Ending the SAITM impasse
Daily News Editorial
The recent Court verdict on the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) was crystal clear: The Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) should register those passing out from SAITM medical courses as doctors. There is room for an appeal, but the general direction of the verdict is clear enough – SAITM degrees have to be recognized by the relevant professional bodies.
The level of hostility displayed towards SAITM and its students by the medical fraternity, including Government medical students is somewhat surprising given that the very same segments did not utter a word when the previous Government started a medical faculty at the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDU).
It is also difficult to comprehend why medical studies have to be singled out for a different policy when many public and private educational institutions in Sri Lanka offer degree-level courses in practically all other sectors including engineering, the second most aspired for course among A/L students. No one has objected to these institutions or courses, some of which have existed for a couple of decades or more.
Cartoon from internet
Then there is the paradoxical situation of the SLMC recognizing medical graduates who have completed their studies abroad (e.g. in Russia or Nepal) after they pass the Act 16 Examination. The SLMC and the GMOA which have raised doubts about the efficacy of the SAITM seem to have accepted these overseas qualified graduates without questioning the quality of the facilities and teaching personnel at many lesser known overseas medical schools. On the other hand, the clinical and teaching facilities at Malabe-based SAITM can be inspected and any improvements can be suggested.
In the above paragraph we touched on an aspect that opponents of private universities rarely admit. Hundreds, if not thousands of Sri Lankan students enroll in foreign universities each year which results in a massive drain of foreign exchange. If Sri Lanka has enough high quality private universities to cater to the students who are unable to enter the state universities due to capacity constraints (only around 25,000 students can enter State universities per year), the Treasury can save millions of dollars. There is also the possibility of attracting students from other South Asian countries to private universities here, which can actually bring in foreign exchange.
Thousands of private universities exist around the world, including those offering degrees in medicine. We do not have to look far for inspiration – neighbouring India has around 250 private universities, with Rajasthan alone having 42. We indeed have a long way to go.
However, there is no question that private universities and indeed all private educational institutions including international schools have to be thoroughly regulated. This should not be a difficult process. If the GMOA and other medical bodies are truly interested in developing healthcare systems, they should cooperate with the Government to improve any alleged shortcomings in private medical education without launching trade union actions on this issue.
This Government has not been reluctant to admit that it is in favour of promoting private education which includes private universities. Judging by the comments made by the public in both the vernacular and English press, a majority of people seem to be in favour of private universities. The GMOA as a trade union should not agitate about a policy decision of the Government and a court order which seek to improve healthcare facilities. It is well known that GMOA doctors conveniently strike only during the working hours of Government hospitals – in the evenings, most of them can be found in their channeling consultation rooms in private hospitals. This gives the distinct impression that they do not care for the poor and innocent people who come to Government hospitals for treatment.
The doctors must bear in mind the fact that these very same people have paid for their free medical education through duties and taxes. Indeed, it is pathetic that most university students and professionals do not value “free” education as they do not have to pay for it. This is human nature – people tend to value things they actually pay for. But there is nothing called a free lunch – all Sri Lankans, from the farmer in the field to the domestic worker in the Middle East pay for free education.
The Government medical students’ behaviour on the roads last week cannot be condoned. They do have a democratic right to protest, but they should not inconvenience the public. Traffic was held up on rush hour, with people having to wait in cars and buses. The medical students also exhibited their darker side, hooting at the police. The public expects higher moral standards from the would-be doctors – in this country, the medical profession is held in high regard. However, incidents of this nature can erode that feeling of respect.
We are now nearing the third decade of the 21st century and it is time to discard certain archaic notions about education, which is a dynamic field that needs private sector participation. Both the Government and the private sector have a role to play, separately and together, to take education to greater heights.