Tears, threats, anger : drive mixed emotions on SAITM issue | Sunday Observer

Tears, threats, anger : drive mixed emotions on SAITM issue

* SLMC to appeal against Appeal Court decision

In 2009, the South Asian Institute of Technology & Medicine started out as a twin-program, with one-half of its medical course conducted locally, and the rest abroad via a Russian university affiliated to the Institute. Today, the ‘green’ fee levying private medical college at Malabe founded by Dr Neville Fernando, a pioneer in private medical education in Sri Lanka, has turned into a simmering ground of confusion, anger and rage. SAITM students are angry that despite the recognition of their MBBS degree by the Ministry of Higher Education under the previous government, the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) has refused to recognize it. State university medical students are angry because they claim that the clinical training, lack of requisite facilities and staff at the Malabe university does not merit recognition as a university offering quality education for future medical doctors. Members of the Medical Faculty Students Action Committee ( MFSAC) have even gone to the extent of demanding SAITM be closed and saying that from its inception, SAITM was a ‘bad idea for Sri Lanka.’ Charging that there were only 200 patients in their private teaching hospital, the MFSAC argued that the clinical training given to the students was ‘ not good enough for the number of people studying there.’ The President of the Colombo Medical Faculty Students’ Union N.P.K Sampath has been quoted as reminding the SLMC that even though it did not recognize SAITM medical courses, a gazette had earlier been issued to give the Institute the ability to award degrees.


The hot air which bubbled from this controversial issue that brought students from both, the state universities and the private university to the battlefield began as peaceful street protests. However, at the time of writing this, those peaceful protests became increasingly violent. On Friday, 1,500 students from the Inter –Student Federation ( IUSF) staged a vehicle rally paralyzing Colombo-Fort, to ask the government to abolish SAITM. Tomorrow, ( Feb.20) the Government Medical Officers Association ( GMOA) will begin their protest rallies starting from UVA.

As accusations, rumours and misleading reports mount to fuel the rage of pro and anti SAITM faction, protests on both sides have ballooned into a simmering furnace, threatening to explode any time. With hardliners refusing to agree to a middle path solution, more coal has been added to the fiery cauldron.

“ It’s a gun fire situation,” an unnamed medical authority said describing the current SAITM problem to the Sunday Observer. “A speedy solution agreeable to all parties must be found soon. Or else this dangerous situation will be difficult to control. If that happens, there will be dire consequences on medical education in our country which has one of the highest standards in the world.”

Opinions of medical organizations

So how can an amicable solution be reached? What do leading medical bodies have to say on this controversial issue?


We first contacted the Sri Lanka Medical Association ( SLMA,) which is one of the oldest and most revered professional medical organizations in the country. When contacted by the Sunday Observer for her views on the SAITM issue, its President, Prof Chandrika Wijeyaratne, although understandably reluctant to speak, agreed to respond to our emailed questions. She noted that the SLMA was formulating a subcommittee of experienced medical personnel from all sectors of health to study the issue and report back to the Council, and a special emergency meeting had been convened yesterday ( Saturday 18) to discuss the matter, after which an official statement would be made to the public.

For the benefit of our readers, we reproduce the questions we asked and the answers she gave us via email:

Q: The Deans of eight medical faculties and Higher Education Ministry have agreed to submit several proposals to the administration of the private medical college at Malabe, including suspending admission of students temporarily, and further clinical training in several medical disciplines for those who have passed the final MBBS exam. They also have to pass a licensing exam conducted by the Sri Lanka Medical Council.

Does the SLMA go along with this decision?

A: This proposal is under review by our Council that is due to meet over the coming weekend, when we shall make an official statement to the public.

Q: Following discussions, the Higher Education Ministry and UGC also agreed to propose to the SAITM administration to suspend admission of medical students for 6 months until a periodic review of the medical degree program is conducted by the Higher Education Ministry. They also decided to propose that SAITM students who have passed the final MBBS exam must undergo a further period of clinical training in surgery, medicine, Gyn& Obs, and paediatrics, one month each, in a state hospital and the students must pass a licensing exam conducted by the SLMC.

Does the SLMA agree to this?

A: SLMA is a Professional Apolitical Association and not a trade union.

As such, we respect the decisions made by governing bodies that oversee educational processes and the quality of undergraduates and postgraduates in the best interests of society. Our call is that SLMC must be given statutory powers to regulate standards of medical education in Sri Lanka that requires amending the medical ordinance.

Q: On a broader perspective, what is the SLMA’s view on the whole question of medical education in Sri Lanka as it exists today? Should or shouldn’t it be more broad based to accommodate private universities ? Or should it be confined to the state medical colleges only?

A: As I said, we are in the process of discussing and deliberating on this, based on facts – keeping in mind that we must be both student centric and public centric.

We agree that the broader question on Medical Education, be it public or private, needs an indepth analysis of the current need for medical doctors per population and health priorities, that also takes into consideration that the quality of graduates produced, must be foremost.

