Amid a simmering crisis over the recognition of medical degrees offered by South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM), its Chairman Dr. Neville Fernando, in an interview with Daily Mirror, says that he had complied with all the requirements in conducting this degree programme. The excerpts of the interview:
"In our institution, there are a large number of students with three As. They missed the entry to the state universities because even students with minimum qualifications are taken on the district quota system from areas like Mullaitivu and Buttala."
Q Over the current crisis situation, what is the way forward for SAITM?
In spite of all the protests, SAITM will go on. I started it not to make money. If I wanted money, I would have started a fixed deposit and stayed at home with income from interest. But, I answered the call of the then Minister of Higher Education, the late Prof. Wiswa Warnapala. He said that out of the 250,000 students sitting the G.C.E. Advanced Level Examination, around 100,000 passed it. They are suitable to enter the universities. But, only 18,000 are taken because the state does not have the facilities. He wanted to invest in private education. It is on his suggestion that I started this. At that time, I had sold my Asha Central Hospital for Rs.1.6 billion. I had enough money to start. I told him and he agreed. I got the go ahead. First, I wrote to Prof. Gamini Samaranayake, the then chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC). He wrote to me saying the Universities Act did not provide for private institutions. I knew there were universities under the BoI. I met Mr. Dhammika Perera, the biggest share entrepreneur in Sri Lanka. He gave permission and approved this. He asked me to get the permission of the Health Ministry. I got it. Then, he asked me to get affiliation to a recognized university. I did that as well. We went to Russia and found a university there. That MoU is still in force. In fact, there are professors who come to teach. They are in the island today. They were the observers of class final examination. We continue with that accreditation.
Q You are affiliated to a Russian university as you said. But, you offer a Sri Lankan medical degree. How does it happen?
When we went to the Sri Lanka Medical Council to get this approved, they said that the prevailing process could not be approved. But, we can exist as a degree awarding institution. We have that in writing. After that, we met the then Minister of Higher Education S.B. Dissanayake. We wanted the degree awarding status. There is a procedure. There are various review committees that come. It is only after that, the Minister can announce it in a gazette notification. We were given the degree awarding status. Students originally entered for MD. Some of them have two Cs and one S. They were weeded out by the UGC. They went to Russia.
Q According to the gazette notification issued, you have to follow a certain set of guidelines. How far have you adhered to them?
We have got a certificate of compliance from the respective authorities. We have fulfilled all the conditions in the gazette.
"There are various review committees that come. It is only after that, the Minister can announce it in a gazette notification. We were given the degree awarding status. "
Q After that court ruling was given, SLMC refused to recognize the degree. What is the next step?
They will be charged for contempt of court. The court has ordered them to give provisional registration. If they do not do it, they will go to jail. We will not do that.
Q At the end of the day, you need the cooperation of the SLMC. How viable is a confrontational approach?
The court decision is that the SLMC must give provisional registration. They will have to continue with it.
Q At the meeting with the Higher Education Ministry, they came up with some conditions for SAITM including the suspension of admissions. How are you going to comply with them?
We have not got any official communication indicating that admissions should be suspended. When it comes to that, we will take a decision afterwards.
Q They have proposed to conduct a separate examination. Are you ready for it?
We are prepared to sit for any exam. We have been giving a good education. But, it should not be an examination conducted by the Sri Lanka Medical Council. It must be conducted by an independent body like the UGC.
Q Why are you opposed to the examinationconducted by SLMC?
That is because they are all GMOA members. The Deans and the SLMC are part and parcel of the GMOA. We cannot get justice from that examination. That is why we are for an examination under the UGC. We are even alright with an international body, but not the SLMC.
"I met Mr. Dhammika Perera, the biggest share entrepreneur in Sri Lanka. He gave permission and approved this. He asked me to get the permission of the Health Ministry. I got it. Then, he asked me to get affiliation to a recognized university. I did that as well. "
Q What is your stand on this Act 16 Examination meant for students completing degrees at foreign universities?
Yes, it should be a common examination for state medical students, our students and foreign students. It is one common MCQ examination. Appointments should be given on the basis of results of the MCQ. That is what the state students are scared of. They know definitely that our students will top the list.
Q However, critics challenge the quality of medical education you offer. How do you respond?
We have 19 professors. All of them have worked in state universities and taught all these fellows who are shouting. If these professors are bad, the training of medical education received from them are also bad.
They are the best professors in the country today, teaching our students. That is why I am confident that our students, after passing out one day, would be efficient 100 percent. They will not go on strike. They will shave their faces, dress well.
Q The quality of clinical training given to your students is challenged. How would you respond?
That was accepted by the review committee. That committee came and met me. They met with the academic staff, students and the minor staff. They observed the laboratories. In their final discussion with our staff, they said they would give provisional registration, subject to certain conditions. It was mentioned in page 18. When the final meeting was held, this page was substituted. They said registration could not be given. This is a big fraud. I am going to hand this over to the CID. We can get the minutes according to the Right to Information Act. We have got the minutes even before that.
Q How do you respond to these critics in terms of different aspects of clinical training?
In the first two batches, we had only 25 students each. For one student, there must be seven patients. We had that ratio. Our students were trained well. They were given clinical exposure. Even now, after the degree, they are in hospitals following professors for clinical training.
Q How is their clinical training on forensic medicine?
We went to the Supreme Court for that and got a ruling. Our students had to be given Avissawella Hospital and the Kaduwela MoH area for community medicine. We went to Avissawella for Psychiatric and judicial medical training. For each subject, students had to pay Rs.50, 000. It is not free. These are children of taxpayers of this country. In the state universities, no fee is charged from students. It is also unethical.
Q As for the admission criteria of your university, critics say you admit students even with minimum qualifications such as two C passes and one S pass at the Advanced Level Examination. In the science stream, there are some students even with 3 As, but left out from the state universities. What is your response?
In our institution, there are a large number of students with three As. They missed the entry to the state universities because even students with minimum qualifications are taken on the district quota system from areas like Mullaitivu and Buttala. What has happened is 40 percent of good students with three As are shut out. Those are the fellows shouting against SAITM. They have an inferiority complex.
Q What is the future plan for you?
In anatomy, we ordered equipment worth Rs.15 million to teach surgery. There is a new process called ‘Theil Embalming’ that enables a body to be kept fresh for three to four months. Representatives from the Royal College of Surgeons are coming on Sunday. We will get accreditation from the Royal College of Surgeons.
We have not taken any student with qualifications less than two Cs and one S.
"We have 19 professors. All of them have worked in state universities and taught all these fellows who are shouting. If these professors are bad, the training of medical education received from them are also bad. "