Victory for education

Daily News Editorial

Finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the issue concerning the South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine, popularly known as SAITM. There were two schools of thought with regard to SAITM – some argued that it should continue as a private higher educational institution while others called for either its abolition or a Government takeover.

Despite attempts by the Joint Opposition and some others to portray the SAITM as a baby of the present Yahapalana Government, it came into existence during the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who even ensured funding for its academic activities. His Government even provided scholarships for a number of students to study at SAITM. In fact, it is JO firebrand Dinesh Gunawardena himself who presented the SAITM legislation in Parliament. Many organisations that oppose the SAITM tooth and nail now maintained a deafening silence then.

However, that did not mean that the new Government could wash its hands off the matter. To its eternal credit, it confronted the issue head-on and maintained a healthy dialogue with all concerned parties including the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC), student unions, parents and students of State universities as well as those of SAITM. Accordingly, a Presidential Committee was appointed to resolve issues related to SAITM. As a first step towards an eventual solution, the Government took over the Dr. Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital in Malabe with the fullest cooperation and consent of Dr. Fernando.

The same committee has now recommended abolishing the SAITM Medical Faculty and establishing a not-for-profit Institute under the supervision of the Higher Education Ministry for its operations and management. The Government Information Department in a press statement disclosed the eight-point recommendations of the Committee headed by Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva on SAITM.

The Committee’s proposals are aimed at a permanent solution to the long-drawn issue of the SAITM and its medical degree. With the abolition of SAITM, the profit oriented entity owned and managed by Dr. Neville Fernando and family will cease to exist. The Committee has specifically stated that the current shareholders of SAITM shall not participate in the ownership or management of the new entity.

This is certainly a step in the right direction. With the profit motive gone and new standards of admission implemented, no one should harbour unfounded fears over the suitability of graduates produced by the institution that would replace SAITM. According to the proposals, the assets, liabilities, staff and students of SAITM shall be transferred to a non-state, not-for-profit making degree awarding entity that will comply with the minimum standards on Medical Education and Training.

The Government has already consulted several already established non-state, not-for-profit entities with the objective of establishing the proposed not-for-profit entity for this purpose. The new entity will recognise all students currently enrolled at SAITM, who possess the required entry qualifications and an opportunity will be afforded to these students to continue medical education in the proposed new institution.

Since much time has already been wasted on this issue, the Government has declared that this entire process shall be mandatorily completed by December 31, 2017. Indeed, delaying the process any further would be a massive injustice to all university students, whose academic activities have already been hampered for months due to the activities of anti-SAITM political organisations with vested interests.

No solution can entirely satisfy all parties, but this seems to be a very reasonable and effective proposal that should be given a chance. Even the bitterest critics of SAITM have agreed in principle that private higher educational institutions should function to address the massive imbalance caused by the lack of opportunities for students who fail to gain admission to State universities. After all, there has been virtually no opposition to the hundreds of other private higher educational institutions that offer degree courses in everything from engineering to agriculture.

The critics’ point, not entirely unreasonable, is that since doctors literally have the patients’ lives in their hands, they must be duly qualified to enter the profession from the very foundation of their studies. There is, for example, a clear knowledge gap between someone who has three simple passes at the A/Ls and another who has two As and one B. With the imminent establishment of minimum standards for medical education, public or private, the Government is set to address this concern. We hope that the critics including the GMOA will in turn appreciate this move.

Millions of dollars in foreign exchange flow to foreign universities as a result of Lankan students going abroad for studies. At least a part of these funds can be saved if there are more private universities here, which will also attract regional students and actually earn foreign exchange. We cannot afford to be confined to medieval thinking since other countries in the SAARC region and Asia have already overtaken us in the sphere of private higher education. If the Government’s Vision 2025 Programme is to succeed, we cannot afford to lag behind in education, a vital catalyst for development.