By Ameer Ali –
The controversy over the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) has been prolonging for some time without an end in sight. While the government is unwilling to budge an inch from its stand in allowing the institute to operate as a private medical university the opponents on the other hand are bent on disrupting its smooth operation. Unavoidably the security cost of safeguarding the institute is rising.
By narrowing their protest over this particular institution the protesters are ignoring the bigger picture regarding the future of higher education in Sri Lanka. Under the neoliberal economic model that is being dictated by the IMF and its guardians the government’s role in providing quality higher education to those with the necessary minimum qualification to receive it, and quality healthcare to all those who need it are measured in terms of the so called market based economic concept of the rate of return. According to this measure the private rate of return exceeds private cost as the level of education rises from primary to secondary and to tertiary stages. Therefore, a sensible policy for the government, according to establishment economic pundits, is to maximise its role at the primary level and gradually reduce it as the level of education rises. The social cost and social benefits of higher education are shelved in this measurement partly because of the difficulties in measuring them in monetary values and partly because it unnecessarily complicates economic policy making for simple minded politicians.
Since the end of the Second World War and with the entry of the Welfare State based partly on Keynesian economic theory the public sector in both developed and developing countries invested heavily on education, healthcare, food production and infrastructural development. To a war ravaged Europe and to many poverty-stricken developing nations at that time this investment brought immeasurable benefits. Sri Lanka became one of the shining leaders in Asia in providing public welfare. That the country had a healthy economic surplus at that time made it easier to operate a generous welfare state. Today’s senior bureaucrats, academics and other professionals in the country, not to mention their compatriots living as expatriates, would not have risen to their current status if not for that all round welfare policy. Domestically, that policy ultimately went a long way in bridging significantly the gap between the rich and poor in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s development became an envy even to Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew.
With the ushering in of JR’s open economy after 1977 and the re-entry of the free market the welfare state of Sri Lanka was radically rolled back. Economic advisors from the IMF in cohort with foreign trained local market oriented economists convinced the politicians that budget allocations on health, education and food subsidies are a drain on the cash tight economy and encouraged local legislators to allow the free market to take care of those sectors. Accordingly, public hospitals, public schools and universities were starved of funds and facilities, which obviously affected the standard of their products. Market oriented economics and its IMF manager still want the government to invest in infrastructure development because such investment subsidises the private sector partly with public funds raised through taxes paid by the middle and poorer classes. Although the general discontent against this state of affairs was growing for some time in Sri Lanka the people are deliberately distracted by the ethnic and religious issues.
In the meantime, the rich and the powerful began to look elsewhere to get value for their money on education and health. Private hospitals and private educational institutions started mushrooming to cater to their demand.
While private hospitals satisfied the medical needs of the rich and while private primary and secondary schools taught the affluent kids public hospitals and public educational institutions became asylums to the poor reflecting the widening cleavage between the have nots and have lots. Even doctors who are the products of public universities and working in public hospitals cut short their time spent in those hospitals and spend long hours privately charging exorbitant fees from the desperate poor. It is a pathetic sight overall which has made the medical profession a lucrative field for educators and practitioners. SAITM is the first entrant to provide private university and professional education in the country in a very profitable area. It is testing the waters before expanding into other fields. The government is sitting tight until the clamour and hoo-ha against SAITM dies down so that it will open the field to other such private entrants in engineering, accounting, law and other professional disciplines.
What Sri Lanka faces now is a systemic crisis in higher education. Even the terminology used in budget statements has changed to reflect the changing economic philosophy. What was once considered in a welfare state as investment in education and health is now being treated under neoliberalism as mere expenditure that discounts future returns. Unless the neoliberal economic model is thrown out there is no way the educational and health crises in Sri Lanka can be solved. This is the big picture.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia