognise the private college – which was established in 2009 – and has not allowed its students to undergo clinical training in government hospitals. Instead they undergo training in five private hospitals.

“This private medical college has not been established according to set standards and polices,” Inter-university Students’ Federation convenor Sanjeewa Bandara told University World News, adding that the federation would campaign with other student groups for Malabe to be shut down.

A large number of organisations have joined them, including the Federation of University Teachers' Associations, Ceylon Teacher Services Union, Socialist Students' Union, Government Dental Surgeons Association, Government Medical Officers’ Association, Doctors against Private Medical Colleges, and unions in the health and education sectors.

However, during the parliamentary debate, Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake defended the institution’s right to exist and said the solution to its problems did not lie in closing it down.

The minister said the college did not have the necessary approval to confer medical degrees. “But it has approval [to teach] health science.”

Higher Education Deputy Minister Nandimithra Ekanayake told parliament that 356 medical students were studying at the college, 44 of them children of doctors. “They are very talented students.

“These students would have gone abroad if this private medical college had not existed,” Ekanayake said, and so the institution “stopped the outflow of foreign exchange to other countries”.

However, Marxist Party member Ajith Kumara attacked Dissanayake for “appearing on behalf of private medical colleges”. Because of its new liberal economic policies, the government wanted to make higher education profitable. “For that, he [the minister] has to promote private universities,” Kumara said.

Dissanayake admitted shortcomings, but said they “could and should be corrected shortly”. He noted that India’s private Manipal University had “obtained land close to Colombo to initiate a medical college. They want to reserve 80% [of places] for foreign students and 20% for local students.”

Professor Neville Fernando, owner of the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine, said in a statement: “I have commenced building a 1,002-bed private hospital in Malabe in front of the present campus.

“This will be the largest private hospital in Sri Lanka and I intend to complete the building soon. Further, in this hospital I have decided to provide free treatment to people who earn low incomes.”