Official committee report says Government agencies misled by school authorities

Malabe private medical venture
  • Repeated warnings by SLMC regarding the real position ignored by parents
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

The entire process of setting up the controversial private medical school at Malabe was flawed, a high-powered official committee has charged. The committee, headed by Health Ministry Secretary Dr. Ravindra Ruberu, said the private medical school authorities particularly its founder Dr. Neville Fernando had misled Government agencies and despite repeated warnings by the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) regarding the real status of its medical degrees, parents continued to enrol their children in response to SAITM advertisements.

The committee confirmed that the accreditation of foreign and overseas-connected medical universities lies with the SLMC and that the future of the medical school of the South Asian Institute of Technology and Management (SAITM) is a decision the SLMC has to make.

“… the SLMC should decide whether the accreditation should be denied or conditional accreditation or full accreditation should be granted,” it said, in the report which was handed over to President Mahinda Rajapaksa last Thursday by Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena. The SLMC is the only regulatory body that accredits foreign medical colleges which allows those graduates to practise in Sri Lanka once they pass the Examination for Registration to Practise Medicine (ERPM) – earlier known as the Act 16 exam.
The probe followed complaints and concerns by the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) and the SLMC that the institute had not followed proper procedures. It had registered as a Board of Investment (BOI) enterprise, not as a medical university and not obtained SLMC sanction.

Much of these concerns were reported by the Sunday Times on September 18, last year, headlined, ‘Management sees guinea pig students as way out of crisis.’

The committee comprising Dr. H.R.U. Indrasiri (the Health Ministry’s Deputy Director-General for Education, Training and Research), Prof. Jayantha Jayawardena (Director of the Post-Graduate Institute of Medicine), Dr. Palitha Abeykoon (former Director of the World Health Organization) and Mrs. A.R. Ahamed (the Health Ministry’s Legal Officer), made a strong recommendation that in future any application for a private medical college must be considered by a joint committee comprising representatives from the Health Ministry, BOI, SLMC and the University Grants Commission (UGC) while also seeking the views of the relevant trade unions and professional associations.

“The approval to establish a medical faculty and the degree awarding status should be granted only following such an agreement,” the report, a copy of which is in the possession of the Sunday Times, said.

The committee said SAITM should apply to the SLMC for accreditation and the SLMC should respond by initiating the process. “Whether this should be done before or after completion of the new hospital, has to be resolved by the SLMC. It is desirable to commence the process as soon as possible since students have already been admitted after the Gazette notification and it is necessary to monitor the academic and administrative conditions,” the report said.

It noted that even after the newspaper announcement of the Health Ministry that SAITM should suspend enrolment of new students for the medical degree until the issues are resolved, it had made a public advertisement to enrol the 5th batch. The committee dealt at length with the process that SAITM and its founder Dr. Fernando followed, finding flaws in the process. For example, it said when SAITM applied for BOI approval there was no medical degree involved in the courses which included health sciences.
“Thus it was established without a Medical Degree Programme.”

The BOI had said that SAITM should seek approval from the Health Ministry prior to starting training in health sciences and that it is permitted to offer degrees only after affiliating to a recognized foreign university, both of which, the committee states, were not done as the evidence shows. Furthermore, two batches of students were taken in without prior approval from the Health Ministry or the SLMC.
Referring to a letter written by Dr. Neville Fernando to the BOI stating that “the Health Ministry approval has been obtained”, the committee observed that no such approval had been obtained from the Ministry.
The committee also found that several statements in letters written by Dr. Fernando to the BOI and other authorities were incorrect.

It also said that students for the medical degree programme were admitted in September 2009 much before SAITM got official confirmation of affiliation with the Russian-based Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy (NNSMA) - another violation of the rules.

It referred to repeated warnings by the SLMC to the public in respect of the legal position of SAITM and its medical degree programme which had said SAITM advertisements were misleading and had incorrect information.

In the discussion with SAITM officials, the report also said….“on a question posed to them, the officials admitted that they had admitted two students who did not meet the current SLMC criteria for admission and that they will ensure this will not be repeated.” In the observation, the committee states that in this batch of students it appears that “at least” two do not meet the criteria.

Meanwhile, health circles are perturbed that the Director of Private Health Sector Development of the Health Ministry at that time, Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva, had allegedly issued a letter that the “……ministry approves the project in principle” and “congratulates SAITM on establishing a high-tech hospital for teaching in Malabe”.

What authority did he have, queried many sources, pointing out also a “conflict of interest” in the light of speculation that his offspring is a student at Malabe. The Sunday Times contacted the residence of Mr. Fernando yesterday, but he was not available for comment.

GMOA happy with report but has reservations

Our concerns have been substantiated, said GMOA Assistant Secretary Dr. Sankalpa Marasinghe, when contacted by the Sunday Times. While “happy with the observations overall”, Dr. Marasinghe, however, expressed reservations that the committee had gone beyond its mandate to suggest a way out of the mess for SAITM.

He urged the authorities including the Health Ministry, BOI and the judiciary to act on the findings, particularly to look into the involvement of non-authorized officers.

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