By Vishwamithra1984 –
On the face of things SAITM appears to be the main issue in the country today. In reality, however, there are much more crucial issues than SAITM that are brewing demanding national attention. Yet, the University students and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), with the weight of the GMOA behind them, have managed to catapult this issue to the forefront and media has followed by blowing it out of proportion. When the University students take up an issue, their version of social justice tends to colour their overall judgment altogether. The JVP has garnished the situation making it an issue between the rich and influential and deserving poor. In the leftist cocoon-thinking, the poor are always virtuous and the rich invariably cruel. Thus an educational issue has been very craftily converted into a one of social injustice.
The public perception of this issue is utterly prejudiced and warped. The notion of ‘one should not be allowed to become a doctor through money’ gathers currency when it is sold by the propaganda geniuses of the JVP and its comrades-in-arms. The ‘Upadi Kada’ (Degree Shops)-rhetoric of the JVP is effective. It is not a case of some moneyed students trying to buy their way into the medical profession. On the contrary, all the budding doctors, whether SAITM or otherwise, sit for a common exam, and then face the SLMC qualifying standard. Thus, it is a case of common criteria that all the hopefuls are being put through to ascertain their academic prowess, irrespective of their wealth. The only difference is that, one lot has paid for their education with their own money whereas the other lot has earned a place in a university paid by public funds. The SAITM candidates, like Shylock, the Merchant of Venice, have been more sinned against than sinning.
It is also wildly rumoured that Ministers Rajitha Senaratne and Lakshman Kiriella are having more than cordial relationships with the SAITM students. If so, it should be highly commended. The writer is no fan of either of these Ministers and in fact, considers that both are not handling this issue competently. Yet, in a situation where the country and the public are facing an important policy matter, personal antipathy and politics should not be a relevant factor. The issue at hand is whether Sri Lanka should have private medical education or not, and if the nation is in favour of private education, there is nothing to bar Rajitha’s nephew and Kiriella’s niece from becoming medical doctors as long as they have the will and meet the set criteria. In today’s civilised world everybody should have the right for education of their choosing.
Then, the issue of non-availability of facilities for conduct of practical lessons and maintenance of the required standards in SAITM: The first problem could be solved with the patronage of the Ministry of Health. Why can’t the Ministry allow SAITM graduates to attend government hospitals to do their internship since the institution is approved by the University Grants Commission (UGC)? What is the warped logic of Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA)’s opposition to this, when one of their grievances against SAITM graduates happens to be their ‘lack of practical application’? Further, on other specifications cited, what prevents the SAITM management from responding to Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) demands, since it has expressed its preparedness to bend over backwards to obtain full recognition for its students. Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) is a legitimate stakeholder in this issue but this can well be solved if the Government and SLMC cooperate in a constructive frame of mind. Do we have the will and the need to resolve this issue? But the hard truth is something else: the political environment is too toxic and poisonous for any rational resolution of the issue.
Then of course, you have the University students staging protest marches threatening to make SAITM a matter of ‘life and death’ for them. Who are these students and are they the think-tanks that decide on the country’s educational policy? Just because they have been fortunate enough to get selected to the universities funded by the public, what right do they have to deny the right of education to the less fortunate students who are prepared to pay for their education? Are we prepared to sacrifice the ‘freedom of education’ of the general public of this country at the altar of ‘free education’ funded by the general public?
The minimum requirement of a student to enter the Medical College is three simple passes at the GCE Advance Level (GCE A Level) examination. However all those who obtain such standards are not accommodated in the Universities since the Universities have entry limits and hence the entrants are selected on the basis of the facilities of different districts and on the marks they obtained at the GCE A Level examination. In the context of the current competitive environment, each year, hundreds of students, who could otherwise attend the medical college, are shut out purely because the public-funded Universities cannot physically accommodate them. Against such a backdrop, what moral right do these students who get selected to these Public Universities have to deprive those who are ready to pay for their education of that fundamental right? C W W Kannangara, the father of free education would be turning in his grave to see the beneficiaries of his free education abusing that very free education to deprive another lot in the country of freedom of education.
Student population is one of the most volatile and aggressive segments in any country. Their numerous demands, their education and their natural antisocial outlook are handy tools in the hands of greedy and crafty politicians. Their revolutionary burst in 1971 in the guise of a JVP-led insurrection, although brutally suppressed and decimated by Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government, found another expression in 1987-1989-period in the façade of a second revolution. Ever since that outburst, these ‘free-educated’ University students always showed a self-destructive tendency to block public roads and conduct their protests all the while. These ‘free educated’ University students in Sri Lanka will not rest. The difference between free education and freedom of education has eluded these so-called educated minds.
In this country, the University lectures are 100 % free and as we know when something is given free, the recipient invariably fails to appreciate that, however valuable that may be. On top of that, ‘not having to work for education’ gives a lot of time for these students to dabble in politics, and when such political issues are cloaked in a garb of ‘social justice’, such opposition or dabbling assumes unwavering justification. Further, being at an age of exuberance and promise of youth, these students assume that the whole world is their playground. In such a dynamic context, the current unrest of the Sri Lankan University students, having not yet climaxed to an explosive end, looks a misguided journey of a drunkard. Having availed themselves of free education, they are opposing a policy that ensures their brethren the same at a cost. They must remember that a majority of students who are seeking admission and completion of their medical degree in private universities are not millionaires’ children. Most of them may have had their parents’ land, jewellery and other properties pawned and mortgaged to a bank or the village lender. That story never ends in Sri Lanka and our student population is part and parcel of this sad saga.
However, this discussion is not complete without a word about the JVP. The State-run Universities are the breeding ground for the JVP activists. So, protection of the status quo of these universities is of prime importance to them. When it comes to Universities, issues such as private tuition at the AL stage, International schools, graduating in foreign Universities etc. are not valid to the JVP. For the free-educated University students and their political mentors, the JVP, the issue of SAITM is not one of education or medical standards, but an issue of political survival.
There is yet another contentious position with regard to this whole anti-SAITM issue. The SLMC has accepted the medical degree offered by 77 international Universities as the basic entry requirement to sit for the SLMC examination. This includes 23 universities in Malaysia. Therefore, if Dr Neville Fernando started his SAITM in the neighbouring Malaysia and if this same batch of Sri Lankan students were enrolled there, the SLMC may not have had any qualms about allowing them to sit for the SLMC entry examination. Thus, the SAITM issue finally gets reduced to an issue of location rather than an issue of standards. It is indeed an irony that we are spending billions of foreign exchange to send our children to foreign universities while countries like Malaysia are earning billions of foreign exchange having allowed private Universities to flourish in their country during the past 20 years.
In short, SAITM is not an issue of any meaningful social injustice. It is a dangerous symptom of a malignant social disease of hatred, jealousy and class-enmity.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org