Government seizes control of private teaching hospital

The government has approved a proposal made by the higher education and health ministers to take over a private medical teaching hospital affiliated to the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine or SAITM Malabe campus – the country’s first private medical college.

The decision to nationalise the 1002-bed Dr Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital – the first private teaching hospital and one of the largest private hospitals in Sri Lanka – followed a doctors’ strike and demonstrations by students which turned violent.

The protesters were demanding the closure of Malabe SAITM, seeing it as a threat to free public education.

In one clash 91 students were injured during a baton attack by police, in what is considered the most violent political protest under the current government, formed after the unseating of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in January 2015.

The government has not moved against Malabe SAITM, but its own members have voiced serious reservations about the mission of the teaching hospital. In March Deputy Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine Faizel Mohammed told Parliament that the Dr Neville Fernando Hospital was not a teaching hospital and did not have permission to function as a teaching hospital.

The transfer of the hospital to government control without any additional cost has been agreed upon by both parties. The owner of the hospital, Dr Neville Fernando, told the media he had agreed to transfer the ownership of the hospital – estimated to be valued at US$23 million – to the government on 15 July without any reimbursement in order to put an end to the controversy.

The SAITM – commonly known as Malabe Private Medical College – is the first private medical college in Sri Lanka awarding medical degrees and has been surrounded by controversy since it was established in 2009 but was ruled legal in court and will be allowed to continue to function as a private medical college under the full supervision of the government.

The government is confident that the SAITM issue will be resolved with the hospital take-over. According to Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella, several foreign universities, including India’s private Manipal University, have also expressed a willingness to establish campuses in the country.

After the take-over

After the take-over, the Dr Neville Fernando Hospital will continue to operate as a teaching hospital under the health ministry, providing a free medical service to the general public. Additionally, SAITM students will be given clinical training in the areas of surgery, medicine, gynaecology and obstetrics, psychiatry and paediatrics.

More than 6,000 medical undergraduates of state universities across Sri Lanka have been boycotting lectures since a court ruled in February that SAITM is operating legally.

Government hospitals in Sri Lanka were forced to a standstill for three days as doctors went on strike condemning the police attack on university students and demanding that the government shut down SAITM medical college.

The Sri Lanka police launched the baton attack after students forced their way into the health ministry building in Colombo. During the clash, 91 university students sustained injuries, mostly head injuries, including female and Buddhist students. In addition, six policemen were injured.

So far police have arrested five students including Inter University Students' Federation Convener Lahiru Weerasekara.

The Federation of University Teachers’ Association condemned the attack on the protesting university students and urged the government to resolve the SAITM issue.

The government is now set to begin talks with all related parties to solve the SAITM issue and requests all university students who have been boycotting lectures for over four months to attend their lectures.

The government will be consulting on whether to allow 49% of SAITM to be controlled through a trust fund or as a public private partnership or through the stock exchange, while 51% of ownership is held by government.

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.

The government has given tax incentives to allow foreign private universities to operate in Sri Lanka.