By Sarath Jayasuriya –
Recently I was invited to attend a forum organised by a group of professionals in Melbourne. In fact I was invited as a panel speaker. There were three others in the panel totalling four including myself. The topic was quite appropriate and was addressing one of the burning issues in Sri Lanka.
The “SAITM” The South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine
I must confess at the offset that I am not an agent nor shareholder of SAITM. I am a keen follower of issues that are of controversial nature that prop up from time to time in Sri Lanka where politicians vigorously use them to their advantage. In this article I would like to address a few points that were discussed at the forum.
Business Name “SAITM”
As far as I have read and also understood from the participants, was that SAITM was initially established under a different name where M stood for Management rather than Medicine. This was a sticky point for two speakers who spoke strongly against the mere existence of SAITM. As far as I understand I see no issue with a Management outfit conducting various courses that they are competent of. It is just a matter of establishing a department or a faculty to conduct courses? Their business structure is their business.
On the contrary KDA (Kotelawala Defence Academy) now renamed as KDU or Kotelawala Defence University which is a direct investment of the Government through the defence establishment, conducts fee paying degrees, Post Graduate courses, Diplomas and offer Professional Courses. The courses include Medical, Engineering, Allied Health, computing, Architectures and Law to name a few. This is the first university that I am aware of offering diplomas and certificate courses in networking – (CCNA) Cisco certified Network associate. By the way all these courses are fee paying and not free of charge to students who are not children of the defence personnel.
I am yet to comprehend as to how and why the politicians who agitate about SAITM has failed to see the functioning of KDU. Kotelawala Defence Academy was established primarily to train defence personnel in defence related courses. It is quite in order for the Academy now KDU to award degrees to those who excel in studies while being attached to a defence establishment.
The basic argument on the table is that SAITM being a private Medical College or School should not and cannot award Medical degrees. Looking at the past we find that SAITM had been established in 2008 with the permission from the Ministry of Higher Education who had the power to do so. Initially an application had been lodged to obtain UGC approval. However during the process the line ministry had vested the power to the Minster on cabinet approval to grant permission by way of a Gazette notification. Approval had been granted to conduct Medical degree programs and to offer degrees on completion. There were no protests made at the time by the parties who are opposing today. Probably due to fear of being persecuted at the time or virtually strongly reprimanded by the then regime. Today we see protests by an array of organisations, University students, Trade Unions and the GMOA in particular. The same collective had refrained from opposing the commencement of Medical degree programs at the KDA now KDU. I am sure the majority public would like to know the turn of thought or the back flips by these bodies.
Adding insult to the injury is that the very same then President, Ministers and secretaries who approved the establishment of SAITM and KDU are now opposing SAITM quite vigorously.
Today in Sri Lanka many organisations offer degree programs in various fields of studies in association with recognised foreign universities. Law, Information Technology, Allied Health, Engineering, Bio Medical to name a few. Students who follow such programs depending on the institute they attend complete their total program locally and receive their degrees locally while certain institutes permit their students to complete the final year in the respective countries with which they are affiliated to. Several universities from a wide spectrum of countries are known to operate in Sri Lanka. Monash from Australia, Northumbria from UK, Keel from UK, American, Russian, Indian and Bangladesh are a few to name. All above institutes charge fees, to register, for tuition and for examinations. It is our understanding that all those students who attend such programs have found meaningful employment locally and overseas, while majority students who obtain degrees from the government owned Universities struggle to find some kind of employment even locally except professional degree students like Medical, Engineering, Law, architecture and sometimes accounting.
This fact brings along an argument of the appropriateness or suitability of the degrees offered by Government funded Universities in the current environment. Majority of these graduates are added to the unemployment que thus leaving the tax payers to wonder why the authorities have not taken steps to bring in reforms to introduce meaningful courses in State Universities. This question need to be addressed in a more constructive manner and would require a broader panel of experts to contribute their views. The important question that arises out of the above argument is why the protestors like JVP, IUSF and GMOA, to SAITM has failed to address this issue which requires immediate attention. It was the very same GMOA who vehemently protested against the introduction of a degree program to Nurses (Allied Health). As tax payers we expect the monies collected by the government from the people are put into to more meaningful ventures rather than producing unproductive graduates. People would like to see that the protestors to SAITM making efforts to address in full force, to get the authorities to objectively open their eyes and ears to issue of appropriate courses, rather than wasting so much energy on SAITM which is already established and running.
Why is GMOA hell bent on protesting against SAITM. Is this a political stunt by GMOA? What does GMOA stand for? What is their mandate? Is GMOA a trade union or a welfare organisation established for the benefit of its members?
Above are a few questions that the general public have raised, while they are being put into to severe difficulties by GMOA when resorting to trade union activities from time to time. Shouldn’t the medical profession be defined as an essential service? There are few services in the day to day life of people need to be identified as essential. To sight a few – Police to maintain Law and order, Forces to join Police in their efforts to maintain Law and order while defending the country. Transport, Telecommunication are needed for the Nation to move forward. Out of all it is of utmost importance to maintain a healthy Nation. Without a healthy Nation country cannot exist. The public must force the government to enforce rules and regulations preventing organisations such as GOMA loading hardships and untold difficulties on the general public.
Who is GMOA? As far as we understand it should be an apolitical outfit. What we observe is that they are an association of medical practitioners who have got together to look after themselves. However in the process of looking after themselves they are bound not to neglect the wellbeing of the public, because the oath they take when accepting duties say so and further not to impart hardships, in their quest for power. Members of GMOA should not ever forget that they have enjoyed the benefits of free education at the expense of not only the Tax paying Sri Lankans but all Sri Lankans who have been deprived of many essentials simply to educate other University and medical graduates.
Government spends 2,422,130.00 Million rupees per medical student and 3,319,880.00 Million rupees per dental student to complete their courses of studies. Least is spent of Arts graduates which is around 520,000.00 to 655,000.00 rupees on a three year program. Medical graduates are the only set of students who find meaningful employment after graduation as “doctors” leaving the majority university graduates on the road. This system or process whatever you call it is unequal. This disparity should be eliminated. Government is creating a disparity amongst Graduates. Inequality need to be eliminated.
Time has come for the “doctors” to pay back the monies spent on them by the government. Time has come to discipline “doctors” not only to pay back but also to provide a better service to the public for a fixed period of time after graduation. Medical graduates are no superior to any other graduate that State produce. Hence it has become imperative to bridge this gap and extend privileges equally to all graduates. In our view all other graduates produced by the State should focus on equal rights as granted by the very constitution of Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. So called specialist doctors spend the least amount of time on a patient. The government should bring in rules and regulations to control their behaviour towards poor patients. A doctor should be directed to examine a prescribed number of patients within a given period of time. Doctor’s profession is a noble profession which has been prostituted by the so called GMOA in Sri Lanka. This kind of behaviour is never observed in any other country. They are hell bent on making money rather than looking after patients. They are not any more descendants of King Buddhadasa. GMOA should spend time in taming such doctors and refrain from acting politically.
GMOA has the right to demand for their work rights but not to get involved in the administration of countries resources and assets. It is unfortunate to observe the GMOA getting mixed up in the political decision making process neglecting their duties as medical practitioners. Why is GMOA hell bent of opposing SAITM? Answers need to be found to the questions raised by the GMOA. While studying various representations made by GMOA at several public forums such as TV debates and press releases the only fundamental question that emerged was the Standards at SAITM were not acceptable. However there were instances where some members of the GMOA branding SAITM as a degree boutique or an outfit selling Medical degrees. If standards were not acceptable then the simple answer is to fix it rather than crying to close down SAITM. Apparently it is a known fact that SAITM employs more professors than some of the State owned Medical faculties.
