Green light for foreign universities after court ruling

The Sri Lankan government received the green light to allow private universities after a landmark court judgment last week ruled that the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine or SAITM – the country’s first private medical university – is legally eligible to issue medical degrees.

The court decision followed a long dispute, and protests and strikes by public university student unions and doctor unions. Students were injured and 21 arrested during another march on Thursday.

In a verdict announced on 30 January, the Sri Lankan Appellate Court directed the Sri Lanka Medical Council to provide provisional registration as medical practitioners to students graduating from SAITM in Malabe, which is close to the capital Colombo.

The ruling came after a writ was filed by MBBS students of the private university, when the Sri Lanka Medical Council refused to register a batch of its graduates.

Government delighted

Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne hailed the verdict. He said the country needed private medical universities as it was practically difficult for state universities to provide opportunities for all students.

According to Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella, several foreign universities are closely monitoring the SAITM case with a view to setting up branches in Sri Lanka.

Institutions such as India’s private Manipal University have expressed a willingness to establish campuses in the country.

Kiriella said before the verdict that the government could save millions of rupees annually by allowing 10 to 15 private medical universities to be created. The concept of free higher education would not be hindered by the establishment of private institutions, he said.

During a budget speech in parliament last November, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake proposed tax incentives to allow foreign private universities to operate in Sri Lanka.

“Much foreign exchange has been flowing out to finance the foreign education of our students for a long time. The flow of foreign exchange must be reversed,” Karunanayake said.

“In fact, given our capacities in the sector we should now encourage foreign students to study in Sri Lanka and thereby attract foreign exchange. Sri Lanka has the potential to become an educational hub.”

Every year more than 12,000 Sri Lankan students go abroad for higher education, taking more than US$400 million in foreign exchange out of the country, according to official figures.

Protests continue

SAITM students and their parents welcomed the court verdict, but protests against the university are likely to continue.

Doctors in Sri Lanka have threatened island-wide strike action beginning next week. From the beginning, doctor unions have opposed the institution.

In the eight years since SAITM was established, medics, lecturers, students and trade unions have taken to the streets demanding that the government close it down, arguing that the private institution is a threat to free public education.

After the verdict, students of state universities, led by the Inter University Students' Federation – a Marxist party JVP-affiliated student union – staged a protest march last Thursday in Colombo, demanding that SAITM be closed.

Police deployed tear gas and water cannons during the 2 February protest. Three students were hospitalised and some 21 students, including medical students, were arrested.

Doctors launched an island-wide four-hour token strike to condemn the attack on students and demanded the release of those arrested.

The Government Medical Officers’ Association has said it will take “stern action” against the court order.

Several attempts by the previous government of Mahinda Rajapaksa to create 'free investment zones', which would include private universities, and a bill to set up private universities, failed due to huge student resistance.