by Edward Gunawardena
Commencing primarily with the Socio-political changes of 1956 a strong lobby has evolved against the setting up of private educational institutions.
It was free – education that had provided the momentum for this historic change and it was free education, and the Central Schools that were blossoming as centres of learning that provided the backbone of the ruling class and the bureaucracy in the post 1956 era.
A resentment towards the english speaking products of the public schools that had taken root under colonialism was a natural outcome.
English was the weapon of the elite. To further neutralize the ‘kaduwa’ private schools were taken over. The University of Ceylon modeled on Oxford and Cambridge by Robert Marrs and Ivor Jennings was not to remain exclusive. Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas were given university status. Education from primary school to University graduation became a state monopoly; and Sinhala the language of the state.
The ‘babes’ of this cultural revolution revealed in this change. But in less than three decades the country began to face new challenges. The collapse of communism, globalization and the dramatic emergence of technology particularly Information Technology began to convince all and sundry that no state could survive in isolation. A revival for the desire to learn English surfaced in a big way.
The demand for education began to rapidly outgrow the available facilities. Places in Universities and even at the primary level in schools were limited. Private sector support became the only alternative.
A large number of institutions cropped up providing educational opportunities abroad. International schools started providing even primary level education. English became the medium of instruction in these institutions. Even die hard chauvinists, non-english speaking politicians as well as the new rich began to send their children to these institutions. Access to foreign degrees became easier, not to mention even bottom level foreign employment.
It is evident from the article in the Sunday Times of 29th March by Isuru Kaviratne entitled ‘Private Campus, ‘unfit’ to produce Doctors’, that there still exists a lobby albeit small and politically motivated against private educational institutions. Reading this article, particularly the headline, one gets the impression that this institution South Asian Institute of Technology & Management (SAITM) which is affiliated to one of Russia’s leading higher education institutions in Medicine has been mischievously downgraded to discourage prospective applicants.
When thousands of the country’s sick struggle to get accommodation in the islands well equipped, well managed private hospitals to say that only state hospitals can provide proper clinical training is puerile and unconvincing.
Mr. Weerakkody President of the Colombo Medical Faculty students Union has stated that any one with Rs. 5.5 M could enter this institute. Does this mean that anyone with money could get a medical degree from the Nizhny Novgorod State Academy of Medicine in Russia. A rather thoughtless sentiment.
Mr. Weerakkody also says that facilities at several medical faculties of state universities have to be expanded and developed. This is the crux of the problem. The state has no resources to improve the medical faculties. Staffing and equipping have fallen back. What is the use of clinical training without a grasp of the course work?
It is little wonder that medical graduates from some of these universities do not wish to mention the university with their MBBS qualification . Doctors as well as medical students need to ask themselves the question, why is it that there are so many roadside signs reading – MBBS (Sri Lanka) and not the university?
Is there also the possibility that an MBBS from a foreign university will lead to a status problem?
A major concern though not openly voiced arises out of the necessity for students to know a recognized foreign language to obtain a degree from a Russian, Japanese, American or UK university. English for example gives access to some of the best internet libraries in medical studies enabling students to achieve high standards and professional recognition.
This possibility that SAITM offers is perceived as a real threat to the majority of our students who enter universities having been compelled by circumstances not to look beyond Sinhala or Tamil. And it is this fear that some narrow minded politicians are exploiting & mislead students.
This is a serious sociological problem that should be of concern to our education planners. Urban youths who have had exposure to the English language race ahead of the others in professional disciplines. It is these youths that are preferred by the private sector; and ‘in medicine particularly, it is they who readily qualify for higher degrees and scholarships. The woeful shortage of specialists/consultants is a natural consequence.
Good private medical colleges will certainly help in eliminating this deficiency.
The charging of high fees and the profit motive has also been put forward as an argument against private institutions. They conveniently ignore the fact that the taxpayer has to bear the high cost of state medical education. Furthermore the reduction of the outflow of foreign exchange & the possibility of attracting foreign students are other noteworthy advantages.
Many do not appear to know that universities abroad too which are preferred by foreign students also make profit. Apart from funding research and development the high fees that foreign students pay are utilized to subsidise the local students. No entrepreneur will launch on a private educational institute ignoring the profit factor. But we should not grudge our own people making a profit and paying taxes rather than foreign educational institutions making a profit out of the fees of our students.
The questions that need to be addressed are:
01. Can our universities absorb all those who qualify for admission?
02. Can the state provide more universities?
03. Have our universities adequate facilities and resources for research?
04. Are the academic standards of our universities and the quality of their degrees adequately monitored? ‘No’ is the answer to all the above questions. In such a backdrop: a) If a student is qualified for admission, b) If he can find the money c) If it is the wish of the parents to give their child a medical education even in a private institution, opposing the emergence of a private medical institute with acceptable credentials will only deprive a deserving sector of society to As fundamental right to an education of its choice.
The argument that there will be no further job vacancies for doctors after 2010 sounds hilarious. Even if the population of Sri Lanka remains static & deceases decrease the need for doctors will continue to rise if the country’s medical services are to be maintained at a satisfactory level.
In conclusion it need to be said that our medical students should not be under the delusion that medical education in our universities is the best.
There are lessons to be learnt from the medical services of countries like Russia, Cuba and the Eastern European states relevant to this country. The inclusion of disciplines like sociology, and history have helped doctors from these universities to understand and empathize better with the people that they serve. Our own doctors who have qualified in Russia, serving in several of our leading hospitals have certainly helped to raise the level of dedication and efficiency in the local medical scene. Students entering SAITM who qualify as doctors may not find employment in Sri Lanka,, but they will certainly be marketable even in developed countries.