Defective by design- university act & medical ordinance of Sri Lanka

It is time for the good people of this country to act decisively to stop an imminent peril at hand and to avoid long term social repercussions.

by Dr. Manjula Herath

( February 13, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The standard of graduate education is an issue that can no longer be ignored by the people of this country. This is not limited to a single generation anymore, either. This isn’t an issue that only impacts on medical education. This is not about free education vs paid education either. This is not about state vs private universities. Argument over free vs paid education has left the Sri Lankan people largely divided since independence.

As I see it, currently there is a hybrid system of free and paid education in Sri Lanka. What is unfortunate is that, there is no mechanism developed to maintain the standards in Sri Lankan education. The majority of people in this country do not understand the concept of standards in education. Standard can be defined as level of quality or attainment, so the person who had obtained a degree from a standard university can be expected to have a certain level of competence to perform a particular job (MBBS-Colombo, MBBS-Oxford vs. MBBS-Saitm). For example, the star system for hotels indicates to us how good the hotel should be. Standard of education has two aspects. It tells us about the expectation (E.g When you get into an airplane you expect the pilot to be well trained and meet the highest standards. When you need an operation you want the surgeon to be competent and well trained for the job) and the means of measuring it. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, defects of the University Act have paved the way for sub-standard institutes to be recognized as degree awarding institutes.

So even though we may have our differences about free vs paid education systems we all have an obligation to ensure the quality and standard of education. For that, we all must unite and persuade our political leadership to ensure the independence of the UGC and professional bodies.

If we look into the University Act of 16 of 1978 (Amended) & Extraordinary Gazette 1824/12, it is now clear that the Minister of Higher Education has the sole authority to award degree awarding status to any institution, irrespective of the recommendation made by the specified authority under section 25 A.

It was also made clear that the Minister of Higher Education has a discretion to appoint anyone, irrespective of his/her qualifications, to be the specified authority in any professional subject under section 70B (1). For example, to make recommendations regarding an engineering degree awarded by the University of Moratuwa, he can appoint a nursing officer, or to decide on the standard of a medical degree of Colombo he can appoint a professor of sociology. Furthermore, specified authority is under the directions and control of the Minister. The recommendations made by such specified authority appointed by the minister himself is not binding to the minister, and he can use his discretion either to accept or reject the recommendations of the specified authority he himself appointed for the purpose. So one must clearly understand that this is against natural justice and the so called Specified authority all practical purposes is nothing but a joke. In plain language, the Minister of Higher Education is the sole authority to decide on the degree awarding status of any institute.

It is time the people of this country put and a stop to this madness. The University Act must be amended making the Minister of Higher Education binding with the recommendations made by the specified authority. Also, the specified authority must be defined. For example, to decide on an engineering degree, mechanism should be put in place to appoint an expert, impartial panel composed of engineering professionals, appointed in a transparent unbiased manner without political influences. This is the only way that we can ensure the quality of degree awarding institutes in Sri Lanka. And when it comes to medical education, the specified authority must be either the SLMC or the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA). In the case of SAITM, the specified authority appointed by then Minister of Higher Education Mr. S.B Dissanayake, to give recommendations regarding MBBS-SAITM was not composed of members of SLMC or SLMA, or others in medically related fields.

When we turn to the Medical Ordinance, it establishes the Medical Council of Sri Lanka (SLMC). When it comes to registration as medical practitioner in Sri Lanka under section 29 , SLMC can only recommend to the Minister (Minister in Charge of the subject of Health) that such qualification shall not be recognized for the purpose of registration under Medical Ordinance [Section 19C(1)] . It is the discretion of the Minister of Health to act under section 19C (3) of the Medical Ordinance. Section 19C (3) deals with not recognizing a medical degree for the purpose of registration under section 29. So the Parliament of Sri Lanka had thought it fit that power be given not to the SLMC but to the Minister of Health. This is a disastrous situation and an epic blunder made by the legislature of Sri Lanka. It must be common sense that for the purpose of registration as a medical practitioner, his/her qualification should be recognized by a panel of experts in the field of medicine, not by a cabinet minister. So the powers vested on the Minister of Health by section 19C(3) must be either transfered to the SLMC or must be made by the Minister according to the recommendations given under 19C(1).Now the time has come to force the legislature of Sri Lanka to restore the powers of the SLMC and take the legislative steps necessary to prevent the Minister of Health from having a discretion in deciding which medical degree can be recognized for the purpose of registration under section 29 of the Medical Ordinance .

In Summary, as of today, the Minister of Higher Education has discretion to name any “Petti Kade” to be a degree awarding institute, and to award any professional degrees such as medical, dental, engineering, law & architecture without any acceptance from the relevant professional body. And the Minister of Health has the sole discretion to accept any medical degree awarded by any “Petti kade” for the purpose of registration to be a medical practitioner in Sri Lanka. So two politically appointed ministers can decided on the standard of education and standard of medical care without being answerable to anyone.

I need not emphasize why we need to change this system. So the time has come to amend the Section 25 A & Section 70B of the University Act of Sri Lanka and Section 19C (3) of the Medical Ordinance, if we are to make our education system independent of political agenda and to maintain the minimum standards in education.

It is time for the good people of this country to act decisively to stop an imminent peril at hand and to avoid long term social repercussions.


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