Govt’s proposals well directed to break SAITM deadlock - Prof. Carlo Fonseka | Sunday Observer

Govt’s proposals well directed to break SAITM deadlock - Prof. Carlo Fonseka

Amid continuous protests and controversy over the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM), Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) states that the Government’s latest proposals go a long way in the right direction to find a solution to the current deadlock. SAITM Management has also decided to cooperate with the Government’s policy decisions and suggestions by President Maithripala Sirisena. On the contrary, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) and the Medical Faculty Student Action Committee (MFSAC) who maintain a completely opposite view say, the recent decision by the Government to take over the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital (NFTH), Malabe would not be a solution to the issue unless the Government takes over the entire SAITM body or else abolish it completely.

At present, the Government has decided to take over the NFTH. The Minister of Higher Education and Highways Lakshman Kiriella had told the media that necessary documents have been signed by both, the Minister of Health, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and him to process the takeover of the private teaching hospital affiliated to SAITM. Minister Kiriella had told media that the Government expects to finalise the takeover of NFTH within two months adding that it takes time to implement policy decisions. The Government last month announced that the controversial teaching hospital of SAITM will be taken over by the Ministry of Health. As reported by media, the Health Ministry will initiate the proceedings to bring the NFTH under it and continue to run it as a Teaching Hospital. The Government has also requested the SAITM management to halt the enrolment of new students until the new policy decisions of the Government regarding the private medical college are implemented. These decisions include, the listing of SAITM in the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE), appointing a monitoring body to overview SAITM to ensure the standards and quality of medical education, nationalising the NFTH and increase the number of scholarships offered by private medical colleges.

Meanwhile, SAITM in a media release issued on Friday (May 19) said, the Management of SAITM will cooperate with the policy decisions presented by the Government and the suggestions made by President Maithripala Sirisena. Primarily, among these is the recommendation to broad-base the institute’s ownership by listing it on the CSE. Regarding the suggestion to suspend enrolment of new students, SAITM is willing to co-operate with the Government in order to facilitate the implementation of the said proposals expeditiously, subject to the court case now awaiting a Supreme Court decision. The Chairman and management is confident the Government will at all times protect the freedom for education in the country. SAITM will extend its fullest support to the Government’s efforts in maintaining quality and standards in medical education in Sri Lanka, across all medical faculties, state and non-state, sans discrimination.

SLMC Chairman, Prof. Carlo Fonseka told the Sunday Observer, it was only on Thursday (May 18) he got an official letter from the authorities setting out a possible approach to a solution. “We can go a long way along those lines. But, as you know, we are only concerned about the standards. We have no statutory power to deal with anything else such as taking over of hospitals or what the Government policy should be about the private sector role in education, etc. So what I can say on behalf of the Medical Council is that the latest proposals by the Government go a long way in the right direction for a solution. Also what the Government had sent on Thursday from the Presidential Secretariat goes a long way in meeting SLMC requirements,” he said.

Minimum requirements

GMOA Secretary Dr. Navin de Zoysa told the Sunday Observer, they have not changed their stance on SAITM. Even before the Appeal Court decision, we said SAITM doesn’t have the minimum requirements for medical education and therefore it is illegal. The present Ministers of Higher Education and Health also agreed with our stand. They published several newspaper articles, saying SAITM students should have to undergo further training at Homagama and Avissawella hospitals and sit another examination, and added that NFTH is going to be taken over by the Government and upgraded as a Teaching Hospital. They have to accept that the so called medical degree holders lack the capability to take care of patients. Unfortunately, Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella and Health Minister Dr.Rajitha Senaratne didn’t say it before the Appeal Court. Actually, they suppressed the facts before the court. Now they say SAITM students have to undergo training and sit an examination. It means the Government too concedes to our stance.

Dr. Zoysa said, President Maithripala Sirisena wants to sort out the issue. But, Health and Higher Education Ministers are trying their best to safeguard SAITM. SAITM and private medical education are two different issues. The GMOA is not for or totally against private medical education, it should be decided by the Government. But we can’t compromise our stand on the quality of private and Government medical education. SAITM is a different place which is illegal. They didn’t obtain SLMC and BOI approvals, nor do they have proper degree holding status. It is an unsolicited place, not an institute for private medical education, but an illegal and fraudulent institution. Therefore, this is an academic and financial fraud and they should be punished. Steps should be taken to nationalise this institution. We can consider students who have the minimum requirement to be a doctor, and consider how to provide a solution to them, but not to SAITM. Unfortunately, Minister of Health Dr.Rajitha Senaratne, Minister of Higher Education Lakshman Kiriella and State Minister of Higher Education Mohan Lal Grero all appear on behalf of SAITM. That is why we request the President to take a correct decision.

