The undying dream of a private medical college | Sunday Observer

The undying dream of a private medical college

Dr Neville Fernando  Pic: Dushmantha Mayadunne
Dr Neville Fernando Pic: Dushmantha Mayadunne

It was a tiny office room in a half-built building. The old gentleman behind the desk, dressed in a national suit, greeted us warmly.

“Come, please sit down”

The man, once a billionaire, now runs a small bakery on the Thalawathugoda-Hokandara Road. He is none other than Dr. Neville Fernando, the Chairman of the controversial private medical college in Malabe. The Sunday Observer met him in the wake of the five year judicial battle of the SAITM graduates that ended with great success, with the graduates receiving government appointments as interns at various government hospitals across the country.

Dr. Fernando began the discussion with a daily Sinhala newspaper on his table.

“See, the Ministry of Health also accepts that there is a shortage of 1,600 doctors island-wide. But it was them, the Government, who closed down SAITM which could produce about 50 MBBS doctors annually,” he lamented. Dr. Fernando, the former Chairman of Asha Central hospitals, sold his stake to business tycoon Ashok Pathirage of Softlogic in 2007 for Rs. 1,800 million. When the Cabinet Minister of Higher Education in the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, Professor Vishwa Warnapala, requested investors to bid on private medical universities, Dr. Fernando had adequate money to start one.

“Producing doctors will never be a surplus. Because the medical profession is world recognised and we could produce doctors to earn foreign exchange. Instead, we have chosen housemaids to earn dollars,” he explained.

Allegiance

Dr. Fernando, once a Parliamentarian during the ’80s, believes that his allegiance with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the biggest reason for the closing down of SAITM.

“I never went after politicians. But I think the present government closed down SAITM because I worked for Mahinda at the last Presidential election.”

But at the final stage of the Anti-SAITM campaign, the political camp of Mahinda Rajapaksa was also at the forefront raising its voice against SAITM which was their baby too.

“I was also a politician once. But we had principles. Mahinda abandoned his stance, seeking a tiny political advantage,” Dr. Fernando said.

The Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF) protested against SAITM accusing that it is a threat to the free education system of the country. But Dr. Fernando thinks that the entire Anti-SAITM campaign was designed and implemented by agencies who send students to foreign medical colleges as well as a money-oriented mafia in the media industry.

“It is a big lie. If we produce 100 doctors, how can it be a threat to the free education system? Agents who send students to foreign medical colleges and local media created this stigma,” he explained.

KDU

However, the Medical Faculty of the Kotelawela Defense Academy did not bring forth protests from the IUSF, GMOA and other parties who were against SAITM. It was later charged that instead, the SLMC had also passed the KDU without following proper procedures.

“KDU started their medical degree without minimum standards. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary at the time and people were afraid of him,” he said.

During the 80’s, the J.R. government gave its blessing to Professor G.M. Heennilame to start North Colombo Medical College, which was also closed down in 1989 with similar charges. Since then, no one had tried to take the risk. “I never saw it as a risk and we succeeded in establishing the institute. They closed it down when it was operating successfully,” Dr. Fernando said.

SAITM graduates had a special felicitation ceremony recently at the BMICH. President’s Counsel Upul Jayasuriya, the man behind the judicial success of SAITM graduates, was felicitated during this gathering.

“I had already spent more than Rs. 80 million on trials. But Jayasuriya appeared for our students without taking a penny.

More importantly, he finished the case in two days. All our graduates received provisional registration and now they work in government hospitals. I am happy that I could give them a sustainable future. Those students will be top class professionals in the medical field one day.”

He added, “I am glad that our country has a strong judiciary system. They have given brave decisions without any fear.”

Although SAITM graduates are back on the path to become full fledged medical practitioners, Dr. Fernando now struggles to find the money he invested in SAITM.

“As I was in debt, I sold the SAITM building to Cargills and received one billion rupees. But the entire amount was spent on gratuity payments of employees we fired when closing down,” he said.

Controversy

Recently, there was another controversy surrounding the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital which was taken over by the Government in 2017.

The GMOA and several other parties accused the Government of paying its loans and running the hospital when it had not yet been fully taken over by the government. “I took a Rs. 3.5 billion loan to build the teaching hospital.

I paid back one billion of it through student fees. When I receive that one billion which was already paid to the bank, I will sign the document,” Dr. Fernando assured. The SAITM chief has not stopped dreaming about establishing a private medical college in Sri Lanka, after going through a series of difficulties and financial losses.

“I am turning 90 years next year. I will once again start a private medical college using funds due from the Government. That is the only thing I want to do before I die,” he said.

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