SRI Lanka’s medical sphere is about to get sick again. The current standoff between the government and doctors over the Malabe Medical College has reached serious proportions.
On Wednesday the strike action led to the doctors demanding that the gazette notification empowering the medical college to award degrees be withdrawn by the Health Ministry unless they wish to face indefinite trade union action. The Health Minister responded by appointing a committee to study the matter and make relevant recommendations.
The Sri Lanka Government has made its stance clear in allowing private education institutions into the country. While the merits and demerits of such action have garnered vociferous discussion, the main problem pertaining to the Malabe Medical College has not been discussed in detail. There is also little in the media beyond exchange of views between the different parties.
Verité Research a media monitoring organisation has done its own investigations into the matter and it is worth considering their conclusions. In a report released by them on the reporting of the issue they note, “Verité Research has conducted its own investigation to support this analysis. South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) situated in Malabe, offers a medical degree as an ‘off-shore branch’ of the Niznhy Novgorod State Academy of Medicine in Russia (NNSAM).”
It goes on to point out that this university is on the list of universities approved by the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMC). Hence, those who qualify with an MBBS degree (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) from this university based in Russia, are entitled to do the Examination for Registration to Practice Medicine in Sri Lanka (ERPM) conducted by the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) in order to be granted a licence to practice medicine in Sri Lanka.
However the controversy is because the SLMC has held that this approval does not translate to SAITM because its Medical Ordinance does not automatically recognise an off-shore entity of an approved institution. This is the context of the controversy.
SAITM has already admitted several batches of students. Regardless of affiliation to NNSAM and recent recognition by the Ministry of Higher Education in Sri Lanka, SAITM would also require SLMC approval of its degree, without which a licence to practice in Sri Lanka cannot be issued to its medical degree holders. SLMC recognition in turn is dependent on physical facilities, staff, curriculum, clinical training, assessments; whose condition must meet SLMC specified standards.
Verité Research concludes that the above situation highlights disconnect between the current Government policy to liberalise higher education in Sri Lanka, and the existing institutional structure that ensures necessary oversight to protect the interest of students.
This means that the success of the new higher education policy will depend not simply on investment, but also on regulatory management of the new initiatives that will protect against the kind of pitfall that has befallen the students of SAITM.
It is clear that the government must work with the professional bodies of specific sectors to see how best they can expand high education institutions to provide qualifications for that relevant sector. The ministries or the government cannot simply issue gazette notifications giving approval to universities unless they are recognised professionally.
The losers in this are the students and both the government and the professional bodies have a responsibility to ensure that they do not waste their potential.