By Nirmala Kannangara
Accusations have been leveled against the Higher Education Minister and the University Grants Commission (UGC) by the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) for granting the degree awarding status to a ‘boutique’ where substandard health science is taught.
Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake has come under severe criticism by the GMOA for offering the degree awarding status to the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) through Gazette notification No: 1721/ 9 of August 30, 2011. The GMOA queries as to what knowledge he (Dissanayake) has in health science to grant a degree awarding status to a substandard university, that would produce inferior doctors, thus putting the lives of patients at risk.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Assistant Secretary GMOA Dr. Upul Gunasekara said that they were not surprised about Minister Dissanayake’s move to give government recognition to a substandard ‘boutique’ where health science education is ‘sold’ for an enormous sum of money making it almost as expensive as a reputed foreign university.
“The day after Minister S. B. Dissanayake took over the Higher Education Ministry, he said that he will allow the establishment of private medical colleges in the country,” said Dr. Gunasekara.
He also blamed Minister Dissanayake for his failure to provide the necessary facilities for state medical colleges, which was said to be due to a lack of funds and he furthermore queried how Dissanayake got the funds to grant a loan to SAITM.
“At a time when Minister Dissanayake has deliberately failed to provide the necessary facilities to the Professorial Units at the Rajarata and Batticaloa Medical Faculties over the past several years, what is the motive behind his sudden decision to grant SAITM a soft loan of Rs.600 million? On what basis was this loan granted? If the government has enough funds to grant loans to a private university where children from affluent families study, why could they not spend half that amount to provide the necessary facilities to the Rajarata and Batticaloa medical faculties which are attended by children from poor families? Why is the state affording stepmotherly treatment to government universities?” questioned Dr. Gunasekara.
According to Dr. Gunasekera granting such a loan to an institution which is headed by a person who is over 60 years of age, is a violation of the Companies Act.
“If the head of the institution is over 60 years of age the government cannot grant any loans. But in this instance the cabinet has approved the Rs. 600 million soft loan to SAITM despite its institutional head being well over 60. On whose advice was this loan given? Was it because Chairman SAITM, Dr. Neville Fernando was an ex SLFP MP?” he asked.
According to Dr. Gunasekera this private medical college (PMC) is an ill-conceived, illegal and substandard institution which has so far failed to comply with the standards stipulated by the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) and has disregarded SLMC public notices and warnings.
“As per Medical Council guidelines, this university must have a fully-fledged teaching hospital and fulfill minimum standards prior to student recruitment. SAITM began registration of students without hospital facilities for clinical training. Since the GMOA is firmly against any government hospital allowing clinical training for the PMC students, they have now come up with a plan to build a 1002 bed hospital adjoing to their campus in Malabe,” said Dr. Gunasekara.
Dr. Gunasekara further queried as to how the PMC administration could vouch that their students would be allowed to undergo clinical training on patients in this planned private hospital as it is a known fact that patients in private hospitals do not allow medical students or even junior doctors to do experimental studies on them.
“In this scenario will SAITM once again make a request to government hospitals to allow their students to follow clinical training or will they run the 1002 bed hospital as a non paying hospital,” queried Dr. Gunasekara.
Meanwhile Dr. Gunasekera said that the medical students at Rajarata and Batticaloa are still waiting for a fully fledged professorial unit in order to begin their final year work. They are facing delays due to lack of professors, buildings and other facilities.
SAITM in Malabe began its operations in September 2009 as a non state higher education training institute in partnership with the Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy of the Russian Federation (NNSMA) to offer a degree in medical sciences through a cross boarder arrangement. According to the SAITM, it is a twin programme course where students undergo lectures for four years in Sri Lanka and the final year including clinical training will be carried out in the NNSMA.
“Although SAITM promised as such, they are yet to send their first batch to Russia for clinical training. The university is charging very high fees in order to send them to Russia for clinical training but instead of sending them overseas they are trying to obtain the clinical training facility in government hospitals free of charge,” alleged Dr. Gunasekera.
According to the SLMC, medical education as a twin programme is unacceptable in Sri Lanka according to the Medical Ordinance and world wide too. The SLMC is the statutory body established by the Medical Ordinance No: 24 of 1924, in order to safeguard and maintain the standards of medical education and medical practice in the country. By assigning this task to the SLMC, the government has fulfilled its obligations to the safety of the patient care delivery system.
“Although the SLMC has clearly stated that this twin programme would not receive SLMC recognition, surprisingly this PMC keeps on recruiting students for a locally and internationally non accredited degree charging Rs. 6.5 million from each student,” alleged Dr. Gunasekara.
“This is a typical fraud carried out by SAITM which could be compared to the infamous Sakvithi Ranasinghe swindle. It is surprising as to why the government has so far failed to take any action against this bogus ‘boutique’,” claimed Dr. Gunasekara.
Dr. Gunasekara further alleged that the SAITM does not have qualified academic staff to lecture its students. “A minimum level of qualifications is required to become a lecturer in medicine. However the majority of lecturers at SAITM are foreign graduates with a basic degree. The majority including the Director SAITM have failed the ACT 16 examination, which must be passed in order to practice as a doctor in Sri Lanka,” said Dr. Gunasekera.
He said that the GMOA’s decision to take trade union action against Minister Dissanayake’s move to offer the degree awarding status to SAITM had to be called off at the request of Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena. “The Health Minister too is strictly against Dissanayake’s move as he had never consulted the Health Minister or the Ministry Secretary before granting this status to the Malabe PMC,” he added.
Meanwhile the Health Ministry has decided to legalise the minimum qualification needed to enroll as a private medical faculty and a five member committee has been appointed by the minister to look into the illegal activities carried out by the SAITM.
Refuting allegations leveled against the SAITM, Director SAITM Dr. Sameera Senaratne told The Sunday Leader that they are awaiting SLMC recognition and have provided all the necessary facilities to all the students. “When we met the SLMC officials recently we were told that the SLMC recognition would be granted to SAITM very soon as they are happy with the facilities we have provided,” he said.
When asked as to why SAITM has misled the general public by stating that they are offering clinical training in government hospitals, that they have received the SLMC recognition and that their professors are from state medical faculties, Dr. Senaratne said that the SAITM has never misled the people.
“We are in the process of obtaining SLMC recognition soon. Although we are not allowed to send our students to government hospitals for clinical training, we have got the approval from Minister S. B. Dissanayake and the Provincial Health Ministry to use the Homagama, Thalangama and Avissawella hospitals for training. It was the Provincial Medical Director Dr . Amal Harsha de Silva who got this approval for us,” he added.
Meanwhile Chairman SAITM Dr. Neville Fernando told The Sunday Leader that he would have gone to court for an injunction order against the GMOA but said that he did not want to embarrass President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government.