A strike launched by government doctors, members of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union and some railway workers was on at the time of writing. They demanded that the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) be taken over by the government, moves to scrap the non-contributory pension scheme abandoned and a national policy formulated for international trade pacts. Their real goal, however, is the nationalisation of the SAITM.
The issue is now before courts and it is best left to the learned judges. Ours is only an attempt to discuss the hypocrisy of the proponents and the opponents of private medical education etc. Suffice it to say that the SAITM is not driven by altruism; it is a business venture like any other private educational institute. Similarly, the warring doctors are not telling us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They are trying to safeguard their interests. The same goes for the ultra radical political forces opposed to private medical education. The national universities provide them with a fertile recruiting ground and they fear that the government is trying to drain the swamp by helping set up private universities.
The reason given by the strikers for their call for the takeover of the SAITM is that its medical degree programme is not up to the mark and poses a threat to free education and its products may endanger the lives of patients. The SAITM has denied these allegations as baseless. The proponents of private medical colleges demand to know what the stipulated standards of medical education really are. The onus is on their critics to make public those standards, if any.
It is not only badly trained doctors who pose a threat to the public. The number of people killed in road accidents daily averages seven and the mushrooming driving schools which churn out badly trained drivers are blamed for this tragic situation. But, nobody strikes, demanding action against the errant driver trainers. Why?
If private medical colleges pose a threat to free education then, logically, it must be true that private hospitals are a threat to the free health care system. But, there have been no protests against the ever increasing number of private hospitals. Why? Private hospitals and channelling centres have come into being as the state cannot cope with the increasing demand for health care in the public sector. Similarly, private educational institutions including international schools, private degree-awarding institutes and branches of foreign universities have emerged because the state has failed to provide university education to each and every student who qualifies for higher education. So, how can anyone justify protesting against private universities, claiming to protect free education while ignoring or, benefiting from, private hospitals and channeling centres?
The SAITM was established under the Rajapaksa government, which defended it to the hilt. Now, the Joint Opposition (JO), whose de facto leader is former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is campaigning against the SAITM. It is using the SAITM issue as a bludgeon to beat the incumbent government with to gain some political mileage. Will it reveal to the public what it intends to do with the SAITM in case of capturing power?
The present government has sought to bulldoze its way through as regards the SAITM issue. Its ministers insult the protesting doctors and make public statements that they will set up more private universities come what may. They are only making an already bad situation worse.
The yahapalana politicians also lament that so many students who pass the GCE A/L examination and qualify for higher education are left out as the state-run universities cannot accommodate them for want of resources. This fact, they are using in a bid to justify their decision to permit the establishment of private universities. If they really feel for those unfortunate students they ought to allocate more funds for developing the existing universities and setting up new ones. They ought to get their priorities right and cut down on wasteful expenditure. Their failure to do so has only lent credence to the claim by the opponents of private degree awarding institutes that a sinister attempt is being made to let the national universities wither on the vine.
What has made the SAITIM issue so intractable is the hypocrisy of its intransigent stakeholders who seek to advance their hidden agendas on the pretext of safeguarding public interest. The judiciary can only examine the legal aspects of the issue and give a fair ruling, but a permanent solution will require the stakeholders to reach middle ground without shifting the goalposts and bellowing rhetoric