The uproar over the judgment by the Appeal Court on January 31, directing the Sri Lanka Medical Council to provide provisional registration for graduates of the Medical Faculty of the South Asian Institution for Technology and Medicine SAITM) not only created a huge debate over medical education in the country, but made a point to expose the duplicity of certain politicians on issues concerning the nation.
It was evident during the week long debate over the SAITM judgment which not only created a campaign on an issue relating to medical education and increasing opportunities for higher education, but also a political slogan where political parties tried to ride on the anti-SAITM wave to gain political mileage.
The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) which led an anti SAITM campaign is now making an effort to create a wider front against SAITM with the support of political parties backing their campaign, while the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) takes more time to decide on the provisional registration for the SAITM medical faculty graduates.
The JVP, the key influence on university students, dragging them to the street protests, took a very firm stance against SAITM, joining hands with the GMOA to fight against legal status being granted to SAITM graduates.
The GMOA announced that it will create a broader front against giving legal status for SAITM Medical Faculty students, after discussing with key political parties in the country.
As Dr. Neville Fernando, the founder of SAITM put it at the press conference held last Tuesday, politicians have shown their opportunistic nature, as even former President Mahinda Rajapaksa representing the Joint Opposition has taken a u-turn to join hands with the anti-SAITM camp.
“Politicians are opportunists”, was the answer Dr. Neville Fernando gave when asked for his comment about the stance taken by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa regarding the SAITM issue. He pointed out that in 2013, SAITM offered 10 scholarships to students with 3 A/L passes but could not qualify for medical faculty, on the request of former President Rajapaksa. Many websites last week published pictures of his son MP Namal Rajapaksa visiting SAITM on an inspection tour, a couple of years ago. The academic staff of the SAITM medical faculty emphasized that they were ready to correct if anyone points out any weakness in their faculty. “Provisional registration of SAITM graduates is, not giving them jobs but giving them an opportunity to get a one year training,” they said.
“SAITM is still an unborn baby, and the GMOA and SLMC are trying to abort that unborn baby,” Prof. Neville Perera of the SAITM medical faculty said. The academic staff pointed out that the SLMC, without trying to close the SAITM Medical Faculty should show them the correct path by forwarding their recommendations to improve the quality and the standard of the faculty.
They pointed out that Prof. Carlo Fonseka at one time suggested that SAITM should go for public and private sector partnership to give proper training for its medical faculty students, but none of those recommendations are coming forth now.
They also pointed out that SLMC is registering students coming from foreign universities even without checking the standards of those universities.
“There should be an equal treatment to SAITM along with the Medial Faculty of the Kothalawala Defence University which has been given medical degree awarding status even without a hospital for clinical studies.”
Dr. Neville Fernando pointed out that the SAITM students are ready to sit any exam proposed by the Government to get their students due recognition.
“Our students were ready sit the general examination held for all medical faculty students, but were not allowed to sit that exam fearing that SAITM students will perform better than state medical faculty students. Our students are ready to sit any exam if the government wants to test their knowledge,” he added.
A medical professor, an independent observer of the SAITM issue told the Sunday Observer that Sri Lankan students who failed to secure a place in the state medical faculties have to go to foreign universities in neighbouring countries.
“Medical Colleges such as, Melaka Manipal Medical College, Malaysia, attract many Sri Lankan students, and professors and lecturers as academic staff who pay more than Rs.30 million to be graduated as a medical doctor, whereas, SAITM is ready to provide them the same type of education with the same type of facilities for Rs.9.65 million.
“The government should not allow this to happen but take remedial measures to improve the quality of the SAITM medical faculty through a regulatory mechanism and keep these students and the foreign exchange within the country, by increasing opportunities for medical education in Sri Lanka,” he added.
Many independent observers also pointed out that the present anti -SAITM campaign is not directed at rectifying the deficits in SAITM but to suppress it and use it as a political tool to achieve petty political goals.
The issue took another turn when the vehicle carrying SAITM CEO Dr. Sameera Senaratne was shot at by an unidentified gunman on February 6 evening on his way home, off Chandrika Kumaratunga Mawatha, Malabe. Despite the shots fired at his car Dr. Senaratne remained unhurt.
Investigations are still on into the incident by the Mulleriyawa Police though many individuals and political parties alleged the incident was staged by SAITM itself.
Dr. Senaratne, participating in a press conference held at the BMICH on Tuesday said, prior to the shooting incident he had informed the Mulleriyawa Police about the anonymous calls he received threatening him to resign from SAITM.
Responding to allegations that it was a drama created by SAITM, Dr. Senaratne said, he was only one wheel in SAITM and there was nothing SAITM could achieve by creating such a drama.
Police Media Spokesman, DIG Priyantha Jayakody said, the Mulleriyawa Police are conducting further investigations into the incident and they have not so far identified the person behind the shooting incident to arrive at any conclusion.
Breaking a long spell of silence over the SAITM issue, President Maithripala Sirisena on Thursday said, he would give a fair solution to the SAITM issue after hearing the views of all stakeholders without any injustice to state medical faculty students.
He requested the students of all medical faculties to engage in their studies without boycotting lectures, giving an assurance that the issue will be resolved without any injustice to them. The President also emphasized that while strengthening free education in its quality and essence by providing all facilities required by universities in the country, the government will take steps to resolve the problems of students deprived of free education at state universities despite having the necessary qualifications for university education.
He also emphasized the need for high quality education institutions to cater to students with necessary qualifications but unable to enter traditional universities in the country.
“The government would always perform its duty and responsibility of opening new vistas to the student population to move forward and emerge victorious in this competitive world”, the President added.
Taking a further step ahead, President Maithripala Sirisena yesterday announced he would appoint a committee of experts to hold consultations and advise the Government on the steps to be taken on the issue over SAITM.
The President has also said, the GMOA and the Sri Lanka Dental Association (SLDA) have submitted proposals to him on this issue.
It was a positive move by the President to resolve the issue in a more diplomatic way, rather than through street protests by university students. To resolve the issue in a much more scholarly way, the Deans of the Medical Faculties of all state universities have also submitted their proposals to the Higher Education Minister, Lakshman Kiriella.
They have pointed out the necessity to approve the standards that have to be maintained in a medical faculty, and forwarded to Parliament through the Minister of Health. The Medical Faculty deans also recommend having an exam by the SLMC for the SAITM medical graduates to examine their competency in clinical training.
They urge that the independence of the SLMC should not be challenged as it would be detrimental to other independent Councils governing different professions in the health sector.
The document forwarded by the Deans of the Medical Faculties recommended the government to temporarily suspend enrolling of medical students to SAITM until the issue is amicably settled.
Therefore, all parties, both pro and anti SAITM camps are awaiting a fair solution for the SAITM issue without allowing the issue to lead to a volatile situation as it has become a game played by certain parties risking the lives of the youth.