Sri Lanka: Can we afford free education for all?

Studying medicine is a life time commitment and a life time education process. If those who are attracted to this field are truly aware of this situation, I am sure, like in most developed countries, the students will opt out for different and versatile study programmes in biological sciences other than medicine.


by Prof. Chandrika Jayasinghe

( March 12, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) After basic needs such as air, food, water, clothes and shelter, education is the most important thing that a living being, particularly human beings need. Education is a life skill: At baseline level, it provides the person with basic life skills necessary for survival. Education is essential for virtually all types of occupations, and it makes the difference between being able to perform a job safely and accurately and being unable to perform a job well. Education makes a good citizen and enables people to contribute to their community, country and the world. Education will broaden the thinking pattern, communication ability, and also will teach the people about the rest of the world. Education is a fundamental human right and a prerequisite for the exercise of all other human rights. Education will change the person’s ideology which will help to make a better world for all.

Freedom for education:
Freedom for education is the right for parents to have their children educated in accordance with their views and also allowing groups to be able to educate children without being hindered by the state. It is the right of every child to receive the education that he or she wishes to have, provided that the said person has the appropriate level of intelligence, aptitude and the attitude needed for the selected study programme. Diversity of the peoples’ choices, their characters, opinions and the ways they conduct themselves will enhance the freedom and diversity in education. Any stereotyped pattern of education will only produce people into the same mould and shape. The more efficient and successful the state education was, the greater the dictatorship that the state could establish over the minds and bodies of the people.

Free education: Is what is funded through taxation or charity rather than through tuition fee funding. In most countries, primary education is free. Some countries, especially in Europe, total education, including the postgraduate education, is free.

‘Knowledge is power’- Francis Bacon
When knowledge can bestow power, why should it be restricted to a few who have the advantage of wealth? Knowledge needs to be free for all those who deserve it. What a person deserves should be decided by an individual’s capability and intelligence and not by wealth. The best and simplest way to disseminate knowledge to all those who deserve it, is through free education. Free education would lead to more educated people. More educated people in society leads to overall improvement in the quality of life in the society.

Can we afford free education for all?
We have stepped into the band of middle income countries after stagnating for many decades in the lower income group. Even with the meager allocation for education we have reached a higher level of literacy and education status today. With the present economic status we are not in a position to extend the free higher education to all who wish it and deserve it. Better employment which is achieved through education only will eliminate the struggle for basic needs. Then people would concentrate on the higher aspects of life, such as improving administration and management of issues that impact society in general. Therefore, free education would have a positive impact on the overall quality and thinking in society. More educated people would mean improved governance. Educated people would make better choices in electing their representatives and are better fortified to question corruption and misuse of power which are the main causes of downfall in countries like ours. Therefore, education is not only the way-out of ills of disproportionate wealth, but also the treatment for the troubles that plague our administration and governments. By making education free, we push our society towards the path of better governance.

Free education in Sri Lanka
Free Education in Sri Lanka grants opportunities for more than 350,000 children annually to enter schools for free and continue their education. Of these 350,000 students, only a small percentage will get the chance to proceed to tertiary education which is provided free by the government. Does this mean all the other children should be deprived of higher education? Is it not important to let them receive higher education through whatever the available means?

My opinion is that the Government should give priority to education and provide all children with the education that they seek to follow. But due to financial constraints, if the country is unable to provide free higher education to all, the students and their parents should have liberty to pursue higher education in the fields that they like, provided they have the aptitude and the attitude to follow the selected programme. There are countries which have realised the necessity to educate all their people and gone to the extent of providing higher education even through mass media.

As a country, we have failed in developing or taking national policy decisions on education or other crucial issues. Our government leaders are to be blamed for this stagnant state of affairs, while many poorer countries have overtaken us because they have national policies and successive governments are committed to implementing the national policies rather than bending and changing policies to suit their political agendas with the intention of discrediting the previous regime.

Now what do we have to do?
“Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.” ― Benjamin Franklin

Even if we like the Government to provide opportunities for all students who qualify for higher education to have the opportunities to enter a free higher education programme, we all are aware that the country is not in a position to do so. This country has unacceptably higher number of ministers and according to a recently published article, the Government is spending about Rs. 8.5 million a month to look after one minister. You might wonder how many higher education careers can be sponsored by just one month expenditure spent on a minister in this country. But rulers of this country appear to be not concerned of the wellbeing of the people or their education. They are largely worried about how to increase their power, how to have a greater impact on the masses through their power and how to stay on in power.

