Colombo Telegraph

What’s Wrong With SAITM

By Dhammika Herath

Dr. Dhammika Herath

The debate about South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) appears to be heating up, at least at this late hour, with all the stakeholders throwing in their two cents worth. While I do not have any vested interests, except the interest of being a person who benefited from “free education”, let me throw in my two cents.

The Paradox of Opinions

As a preamble to my viewpoint on SAITM, let’s examine some of the arguments put forward by different factions who clearly have their own agendas.

  1. The process of admission to SAITM is flawed, students who do not qualify for a basic degree in sciences study Medicine at SAITM. This argument has some validity and credibility, and it will hold ground until all the information is available to all concerned parties.
  2. SAITM is a private institution, medical education should not be privatised. This is a recurrent theme, but unrealistic to say the least. While education is not a commodity, whether we like it not, it’s a commodity in a market economy, where everything has a price, including justice. This argument does not hold much ground in its pure sense. But I will explore further some of the questions related to this issue of private institutions.
  3. Training at SAITM is sub-par, and was not recognised by the Sri Lanka Medical Council. This is a valid argument, and SLMC has a list of recognised medical colleges as listed and recognised by WHO. There are several medical colleges in the world which are not recognised by WHO or any other country. Interested readers can simply Google or refer to the WHO website as this is public information. Some years ago, the SLMC, after examining the SAITM gave its verdict; SAITM does not qualify to be recognised as an institution since its standards do not meet required criteria. This was open information to everyone who followed this saga closely.
  4. SAITM or local private medical schools save valuable foreign exchange. This is the most ludicrous argument for SAITM and we do not need to look far to realise how ridiculous this idea is. SAITM will not prevent students who aspire to become doctors travelling abroad, and getting their medical degrees from for-profit institutions, the quality of which are highly questionable. If we look at the foreign exchange that Sri Lanka lost for some famous deals, like MIG deal, Hedging Deal, Prado deal, these are fine examples of how we lose foreign exchange. Further discussion in this area is not really useful or meaningful in Sri Lanka.
  5. SAITM students and students who can afford it have a right to education, including medical education. This argument has apparent validity, at least on face value. We can talk about this right once we are absolutely free, but not in a modern, highly regularised age. Education is based on merits and needs of the country, not on individual aspirations. Definitely not because you can afford it.

What’s Wrong with SAITM?

The critical issue that’s being ignored is the context of the establishment of SAITM and its core functions. Many social commentators, students and unions ignore this critical but unpleasant area from their discussion and continue to beat the strawman.

SAITM is quite similar in its inception and evolution to another institution that cost many lives and a generation to Sri Lanka – the North Colombo Medical College popularly known as NCMC. SAITM is a PRIVATE organisation and it lied to BOI, SLMC as well as its very own students about its credentials.

Even for a moment, if this institution is a legal entity, training and teaching must occur within the parameters of a private organisation, looking after its clientele, the undergraduates. It should deal with its own problems of finding clinical training as any other private organisation would do when faced with similar issues.

The State is not there to bail out failing private ventures or its participants. That is neither free market nor good governance. SAITM does not have any legal or moral right to request government facilities for their training purposes, as it’s a private, for- profit institution and government is in no way obliged to provide or share scarce facilities with any private institution, breaking all the fundamentals of free markets, overlooking its own commitments to public students.

This is exactly what’s happening now, that government is interfering with private affairs, and the million dollar question is, why ?The answer lies at the heart of the intentions of the founders of SAITM. Beside profit motive, the other motives are perpetuation of elitism and nepotism.

Let me discuss this topic little further. Most of the students, who are studying at SAITM are not kith and kin of politicians. They are sons and daughters of lawyers, doctors, professionals and academics. Here lies the core issue, as happened 35 years ago; they are grooming the next generation to occupy the very seats and positions that they are holding right now.

Sri Lankan universities and government institutions are bastions of nepotism, particularly key government positions and positions in universities. This is precisely why SAITM came into being, that’s precisely why no one really objected to the blatant deceptions by the management of SAITM.

Furthermore, this is one of the critical reasons government is involved in the affairs of private business venture and judgments were meted out, violating all the norms and morals a just society demands. At the hands of nepotism and elitism, there will not be any morals or rules in a backward country like Sri Lanka.

These very forces who are working against the best interests of the under privileged continue to lie and deceive using soft language, nonsensical arguments about free education, human rights and so on and so forth.

Let’s take another fascinating aspect of this whole saga; the students who study at SAITM, are responsible adults aspiring to treat other human beings, following principals of justice, and causing no harm. They should be able to make complex decisions in relation to treating human maladies which are becoming increasingly complex. What is their level of intellect, if they cannot understand, and analyse critically, that the very institution they study in is responsible for their predicament?

The students of SAITM, are wholly responsible for (or their parents) investing in an institution without clarifying its standing or by simply Googling it, as even a eighth grader would do nowadays.

They have been deceived by the SAITM and the students should take legal action against this institution for failing them so vividly, robbing their money, causing pain and grief. This I doubt will ever happen, simply because their elite parents and kith and kin are so sure that they will “sort things out for their kids”.

This is the real problem with SAITM and this is what Sri Lankans really have to deal with it. Since politicians will capitalise on this issue, there will be no justice for poor similarly qualified students of Sri Lanka. Once SAITM gets its approval, as it seems it will, the Sri Lankan government will annihilate the education once and for all. That’s something we cannot afford.

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