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The Court of Appeal’s verdict on the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) had ruffled quite a few feathers last week and evoked mixed responses from all quarters of the country.

While the arguments continue to be thrown back and forth, it is important for the nation to look at a more important aspect connected to the issue, which is the freedom of education.
On one hand, a vast section of the medical students attached to the State universities have expressed their dissatisfaction  and unwavering opposition to private medical faculties or univercsities and the subsequent decision have been frequently causing severe traffic congestions in Colombo.

The other side of the story that is being presented is the fact that every student has the right to education. The student has the right to study his or her field of interest whether they pay for it or not.

However, the question arises as to why medical students at State universities are opposing any moves for the establishment of a private medical university. Only a handful of students manage to enter the medical faculty and the rest who aspire to be doctors are compelled to go abroad to pursue their dreams.

On the other hand, there is also the question of as to why the Government Medical Association (GMOA) is fuelling the opposition. Is it because they do not want the number of doctors increased? Or, is it that they do not want the monopoly they hold on private practice to be broken, thus reducing their revenue from consultations?

Sri Lanka has a dearth of doctors. Accordingly, there is one doctor for some 1200 persons in the country.

Private institutions
Private institutions are not new in the field of education. There are ample private institutions providing degrees in fields such as Accountancy, Information Technology (IT) and Engineering in Sri Lanka. Why not medicine?

Even the Kotelawala Defence University awards medical degrees to students.

The university which was initially established for military personnel now recruits local and foreign students.

However, no one had voiced their opposition to the university when it started to award medical degrees.

There are private hospitals in Sri Lanka. There are doctors who do private practice and then there are quacks.

A concern raised by those protesting against SAITM is on how it is regulated. The education institutes, whether government or private, should be regulated by the Government.

IUSF protests verdict
The Inter-University Students Federation explained that they were vehemently opposed to the recent ruling that medical degree holders from SAITM were eligible for registration with the Sri Lanka Medical Council and would continue their struggle in this regard.

Acting Convener of the Federation, Mangala Maddumage pointed out that the Government had used the judiciary and the law to push forward their policy and undermine and ridicule the role of the Council.

The Federation was scheduled to meet the Council, which is the first respondent in the case, this week with regard to whether an appeal could be made by the Council to the Supreme Court seeking a reversal of the ruling.

He added that they would continue actions at the protest level and hold discussions with intellectuals on forums for intellectual discourse in relation to the matter.

“We don’t accept this verdict at all. We will continue the fight until the fraudulent degree selling shop in Malabe is scrapped,” said Maddumage.

JVP to appeal in the SC
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) said that they would appeal the recent Court of Appeal (CoA) ruling in the Supreme Court.
The decision was handed down by a two-member bench of Judges of the CoA including the Court’s president, President’s Counsel (PC) Justice Vijith K. Malalgoda and Justice S. Thurairaja PC.
The appeal calling for the reversal of the judgment will be filed during the course of the coming week.

JVP MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa alleged that the Government had continued to influence the judiciary on this matter. He was of the view that the judgment had not been made based on legal facts.
Dr. Jayatissa highlighted that the matter was not a question of legal arguments but one which had broader implications on the education and health of the citizens of the country and free education and free healthcare.

According to him, the decision was not one given for the people but a licence provided to an alleged fraudulent business entity.
He further emphasized that a request made at the onset of the trial proceedings for the Government Medical Officers Association to intervene by being made a third party to the case and a respondent  to be granted interim relief in this regard was denied by the Court.

Also, the second respondent in CA/WRIT/187/2016 is SAITM and Cabinet Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, Faiszer Musthapha PC is listed as one of the Counsells (along with his father, Faiz Musthapha PC and Riad Ameen) appearing on behalf of SAITM. This is a clear conflict of interest.

“On January 24, Minister Lakshman Kiriella told Parliament that the decision would come on January 31 and that everyone should respect it. Kiriella already knew the verdict. The Government had already taken a political decision on the matter and now they have obtained the legal protection for it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the GMOA issued a one week ultimatum to the Government, in particular to Minister of Health Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, and President Maithripala Sirisena, to resolve the matter concerning the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine, failing which they would embark on continuous trade union action including a strike.

The decision to take continuous trade union action and most probably go on strike was unanimously agreed upon by the General Committee of the Association and they are set to garner the support of stakeholders including associations of parents, student unions, the Federation of University Teachers Associations and nurses unions towards this end.

The Association has called on Dr. Senaratne to write to the Council and the Ministry of Higher Education stating his stance on the Council’s report regarding the matter and their recommendations and whether or not he accepted the Council’s report, and also to gazette the minimum standards for private medical colleges.   Assistant Secretary of the Association, Dr. H. Naveen De Soysa said that if Dr. Senaratne held the same position as the Council, then degree awarding by the Institute would have to be stopped.

When queried as to whether the Association opposed the establishment of private medical colleges in the country, he added that such was a policy decision to be taken by the Government.
He however added that even though individuals dreamed of becoming doctors, the quality of the medical education and service could not be comprised as such would risk the lives of patients.

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