Feb 10, 2017

SAITM: beware of becoming a bite

What this country needs immediately is far-reaching reforms in education from preschool to higher education including university and tertiary education. The Court of Appeal decision on January 31 (2017) notwithstanding, anti SAITM protests continue on the streets and are given much coverage in media.

The Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) and the GMOA live on these protests. Within universities SAITM has been turned into a battle cry between competitive political groupings in establishing dominance over the student population.  

The present political leadership of the IUSF is compelled to keep up the heat in keeping out their political rivals at bay. So is the GMOA leadership that wants to maintain their unethical and immoral hold over the health sector.  

The whole campaign against SAITM is without any common sense, any rationale and without any sanity.    

IF private medical colleges are to be protested against on the basis of allowing undue privileges for rich students, then the Kotalawala Defence Academy (KDA) that sells medical degrees for money should also be protested against.    

The Act 16 Exam should be scrapped for students who go abroad, spend dollars out of our foreign earnings and come back with foreign medical degrees.    

They should not be recognised for Health Department appointments for they usurp opportunities that should go to medical doctors passing out from State universities.    

But none of it is being talked of. None of it is protested against. Thus the question, why only SAITM?

The most popular argument against SAITM is about its quality. Even the SLMC is known to have manipulated the recommendations of its own fact finding committee under Chairman Prof Carlo Fonseka, who told media he was not interested in another job at his age, but took over the Chairmanship two weeks later on January 2nd 2012 for no other reason but to please President Rajapaksa.

Quality cannot be compromised and is an accepted norm. That then should apply to State universities as well.

What quality is there in Rajarata University to turn out medical doctors? Quality is not only about clinical facilities. It is also about the availability of qualified permanent academics. It is about the quality of laboratories and libraries as well.

In fact all Sri Lankan universities are ranked below 2,000 with Colombo University ranked 2171 in the world.

That therefore is the best out of the bad lot.

The KDA is ranked 9,938 (webometrics.info/en/Asia/Sri%20Lanka%20) in world rankings but its medical college is officially recognised and is ironically accepted by the GMOA and the IUSF without any fuss.

We have an SLMC that gave all recognition to the KDA medical faculty and has registered and recognised medical degrees from over 40 foreign faculties (As at 08 Feb. 2017) whose standard was never questioned.    Among them are foreign universities that cannot have any quality based on their ranking among world universities (Grodno State Medical University of Belarus ranked 5,566).

The GMOA has never opposed or protested against such registrations. Perhaps the IUSF is clueless about these.

The SLMC itself has to be restructured. As it is, medical doctors dominate the whole SLMC giving the GMOA an ugly presence within it, without its label.

The SLMC thus remains a politically manipulated council. It was proved beyond doubt when Prof Carlo Fonseka was appointed its Chair by then Minister of Health Maithripala Sirisena, for purely President Rajapaksa’s political need, despite protests by health sector trade unions.

Such manipulations would continue in the SLMC as long as its present constituting method is allowed.

In contrast the British General Medical Council (GMC) is constituted by 12 members, 6 lay and 6 medical members, all appointed following an open and independent appointments process.

These “lay members” as they are termed, are all highly reputed professionals from other disciplines and represents the civil society.    Absence of similar lay members appointed through an open and independent process has made the SLMC a lopsided and manipulated council.

Within such politically manipulated and influenced decision making, this grossly unjust political opportunism and sectarianism have eclipsed major issues in education and made them almost irrelevant.    Education in Sri Lanka has to be shaken up from the bottom itself and taken through serious, far reaching reforms. Education has to be democratised, its content upgraded and updated in terms of syllabi and curricula, the quality of the class room and teaching improved and modernised and school administration made efficient without bureaucratic constraints among most other issues.

Society has to be drawn into a serious broad based discourse on education policy and reforms in drafting a “White Paper” on national education.

