Management sees ‘guinea-pig’ students as way out of crisis

Malabe College, Higher Education Ministry, GMOA on collision course
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Hansani Munasinha

What will the future hold for 216 students was the burning issue that came to the fore as the controversy dogging the private “Malabe Medical College” reached a flashpoint, with the Higher Education Ministry, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) and the owners on a collision course last week.

Amidst much confusion and mystery over the whole process of setting up the private medical college, confounded by an overload of information in the public arena, Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake issued the Gazette Extraordinary 1721/19 on August 30, recognizing the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (Pvt) Ltd., (SAITM). By this order and subject to the conditions specified, SAITM has been recognised as a degree-awarding institution for the “purpose of developing higher education……leading to the award of the Degree of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS)”. (See box for some of the conditions)

This order shall apply to students seeking admission to SAITM on or after the date of the coming into force of this order, the Gazette states categorically. There is an anomaly in the Gazette as it clearly ignores the four intakes of students comprising 216, stressed medical professionals as well as the public. A majority felt that these “innocent children” as they are ironically called, will be the “leverage” that both the Government and SAITM, headed by Dr. Neville Fernando, would use to “legalize” and clear up the massive fiasco that has been the Malabe Medical College.

SAITM students will be able to do their practicals in this hospital that is coming up. Pic by Athula Devapriya

With the GMOA pointing out that these students and parents have paid an initial Rs. 6.5 million for a half-baked operation, the beginnings of which are bogged down in much-muddied waters, the plea of many professionals is that the Government should not allow the Malabe owners to use these students as “human shields” to get their way.

While sympathizing with the parents and students who have become pawns of false promises by the owners, GMOA’s Assistant Secretary Dr. Upul Gunasekara called for an immediate halt to student recruitment as well as all activity at the Malabe Medical College to investigate financial frauds as they have misled parents with bogus advertisements.

We urge the government to negotiate with the Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy in Russia to transfer these students there, so that they can complete their studies in Russia. Then they can return to Sri Lanka, sit and pass the Examination for Registration to Practice Medicine (ERPM or Act 16) and be absorbed into the medical service here, he said, while many professionals including senior doctors questioned the “so-called gullibility” of the parents who enrolled their children at Malabe without checking its credentials.

He, however, stressed that the GMOA was not opposed to private medical colleges but first there is a strong requirement to ascertain whether the country needs them. If so, the correct procedure of setting them up should be followed to the letter.

It is surprising that many doctors themselves who know the stringent systems of medical schools and the need for major aspects such as clinical work, put their children there, a senior professional said. The Malabe Medical College has around 40 children of doctors, some of whom are quite senior and even GMOA members, it is learnt.

Another anomaly in the Gazette, pointed out by many who have been following this controversy in the public interest, is the clear non-mention of the 20% scholarships that private medical faculties were to be required to offer.

These scholarships have been touted over and over again by the Government whenever it refers to its vision of making Sri Lanka the “hub of higher education”, particularly with regard to private/foreign medical faculties.

Taking just one aspect of the Gazette, the Sunday Times focused on the students already at the Malabe Medical College and unlike in the well-known song ‘Que Sera Sera’ where it is said, “What will be will be”, checked out from many sources the fate of these students.

“When the matter is tabled in Parliament, I am sure that the Government will bring in an amendment to take all the children under this scheme so that they can graduate from SAITM,” said SAITM Chairman Dr. Fernando, assuring that the students would be starting their clinicals at three private hospitals this week. This is until we set up our very own 1002-bed hospital with all facilities, he said, pointing out from his office window the construction work going on at a site across the paddy fields.

The Medical Ordinance needs to be amended to allow the SAITM degree to be awarded to the first four batches of students, SAITM’s Medical Faculty Director Dr. Sameera Senaratne added.

However, Higher Education Ministry Secretary Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawaratne while confirming that “provisional” degree-awarding status had been given to the Malabe Medical College under the conditions mentioned in the Gazette, added that the requirements, in addition to several others, included the building of the professorial wards.

When asked specifically about the students who enrolled before August 30, 2011, he said, “We cannot consider them. They will have to take to the twinning programme with the Russian University.” To the query whether the Russian National Accreditation Agency (NAA) had recognized SAITM, he said, “I think so”.

