Row over private medical college escalates

Medical doctors, students and unions have been demonstrating against a Sri Lanka Health Ministry decision to allow students from a new private medical college to receive clinical training at government hospitals, which could pave the way for more private institutions to benefit from the public health system. On one occasion last week the protests turned violent.

The ministry’s decision came after a group of students at Malabe Private Medical College, situated in a suburb of the capital Colombo, filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court asking for clinical training at government hospitals from which they had previously been barred due to heavy pressure from state university students unions.

Students unions, along with doctors, public university lecturers and trade unions called on the government to close down the private college and stop higher education privatisation, and took to the streets in a number of protests.

On 21 October, more than 5,000 students from universities all over the country launched a massive protest march. The students, wielding placards and shouting slogans, tried to reach the parliamentary complex in the capital, considered a high security zone.

However, anti-riot police fired tear gas and used water cannons to stop the march before it reached parliament, resulting in 12 students being hospitalised, two of them with broken legs.

The previous week, on 13 October, the doctors' trade union held a protest march and demanded that the government take over the private college.

Private vs public facilities

The South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine or SAITM – commonly known as Malabe Private Medical College – is a branch of a Russian university, conferring Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy degrees.

It recently established a 1002-bed private teaching hospital for student clinical training – currently the first private teaching hospital and the largest private hospital in Sri Lanka.

President of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, Joseph Stalin, said SAITM had misled its own students. “SAITM fooled students and parents from the very beginning, claiming it has Sri Lanka Medical Council approval and clinical training in government hospitals,” Stalin said.

“If there is a hospital for this private medical facility, why did some of the students go to court seeking clinical training in government hospitals? SAITM is the only medical faculty in the world that started without having a teaching hospital of its own,” Stalin said.

The medical college had been controversial from the beginning, said Najith Indika, convener of the Inter University Students’ Federation or IUSF, referring to similar rows sparked off in 2011 when the government granted the institution degree-awarding status.

“They don’t have proper approvals and legal documentations and they do not maintain standards of medical colleges,” Indika said, referring to previous controversies over the institution debated in Sri Lanka’s parliament.

SAITM chair Dr Neville Fernando described the opposition as “malicious propaganda” by groups with vested interests intending discredit his institution.

“The reason for SAITM asking limited access to clinical training in state hospitals was to maintain standards, because exposure could not be given in private healthcare facilities in respect of the national immunisation programmes and clinical aspects of forensic medicine,” Fernando said.

Widening gap

But the protests and subsequent police action are being seen as the result of a widening gap between the government and public opinion on private universities.

Amnesty International raised concern over the police crackdown on students protesting near parliament, saying it appeared to be an escalating effort by officials to curb student activism.

The response of Sri Lanka’s Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake was that a “responsible human rights group like Amnesty International” must first study the Sri Lankan university system and be fully aware of the background.

“If they just issue statements they will become a joke and lose credibility. People like this who make irresponsible statements must be given a good knock on the head,” the minister was quoted as saying by the online edition of Colombo Gazette.

Two human rights organisations in Sri Lanka, the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, CaFFE, and the Center for Human Rights and Research, CHR, strongly condemned the police attack on the students near parliament.

“The right to protest is a universally accepted right and CaFFE and CHR do not believe that the voice of dissenting students could be suppressed with tear gas and water cannons,” they said in a joint statement.

The message also expressed concern about recent developments in universities, and the increasing gap between students and university regulatory authorities and the Ministry of Higher Education.

“The aggressive attitude of the minister of higher education is also extremely unsuitable for resolving issues,” they said.

The government is planning more international universities including medical colleges, offering land and tax breaks to foreign investors. The aim is to attract international universities and build the country into a higher education hub in Asia.