By Sarath Bandara –
My name is Sarath Bandara and I was born, the eldest of three children, in Radagama, about 10 km from Anuradhapura. My parents were teachers in the local school, my father an Arts graduate from Peradeniya and my mother teaches in the primary classes. I began schooling in my parent’s school as my father’s friends in the Education department could not help me enter Anuradhapura Central because 10 km was too far away. However I found later that there were many students in the school who lived even further away, but got admission through political influence or by paying money. The advantage of being admitted straight away to a big school in a city was that one not only had good teachers but could continue there even if one did badly in the Grade 5 scholarship examination.
I could only hope that I would do well in the Scholarship examination and get into Anuradhapura Central, something I was able to do because I think of the attention and commitment of my teacher parents. Most of the students in my school did not fare too well and so had to continue in the village school. Prospects for University education for them were low, as they had to do well at the O/L to move out, very difficult as there were no good teachers in Science, Mathematics or English in the school.
Studying at Anuradhapura Central was not very easy as I had to leave home before 6 in the morning and could not stay behind for sports as the last bus left at 4. However, thanks to being in that school, I obtained 6 As but only Cs in Mathematics and English at my O/L examination. There were only one or two Bs and no As in these subjects as even big schools in our area cannot get good teachers in Science and Mathematics to stay on. My O/L results were released when I was 17 and I could begin my A/L only at 18 and sit for it only when nearly 21. So I was really surprised to hear that our SAITM nangis could enter Medical school at 16.
In my first attempt, my Z-score was too low for Medicine, something which my mother was very keen I should do. In my second attempt, I put in lot of effort spending most weekends in tuition classes at Anuradhapura. Since my parents could not afford this, I did O/L tuition in science for students in my village to pay for it. I did very well in my second attempt obtaining three As, qualifying for medicine with a rank allowing me to choose my University. My father was overjoyed that I could enter his old University, Peradeniya rather than the nearby Rajarata University. With the delays in release of results and University admission procedures, I was 25 by the time I entered Peradeniya. When I got there I realized the District Quota was sometimes unfair with many students from big schools just outside Kandy like Poromodulla Central entering with low Z-scores because they were from Hanguranketha, Nuwara Eliya district although they were close enough to attend tuition classes in Kandy. However there were also students from deprived areas like Moneragala who were able to enter though District Quota.
I was lucky in that being from Anuradhapura, I could get hostel facilities but unlucky in that I could not apply for Mahapola as my parents combined teacher salaries were too high. This meant that I had to find some other source of income as my parents with two more children to support were finding it rather difficult. I was rather wary about staying in the hostel having heard and read about the rag. However the rag appeared to be less for medical students as our seniors too busy with work, although I must admit that if I did not agree to be in the rag, my hostel stay would have been unpleasant. I had no alternative as I could not pay five times as much for a room. Only those who travel from homes around the University could avoid being ragged but even they would lose out as they would be prevented from participating in sports and batch activities. However the medical faculty rag was fairly mild with a few seniors catching me alone and scolding me in bad language, forcing us having to share meals with four or five others in the canteen and walk two by two like schoolchildren when leaving the Faculty. Ragging in the hostel was also faculty based, so that ragging of medical students were less.
I was lucky to be awarded a Bursary by the University and this made life easier and I could occasionally even send a little money home. However, I found that many children from well-off business families got the Mahapola with a letter from the Grama Niladari confirming their income to be low – something which children of government employees could not do. The money helped them to enjoy a good life at the campus, with expensive phones and sometimes even running motorcycles.
I was totally lost at lecture time at Peradeniya as they were in English and it took me more than six months to even begin to understand what was being said. However my taking taken part in the rag helped me out. I was able to study in exam-oriented “kuppi” classes after work conducted in Sinhala by some of our seniors. Life at Peradeniya Medical faculty was hard work with some excellent lecturers, some not so good and in the clinical years, many more interested in their private practice than in teaching us. However there were text books identified for each course. While some students could buy personal copies, original or photocopied (pirated), I had to rely mostly on library copies as I had no money to spend on books.
The clinical years were hard, tough work times, nights spent at the hospital and probably for our own good, lambasted by some consultants over minor mistakes. It was almost like another rag. Some of those warded had been referred by consultants through channelled consultations, but they were not given preferential treatment. Most consultants were however considerate to students although some were naïve and even bought a story from a batchmate that his father was going through a bypass operation, different consultants excusing him from clinicals for more than a year.
The viva examinations were very tough as they, especially external examiners, often stumped students by asking questions from obscure areas. Our final examinations are important but Peradeniya gives only occasional first classes unlike some other Universities. However the examination for state universities to determine the merit list and seniority which was introduced a few years ago helps us to achieve some sort of balance.
I am now on my last year and should graduate later this year except that our exams have been delayed by the SAITM issue. This has given me some free time and I am able to earn some money through (illegal) locums by helping out private doctors around Kandy, which allows me to send some money home. When I do graduate I will probably be able to do my internship in Anuradhapura but the wait period for that is more than one and a half years after graduation and I would be past 32 giving me only about 28 years in government service. It is amazing that students entering SAITM from international schools could graduate at 21 and theoretically serve government for 39 years.
Many of our seniors have left for Australia, one of the few places where our qualifications can take us, but I hope to stay in Sri Lanka as I do not wish to leave my family behind.
I hope my Pera story will show you that becoming a doctor through the state education route is a long drawn out difficult process, even after doing well at the O/L and A/L.