Why anti-SAITM campaign was never about free education?

Last week, the government announced that the private medical school at the centre of a bitter dispute, South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) would be converted into a non-governmental and not-for-profit entity. That should have laid to rest a protest campaign that had regularly paralyzed health services and medical faculties in state universities and clogged streets in Colombo with protestors. However, it does not appear to be the case. The Medical Faculty Students’ Parents’ Association (MFSPA) has rejected the government’s solution. Its spokesman has said: “This institute will continue even in the future. The SAITM should be completely abolished and it should not be continued as any other institute as well.”

Similarly, the Medical Faculty Students’ Action Committee (MFSAC), which claims to represent the students of the state medical schools has claimed it would continue to boycott academic work. The purported reasoning is the same. Its convener Ryan Jayalath has said: “Through this decision, the ownership of the SAITM will be the only thing that would change. The ownership of it will be handed over to some other party. But the deceitful procedure of the SAITM will be continuing even in the future. The main issue here is the privatization of free education.”

The Medical Faculty Students’ Action Committee (MFSAC), which claims to represent the students of the state medical schools has claimed it would continue to boycott academic work

Anti-SAITM activism was built on the same rotten premise that has turned much of our universities into rotten places. It was not a campaign to preserve quality of medical education, or any education for that matter. It was ( and is) aimed at preventing anyone other than those few thousand students in state universities (whose numbers account for barely 16% of all students who passed the GCE Advanced Level and therefore eligible for university education), from getting an education. University deans and Vice chancellors who jumped the bandwagon might have genuine concerns about the standard of education. They have now accepted the government’s solution and asked students to resume studies.

Yet, all those stakeholders of the protest campaign were influenced by one shared buffoonery: the misplaced notion as the state universities being the pinnacle of intelligentsia. They ought to be, but they are not in reality. Admission for state universities is done through a mixture of merit basis (40 %) and district quotas. Given still existing socio-economic disparities across the country, it is the right thing to do in order to ensure a more egalitarian composition of the student intake. Yet, those socio-economic disparities leave certain caveats in the students, which cannot be addressed purely by cramming for exams. Universities are expected to fill in those gaps, before the young graduates are released back to the workforce. That does not happen. That manifest failure in universities creates a pervading sense of insecurity in the mind of students, who having been given a way up in the ladder through the affirmative actions, left abandoned in the middle. The source of regular unrest in universities should be traced to this sense of inadequacy and insecurity.

In order to keep these places calm, or at least to make sure that discontent would not spill out of gates, successive governments and university administrators have sought to maintain the status quo, which in effect has perpetuated mediocracy, and has given effect to a cycle of low productivity and under achievement in the wider economy.

When students talk about preserving free education, they actually mean about preserving their traditional privileges enabled by the prevailing status quo. Creating more competition from the outside the confines of state universities would mitigate their chances.

This however comes at the expense of a much larger cohort of young men and women who could not go to universities, yet equally bright, and perhaps are more endowed in certain social skills than an average university student. The latter is a function of social economic conditions, which is not unique to this country. Primary and secondary education has failed to address this lacuna not mainly due to much lamented unequal distribution of education resources in the country, but because they overemphasized on rote learning in vernacular language. A successful education system should try to inculcate those skills in their students, so that they would have a greater chance of mobility. Instead, ours is trying to keep away from education system, students who have such skills, so that lesser privileged students do not feel insecure. That is nonsense, but that is the whole logic of the campaign against private education. To escape this pernicious grip of state monopoly in higher education, about 8 per cent of local students leave the country to study abroad annually.

Consider the impact Sri Lankan universities could have on the quality of their intake, if they have a common sensical criterion to admit students who sit for London AL.

That is self-harming to the students in local universities as well, who would otherwise have a greater scope for socialization with a diverse bunch of people who will bring in with them different skills and outlook. Consider the impact Sri Lankan universities could have on the quality of their intake, if they have a common sensical criterion to admit students who sit for London AL. Such a lack of foresight in the administrators in a country where nearly half a million students are studying in international schools says a lot about the current mess in the local education system. Much vaunted six per cent of GDP to education is of little help, when you do not have the right structural framework and competent human capital- which universities should be able to address by opting to international recruitment. Modern universities are run like modern airlines, with vice chancellors befitting CEOs of multi nationals.

Anti-SAITM campaign was never about the quality of education ( if so why not talk about abysmally low international rankings of local universities). Nor was it about free education. It is a symptom of a larger failure in the current education system. Come SAITM or high water, university students would protest till the rot remains intact.

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