The SAITM medical degree issue should be resolved without further delay - Mahinda Rajapaksa

Two years of continuous protests and agitation by the student unions and the Government Medical Officers’ Association against the medical degree course offered by the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine ended last November due to the undertaking given by the government that this medical course will be abolished. Now however, the GMOA and the student unions have expressed concern that the government is preparing to renege on their pledge. Even though members of the government have been saying from time to time that the SAITM was started by my government, this is a private enterprise started by its owners, not by any government.

At the initial stages in 2008, SAITM was called the ‘South Asian Institute of Technology and Management’ and was to offer courses in Information Technology, Management and Finance, Engineering, Vocational Studies, Nursing, Languages and Health Sciences. No mention had been made in the original Board of Investment application about a medical degree course. The BOI had granted approval for the enterprise on the condition that approval will be obtained from the Ministry of Health before providing training in Health Sciences. SAITM had commenced enrolling students for a medical degree course from September 2009 onwards. 

From the very beginning, the Sri Lanka Medical Council had been warning the public by way of newspaper advertisements that they do not recognise the medical degree offered by SAITM. In February 2011, this institution changed its name to ‘South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine’. If any private educational establishment wishes to offer a course in medicine, it is entirely up to them to obtain the necessary approvals from the Sri Lanka Medical Council which is the body that oversees medical education and accredits and licences medical professionals in this country. 

A great deal of correspondence has passed back and forth between SAITM, the SLMC, the Health Ministry and the Higher Education Ministry from the time this medical course commenced at SAITM, but they have not been successful in obtaining accreditation for their medical course. My government never interfered in the work of the Medical Council which is an independent body. When the SAITM started its medical course, there was no established procedure whereby a private institution could be accredited to offer medical degree courses. There was no legal provision for the government to prohibit private institutions from commencing medical degree courses either. Since 2009, the SAITM medical degree course has existed in this grey area of the law and the regulatory framework. This can be described as a complication that has arisen due to a lacuna in the law.

After more than two years of agitation by the GMOA and the student unions, the yahapalana government finally announced that the SAITM medical degree will be abolished. Now the parties that spearheaded this agitation complain that this pledge is not being implemented. The government should ensure that there is no further disruption of medical education with university students taking to the streets and medical officers forced into taking trade union action on account of this disputed medical degree course.

Medical education in this country has been at a complete standstill since 2016. In a situation where the students who qualified to enter the medical faculties in 2016 have not yet commenced their courses, the students who passed the A/L examination in 2017 will also be awaiting entry into the medical faculties. Since clinical practice is mandatory in addition to lectures, medical faculties have difficulties in taking in a new batch without the previous one going on to the next stage.

Furthermore, the continuation of this dispute over standards and accreditation in medical education could also place the international status of all Sri Lankan medical degrees at risk. The SAITM issue has already come to the attention of the medical authorities in countries like Britain and Australia with which the Sri Lankan medical profession interacts very closely. Therefore this issue should be resolved in a just and reasonable manner without further delay. 

- Mahinda Rajapaksa

Former President of Sri Lanka

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