It is said that Sri Lanka has a ‘free education’ system and a ‘free health service’. To some extent, it is true as the Government schools and hospitals do not levy fees legally from students and patients. However, in a sense, one cannot call the country’s education and the health services ‘free’ because authorities have developed various methods to levy money from the students and the patients or push them to the wall, where they have to spend money for the same services.
It is a well-known fact that the Government schools, especially those categorized as ‘popular schools’ solicit hundreds of thousands of rupees as ‘donations’ when students are admitted to them.
In fact, they are not donations but some sort of ransom. For the past several decades, the Education Ministers have been saying in the month of January each year that they would not allow Principals to receive this type of “donations” but except for one or two incidents, where Principals were caught, no student can get admitted to most of the schools in the country without paying this “donation.”
Trade Unions in the education and health sectors as well as Opposition and Leftist political parties are occasionally clamouring and sometimes taking trade union action against the purported moves by the Governments to privatise education and the health services.
But they turn a blind eye when some of the sections of these services were left to be privatised in a subtle manner during the past two decades. Interestingly, it is the very people who are shouting at the top of their voices against privatisation who are implementing this subtle method of privatisation and benefitting from it.One cannot deny the fact that today’s students cannot pass the GCE Ordinary Level and the Advanced Level examinations without attending tuition classes.
The situation is such that the OL and AL students of even the most prestigious schools in the country are attending tuition classes. The irony is that in some cases it is the same teachers who are teaching in Government schools, who are conducting these tuition classes.And a considerable number of such teachers are those who are against privatisation of education. In short, education above Year 10 at the Government schools has been unofficially privatised with the help of those against privatisation.
In the health sector, the privatisation is making inroads in an even subtle manner, with the help of some of the doctors. The purported scarcity of medicine, especially expensive ones, is one factor that compels the patients to spend money on them and sometimes to go to the private hospitals. Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne had to ban prescription of blood tests to be done at private laboratories for the in-house patients at Government hospitals some time ago. And the private sector having well-known that their businesses would thrive has opened so many permanent private laboratories around Government hospitals.It is logical to conclude that it is the doctors who are shouting against privatisation and not the patients who want those tests to be done at private hospitals.
At the same time, authorities had announced several times that plans were afoot to issue bills to the patients at the Government hospitals just for their information on the expenditure that the Government incurs on the services provided to them.It is also a well-known fact that some of the doctors citing the shortage of medicines and certain facilities such as certain tests at the Government hospitals persuade and guide the patients towards private hospitals where they practise.
One service in the health sector that is almost fully privatised by now is the service of attendants. There was a time when relatives of in-house patients at the Government hospitals had to beg with the doctors and the nurses to stay in the wards with their patients. Rarely were those requests entertained in those days. However, now the doctors and the nurses force the relatives to find somebody to stay with the patients at the wards. And there are people to be hired for this purpose in and around the wards and the hospitals. They charge at will, sometimes Rs. 2,500 per night, for this service.
And now there are unregistered companies that hire such private attendants and these private attendants take charge of three or four patients or sometimes more than that at a time. Can we call education and health ‘free’?