Government abolishes first private medical campus

In a sharp U-turn, the Sri Lankan government has decided to support a recommendation to abolish a controversial private medical college at the centre of a long-running dispute.

As a result, new admissions have been suspended for the South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine or SAITM – commonly known as Malabe Private Medical College – which is Sri Lanka’s first private medical university, situated close to the capital, Colombo.

The decision came after months of protests and strikes by university students' unions, doctors' unions, parents and other trade unions. Buddhist leaders and powerful government ministers also urged the president to resolve this issue.

In February this year a landmark court judgment ruled that the SAITM was legally eligible to issue medical degrees. The decision was a green light for the government to allow private universities to award degrees. But more than 6,000 state medical university students have been boycotting lectures since the decision.

Seeking a solution for the SAITM issue, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena last month appointed a special committee.

The committee released a report suggesting that Malabe SAITM campus’s medical faculty, which is owned by Dr Neville Fernando, should be abolished and converted into a non-profitable institute. The new institution will be under the supervision of the Higher Education Ministry and University Grants Commission.

The committee has proposed that assets, liabilities, staff and students of SAITM be transferred to a non-state, not-for-profit degree-awarding entity that will comply with the minimum standards on medical education and training.

Students currently studying there will be allowed to continue their medical education in the proposed new institution.

Presidential committee member Minister Dr Harsha De Silva said that government supports the proposed solution and has already consulted several non-state, not-for-profit entities with the objective of establishing the proposed not-for-profit entity for the SAITM campus.

The sudden decision came while government was paving the way for private universities to operate. The former finance minister Ravi Karunanayake, during a budget speech in parliament, proposed tax incentives to allow foreign private universities to operate in Sri Lanka. Also, the government is in discussion with several foreign universities, including India’s private Manipal University, to establish branch campuses in the country.

Although the government is confident that the SAITM issue will be resolved with this proposal, it seems the anti-SAITM campaign is not satisfied with the decision. Previously, the government addressed the problem by taking-over SAITM campus’s teaching hospital.

With the Inter University Students’ Federation or IUSF Convener Lahiru Weerasekara remanded over damaging public property during a protest march, University World News contacted Acting Convener Mangala Maddumage. He said that they will continue their struggle against the SAITM and the privatisation of education as this solution represented only a change in management and was therefore an attempt to mislead the public.

The doctors' union, the Government Medical Officers' Association or GMOA, said it is happy because the government has shown flexibility in its response to their demands but the new institution should maintain proper standards and quality.

After its executive committee meeting, GMOA said there are a few things to clarify and they hope to meet the president in the near future.

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

The presidential committee report was drawn up after it considered the recommendations made by numerous stakeholder groups, including the deans of faculties of medicine of all state universities.

A female student at SAITM, who did not want to be named, told University World News: “I hope this will be the final, final decision. All other students are likely to be happy with the decision. I hope this won't drag more. As no one wants to stay here beyond 5½ years,” she said.

Another student, who also wished not to be named, told University World News: “I think it sounds fair to all parties. I am very sad to hear that IUSF [the state university students’ union] and GMOA [the doctors’ union] do not agree with even this solution.

“After hearing the news initially some students were shocked, but most came to realise this is not going to deprive them of their education.”

SAITM students’ parents’ union member Gamini Jayasinghe said they were happy with the government solution but that the government must protect and secure the students’ educational future.

Minimum standards

The presidential committee also recommended that the Ministry of Health should gazette and place before parliament the agreed Minimum Standards for Medical Education and Training based on the draft submitted by the Sri Lanka Medical Council.

The government proposal to abolish the college should be implemented in a manner legally acceptable to the current shareholders, it said. Current shareholders of SAITM shall not participate in the ownership or management of the new entity.

Minister De Silva said that they expect to appoint another committee of high-level officials to coordinate the implementation of the recommendations, with the entire process due to be completed by 31 December this year.

The committee has urged all parties to cooperate to ensure the implementation of its proposed solution, to cease disruptions to the smooth functioning of universities and especially to provide an opportunity to students to return for education.

Issuing an official statement last Monday, SAITM management said that the government proposals needed to be discussed at length with all.

Also, the management hoped that SAITM graduates would be given provisional registration, subject to court proceedings and that the current students’ education would continue without any disruption to their studies.

SAITM management noted positively that the vision of SAITM's founder, Dr Neville Fernando, to produce good-quality non-state doctors would continue despite enormous opposition from various political and other parties with vested interests.