“Not bothered,” was Dr. Nawaratne’s reply, when questioned whether the SAITM medical degree will be valid in other countries.

Dr. Nawaratne, when questioned whether there have been indications that SAITM should stop admitting new students until the hospital including the professorial units are built, said, “I don’t know, to my knowledge, no”.

Meanwhile, SAITM’s Dr. Senaratne said SAITM did not have Russian NAA accreditation because NAA needs to monitor the institution for five years before recognition. Nizhny Novgorod Academy has held discussions with the Russian Ministers of Higher Education and Public Health about SAITM, he said.
Citing the Malabe Medical Faculty as a bad precedent, many were the requests to the Government to “do it right” with regard to the setting up of private or foreign medical faculties. “Only then will we be able to attract those who are in fact watching and waiting to come in. The system must be sacrosanct,” said a veteran medical administrator, a view echoed by many.

(Next week: A closer look at SAITM and how it got recognition)

How a private medical college should be set up

Amidst varying views, the Sunday Times was able to define the path to setting up a private medical college. Here are the steps to be followed:

  • A comprehensive application should be submitted to the Minister of Higher Education to set up a private medical faculty with degree-awarding status. As medicine is a specialized subject, there should be stringent controls and the applying organization should provide proof beyond any doubt how competent it is to set up a private medical faculty. Some of the categories that the organization should provide specific proof in should be financial, technical, teaching cadre as well as infrastructure including the ability to set up a teaching hospital.
  • The Minister, will then, appoint a high-powered committee (under the Universities Act) to go into the application in-depth and submit a report.
  • Thereafter, based on that report, the Minister will grant or refuse permission to set up this private medical faculty with degree-awarding status.
  • Before recruitment of students, a review panel would be sent to report on the status. This review panel would include members from the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) as it is the body which sets and maintains standards for medical education in Sri Lanka.
  • When the medical faculty is functioning, the monitoring body, which would be the SLMC, would send teams at least twice a year to inspect and report back on the maintenance of standards.
  • If standards drop, the institution would be warned and given time to correct them. As a last resort, the Minister can de-recognize the medical faculty from being a degree-awarding institute.

Conditions set for SAITM

Here are some of the conditions set for SAITM by Gazette No. 1721/19 of August 30, 2011:

  • Maintain an appropriate student staff ratio taking into consideration the permanent academic staff and the extended faculty of specialists in undergraduate teaching institutions.
  • Provide a commitment, which is continued and uninterrupted, in respect of:-

(a) the teaching to be extended by the faculty and the academic programme leading to the award of Degree of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) including such modifications relating to terminology as may be required.

(b) the facilities to be put in place relating to the conduct of clinical training by the faculty either at its own teaching hospital or in agreement with any other teaching hospital.

(c) establishment of professorial units within a period of eighteen months from the date of the coming into force of this Order.

  • Submit within one month from the coming into force of this Order to the University Grants Commission (hereinafter referred to as “the Commission”) in accordance with the recommendations of the institutional review panel,-

(a) the schemes of recruitment of appropriate academic and administrative staff:

(b) the final copy of the corporate plan for five years; and

(c) the Deed of Trust relating to the establishment of the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (Pvt) Ltd (SAITM).

  • Submit to the Commission within six months from the coming into force of this Order the letter of offer issued by the Bank of Ceylon in respect of the borrowing of Rupees Six Hundred Million (Rupees 600,000,000) as a construction loan for the purpose of constructing the professorial units.

6. Submit to the Commission within one month from the coming into force of this Order proof of adequate financial resources to ensure the proper functioning and administration of its educational programme and the Financial Plan for a period of five years with such details as may be required together with provisions for capital expenditure Budget.

When the Sunday Times asked Higher Education Ministry Secretary Dr. Nawaratne what would happen if SAITM does not fulfil the criteria, he pointed out, “We will reconsider the degree-awarding rights given to the institution. We could extend the period of 18 months by another three months or so. If it still fails to meet the requirements we can withdraw the degree-awarding rights given to it.”

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