By Somapala Gunadheera –
The SAITM dispute has become a Pandora’s Box. When one disputant agrees to a certain position, another party contests it. One day it appears as if the matter is getting solved at last, only to hear the next day that the controversy has returned to square one.
This problem is best solved by going into first principles and firmly deciding who had the last say on the points in dispute.
1. Free education
The main point involved is the right to free education. It was granted by the Legislature. The GMOA and other Tus may like FE and most of their members may be obliged to it but they do not have the last word on it. Of course, they can influence the Legislature to safeguard the vistas of free education. But it would amount to revolt and rebellion to try to twist the arm of the Legislature by taking the country and its invalids as hostages. Besides, originally FE was granted from kindergarten up to the University. Its extension into the University was an after-thought as students graduated to that level.
It is important to remember that there were two types of students under FE, normal students and the less affluent who were selected by a competitive scholarship exam. The former received only education free but the latter received lodging and subsistence as well or their equivalent. This distinction has been maintained through the University with Mahapola Scholarships for the have-nots. A problem has arisen with the slots available in the State Universities for medical students becoming less than those who have qualified themselves to get into them. The Government has three alternatives in dealing with them. They are,
a) Ignore the excess as it has been doing up to now.
b) Create space for them in the State Universities. In this connection, it is heartening to hear the Minister of Higher Education declaring that more State medical colleges would be opened shortly
c) Until ‘b’ is fulfilled, the State should provide ways outside the Government Faculties for those who have attained the required credits but are outnumbered by the slots available within the State facilities. This can be done by placing such students in private Medical Colleges at Government expense or by arranging Bank loans for them.
2. Medical Standards
Solution ‘b’ presupposes standards being set down for medical education. This is a matter for the Medical Council that has being hanging fire for some time, paving the way for the present deadlock. Laying down the standards enables a count to be taken of those who have satisfied the given criteria at the University Entrance Examination. It is these students who have to be provided for in the name of FE. The Government has so far failed to create facilities for them within the establishment. If it has not got the wherewithal to establish new facilities for them, they can be accommodated in a private medical college that satisfies the standards laid down by the MC.
Therein lies the case for private medical colleges in Sri Lanka. FE does not exclude fee-levying teaching institutions. Even at the advent of FE, there were such institutions. As at now there are institutions coaching paying students up to degrees in other sectors like engineering and accounts. One wonders why only medical schools have to be free. Besides, a ban on private medical colleges would not solve the problem. Under such a restriction, affluent students are bound to join foreign medical colleges causing loss of foreign exchange and possibly, a brain-drain to the country. Establishing standardized fee-levying MCs here would solve this problem and possibly earn foreign exchange for the country. Of course there should be a control of the number of private MCs established here and their quality. No one who has failed to obtain the minimum credits prescribed by the MC should be allowed to get into them. If not, some day we would be saddled with medical colleges producing conductors. No Union has the right to dictate terms to the MC but they have a right to present their case to it.
Nationalizing the SAITM hospital is neither here nor there. One wonders how fair it is to take over the institution in a country where there are hundreds of other privately owned institutions. That it would help the owners is beside the point. It would have been more appropriate for the Government to undertake a management contract there to give clinical training to the students who are stuck without such experience.
3. Lecture boycott by medical students
The ongoing lecture boycott by the medical students appears to be an impulsive self-defeating move. Of course, the parents have a democratic right to get on a stage and demand what they consider to be their right. But by getting their children also on the same stage, they tend to while away a part of the prime of the youth of their issue. They should really encourage their children to complete their studies as fast as possible. Any time wasted on stages cutting lectures is a permanent loss to their career. They have already lost nearly a year of their prime cutting lectures and agitating in demonstrations. In the meantime their counterparts at SAITM are stealing a march over them.
4. The Final Solution
The Legislature has failed so far to intervene and rule on their prime duty of defining on the proper limits of free education. One would expect at least the executive to direct the Government Medical Faculties to resume studies, prescribing firm penalties for boycotting lectures, such as loss of scholarship and end of studentship. It is unfortunate that they also have confined their contributions to demagogy and vain threats. It looks as if the Government does not want to put its ‘elephantine foot down’ ‘with a firm hand’. In the circumstance, the only hope of solving the ‘SAITM Deadlock’ appears to lie with the Judiciary by ruling on the recent Judgement of the Court of Appeal. Even there the executive has failed to move the Supreme Court for an early ruling. It is hoped that in view of the national importance of the matter in hand, the SC would decide to go into the matter with a full Bench and put an end to this vexed matter that has put our educational system out of gear for quite some time.