Meanwhile, Minister Kiriella in a recent interview with the Sunday Observer said, the incumbent Government is more committed than its predecessor and strongly believes the private sector has a role to play in the sphere of higher education and provide every incentive to make it a success. When this Government came into power, the first batch of students of SAITM had passed their final examination. So, we have an obligation towards these students because SAITM had been started by the previous Government. The Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) medical faculty too was started by the previous Government, but hardly a voice was raised against it. Minister Kiriella further said, even the former Government endorsed private education and it was during their tenure that SAITM was set up, and furthermore, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa allocated Rs.600 million for this educational project and nobody ever raised an eyebrow. In addition, Minister Senaratne had also told the media that once proper guidelines are established to administer SAITM, it would be made applicable to two other private medical colleges proposed to be set up by the Monash University in Australia and Manipal University in India.

Earlier, the Deans of medical faculties of eight universities had written to Minister Kiriella outlining suggestions to resolve the issue involving SAITM and the standards of medical education in the country. While stressing the need to mete out justice to the students currently studying at SAITM, the Deans of the medical faculties of Colombo, Ragama, Karapitiya, Rajrata, Batticaloa, Jaffna, Peradeniya and Sri Jayawardenepura universities pointed out that the SLMC has to be the authorized institution that would decide the standards of medical doctors and that its independence had to be safeguarded. They have also said, it was imperative for the Health Minister to present the minimum standards prepared by the SLMC for medical colleges in Sri Lanka, in Parliament for it to be legalised.

However, the Deans were of the view that enrolment of new students to SAITM should be temporarily suspended until the issue involving the private medical college is resolved.

Take over NFTH

Thousands of students of the IUSF along with students of Student Activists Committee of the Medical Faculty in Colombo defied a court order banning the protest, and marched through the streets of Colombo on Wednesday (May 18) demanding the Government to abolish SAITM. However, the Police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters when they approached Vihara Maha Devi Park. Eight students including a student monk were remanded until Friday (May 19) when the police produced them before the Colombo Chief Magistrate on Wednesday (May 18). IUSF Convener Lahiru Weerasekara told the Sunday Observer, the Government had presented some proposals. Our stance is that SAITM should be abolished. Otherwise, it would not provide a solution to the attempts to sell free education and free health service. The proposal put forward by the Government is to take over NFTH by the Government. We didn’t make such a request. By taking over NFTH, the Government would have to maintain a private hospital and its profits will be earned by Neville Fernando. We are not agreeable to this. At present, a decision has been taken to temporarily suspend enrolment of new students to SAITM. However, the very same day that the Government issued the notice, interviews were conducted to enrol students to SAITM. What the Government should do is, either abolish SAITM or fully take it over. The latest solution we propose is for the Government to take over SAITM entirely, not only NFTH. If only NFTH is taken over by the Government, they would have SAITM as a profit making venture. We will continue our demonstration campaigns against this. We have also decided to extend support to the joint trade union strike to be launched.

Convener of the Medical Faculty Student Action Committee Riyan Jayalath told the Sunday Observer, they are not accepting the take over of NFTH as a solution. At present, all public fronts are against SAITM. The only solution to the issue is to abolish SAITM. We are against SAITM because it is the leading project in the privatization of the free education policy of the Government. At present, the Government has signed agreements to set up private universities. For example, they have allocated a landscape in the Bandaragama area for a private university of the Manipal group. Foreign investors willing to invest in the educational field are waiting to establish a private university in Sri Lanka. Their aim is only profit. Now the Government wants to show proof that they have no objections for their investments in education to earn profits. So, they have to establish SAITM as an institute, giving degrees. Therefore, they don’t wish to abolish SAITM and are putting forward another solution. If NFTH is taken over by the Government, SAITM would belong to Neville Fernando. Therefore, our stance is to abolish SAITM. Since the issue is the privatisation of the free education system in Sri Lanka, it will lead to several social problems in the country. Therefore we do not accept that solution. Also, the doctors, deans of all medical faculties, university lecturers in medical faculties, IUSF and all the fronts are against this. It is a solution favourable to Neville Fernando.

President of Malabe Private Medical College Parents’ Collective, Gamunu Wijeratne told the Sunday Observer, the decisions taken by the Government on SAITM are very good. But, there is a necessity for a legal framework to implement those decisions. Even the Government had published a notice regarding this on May 15. A joint Cabinet Paper should be submitted by the Higher Education and Health Ministries seeking approval to implement these recommendations. Otherwise, it would be difficult to win the confidence of the GMOA or the SLMC and they would think we are hoodwinking them. In order to build the confidence of other sectors, the decisions taken by the Government should be legalised. The Government has also taken a decision to issue shares and appoint a monitoring body for this. However, it is a problem, as these recommendations have not yet been implemented. The Government cannot take a policy decision to nationalise a private institute like SAITM. If the Government would resort to such a course of action, no foreign investor will come to Sri Lanka. However, the President has taken a correct decision to issue shares and appoint a monitoring body. When the MBBS degree holding status is given to SAITM, the Higher Education Ministry will maintain 52 percent of its trust. This trust will function automatically when the shares are issued. Therefore, the Government will also have 52 percent trust.