Private Education and Fundamental Rights Issues come to the fore again | Sunday Observer

Private Education and Fundamental Rights Issues come to the fore again

GMOA induced protest
GMOA induced protest

The World Economic Forum website, carries an article titled ‘Three responsibilities every government has towards its citizens’; where the writer Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America says, that a government of a nation has three key roles to play i.e. protect citizens from violence, provide goods and services, and thirdly and primarily be an investor in education.

According to the CEO of New America, a think ​and action ​tank dedicated to renewing America in the Digital Age, while the first two roles of government, to protect and provide would involve taxes to fund, training and equipping an army and police force; to build courts and jails and to provide the means for basic economic infrastructure of human connectivity such as roads, bridges and ports of all kinds etc.; the third and primarily important role of a government is to be an investor.

Slaughter quotes Technology reporter Gregory Ferenstein, who has said that a government needs to be an investor in citizens, rather than act as a protector from capitalism and heavily fund education and encourage more active citizenship. She emphasizes that the most important priority of a government as investor is education; albeit education, that is cradle-to-grave.

The first five years are particularly essential, as the brain development in those years determines how well children will be able to learn and process what they learn for the rest of their lives. She says that the government will thus have to invest in an entire infrastructure of child development from pregnancy through to the beginning of formal schooling, including child nutrition and health, parenting classes, home visits and developmentally appropriate early education programs. “The teenage years are another period of brain development where special programs, coaching and family support are likely to be needed. Investment in education will fall on barren ground if brains are not capable of receiving and absorbing it. Moreover, meaningful opportunities for continuing education must be available to citizens over the course of their lives, as jobs change rapidly and the acquisition of knowledge accelerates.”


Although this might be the requirement, it is well known that the business of government is complicated. Some may even argue that this is not America so the same rules don’t apply; but then, do the basic responsibilities of government differ whether it is in America or little Sri Lanka? It is necessary for the government to protect, provide, and more importantly to invest in education.

In terms of the government of Sri Lanka as an investor in education, successive governments may say that this matter has been amply handled, with free education system coming into play, from about the time of independence to the present day. In terms of levelling the playing fields, they would say the methods of standardization have been working for several decades now.

However, standardization by itself does not really help to raise the bar; in fact, it pulls everything down to the lowest common denominator. What would have sounded like a great solution in the years immediately after independence, now stands only as an impediment to our national progress. As Slaughter’s article in the World Economic Forum website points out, meaningful opportunity for continuing education must be available to all citizens as situations and opportunities are changing.

Double standards

Patients suffer due to GMOA strike

Having a system which is over 50 years old and believing that it will work in this new world is a case of living in a fool’s paradise. It is the same as the GMOA sticking to its guns on not wanting private colleges for medical education. In fact, this stance is something that has to be carefully analyzed, especially, in the light of Sri Lanka’s Constitution which says, gives the “assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels.”

An open letter written by a student who is currently awaiting her A/L results reminds us of this very right. The letter sent to the media is addressed to the two lead ministers dealing with the current SAITM issue.

As a student who has done science subjects for her A/Ls, she writes that SAITM stood as a ray of hope for students like her since only about 10 - 20 percent out of the 150,000 hopefuls who sit their A/Ls qualify to enter state universities every year. She says, “All my life, I had this hope of becoming a doctor. I am a student who got 9As for my O/Ls. But while I was studying for my A/Ls, I had one question in mind, and that is, whether I would make the grade to enter medical college?”

Something this student and no doubt others in her shoes are extremely worried about is the ‘Z’ score which will act as a deciding factor more than their results. She writes, “I was born in Colombo and went to school in Colombo, and I know that the ‘Z score’ will have an impact on the marks I get. I know that it would be the sole deciding point on whether I get into a state university or not.”

Students’ concerns

She asks if it is fair to penalize her because her parents lived and worked in Colombo and questions her constitutional rights to achieve the goal she has worked so hard towards. She says “In the past there was one other alternative and I think my parents would have managed to get the finances to send me to the private medical college if the Z-score disqualified me. But now that door is closed. In our studies we have learnt about the Constitution and how it protects our rights and foremost of them is the right to education. But that right is denied by a standardization that has been put in place that clearly is not my fault.”

Among the many concerns this student has, is the question as to why the GMOA doctors are against the not-for-profit formula for private medical education which she says may have been affordable to her. She asks, “Who is going to give us kids a solution to this problem? Don’t we have a right to be equal citizens of this country?”

Probably, a question that must be resounding in the minds of thousands of students in her situation and without a doubt the hundreds of SAITM students waiting to pass out as doctors.

The SAITM issue undoubtedly, has become a big question mark for the education policy of this country. Government medical officers feel that private colleges can only serve to bring down the standards of medical education and believe this to be a cause worth taking on. And that cause is to seek exclusivity in the way A/L students choose their career paths. Critically analyzing it, this is not the way democracy works as there is no good mechanism or level playing field employed. In reality, private education is the only way to mitigate the negatives of the Z score and if this is removed from the equation, it threatens the very core of a citizen’s fundamental rights.

Pyrrhic victory ?

Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya, President of the GMOA, recently asked the question by an English newspaper whether he considered the government’s decision to abolish SAITM a victory, replied that it was a ‘pyrrhic victory’ i.e. won at too great a cost to have been worthwhile for the victor. “We highlighted the damage SAITM can induce to the health sector as well as the medical education of the country in 2010. But, the recommendation and the decision to abolish the institution came about after 7 years of our hard work. We have lost so much and have made a lot of sacrifice on our journey to abolish SAITM. The damage could have been averted if the authorities had given ear to us from the beginning, hence it is difficult to accept the decision to abolish SAITM as a victory.”

If it was a victory, pyrrhic or otherwise, why then is the GMOA agitating yet again? Dr Aluthge of the GMOA has said they were not in favour of not for profit universities, and the reason he gives is that although the US has approximately 1,000 not for profit making private medical colleges, only 55 percent of the 2.7 million students enrolled in them get to graduate. Therefore, intellectuals feel the formula was not a success because the standards of those institutions were questionable.

This is indeed strange because the GMOA seems to be shifting the goal post as and when they see fit. Because, the way anyone would see it (intellectual or otherwise) the standards must be very high if the graduation numbers are that low. Is a Harvard medical degree easily obtained? On the flip side, is the Z score which anyway lowers the standards of the quality of students who enter local state universities, a way of raising the bar?

Be that as it may, it is disturbing that these doctors are taking it upon themselves to meddle in things that are not their business. In matters like this, making policy is the job of a democratically elected government.

There are larger issues that a government has to look into. If we are to go by the latest trends, the government is putting the final touches to the liberalization of Sri Lanka’s economy to ensure it is in tune with the world at large. If that be the case, medical education could not be treated as the exclusive property of the GMOA.

Inward thinking

With Sri Lanka’s plans to create a hub for education and medical tourism, the GMOA’s inward thinking policies cannot take the country forward. State institutions do not have a monopoly on education and this has to be clearly understood by all parties concerned. If Engineering, Arts, Commerce and Design have been liberalized, why not medical education?

The Modern Hippocratic oath says “I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.” But in the case of the GMOA, it looks like they are selective, and do not believe in sharing their knowledge with all those who want to follow. The emphasis being on all!!

If it is a case of them being misguided on matters of policy, they can be allowed the liberty of being confused, as understanding policy is not their day job. But on the other hand, it is the business of the government to dictate policy and look at the macro picture.

The incumbent is a national government who cannot only be thinking of pleasing some of the people all of the time or all the people some of the time. Their goal, though daunting it may be, should be to look at pleasing all of the people all of the time!! Students who are penalized by the Z score may look like they are the minority, but they are still the responsibility of a democratically elected government. If there is no solution for them within the state education sector, there has to be an alternative for them in private institutions in all streams. That is their constitutional and fundamental right.

Therefore, if the Sri Lankan government is to be an investor who provides meaningful opportunities for continuing education to all citizens over the course of their lives, they need to keep the channels which make this possible open.


​The government has already appointed a high-powered committee to look into the SAITM issue and formulate a solution acceptable to everyone. It was clear, from the outset, that the government was moving in the direction of converting SAITM into a not-for-profit university, within the government ‘s regulatory framework and with the participation of the private sector. That seemed to be an acceptable solution to everyone and many parties, including the GMOA, indicated that they would support the initiative.

Parallel to this attempt, the Frontline Socialist Party, the political movement which controls the Inter-University Students Federation also held a public meeting, declaring war on the government. They said the government was going to operate SAITM in the guise of a not-for-profit institution. They threatened to take to the streets again to oppose this attempt.

One has to understand that the medical students of state universities, who boycotted their lectures for nearly a year, have now returned to their faculties to continue academic work.After a tumultuous year, normalcy is slowly returning to the state university system while the government works with all stakeholders to find a lasting solution to the SAITM crisis. It is now evident that in the current context, some party with a collateral agenda wants to disrupt and derail the university system and create chaos again.

The timing of this attempt should also be taken into account. The Local Government election has already been announced and the main political parties are doing the ground work to launch their election campaigns. If a wave of student protests break out, at this juncture, it would certainly be a setback for the government’s election campaign. Therefore, one can safely assume that there is a political element behind this clamour and they are trying to use the GMOA and the IUSF as a cat’s paw to create trouble for the government.

Weerakumara fires first salvo at JO !

The talks between the SLFP and the Joint Opposition have failed with the SLFP deciding to contest the Local Government elections under the guidance of President Maithripala Sirisena. The Joint Opposition is likely to contest under the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (flower bud) and they have already deposited money to join the electoral fray, in several districts.

However, a sizable proportion of Joint Opposition believed that the group should contest the election under a common front with the SLFP. They are highly disappointed with the way the JO handled negotiations with the SLFP representatives. The Sunday Observer reliably learns that a large section of them are considering to distance themselves from the Rajapaksa group and join the SLFP.

Their ideas were made clear by Weerakumara Dissanayake, former Deputy Minister and an ally of Wimal Weerawansa of the National Freedom Front. Addressing a press conference recently, Dissanayake bashed the Rajapaksa group for not acting sensibly when it came to negotiations.

“To defeat the UNP, we have to join the SLFP,” Dissanayake said, addressing the press conference. He underscored the need for a pact between the two groups and the unity of the Alliance’s rival camps.

Many JO members have threatened to contest under the SLFP if the group opts to submit nomination papers separately. Therefore, the upcoming week will be characterize some important political somersaults that weaken the Joint Opposition group.