To fight any battle we need to be properly armed. I believe that the only way of becoming armed is to educate ourselves, so that we can select good politicians to rule the country, and take this country forward.

During this window period I believe we need to stop infighting and strengthen the ways of educating our masses. Let it be in any form either through free education or through paid education. Let all be educated in the chosen paths according to their attitudes and aptitudes. If we concentrate in educating all it will not be that far that we get rid of these corrupt politicians and select our rulers who would take measures with the intention of developing this country in a moral backdrop, but not with the intention of regaining power in a corrupt society.

SAITM and private medical education
Given this situation, I believe that during this window period of financial instability, well established, quality maintained private educational institutions are an asset to the country. At the same time I need to highlight that there are many bogus institutions where money hungry monsters manipulate students’ and parents’ thirst for education. Worldwide, private education is widely prevalent, but with the main intention of educating the masses but not with the sole intention of generating money.

The University Grants Commission which is taking ardent steps to maintain quality in universities, I believe, is trespassing to a great extent on the autonomy of independent universities, but turning a blind eye on these rapidly proliferating private educational institutions. Rather than exerting undue pressure through many quality assurance programmes on independent universities, which can clearly and ably maintain their own qualities and standards, the University Grants Commission should pay more attention and exert bigger controlling impact on these mushrooming private educational institutions.

Private medical education
To pursue in any academic career, the student should have the capacity and the correct attitude, especially in a difficult academic programme like medicine. In countries like ours, most of the parents and young students are attracted to medicine after seeing the seemingly luxurious life styles of doctors. Without realising the difficulties and at times very frustrating life style of a medical student or a doctor, parents press their children to do medicine.

Studying medicine is a life time commitment and a life time education process. If those who are attracted to this field are truly aware of this situation, I am sure, like in most developed countries, the students will opt out for different and versatile study programmes in biological sciences other than medicine.

Though I totally agree with private education, I do not believe that we can offer education in all academic programmes in the private sector. The main reason why I do not think that total private medical education is sustainable at this juncture in Sri Lanka is the lack of patient numbers and the patient mix — the most important components in moulding a doctor. New medical curricula are problem-based and promote self inquisitiveness and self learning. For this type of training, students need to be exposed to a large number of diverse clinical problems which are only available in a state hospital.

After considering all the facts and the documents available, no one could disagree that SAITM is a questionable institution, established not with the intention of producing more doctors for the country but with the intention of making money.

The problems
While old medical faculties with fully fledged staff, facilities and with extremely heavy patient populations to cater to the educational needs, take closer to 200 students a year, SAITM with mostly visiting staff with handful of patients in one ward in a 1100 bed strength hospital, with no community health care training facility or forensic medicine training facility has enrolled about double that amount per year. No right thinking person will approve this. With due respect to all the good teachers who have served many medical faculties in the past before they entered SAITM, I believe they have failed to educate the SAITM administration regarding student-patient and staff-student ratios in a medical faculty before finding ways to reduce the doctor-patient discrepancy of this country.

Many parents who have enrolled their children in the SAITM programme have only done injustice to their children, knowing well that this kind of an institution will not be able to provide proper training in medicine. Many parents who are consultants in the medical field or teachers in the Government medical faculties have failed to raise their concerns and make the University Grants Commission aware of the non conformity of the institution to the required standards. The University Grants Commission which is keen on maintaining standards of government medical faculties has failed in its duty to recognise this blatant lack of standards.

As far as I am aware, only the Sri Lanka Medical Council, the Government Medical Officers’ Association and the university student bodies have voiced their concerns before the court ruling given on the SAITM issue. When students were admitted to SAITM, it was expected that after some years they would graduate and that there would arise this problem regarding practicals.

What did the teachers of eight Government medical faculties do all these years as this problem was looming? When the problem started, we were silent, when it was growing, we were silent. Now it is ripe and all of a sudden we have woken up from our deep slumber and demand to abolish SAITM. Is our stance any different from that of politicians of this country? Is this the behaviour that we expect from academics? Should we not file a no-confidence motion against ourselves?

I am despondent about the whole state of affairs.

(The writer is a Professor in Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya)

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka Guardian has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 2007. We are independent and non-profit.

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