We are formulating a subcommittee of experienced medical personnel from all sectors of health to study all aspects and report back to the Council of SLMA. I would be in a better position then, to answer your question on behalf of the SLMA.


The Government Medical Officers’ Association ( GMOA) one of the outspoken medical bodies in the forefront t of the anti SAITM protests, said at a press briefing Wednesday, the best solution would be for the government to take over SAITM. Listing several ‘holes’ in the SAITM university GMOA media spokesman Dr Navin de Soyza said, the university had been established by reversing the normal procedure where a teaching hospital was first set up, followed by the provision of medical faculties and staff, and finally, recruitment of students. “At Malabe, this procedure has been set up from the last step to the first”, he said.

In a telephone interview with the Sunday Observer, GMOA Assistant Secretary, Dr Haritha Aluthge said, the 19th article of the Parliament Act of 1927 clearly vested power with the SLMC to regulate medical educational institutes. “The first step is to recognize the role of the SLMC as the main executive body, which decides on the standards for medical education in our country and decides on matters regarding clinical training, etc”. On Friday, February 17, the GMOA handed an ultimatum to the Higher Education Minister, Lakshman Kiriella, telling him he should obtain a Compliance Certificate for SAITM from the SLMC. “ If you can’t do it, cancel the gazette notification issued by the Higher Education Ministry in the past, at the time of the former Minister S.B. Dissanayake. The current Higher Education Minister has the power to do so under the Universities Act No 16 of 1978”, he said.


Breaking its long silence Friday, the SLMC finally released its stance on the contentious issue after extensive discussions on several proposals made by the councillors . The SLMC Registrar, Terrence Gamini De Silva said, the Council had decided to file an appeal against the Appeal Court ruling, that SAITM MBBS graduates should be provisionally registered by the SLMC . The Appeals Court directed the SLMC last month, ( Jan 31) to give provisional registration to medical students passing out from SAITM. The decision was based on a writ petition filed by an MBBS medical graduate as the MBBS refused to register a batch of students who had passed from the Malabe University last year.

Independent observers

Earlier in the week, Professor Arujna Silva from the North Colombo Medical Faculty, speaking to the Sunday Observer, opined that registration by the SLMC was a necessary requisite for the private medical college students, adding that the SLMC approved the private medical college at the Kothalawela Academy as a ‘model’.

On loopholes in the present medical legislation he suggested that the solution lay in empowering the SLMC and introducing legislation to strengthen it..

SAITM parents

Meanwhile, SAITM’s Parents’ Society President P.M.B.K. Tennekoon has said at a press conference at the BMICH, that anyone who demanded SAITM MBBS degree holders to sit the Act 16 exam would be violating human rights . “They should respect the decision of the Court of Appeal on the SAITM, adding, the Judiciary will have to seriously consider the SLMC action.” Secretary, Private Medical College Parents’ Society and senior attorney at law, Anura Dharmaratne has also threatened the SLMC with court action. He has reportedly said, that the Health Minister had requested the President to appoint a Commission to take up the issue of SLMC’s refusal to register SAITM students.

Students’ voices

As students from both state and SAITM remain defiant, most also want a speedy solution to a problem that has disrupted their studies and put their careers on hold.

A SAITM student verbalizing the desperation and frustration of his colleagues told the |Sunday Observer, ‘ We are emotionally traumatized. All we want is to have our degrees recognized and get on with our lives. Why can’t the authorities see that?”

A state university student said, “We have no personal grudge against our fellow students at Malabe. Nor are we against a private medical college as such. But they must conform to the standards required by the SLMC.”

Future of SAITM students

So what of the future of the students at SAITM?

The way forward is for the authorities to speak with one voice. No amount of arguing, protesting and impulsive rash action will bring any fruitful results. A consensus of opinions by all stakeholders to send out a single clear message offering an amicable solution, agreeable to all is the need of the hour, several independent observers told the Sunday Observer. However, for this, certain procedures must be followed in admissions as set out by the SLMC, the sole authority for setting standards in medical education..

A proper regulatory authority for tertiary education should be established. And, SAITM must temporarily stop admitting new students.

It is heartening that President Maithrapala Sirisena has already taken the first step in this direction, when on Thursday, he appealed to members of student unions of the universities to exercise patience till solutions are found, without disrupting their academic activities. He said this during discussions with delegates of the University Student Unions on the SAITM issue.

Responding to his statement, GMOA Assistant Secretary, Dr Harith Aluthge responding said, “We appreciate this bold step by the President to discuss the issue with the students of the university student unions. We hope it will have fruitful results and bring this matter to a peaceful close.”

Meanwhile, SAITM Chairman Dr Neville Fernando has said, they were ready to co-operate and support the government’s future measures applicable to non state medical education. He has said that SAITM had the fullest confidence that the government and legal system will take all necessary measures to ensure SAITM students are treated fairly and given equal opportunity.

That said, we can only hope that this contentious issue will soon be resolved..

Leaving the flames of anger it has raised to smoulder indefinitely, could open the flood gates for university student unrest disrupting university medical education across the country.

Readers views are welcome .

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