Private universities may ‘bypass’ professional bodies

A decision by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Higher Education to allow private universities to offer degrees, including medical qualifications, without seeking the approval of professional bodies has sparked a row with major professional groups.

Doctors, lecturers, students, trade unions and bodies including the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka, Government Medical Officers’ Association and the Sri Lanka Medical Council, or SLMC, have called on the ministry to withdraw the official gazette notification issued last week.

The ministry issued an extra-parliamentary amendment to the 1978 University Act through an administrative ‘Extraordinary Gazette’ that would allow private universities offering medicine, engineering and architecture degrees to award qualifications without having to conform to their professional bodies’ standards.

Without informing the relevant stakeholders, the ministry issued the gazette notification dated 31 January, making it optional for private institutions to comply with certification standards set by professional bodies.


The SLMC, which is responsible for the registration of all medical doctors, is vested by a special act of parliament with the power to maintain a code of ethics and organise the medical profession.

It issued a statement saying it was “gravely concerned” about the amendment that would in effect allow students who complete medical degrees in private universities to practise as doctors without registering with the medical council.

SLMC President Professor Carlo Fonseka said it was currently illegal to practise medicine without SLMC registration, and added that he had taken up the issue with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to inform him of “the serious consequences that will arise”.

The Government Medical Officers’ Association or GMOA – the doctors’ union – said the move would adversely affect medical education and the health sector.

“At the moment, any person who obtains MBBS [medical degree] from a foreign university or private university should pass an examination to practise as a doctor in Sri Lanka. The SLMC should reveal whether graduates who qualified from private universities can practise as doctors without passing the examination," said committee member Navin de Soyza.

Last week Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake appointed his eldest son Narada Dissanayake as the secretary of a Quality Assurance and Accreditation Committee, or QAAC, which is responsible for monitoring all private degree-awarding institutions in Sri Lanka.

The committee’s main task is to assess applications from institutions seeking degree-awarding status and review the standard and quality of both private and public institutions and their programmes of study.

President of the Federation of University Teachers' Associations, FUTA, Chandragupta Thenuwara, condemned the appointment and said FUTA hoped to meet the higher education ministry secretary to discuss the Private Universities Act and the appointment of the minister’s son.

“We are not happy with the amendment and appointment and we hope to express our views to the ministry during the meeting scheduled with the ministry secretary next week,” he said.

Sri Lanka’s major students union also vowed to fight the amendment to the Universities Act. Inter University Students' Federation Convener Indika Nayanajith said the government was trying to “sell” medical degrees and destroy free education in the country.

The ministry has made several attempts to allow private medical degree providers and foreign universities to set up campuses.

In 2012, Sri Lankan medical practitioners threatened strike action in an escalating row with the government after it granted degree-awarding status to Malabe Private Medical College, established as a branch of a Russian university.

In January 2012, the ministry had to withdraw a proposed private universities bill after resistance from students and lecturers.

To circumvent such opposition, the government last year set up ‘free investment zones’ for education, offering land and tax breaks to attract international universities and build the country into a higher education hub in Asia.