Privately paid education is just one aspect within such a national policy. Privately owned SAITM per se is therefore no issue and is very wrongly projected by those who haven’t even read the Sessional Paper 24 of 1943 that is commonly called “Kannangara Educational Reforms” adopted by the State Council then.

Kannangara Reforms are not about providing “free education”. It is a total distortion to say Kannangara Reforms were all about providing education “free” and to hail Dr. Kannangara as “Father of Free Education”.

He is in fact the “Father of National Education”. In a country that had no national education policy, the whole purpose of reforms as recorded in the Sessional Paper 24 aims at establishing a common formal education system nationally with a common curriculum with standard national examinations for all pupils.

It says:“The secondary school should not permit their curricula to be dominated by examinations at all, but in so far as examinations determine the course of studies, they should be Ceylon examinations based upon local needs and conditions” (Sessional Papers XXIV - p/47 for more details)

Equally important is the vision of the “Special Committee on Education in Ceylon” chaired by Dr. C.W.W Kannangara that has never been matched by any post-Independent effort in reforming and improving education.     Not even by the Prof. Ousmund Jayaratne Committee in 1972 that turned all universities into a single “University of Sri Lanka”.

Since independence, national education as designed and fashioned by Colombo based Sinhala educationists have completely violated and polluted the Kannangara vision spelt out as:

“Our fundamental need is to weld the heterogeneous elements of the population in to a nation. The existence of peoples of different racial origins, religions and languages is not peculiar to Ceylon, and history shows that it is by no means impossible to develop a national consciousness even among a population as diverse as ours. There is, indeed, a large common element in our cultures already, and under the stimulation of educational development the notion of national unity has been growing among us. In planning the future of education in Ceylon we should strive to increase the common element and foster the idea of nationhood.”(ibid / p-10)

For such purpose(s), the Special Committee agreed and decided education has to be for all and thus should be established as a “Right”.

At its final session of deliberations which was the 89the session, State Council member from Wattegama, Abeyratne Ratnayake proposed the State should fund education to enable the poor to have formal primary and secondary education and was adopted.

Thus State funded education is what is interpreted now as “free” education, which in fact is not free. It only meant, where parents cannot afford the cost of education, the State would take over the cost of education with “tax payers’ money”.

Most importantly, State funding of education that included the famous “Central College” programme as well, never proposed closing down or taking over of privately owned and managed schools that then totalled over 1,100 including Buddhist schools for girls and boys.

Thus “right to education” was guaranteed with tax payers’ money where parents could not afford to pay. Even after Madam Bandaranaike’s Government took over private schools in 1962 that were State assisted, we still have around 44 private schools, that prepare students for the G.C.E O/L and A/L exams, who are also eligible to enter State universities, along with pupils from Government owned schools.

Apart from such “paid for” education, that the GMOA and the IUSF say is “commodifying” education in a free market economy, they accept “International Schools” run by private companies without grudging.   These International Schools that have absolutely no standards laid down and are outright commercialisations of formal education outside the national education system that “Kannangara Reforms” established, go without any protests.

What this country needs now is not a decision on SAITM or on any other privately owned educational institutes.

What this country needs immediately is far reaching reforms in education from preschool to higher education including university and tertiary education.

Clearly the National Institute of Education is a waste of tax payers’ money. They have over decades proved that they were not resourceful enough to plan and propose any worthy changes to education.

Nor have the academics and their Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) that used the slogan of six percent for education to hype their struggle for better salaries that had by then hit a low.    Since then FUTA is only interested in Grade One admissions to popular schools. No teacher trade union raises issues on the crisis the country is facing with a rusted, screeching education system.

Education, like all other national requirements, cannot be carried through with patchwork whether in blue, green or red. It is reason why there has to be a social dialogue for national educational reforms.    A dialogue that can raise issues about content and quality in State universities, in teacher training faculties, in school administration, in school curricula, in both school and university syllabi and with many more issues and areas in education.

Outside such dialogue SAITM remains a tasty bite for ugly sectarian and political opportunists.

- Kusal Perera
(Pic courtesy : Dailymirror.lk)