University Selection Process
It is important to investigate who purchase these medical degrees. Before we open a dialog on medical degrees offered, it is vital to understand the statistics of the students involved in the University selection process.
Kotelawala Defence University, is listed as “another” government university that provide Medical degrees for a fee, in the University Grants Commission web site. However the above number (1145) does not include the number of students admitted to KDU since it is a fee paying University like SAITM. We are yet to comprehend why and how GMOA steered trade Unions whom we believe do not have an iota of understanding of the issue, oppose SAITM.
It is important to look at the University entrance selection process. As per the UGC information site students who obtain minimum three passes at the GCE A/L examination conducted by the Government of Sri Lanka Education department are eligible to enter the medical faculties of Government Universities. Although it is simple to mention the selection process is complicated since many conditions do apply even after obtaining minimum of three passes at the GCE A/L examination. UGC adopts a selection process where students are screened on merit, district and poorly facilitated schools. Statistically driven Z score applies across all three categories mentioned above. However the selection is made by an elimination process thus depriving talented bright students with better results, entering any medical faculty, just for the mere fact that he or she having sat for the A/L examination from an affluent school, area or district.
Where will such students meet their life goals? State has a limitation of accommodating not more than 1200 students per year. If the deprived students are coming from affluent parents they will seek foreign universities in numbers thus draining much of our foreign reserves. It is the duty of the government and the UGC to provide opportunities to such students to gain access to Medical degrees within Sri Lanka with either private or public / private participating educational institutes.
One such institute sponsored by UGC is KDU. If students are willing to pay could enter KDU provided they possess minimum 3 passes in Chemistry, Physics and Biology with a Z score of 1.5 and foreign students who possess three passes in Chemistry, Physics and Biology at GCE A/L London examination . In a similar manner SAITM should be permitted to continue with proper standards as recommended by the SLMC (Sri Lanka Medical Council).
We are perturbed at the lackadaisical attitude of the President, Prime Minister and the Minister of Higher Education in handling the SAITM issue. It leaves ample time opportunity for the bankrupt politicians to make “hey while sun shines”. The agitators against SAITM has ignored Court orders and many appeals made by the government from time to time. It appears their objective is not SAITM but bring down a legitimately constituted government. Conspirators behind are the very same people who Initiated SAITM. It appears that they have ganged up with the undesirables of one era for mere political advantage.
Today the university students are misguided by some pariah politicians who were hiding during tyranny of the previous regime. Some even ran away from the country and emerged at the expense of Yahapalanaya. They are no better than a pop group. They are breakaways of breakaways. It is unfortunate to note why they have not addressed the burning issues of State University graduates as discussed above in this article. If they are true patriots they should fight for equality amongst university graduates and force authorities to restructure courses to suit the demands of the country and the world at large, rather than wasting energy, money and time of undergraduates in the public arena.
University students discard such opportunistic so called politicians and give leadership to their own issues. University students are the intelligentsia of Sri Lanka. It is unfortunate to observe them becoming pawns of some bankrupt politicians who attempt a comeback at the expense of University Students. The issue is not SAITM, but efforts of a bankrupt political hyena using the poor gullible students to come back to lime light. We urge the government understands this and investigate into the activities of such discarded politicians who have waged war against a legitimate government using University Students. In their quest for power have disrupted the everyday life of the peace loving people of Sri Lanka. Time has come for Sri Lankans to wake up and fight these culprits.
In a similar manner it appears the GMOA has joined forces with the mob, using the opportunity to topple a legitimately constituted government. They are dancing with the Shrew who once was discarded by the people for creating holes in our day to day life and economy.
SAITM should be allowed to function but their activities should be moderated by the SLMC and UGC and not close down. In fact we need more SAITMs to commence in the future.
*Sarath Jayasuriya BSc (University of Ceylon – Peradeniya campus) , Secretary of Science Students Union 1973/74. Member of the Inter University Students Federation 1973/74 (IUSF)